Most of us who work or volunteer here at Scarleteen are bookworms, and are also really interested in following popular culture to see what's happening, especially in terms of frank conversations about sex, sexuality, desire and fantasies. When a lot of people started talking about 50 Shades of Grey, we started paying attention. And when a bunch of media outlets started falling over each other to either hail the book for making BDSM mainstream and celebrating female sexuality or condemn it for those same reasons, we got curious.
As a woman who often enjoys being sexually submissive and as someone who has moved in kink circles, I set out many times to start reading the book, but shied away from it again and again. BDSM, in all its variations and manifestations, has a pretty bad rep: a lot of the time when we meet characters in books or on TV who engage in BDSM, they are either leather-clad outsiders (who are also often involved in sex work - think Lady Heather from CSI Las Vegas), or deeply damaged individuals purportedly acting out a bad childhood.
It is rare to see people who practice BDSM depicted for who they most commonly are: completely regular folks like you and me.
Aside from being annoying and frustrating for those of us who identify as kinky, these flawed and often downright false representations can also be dangerous: for someone who is only vaguely familiar with distorted media-images of what kink looks like, it could be easy to wind up in relationships that are ostensibly kinky, but are actually abusive.
50 Shades is a perfect example of that.
Anastasia, the main character, knows nothing about kink or BDSM to start out with - her new lover Christian Grey is her only source of information. And Christian Grey - or rather, his creator, E.L. James - has some pretty whack ideas about how BDSM works.
For starters, she gives two versions of how Christian was introduced to BDSM himself, and both are precarious and iffy. He tells Anastasia he was seduced as a 14-year-old by a friend of his mother. In his account, they were in love and the relationship was healthy and consensual, and he discovered that he shared her kink. In reality, the chances that a relationship between a 14-year-old and an adult is healthy and consensual are slim to none, and would be classified as rape or other abuse in all states. Even though it is unlikely that Christian had the emotional maturity to make a conscious, informed decision to engage in kink, what I find even more problematic is Anastasia's way of interpreting Christian's story: she refuses to accept his version, is convinced that he was abused by his mother's friend, and decides that this abuse causes him to be unable to enjoy "normal" sex. This perpetuates the popular myth that BDSM is often (or even usually) a way of coping with or acting out childhood abuse or sexual assault.
Either way, the way E.L. James sets up Christian's character gives a damaging and false representation of how people discover their interest in BDSM. While there are kinksters who have a history of abuse, there are plenty who do not, and there are plenty of people with a history of abuse who have no interest in kink.
This is corroborated by the findings of a recent study (cited here) which supported that there is no link between psychopathology and an interest in kink.
Another big problem with the novel is the way in which Christian introduces BDSM and conducts his relationship with Anastasia. He learns early on that she is not only new to kink but brand-new to romantic relationships. And while he apparently feels uneasy about that, he does not back off, but rather takes it upon himself to "educate" her. Clearly, he doesn't feel uneasy about that at all, but instead, seizes the opportunity it presents for his own interests.
Any responsible kinkster (any respectful and caring person, period, IMO) will take a step back upon finding out that someone they would like to pursue is completely inexperienced. They will give the other person the time and space to make their own decisions, rather than 'educating" them on what those decisions should be based on what they, themselves, want from that person. This is true not just for BDSM, but is just generally good etiquette for any situation in a relationship where one partner is far further down a road than the other. One partner is ready for intercourse and the other isn't? You wait until they are. One partner wants to move in together and the other prefers to have more alone time? You keep your separate places for the time being.
In the novel, however, nothing happens at Anastasia's pace: Christian has an agenda and he sets the pace for both of them exclusively based on it. He continually introduces new elements of BDSM into the relationship before Anastasia is ready, and a lot of that happens with minimal to no communication.
Though he sometimes pays lip-service to healthy BDSM relationships by mentioning such elements as safewords, these concepts are rarely applied in practice.
Moreover, Christian displays a lot of controlling and manipulative behavior. He gets angry when Anastasia does not eat enough or dress warm enough for his liking. He buys her expensive gifts and pressures her to keep them when she expresses feeling uncomfortable. He even sets up a private visit with a gynecologist for her with the express purpose of putting her on hormonal birth control because that's what he wants.
This could be read as part and parcel of his dominant personality and a feature of their BDSM power-play. However, this reading would be problematic as this behavior is not pre-negotiated. Anastasia not only did not agree to it, but she frequently talks about feeling uncomfortable with it. This kind of behaviour isn't play or role-play, nor is it evidence of a healthy relationship of any kinds, including a sexually kinky one.
Both Anastasia and Christian tend to explain his behavior as being connected to his difficult childhood (Christian himself says he is "50 shades of fucked up" - thus explaining the title of the novel), which is equally problematic as it once again blurs the lines between PTSD resultant from childhood abuse, and healthy sexual behavior. Moreover, with this explanation, Anstasia feels moved to supress her misgivings and instead tries to avoid behavior that would trigger Christian. This often results in her going along with activities she feels conflicted about, rather than openly talking to Christian. This is textbook rationalizing behaviour for an abuser by someone who is being abused.
