7 things ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ won’t teach you about BDSM

Fifty Shades of Grey hits theaters this week just in time for Valentine’s Day, for those who find watching wildly inaccurate depictions of BDSM couched in abusive, dangerous relationships enjoyable, and those who just want to hatewatch. The phenomenally bestselling series of the same name suggests audiences will be equally enamored with the films—advance box office numbers certainly point that way, with the film ranked number four in Fandango’s list of top preselling movies of all time.

But there’s a reason many people in the BDSM community are not happy with what Fifty Shades hath wrought. Its depiction of kink as dangerous and abusive does nothing to normalize or destigmatize BDSM, and while it may have encouraged some readers to consider exploring kink for themselves, many aren’t following through on their research to make sure they’re doing it safely.

1) BDSM is good for you

In 2013, researchers published a study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, finding: “The results mostly suggest favorable psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners compared with the control group; BDSM practitioners were less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, had higher subjective well-being, yet were less agreeable.” This went in the face of previously believed suggestions that kinkiness was rooted in psychopathology, suggesting that practicing BDSM can actually be beneficial—for those who are genuinely kinky, that is, and not being forced into nonconsensual relationships.

At Mic, Kate Hakala writes: “It’s no wonder that some practitioners report feeling relaxed both after scenes and within their romantic relationships—it’s a community that has lived by the three main tenets of being ‘safe, sane and consensual’ for years. The foundations of the BDSM community, such as safewords, aftercare and constant communication, lend themselves to secure, mutually satisfying experiences that often bring couples closer together.”

2) BDSM is about consent

Consent culture is a huge aspect of BDSM—surrender is key to enjoyment, for many practitioners, and the excitement comes from the voluntary nature of that surrender. But you can’t feel safe enough to put yourself completely into the hands of a top without a careful discussion about needs, limitations, and concerns beforehand. That includes how far you want to take a scene and what both of you are expecting. An authoritative, decisive top might be appealing for some, but only after going over boundaries and discussing where scenes begin and end.

Many of the scenes in Fifty Shades involve clear lack of consent and violation of personal boundaries—the infamous “tampon scene” is a vivid example. Such scenes are anathema to many BDSM advocates because they undermine one of the key values of the community—that consent be the primary concern in all scenes, whether they involve play for the camera, a 24/7 relationship, or the privacy of the bedroom.

3) BDSM is safe

Many of the scenes in Fifty Shades involve potentially dangerous and worrying practices, like using zip ties as restraints. Not every kink practitioner is an EMT, but people in the BDSM community are extremely conscientious about safety—they have to be, since their goal isn’t to hurt their play partners. At least, not unintentionally. Before commencing a physical scene, both parties discuss potential health concerns and limitations—like a joint problem that would make certain bondage positions problematic—to ensure that everyone has a safe and enjoyable time. In scenes involving more psychological aspects of BDSM, like humiliation, careful emotional boundaries are also established.

Conscientious practitioners make sure they have safety measures in place, like safety shears to quickly cut through restraints in an emergency. They also use gloves and other barrier protection when body fluids are involved in play, and take as many steps as possible to keep their play partners safe. While there will always be inherent risks in some BDSM activities, harm reduction is a key component for responsible practitioners.

4) BDSM is not about being a broken or damaged person

One of the most troubling aspects of Fifty Shades is the presentation of Christian Grey as a sad, broken man with a traumatizing past. That characterization speaks to the stereotype that kinky people are deviant or defective in some way, using kink to process past trauma. Kinky people are, in fact, as emotionally diverse as everyone else, running the gamut from emotionally balanced people with healthy, active lives to people with severe mental health conditions—and their sexuality has nothing to do with their past, present, or future.

Perpetuating the stereotype that kink is the result of psychological damage stigmatizes BDSM, but it’s also harmful for practitioners in other ways. People with traumatic pasts who do need to go to therapy or exercise special caution in scenes might feel reluctant to reinforce a stereotype by speaking up, for example.

5) BDSM is fun

Here’s why the vast majority of kinky people are kinky: It’s fun, for whatever value of fun the practitioner most endorses. A top of my acquaintance recently attended a predicament bondage workshop—because lots of kinky people go to classes to learn new techniques and talk about safety—and when the instructor asked why she had chosen to attend the class, she gleefully said “because torturing people is FUN!”

Whether you’re hitting people with riding crops, ordering boot blacks to scrub your shoes, tying people up, being humiliated by your top, or any number of other things, you do it because it’s fun. For everyone. If it’s not fun, you shouldn’t be doing it. For some, that even means laughing and joking through scenes.

It’s perfectly normal to be kinky, writes Pamela Stephenson Connolly at the Guardian: “All the work that has been done to establish that BDSM is not a pathological symptom, but one of a wide range of normative human erotic interests, is in danger of being undermined by the success of Fifty Shades.”

6) Men and women alike can be doms, subs, or switches

Fifty Shades might tell you that only big, bad men can be doms. In fact, teeny tiny women can be just as devious as men can, and some men deeply enjoy submission. Many people even identify as switches, interacting as both tops and bottoms or in more fluid scenes where these distinctions can be more complicated. Some practitioners prefer scenes with people of specific genders, while others do not, and some associate BDSM with sex, but not necessarily—yes, there are asexual kinky people.

When you see a group of kinky people in a room, don’t assume anyone’s identity—in fact, plenty of wealthy, powerful businessmen absolutely love being bossed around by petite women.

7) Doms take care of their subs (and not by buying them Macbooks)

In Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele’s relationship to Christian Grey isn’t just about somewhat abusive interactions and limited consent—don’t mistake “surrender” for blanket permission to do whatever a top demands. It’s also about being taken care of, but it’s only in a material sense. At the Los Angeles Times, Meghan Daum noted this aspect of their relationship, pointing out that the allure for many readers might not be the sex, but the money and power. “For every reference to handcuffs and inner goddesses,” she writes, “there are even more nods to Christian’s incalculable wealth.”

While some tops certainly do provide material support (just like partners in other kinds of relationships), they also provide specialized emotional support. Being in a dedicated scene can leave submissives in a floaty, comfortable emotional state sometimes referred to as “sub space,” but it can also require a slow, gentle comedown. In addition to monitoring the comfort of their submissives during scenes, tops provide aftercare, like snacks, drinks, affectionate physical touch, privacy, or whatever else they might need. We don’t see much of that in Fifty Shades, which elides both the complicated setup and negotiation before scenes and the care required afterwards.

At Slate, Amanda Hess reviews Fifty Shades and describes the film as very much self-aware, writing: “[T]he obvious subtext is that our heroine has fallen down the rabbit hole of the cultural phenomenon of Fifty Shades itself.” This is, perhaps, the one lesson that viewers can take away from the film when they flock to see it this weekend, which they most definitely will. While EL James may have been an earnest fanfic author and self-confessed “not great” writer, the film’s producers have taken the world she created and created a wry, caustic sendup to the culture her books created. We’re not supposed to view the BDSM in the film seriously, and that’s a good thing.

Photo via Ater Crudis/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.