Not knowing the details of how you came across the things you found, but very much hearing the fear and confusion in your email, I want to start off with two quick pieces of advice: First, breathe. It's unlikely your son is in any immediate danger as a result of what your assuming is part of his sex life, so while all sorts of worst-case scenarios may be flooding your mind, he's made it this far and you don't need to act this second. In fact, acting without thinking in situations like this rarely end as well as acting while breathing.
My second piece of advice is to ask you to remember that unless he left these things out for you to find, or you left them out so he knows you found them, your son has no idea you found them. Most of us would rather not have our sexual desires and activities discovered without our disclosing them. So if you do end up talking to him about this, try to go into it with a lot of respect for his privacy, which has been broken. Imagine if he found evidence of your sexual fantasies, and how that would feel.
What Does It Mean?
I want to start by pointing out that you don't know what these things you found mean. Knowing that your son has bondage restraints and dress up clothing doesn't tell you how often or how important these things are to his sex life or to his sexual identity. There can be a world of difference between our sexual identity and our sexual behaviors, and the one may or may not tell you very much about the other.
So neither you nor I are in a position to say that your son is deeply into BDSM, or that he identifies as kinky, or anything more than that he has these things and either wants to or has used them for something. It's important to acknowledge this and not try to label him or construct a story about his life without his input. I point this out because there is a big difference between approaching your son with all your fears and assumptions first, and then asking questions (which I wouldn't recommend) and approaching him with respectful and honest questions first, and then finding room to express your concerns and fears after.
What I can do is address some of your fears, offer you a different perspective, and make some suggestions of what to do next. I want to repeat that neither I nor you really know if your son is actively interested in BDSM, but since I'm not there, and you're not talking to him yet, the rest of my answer is going to use it as a starting point.
Fears About BDSMIf everything you know about BDSM you learned from the media, you'd have good reason to be afraid for your son. The truth about BDSM is less scary and a lot more complicated than it looks on TV. While it means many things to many people, the basic practice of BDSM involves the consensually exchange of power, played out physically, verbally, and emotionally, through things like being bound (tied up), touched (spanked, whipped, tickled, scratched), and role play. What you need to know is that it can be safe, healthy, and incredibly satisfying on physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual levels.
But isn't it a sign of low self-esteem, childhood trauma, and mental illness?
It used to be that the way this kind of sex play was talked about was tied to pathology. And there are still paraphilias listed in the DSM that refer to sadism and masochism. But increasingly mental health professionals are distinguishing consensual activities that people choose from ones that are coercive or forced. What little research exists within a non-pathologizing model doesn't support the idea that people interested in this kind of sex play, or who identify as being members of a BDSM community, have greater levels of mental illness or lower levels of self-esteem, than the general population.
Won't it make him vulnerable to adult predators?
All sex makes us vulnerable. This isn't something parents want to think about much, and if you hadn't found evidence of your son's sex life you wouldn't be thinking about this at all. But it's true. What's also true is that in established BDSM communities people talk a lot about boundaries, ethics, and sex (one of the unofficial mottos of BDSM is "safe, sane, consensual"). There's an argument that in communities that are so intentional about sexual practices, predators stand out more than in communities where there is silence about sexuality.
Which isn't to say there aren't people who use BDSM communities to act out violence and do harm to others. There are. But they exist everywhere, and if this is a part of your son's sex life that is important to him, risk alone isn't going to stop him. Since you can't eliminate risk altogether, the approach I recommend is one of reducing the risk and reducing harm where possible. More on that below.
Doesn't this kind of thing lead to prostitution?
As with fears of violence, fears that people who are into BDSM or any kind of "alternative sexuality" will be more likely to get into sex work are unfounded (well, at least they aren't founded in rigorous scientific data). It's also worth pointing out that sex work is work, and just like BDSM, it can be done in ways that are safer than looking for a date at your average pick up bar on a Saturday night.
What if it makes him aggressive or violent?
See my first point. There is an important difference between uncontrolled violence that is perpetrated on an unwilling person and carefully planned out consensual exchange of pain. The physical actions may look the same to an outsider, but going to the dentist would look like torture to someone who didn't understand the context (and what on earth would we make of boxers and boxing if we hadn't grown up knowing it was a sport that people chose to participate in?) If you already know your son has difficulty with aggression or violence that may be something worth thinking about and talking with him about, but consensual sex play is no more or less likely to turn someone violent than any other form of play.
