The Soapbox: Misunderstanding “50 Shades” & Kink Is Hurting Those Of Us Who Practice

I haven’t exactly kept it a secret around here the way that I’m sexually wired. For the most part, though, the only person whose opinion matters on the subject is my sexual partner. (And any roommates who have to listen to occasional smacking.) Yet, every so often, BDSM — that’s bondage, dominance, sadomasochism — pops up in mainstream popular culture and us kinksters and spankos get to hear the mainstream’s opinion on our lives.

“Secretary,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, a flick about a secretary who enters into a dominance/submission relationship with her boss, came out while I was in college. Although the flick was understandably controversial, it explained to a lot of people, “Hey, we’re just regular folks like you. Except, you know, not so regular!”

More recently, it’s the BDSM erotic novel 50 Shades Of Grey that has people talking. It seems everyone has an opinion on the subject — including those who are completely misguided about who kinksters are and what we do. Take, for instance, feminist blogger Morgane Richardson and a piece she wrote calling 50 Shades “a glimpse into domestic violence.”

Richardson’s piece begins with being honest about the fact she doesn’t think a BDSM relationship could be for her. That’s cool. It’s not a lot of people’s cup of tea. And yet, like a lot of people, she was open-minded to the idea other people could really be into it. Her mind was changed, however, by reading 50 Shades and getting freaked out about the content therein:

[I] began reading this novel with the belief that I would ultimately find the concept okay; I had heard that it was largely about BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadomasochism, Sadism, Masochism) and though I don’t believe I could ever partake in such a relationship, I have never denied the fact that others obtain pleasure from this subculture. However, what I found to be the basis of Fifty Shades of Grey was not erotica or BDSM, rather it was the story of a man, Christian Grey, who had experienced severe amounts of physical and emotional trauma as a child and whose only way of feeling sexual and emotional pleasure was by dominating others.

Richardson goes on to explain all the various reasons why the story of Christian Grey, the dominant, and Anastasia Steele, the submissive, are “tell-tale signs of domestic abuse.” She writes:

[T]he submission isn’t only in the bedroom or the “Red Room of Pain,” as she calls it. Grey’s desire to dominate and control Ana is translated into their daily lives where Grey demands that Ana remains obedient: doesn’t talk with other people, dresses in the clothes he chooses, waxes all of her body hair and exercises based on his schedule (oh, and she is able to negotiate this one to only work out three days a week rather than four, Yippie! – insert sarcasm). Yes, Grey learns to love it when Ana talks back and asks questions, but largely because it means that her “defiance” will lead to punishment, which Grey deeply enjoys giving by “fucking” and “spanking” her.

Maybe to vanilla people this sounds like “tell-tale signs of domestic abuse.” And if it wasn’t consensual and wasn’t occurring with the express permission of Anastasia because she is enjoying it, it would be domestic abuse. But this fantasy play is not domestic abuse. In fact, to this kinky woman, that sounds like hot, hot, Hot, HOT sex.

Kinky play does not have to halt at the bedroom door. Just like vanilla sex, BDSM play can be hands-on and physical, involving hands and tongues and teeth and various fun orifices. Kinky folks get aroused by having their penis smacked, their hair yanked, their nipples pinched, or whatever else it is that turns their crank. But a huge element of BDSM play is the psychological element of fantasy. This cannot be overstated. Submissives and dominants get off on the aspects which are not hands-on but purely communicated though words and actions; a submissive in particular gets off on the knowledge that he or she is submitting to someone else. For instance, knowing you are going to get “punished” this evening if you go to work not wearing any panties, or being instructed to wear a certain outfit during the day, are both ways that fantasy may play out. Being told, like Anastasia, you have to exercise a certain amount each week or pay your bills on time or do your homework also plays into that fantasy. (This type of relationship dynamic is called “domestic discipline” and you should Google it if you want more information.) Consenting to a partner’s dominance can happen with words, looks, gestures and establishes the dominant/submissive dynamic. It’s not only enjoyable (on some level) in the moment for both partners involved, but the establishment of the dynamic makes both partners anticipate what is going to happen once they are behind closed doors.

