The snow is falling, the turtledoves are calling, and left and right, people have boinking on the brain: it must be February. What better way to celebrate the season of love than by watching Fifty Shades of Grey with your bae, right? I’m going to suggest some more fulfilling and erotic activities for lovers than watching the lack of chemistry between Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, but first I need to explain to potential moviegoers what Fifty Shades is and what it is not.
Fifty Shades of Grey romanticizes intimate partner violence. It does not accurately represent healthy, kinky relationships or BDSM. I must confess to readers that I’ve never actually read Fifty Shades. However, I have read cringeworthy excerpts, critical essays on the trilogy, compiled reader lists on Christian Grey’s abusive tendencies, and Fifty Sheds of Grey (far superior, if you ask me). That being said, my opinions are my own, and everyone’s entitled to theirs, but let’s take a moment to dispel some of the myths surrounding Bondage, Domination, and Sadomasochism that Fifty Shades unfortunately perpetuates in its depiction of erotic abuse.
Myth: Kinksters are unconcerned with consent.
Essentially all BDSM activity is prefaced by conversations on shared desires, personal limits, health concerns, safety, etc., and involves ample communication during play to repeatedly secure consent from start to finish. Even in party scenarios, monitors patrol events to ensure all play is safe and consensual. Because kinksters so strongly emphasize explicit communication and consent, they’re typically more skilled in their sexual negotiations than the average Joe. Often when ardently non-kinky people (dubbed “vanillas” in BDSM circles) ponder BDSM activities, they’re unable to visualize themselves in either the receptive or active role, so they assume nobody would willingly engage in such play. Dulcinea Pitagora, a NYC based psychologist and social worker focused on gender diversity and non-mainstream sexuality, reminds us that “understanding the context of BDSM interactions is crucial if one is to find meaning in them.”
Acknowledging and valuing your partner as an equal *before* establishing power dynamics sets BDSM apart from more normative relationships, in which covert struggles to have the upper-hand often turn flirtations into a game, with individual parties seeking to emerge the sole victor. While BDSM activity is often termed “play”, it can be better understood as something more of a collaborative project in which both parties have the same negotiated goals, but play different roles in the creative process.
By lumping voluntary, adult BDSM activities in with non-consensual violence, kinksters are denied agency over their personal sexual expression, perpetuating the misguided notion that kinksters and fetishists are inherently pathological. Therapists and sexologists are beginning to acknowledge that those who actively negotiate sexual acts and their ramifications are actually apt to build greater sexual intelligence and moral character, and research on the topic (some of which will be discussed later) is debunking the psychopathological stigma surrounding BDSM.
Myth: Pain is synonymous to violence, and those who enjoy playing with pain are unsafe.
To whip out (teehee) some helpful definitions, the World Health Organization interprets violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” There’s a saying tossed around by Dominant or top players (the more active parties, as opposed to submissives and bottoms) that highlights how violent BDSM serves nobody: “You can’t play with a broken toy.” For every loving sadist wishing for someone to play roughly with, there’s an eager masochist wishing for a partner who knows how to hurt them just right. The BDSM community is where the two can safely meet, play, and share aftercare snuggles and thoughts.
Pain in the context of a consensual, safe space can spark transcendent moments experienced on the individual as well as interpersonal levels. Consider esoteric practices like acupressure meditation or the okipa ritual of the Mandan people—potentially frightening to outsiders, but powerful spiritual rituals to the initiated. BDSM can be a means to process the spiritual potential of sexual energy. In biological terms, consider “runner’s high”. That burning sensation in your side and burst of feel-good neurotransmitters is your inner masochist shouting “Wow! These endorphins are the tits! Bring on another mile!”
As to safety concerns, most kinksters adhere to the credos “Safe, Sane, Consensual” or “Risk Aware Consensual Kink”, emphasizing consent and the necessity of knowing what you’re getting into before you get into it. As has been documented by sociologist Danielle Lindemann in her studies on the world of professional Domination, “counter to stereotypes of erotic laborers as violent or as vectors of disease, BDSM workers are in fact not only concerned about safety but professionally invested in it,” reinforcing this through labor hierarchies where the less experienced are expected to train and learn under seasoned professionals. While safety may have been less of a concern back when BDSM was very underground, the contemporary BDSM community strongly encourages continuous education and safe practices.
Myth: The BDSM community is populated by psychopaths, the abused, and the abusive.
A kinky sexual outlook does not a psycho make. The DSM-IV listed sexual deviancy as pathological, but the more recent DSM-5 distinguishes between alternative sexualities and those that cause distress or harm to the individual or others. Readers may recall that homosexuality was listed in the DSM as a pathological sexual deviation until 1974. There is emerging research on the psychology of BDSM enthusiasts showing them to be quite average in terms of clinical psychopathology and severe personality pathology, and studies have actually found kinksters to exhibit more favorable psychological characteristics than “vanilla” control groups, reporting kinsters to be “less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, and having higher subjective well-being”.