Although Anastasia is shown enjoying her sexual encounters with Christian, they never happen on her terms: Christian calls all the shots. He decides when, where and how they meet, and he decides when, where and how they have sex. In real life, that is not at all likely to lead to satisfying sex, let alone the earth-shattering orgasms that Anastasia apparently experiences. In real life, "good" sex is most often something that involves trust and communication, and a bit of trial and error. And that's no less true with BDSM than with any other kind of sex.
The novel does a lot of things, but one thing it very much does not do is to give any sort of an accurate picture of what a healthy BDSM relationship might look like. Neither does it celebrate women's sexuality. Rather, what the novel does is depict abusive behavior and make it sound romantic, if a bit edgy; there's nothing modern about it, this is very typical throwback where women's sexuality is all about ravishment, what a man chooses to take, how a man chooses to construct it for himself and the woman involved. This eroticizes abuse and centers abuse, external control and passivity in women's sexuality.
E.L. James' account, then, is misleading on several levels.
So what does healthy BDSM look like in real life? How can you tell it apart from abuse and unhealthy relationship dynamics?
What specific activities each individual couple likes to engage in is up to the people involved and their likes and preferences: it's not all whips and leather, and few people have secret playrooms full of medieval torture instruments a la Christian Grey. Interests are varied and diverse, and there is no one way that all kink relationships look like.
But there are a few important common threads: healthy BDSM relationships require a high level of trust, respect and a whole lot of communication. Healthy BDSM relationships require that you know yourself, and take responsibility for yourself, reasonably well, and that you have the tools and support network you need to deal should you learn surprising and new things about yourself. Healthy BDSM relationships require that you can openly talk about sex and sexuality with your partner, that you feel able to be honest with them, and that you are prepared to listen respectfully to what your partner has to say even if they say something you may not like. Healthy BDSM relationships require a real respect for, not just in word but in action, everyone's limits and boundaries. (You may notice that healthy BDSM relationships sound a whole lot like healthy sexual relationships of any stripe: that's because they are.)
If that sounds challenging, that's because it often is, especially when you are just starting out. Communication is a skill that we learn over time. And figuring out how our bodies work, what we find appealing and what we find arousing, is a process that we all have to go through when we first start to become sexually active, and that we never stop going through throughout our lives.
A lot of people get the idea that kink/BDSM somehow magically absolves you from having to communicate, or figure out what you like. After all, if one partner is always in control, not only is there no need for communicating, and no room for the submissive partner to voice their wishes or needs. And that can be tempting especially if you still find communication difficult.
However, the opposite is true: ideally, scenes are carefully negotiated beforehand. Everyone involves talks about what they like, what they are not sure about but are willing to try, and what's a total no-go for them. Additionally, a safeword is agreed upon. If the bottom, or sub, uses that word, the top, or dom, has to stop what they are doing immediately. And everyone involved is always in control and shares that control, even during scenes when someone is being dominant and someone is being submissive.
A healthy relationship is marked by open channels of communication and by caring and respectful interaction. An unhealthy relationship, on the other hand, is often marked by fear, manipulation, exploitation of vulnerabilities and secrecy.
Much like Anastasia, I had my first brush with BDSM when I was still fairly new to sexual relationships. Unlike Christian, my partner at the time, L., was mindful of our difference in experience and gave me the time and space to develop my sexuality at my own pace. In the course of a conversation about our past relationships, L. (who was my first sexual partner) mentioned that he'd previously engaged in some light bondage. I was intrigued and curious, but L. felt uncomfortable introducing BDSM into our relationship at that point. We instead decided to keep it in mind for the future, but the relationship ended before we got a chance to get kinky.
In my relationships following, I brought the topic to the table when we discussed likes and dislikes, but no one I was seeing or sleeping with shared my interest in kink. That was a bummer, but as I want my sexual experiences to be enjoyable for everyone involved, I was not going to press the issue. After all, there were always plenty of fun things that we could agree on and that we both wanted.
For the past two years, I've had a primary partner who shares my interest in kink. We started slow: he had experience, I had only my curiosity. In the years since my first sexual partner, however, I had learned a lot about my body and my sexuality, so I had something to work with when we started our conversations and negotiations. We waited a while before we turned the kink into practice, to make sure we were comfortable with each other, and not all the sex we have now is kinky. It is just one of the many different ways in which we can enjoy our attraction to each other.
Kink is an element of our relationship, but it is not the guiding force, and the roles we assume while we play have little to do with how we interact when we are not playing. We are equal partners who treat each other like the fully autonomous, independent people that we are. My partner would never think to order me around or call me names outside of a scene. And if he did, I would not be thinking, "Oh, he is just being his usual top-self, I had better do as he says, and whoo-boy, isn't that sexy?" Instead, I would be thinking, "Why the hell is my partner being so disrespectful?" and I would talk to him about it, setting clear limits.
Because if my partner thought that it was okay to call me names, and if I thought that it was okay for my partner to do that? We would not be having a healthy relationship. We would be having an abusive one. And that, to me, is neither sexy nor edgy. And it certainly isn't alternative or kinky: it is, unfortunately, all too normal.
Some more reading material: