I have a shameful confession.
I read the Fifty Shades of Grey books…all three of them.
I just read them for the mystery, honest!
For the most part the writing was the sort of over-done, yet simultaneously shallow, cotton-candy fiction that tastes sweet in the moment but leaves one feeling nauseated, hollow, and sticky in a not-good way. In retrospect, however, I’m most ashamed of having enjoyed the sex scenes.
“Well, duhhhh,” you say. That’s the whole point. The sort of “kinky” sex sensationalized in the books is supposed to provoke shame, to titillate with taboo. That’s why the upcoming movie has gotten so much hype I keep forgetting it hasn’t even been released yet. The sex portrayed in the books and movie is the fictional version of a multi-car pile-up or reality TV. After all, the whole point is to tease our darkest fantasies while reassuring us that unlike those characters, we are “normal,” “not sick.”
And that is why I’m ashamed. Like so many out there, I fell prey to the sensationalism. I equated the sexual relationships depicted in the book with actual kink and like many others, was happy to level judgment before returning to my vanilla world.
And therein lies the danger of these books and of similar movie and TV scenes – the sex so luridly described bears about as much resemblance to actual BDSM (the acronym stands for Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism) as the “Real Housewives” of Whatevertown bear to any of our friends, neighbors, or selves.
But, BDSM, like any culture or practice that doesn’t fall under the middle of the societal bell-curve we call “normal” makes for an easy media target. Many of the elements and practices commonly employed in BDSM touch uncomfortable places in the collective psyche. Cuffs, rope, whips, clamps, hoods – these things have become societal symbols for horror and even torture. The common narrative then, is that anyone who enjoys using or receiving any of these things is sick or troubled.
What if I told you that mainstream society could learn a lot about healthy relationships – mental, emotional, and, yes, sexual from BDSM practitioners?
I can’t speak to all societies, but at least in the U.S., we do a terrible job of acknowledging and accepting our own fears and darknesses. We so desperately fear the shadow-self – our inherent violence, wildness, and uniqueness – that we live lives of pallid conformity. We confine ourselves in matching, stucco boxes with manicured lawns and granite countertops. We avert our eyes from the “different” – the ones who stick out, who talk to themselves, who dress outside the rules of gender conformity. And we hide in the darkness, consuming diets of shame, corn syrup, and clandestine porn. We don’t discuss the things we want. We don’t admit our deepest needs, even to ourselves. And we certainly don’t negotiate in our relationships to meet those needs.
Consent and Communication
This is why I’m ashamed of having enjoyed the Fifty Shades books. I’m not ashamed that individual elements spoke to some of my fantasies. I’m not ashamed of having been turned on by descriptions of bondage. I’m ashamed of not having recognized the portrayal of an abusive relationship for what it is. Like so many others, I assumed that coercion was just part of the sex, that all “kink” was essentially abusive.
And that is where I was terribly wrong.
BDSM is a partnership that depends on clear communication and explicit consent for the emotional and physical safety of ALL partners. When you are playing with power, pain, or bondage, without a solid foundation for trust and a clear plan, things can go quite wrong quite fast – for both parties. That’s why folks in BDSM relationships tend to negotiate and discuss details before anything physical ever transpires.
“Do you like X?”
“I’m really triggered by Y, so that’s off the table for me.”
“I’m into D, but if you aren’t, that’s okay.”
“Let’s use ABC if you need me to slow things down or back off. Say XYZ if you need to end play.”
What if we entered ALL relationships with this sort of clear understanding of our own and each other’s needs and limitations?
Think about it.
How many of you have taken a job without negotiating a written contract in advance? (*raises hand*) How many of you have had that same job go awry due to a lack of clear understanding on both parts? (*raises hand again*)
How many times do we send our children off to be taught without knowing the pedagogical approach of the teacher or having a clear understanding of the lines of communication in the school?
How many times in romantic relationships do we flounder around, waiting for a “signal” from the other person to direct our actions or responses? How often do we hesitate to ask for what we need or give our partner honest feedback about what works or doesn’t work for us?
How often do we get into fights or feel resentment because neither partner really knows what the other expects or has a clear sense of “role?”
Before engaging with any of my BDSM partners –oh, don’t look so shocked; you didn’t really think I was writing all this from a purely academic perspective – I have a clear idea of their preferences and concerns, and I know that I have communicated my own likes and limits. Each of us knows that there will be kinks (no, I couldn’t resist) to be worked out. And we will have communicated enough to trust that if something doesn’t work quite right, we’ll work through it cooperatively rather than from a place of damaged ego.
If all this sounds like a pretty far cry from the villainous dungeon masters, neurotic submissives, and manipulative doms of TV and movie-land, it is. Media tropes may be silly and seem harmless, but a message repeated becomes a pattern; clichés lodge in our brains until we lose the nuance.
I’ll be writing several posts on this theme. I have no desire to convert anyone to kink (ewwwwww), nor am I looking for shock value. Rather, my goal here is the same as with all of my writing, to normalize variation, and maybe, if I do it right, to help others see themselves and each other as individuals rather than tropes.