I understand where this misunderstanding comes from. Other people don’t always understand what we do. So here’s what we do: Kinky folks operate under the phrase “safe, sane and consensual.” That means everything you do will not cause any emotional harm or any long-lasting physical harm; that it’s not impossible, illogical, dangerous or life-threatening; and that it is utterly and completely consensual. Everything you do with a partner has been negotiated at some point beforehand. Kinky folks also operate with a “safe word,” meaning that when a person says his or her safe word, all play is supposed to end immediately. (For example, lots of people use “red,” “yellow” and “green” while playing, because their connotations clearly indicate where their partner is at. But for me, I tell my partners in bed that my safe word is “stop.” If I say “no” in bed, it doesn’t mean stop. “Stop” means stop.) In my experience, it’s been a constant negotiation; the lines of communication are always extremely open. This is how emotionally healthy folks like myself practice BDSM. Anastasia’s obedience and the way she is controlled by Christian in 50 Shades Of Grey may sound to people who misunderstand BDSM like she is being abused. Take their behavior outside of the fantasy realm and I would agree. But a sexual fantasy is a sexual fantasy. And it’s no one’s business to tell me my fantasy is “wrong” so long as I am not hurting anyone else.  It’s judgmental — not to mention paternalistic — to think otherwise. (Yes, I am looking at you, Dr. Drew.) That’s not fair to me or anyone else who’s wired the way I am.

Of course, Richardson came at her analysis from a feminist point of view. I understand why the content of 50 Shades would raise her concern antennae. And to be fair, she did makes one really legitimate point about a problematic dynamic between Christian and Anastasia: Christian is pretty fucked up and Anastasia thinks she can “save him.” As Richardson writes, “[S]he tries to save him all the while negotiating whether or not she can actually be the submissive partner he wants and ‘needs.” Elsewhere she notes, “[Christian is] a man who is only able to work through his past traumas through, often literally, beating others into submission.”  I don’t dispute even for a milisecond that one person cannot “save” somebody else or that literally beating someone into submission Chris Brown-style is wrong.  But it’s important to see the nuance here: BDSM sex and one partner’s fucked-upness are TWO different issues and they should not be intertwined. There are plenty of folks who practice BDSM who are not fucked up and there are plenty of folks who have vanilla sex who are fucked up. Plenty of vanilla folks commit domestic violence, too. I don’t want people thinking that I am being abused just because of the type of sex that I enjoy.

To be sure, Christian Grey is “50 shades of fucked up” and that’s not a desirable quality for any partner, dominant or not.  Would I personally get involved in a BDSM relationship with someone who had fucked up personal problems? Most likely not, because someone who is working out their own emotional shit may not be at a good place to be the type of partner a submissive needs. I know from experience that being submissive to a dominant requires an incredible amount of trust, communication, trust, and, oh, more trust. Were Anastasia and Christian real people and not characters in a book, that would be a conversation I would certainly like to have with Ana. However, it is not something I will pretend to know about as someone who is merely outside looking in. Just because someone has had a shitty childhood or whatever does not mean their sexual desires — dominant or submissive — should automatically be suspect. Because if having to have had a perfect childhood is going to be my golden ticket to the OK-ness of my fetish, I am not going to pass muster … and neither would a bunch of my other kinky friends.

At the very end of her piece Richardson writes that the story is “sad and often disturbing,” but she will continue to read the rest of the 50 Shades series to see how it end. “[I] will be crossing my fingers that Grey gets the help that he needs and deserves, and that Ana finds the strength to love herself enough to walk away.” My hope is that though reading the series — and hopefully reading some of my own writings on the subject, as a feminist who has kinky sex — doubters like Richardson will have a greater understanding about BDSM and a less judgmental outlook about it all.

We are not fucked up. We’re people just like you. We’re just wired a little differently.


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