Black and blue and Grey all over

Why bringing BDSM relationships into the mainstream is problematic at best

Fifty Shades of Grey. Supplied

Whether Fifty Shades of Grey makes you sigh in ecstasy or bemoan the death of good taste is really irrelevant.

For better or worse, it has captured the attention of a nation. Or rather, several.

Some 20 million copies later, “the greatest selling adult novel of all time” has kickstarted a generation of erotic copycats and is on track for a movie deal.

Yet, we are no sooner to discovering what on Earth an “inner goddess” is.

But this isn’t going to be that kind of review.

Obvious to anyone with critical thinking abilities, Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t really about plot or the human condition, or even “love” - it’s about sex.

Author E.L. James comes alive exclusively in those moments of passion; the remaining pages acting as mere interludes amid steamy (though not always believable) scorchers between the sheets.

To its credit, what the novel has done is illustrate another form of intimacy by bringing BDSM relationships into the mainstream.

BDSM is a smart little acronym that, when unpacked, represents bondage-discipline, dominant-submissive erotica, and sado-masochism. 

Though research indicates that nearly 10 per cent of the general population experiments with some form of BDSM, public knowledge of the practice is often limited to slapstick jokes and hyperbole.

What then, are the possible implications of bringing kink into the mainstream?

Linda Plenert, Sexual Education and Health Facilitator at the Sexual Education Resource Centre of Manitoba (SERC), has some things to say about the phenomenon.

“The problem is the myth - the fantasy, really - that North American culture is comfortable with sexuality ... when we are, in fact, very uncomfortable with sexuality.”

As a sexual educator, she experiences this firsthand.

“We live in a society where teaching sexual health in schools is still considered very out there and controversial. There are high schools in Winnipeg that don’t allow the word masturbation in their sexual health classes.”

Plenert is concerned that the lack of openness regarding sexual health is leading to a generation of youth receiving mixed messages about sexuality, largely via the media.

“The problem is that pop culture is teaching people about sexuality - so they’re not necessarily learning to think in terms of ‘what about me, what do I want?’ It’s about fitting in with the popular culture,” she said.

Similarly, a friend, let’s call her “Eve,” who was a member of an online kink community and sometimes-BDSM practitioner, is also concerned.

“I am very worried that this book will get young people to explore BDSM unsafely with someone they don’t trust. (It is) a little irresponsible to release this without resources and education about it.”

When asked about the representation of BDSM in the novel, Eve claims it is inaccurate.

“With BDSM, 90 per cent of the time (for people in the community), it’s not about sex.”

Instead, she claims, “it’s about a frame of mind, it’s about experience, it’s about emotion and feelings; ... BDSM is so different for everyone who’s involved.”

For the duration of James’s novel, “control freak” and sexpot billionaire Christian Grey attempts to coax virginal Anastasia Steele into entering a BDSM relationship with him as his submissive.

To do this, he plies her with expensive gifts: cars, computers and $4,000 shoes. He also enforces an ultimatum - either she consents, or never sees him again.

Their tumultuous relationship follows a standard cycle of abuse, from tension, to incident, to reconciliation and calm. Though Anastasia is apprehensive towards the agreement, she doesn’t want to risk losing him.

The problem is the myth, the fantasy really, that North American culture is comfortable with sexuality ... when we are, in fact, very uncomfortable with sexuality.

Linda Plenert, Sexual Health and Education Facilitator

“What she’s looking for is connection, so she’s using sex for connection and she’s not going to get it,” Plenert says.

Plenert, who has worked with women through the Addictions Foundations Manitoba program, often sees a link between sexual violence and trauma.

“So, they give into sex when they don’t really want to have it ... because they’re afraid to be alone,” she says.

However, the novel doesn’t dispel public notions that BDSM is reserved for clinical sadists.

Christian Grey, the character at the heart of the narrative, is portrayed as a broken man with intimacy issues who, expectedly, suffered sexual abuse as an adolescent.

“People aren’t getting into it because they have a mental condition or low self-worth; for some people it’s a way of life - an orientation or a lifestyle,” Eve reminds.

When she began exploring BDSM, Eve was a submissive. Currently, she’s evolved into a dominant. What the novel doesn’t show, she says, is that “there are as many female dominants as male.”

“I mean, it’s a dynamic ... where they are giving and taking from each other equally. For me, it was therapeutic. Some people say they feel in control by being controlled.”

Alternately, Eve claims, “some people who are dominant and independent in life, are submissive in BDSM.”

The nucleus, then, of BDSM seems to stem from an “inner, hidden part (of yourself) that you only get to express in that world.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the planet is responding with bedlam to Fifty Shades of Grey. And while there may be nothing wrong with a small dose of pocket-sized erotica, many are hoping that while the masses open their hearts and wallets to the trilogy, they keep their feet firmly planted on the ground.

Because, while the novel is primarily concerned with the 50 shades of Mr. Grey, what it uncovers are the real complexities surrounding consent, and consensual adult sexual relationships.

We would all do well to remember that before we slap on the cuffs.

Published in Volume 67, Number 5 of The Uniter (October 3, 2012)

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