Earlier studies have similarly reported BDSMers to score significantly lower on scales of psychological distress than control groups, and additionally found kinksters “were no more likely to have been coerced into sexual activity.” An intimate 2012 study published in Psychology and Sexuality delves into the origins of BDSM interests in 276 self-identified kinksters, and reports that 43.4% of those interviewed felt their sexual preferences to be an inexplicable, intrinsic part of who they are. Others cited external influences ranging from sexual partners, media images, and yes, even histories of abuse that led them to explore BDSM in a healthy environment.
In Fifty Shades, Christian Grey frames his abusive childhood as the cause of his sexual proclivities. While some BDSMers come from abusive backgrounds, many doctors, financial consultants, athletes, etc. have experienced abuse as well. Those who deny abuse survivors the self-determination to explore their sexuality on their own terms are denying them the chance to be anything other than a victim. There are active dialogues surrounding the therapeutic potential of BDSM for survivors, especially for queer identifying people. Even for those who have not experienced abuse, there is research suggesting that the potential of BDSM and erotic labor as “sex therapy” warrants further study.
Myth: BDSM is illegal.
This one’s a little trickier, as laws vary from state to state, country to country, and consent doesn’t always stand up as a valid defense in court. The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom addresses the issue of consent, BDSM, and the law very thoroughly, and I recommend readers explore their published body of work if interested in the legalities of sexualities.
Kinky adults may consensually play with dark fantasies and taboos, but sexuality and legal theorists are beginning to note that “law should more fully recognize the critical distinctions that exist between the ethical significance of sadomasochistic activities and the ethical significance of the frameworks of power inequality and narratives of oppression that sadomasochistic activities explicitly invoke or implicitly negotiate.” Is roleplay and power exchange between consenting adults more illicit than the power dynamics that structure our society in terms of racism, misogyny, ableism, labor exploitation, and so forth? Should we be policing personal sexuality instead of the rampant, non-consensual power exchanges in our lives?
Myth: BDSM is a homogenous culture.
Isn’t it great that the steamy blockbuster of the season relies on the same, tired tropes? Cultural anthropologist Margot Weiss explores how media representations of BDSM operate in terms of assimilation and pathologization, “rather than challenging the privileged status of normative sexuality, these mechanisms reinforce boundaries between protected/privileged and policed/pathological sexualities.” BDSMers come from all walks of life, with cultural and socioeconomic differences more often influencing whether or not one chooses to act on or disclose alternative sexual leanings, but not influencing who experiences such inclinations. Furthermore, the “BDSM community” is a catchall phrase that encompasses a myriad of alternative preferences, interactions, and identities (sexual and otherwise) that makes it impossible to even remotely accurately represent the community or its practitioners through the lens of mainstream media. Sociologist Robin Bauer elucidates how BDSM allows players to construct a safe, negotiated “playground” where they are able to manipulate and transgress “social hierarchies and norms, cultural taboos, and personal boundaries”, painting the BDSM community as a subculture that derives part of its power from eschewing the oppressive status quo.
Regardless of what backgrounds or privileges kinksters may carry, BDSMers face a unique set of stigmas attached to their sexual preferences that are too often deemed abusive and deranged. In the UK, practitioners of sadomasochism have compromised citizenship. Personal narratives from kinksters evidence that they are frequently the targets of job and housing discrimination, violence and hate crimes, judgment deeming them to be unfit parents, and other forms of prejudice. Young people are particularly at risk of being affected by this stigma, illustrated in a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Sex Education, as youth interested in BDSM do not currently receive the same reassurances or resources offered to other sexual minorities. “If they learn about BDSM via a stigmatizing environment, they are at risk of developing shame and isolation. If they learn about it through pop culture, it may be a shallow or stigmatizing understanding. If they act on certain interests without good information, they may be doing dangerous things without proper safety precautions,” the report warns.
As Gayle Rubin, a pioneer of queer, kinky feminism, sharply stated “people who have different sexual preferences are not sick, stupid, warped, brainwashed, under duress, [or] dupes of the patriarchy…the habit of explaining away sexual variation by putting it down needs to be broken.”
If you’re still compelled to watch Fifty Shades of Grey, take it with more than a single grain of salt (rubbed into sexy wounds, perchance). If you’re reconsidering supporting a film that profits off of misrepresenting kinksters and romanticising abusive relationships (and whose actors mock the lifestyle they’re portraying—ugh), pick up some hot alternatives for your V-day movie night!
Secretary is a classic, with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader (playing a very different Mr. Grey) acting in this romantic tale of how BDSM can foster trust and understanding. My Normal is a mildly campy but very entertaining film of a lesbian NYC Pro-Domme struggling to balance her successful fetish career with her vanilla aspirations and relationships. Preaching to the Perverted is a wild portrayal of the antics of a top UK BDSM club (think Moulin Rouge! with latex). And for some authentic, queer, kinky porn, check out Pink & White Productions.
There’s also a plethora of great BDSM literature and art out there, ranging from the spellbinding body modification photographs of Fakir Musafar to educational and fun how-to books, and even highbrow erotica written by authors equally skilled in BDSM and vampire literature. Nice try E. L. James…but you can do better this Valentine’s Day.