Isn't this kind of thing anti-feminist?
This concern is based on several misunderstandings. First, BDSM is neither anti-feminist or pro-feminist. Sexual activities themselves have no meaning, it is us who give them meaning. Take something more socially acceptable like penile-vaginal intercourse. It can be a sign of love. It can be an act of aggression or pity or loss. Or, if it's done in the context of a forceable violent action, it can be an activity that we wouldn't even call sex, we'd call it rape. Secondly, calling something anti-feminist is often code for "anti-woman." People of all genders can enjoy and engage in BDSM sexual activity. Social norms tell a story about sex as being about aggressive men and compliant women. The real story is more complicated both because there are more than two genders and because sexual desire does not break easily along gender identity.
Enough About Your Son, Back to YouIn your email you describe being afraid and not knowing what to do. I'm wondering if feeling like you don't have a lot of resources or information to help your son is a part of what is causing the panic. Even if you have no experience with this kind of sexual activity or with alternative sexualities, you have plenty you can offer him in the way of support and advice (if he wants it). The core of all sexual exchanges are remarkably similar, even though the way sex looks can be so different from one person to the next.
Before we talk about what you can do to next, I want to address your concern about having a public profile. I think this is a reasonable concern, particularly if you live in the U.S. Making sure that you only talk with trusted friends and family, or with professionals who are required to keep confidentiality is something I'd recommend. People whose sexuality does not fit whatever the current norms are can be vilified by the media and the public.
What Can You Do?You may or may not want to learn a bit more about BDSM. I caution you against going online and randomly searching terms related to what you think your son is into. That will probably not help you at all. I've included a few links below to get you started.
The next question is whether or not you're going to talk with your son. If you want to, I'd ask you why? What is it that you want to know? And is what you want to know reasonable? After all, whether he is legally an adult, he is an individual, and if you want him to treat you with respect you have to do the same. If he came to you with questions that's one thing. If you have a hunch that he wanted you to find this stuff so you would initiate a conversation that's another. And if you are pretty sure he had no intention of you finding out about his sexual interests, that's a third, and different, situation. My advice here is to approach with respect and caution, and be as clear as you can be about the lines between your personal feelings about sex and your concern for your son's safety.
You said you were disgusted by what you found. I'm not going to say that your reaction is wrong. You have a right to whatever feelings you have about other people's sexual choices. And I'm not sure that it's a reasonable expectation that parents will approve of or be OK with their children's sexual desires and sexual lives. What seems required though is that you name that as a value judgement and a feeling, not a fact. And that you agree to not continually impose your judgements on your son when he isn't asking. Unless he's asking for your support or permission or help, you should keep your judgements about his interest in BDSM (which, let's remember, he shares with millions of others around the world) to yourself.
Having said that, you are older and have more life experience and even without any BDSM experience you probably have a lot you can offer him. If you talk with your son, you might want to talk about your concerns and get a sense of if and how he has thought about those concerns. It is key that you present your concerns as YOURS, and not as some objective reality. It's the difference between saying "I'm worried that this kind of sex can be a problem" and "This kind of sex is a problem".
If you do talk with him and he's open to it, you could support him to think about ways of exploring his sexual interests while reducing any potential for harm. For example:
- connecting him to reliable and honest information about sexual practices and sexual communities
- finding out if there are resources through a sexual health center that serves youth
- finding a BDSM or kink social group that he could join (some larger cities even have groups that are geared to people in their 20s
- offering to pay if he wants to talk with a counselor (although you want to be careful not to suggest that he needs to talk with one)
It's also reasonable for you to express your own concerns about public perceptions of BDSM. You can't change your son, and you can't control his behavior, but if you can talk with him respectfully about your worries, and if he respects and cares for you, chances are he'll do his best to act in ways that don't jeopardize your work. This may not be the sex talk you imagined before you were a parent, and it may not be the easiest of exchanges to navigate, but you aren't the first parent to have to deal with it, and working through your discomfort can actually improve not only your relationship with your son, but your own understanding and experience of sex.
Scarleteen.com - Working the Kinks Out
When Someone You Love is Kinky by Dossie Easton & Catherine A. Liszt (compare prices)