50 shades of kink

‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ has brought kink to the mainstream. I’m not sure that’s such a good thing.

This article contains sexually explicit material. 

Attending a BDSM-play party in the dungeons of a porn studio is a lot like going to a rock-climbing gym. The guests spend most of their time standing around, fiddling with their gear.

The party I attended on Saturday night came on the third evening of a four-day symposium hosted by Kink.com, a San Francisco–based Internet-pornography studio that specializes in BDSM. Capitalizing on the wild popularity of the BDSM-themed Fifty Shades of Grey, Kink was hosting “Fifty Skills of Grey,” a series of seminars intended to teach devotees of Christian and Ana what BDSM is all about.

BDSM educators Siouxsie Q and Mona Wales.

BDSM educators Siouxsie Q and Mona Wales.

Fifty Skills of Grey

Billed as an opportunity for seminar attendees to “play like Grey” and try out their new skills, the party took place under the watchful eye of fluorescent-safety-vest-clad dungeon masters in the basement of Kink’s headquarters, a pseudo-Moorish castle in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood that was originally built as an armory and arsenal for the National Guard. 

I didn’t see anyone eat. I did see a man lock a woman with a furry tail in a metal cage and tickle her feet.

After signing a liability waiver and receiving a list of rules, such as “all bodily fluids must be cleaned up on completion of the scene” and “please keep conversation, laughter, and comments to a minimum in the play areas,” attendees headed to the basement, where they could unpack their suitcases of fetish gear and shed as much clothing as desired.

There were trays of crudités in the basement of the armory, but I didn’t see anyone eat. I did see a man lock a woman with a furry tail in a metal cage and tickle her feet. I also saw men suspending women from the ceiling using complicated feats of rope-tying, and men hitting women with riding crops, floggers, and canes. I didn’t see any men on the receiving end of punishment. (And yes, before you ask, photography was forbidden.)

For such a kinky party, it was surprisingly heteronormative. Everywhere I looked, there were almost-naked women, standing close to their fully clad male partners.


Kink’s embrace of Fifty Shades of Grey is not without contradictions, which the company freely admits.

“People are always asking: ‘Well, what do you think of Fifty Shades of Grey?’” said Danarama, the organizer of the symposium and director of Kink’s how-to site, KinkUniversity.com

Danorama.

Danorama.

Fifty Skills of Grey

“We kind of have a love/hate relationship with it,” Danarama said, “because with 110 million readers, nothing has infused more curiosity in the scene and brought more people into it than Fifty Shades of Grey, even though it is horribly off and completely misrepresents a lot of things—particularly the nature of dominance and consent and a lot of the techniques that were used.”

The seminars aimed to elucidate “50 teachable moments” from the books and movie. Classes included bondage for beginners, spanking, negotiating a dominant-submissive contract, and designing your own “red room of pain.” In the bondage class, Danarama focused on Christian Grey’s favorite tools: a necktie, nylon rope, cable ties, and masking tape. (“Masking tape? That’s how you know he’s an amateur,” Danarama said.) 

But Kink isn’t interested in all aspects of the Fifty Shades of Grey story. “Some of the things we’re not teaching,” said Danarama, “are intimate partner abuse, helicopter flying, and stalking.”

Siouxsie Q and Mona Wales.

Siouxsie Q and Mona Wales.

Fifty Skills of Grey

Whether or not Christian Grey’s relationship with Anastasia Steele is abusive is also a subject of much debate. Some critics of the series oppose BDSM on principle, arguing that the ideal of a submissive woman is based in patriarchal thinking. Others suggest that Christian and Ana’s relationship is based on “sexual violence and emotional abuse.”

For the BDSM practitioners at Kink, Christian and Ana were simply doing BDSM all wrong. Danarama compared author E.L. James to someone who goes to Kenya for two weeks and then writes a definitive book about the country. At Kink, just tying people up or using kinky toys doesn’t equal BDSM; the subculture is all about communication and consent.


The weekend’s events began with a seminar by Jiz Lee (NSFW), a genderqueer porn performer and educator. It was better sex education than 99 percent of this country’s youth receive in high school or college, I’m sure.

I believed her when she said, “Degradation is a source of power.”

Lee outlined several steps a couple should go through to prepare for engaging in a BDSM “scene.” Partners should discuss what each individual has done before, and what he or she has enjoyed and not enjoyed, before deciding what they want to try. (Lee showed the class a sample spreadsheet of hundreds of different potential activities that partners could use during these negotiations.) 

Lee also suggested that couples take safety precautions, such as having safety scissors on hand and deciding on safe words in the event that a scene should be stopped in the heat of the moment. After a scene, they should engage in “aftercare” by showing affection for each other outside of the roles adopted in a scene. In the days following BDSM play, partners should debrief the experience and share what they did and did not enjoy.

In a country where no is frequently not believed to mean no, and “yes means yes” is treated like a radical new idea, this vision of open and forthright communication between sexual partners is downright revolutionary. It’s also a far cry from the pathological view of BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey, where Christian’s sexual proclivities are revealed to be the result of an abusive upbringing and his desire to punish his deceased mother.

It’s easy to get caught up in Kink’s vision of ethical BDSM. When Mona Wales, a Kink performer and professional dominatrix, described her experience being urinated on in front of a huge crowd at the Folsom Street Fair, I found myself comparing her tale of trepidation, determination, and elated achievement to any other kind of physical challenge. I believed her when she said, “Degradation is a source of power.”

Still, when I left the Kink seminar, I found myself wondering whether there’s a difference between extreme acts that a professional is paid to do (and such questions have been raised about Kink’s treatment of workers), and what transpires between individuals when the currency is purely emotional. What Fifty Shades of Grey glamorizes is the kind of damaging emotional coercion that is all too common in a society where more than a quarter of women experience intimate partner violence in their lives. 

The BDSM community and other feminist, sex-positive communities can attempt to put forward their alternative visions of healthy intimacy. But it’s hard to forget that about 100 million more people have read Fifty Shades of Grey’s version of BDSM than attended Kink’s seminars on consent.

I’d like to believe in the revolutionary nature of informed consent and open communication that BDSM promises, but I still have doubts. As I watched woman after woman consent to be spanked or hit or degraded on Saturday night, I had to wonder: If we weren’t living in a patriarchal society, is this what we would be fantasizing about? 

Photo via Fifty Skills of Grey

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