For those of you who have been living under a rock, there’s this movie coming out on Valentine’s day called 50 Shades of Grey. It’s based on a book that you may have heard of.
50 Shades is the latest popular culture phenomenon to bring BDSM to mainstream attention.To be honest, I was not able to get very far into the book. Call me snobby, but the writing made me a bit stabby after the first few pages. I read the Wikipedia synopsis and commentary on the book, but I cannot, in good conscience, rip apart a book that I did not actually read. There are plenty of other people who can do that for me.
I will give this book credit for accomplishing one thing: it has united kink communities and anti-pornography communities against a common enemy. Both sides agree that 50 Shades is a depiction of an unhealthy/abusive relationship dynamic. Those who fall into the anti-porn camp paint the abuse in much broader strokes.
- The acts practiced in Fifty Shades of Grey, in “kink” pornography, and in BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism & Masochism) relationships often violate U.S. and United Nations laws on torture. Consent is not an excuse according to these laws.
- Not every “consent” is not tantamount to good. There are many things we consent to that are psychologically disturbed, illegal, or morally corrupt. For example: People are freely consenting to wash their hands 400 times a day, but they probably have a compulsive disorder.
Those folks in the kink community take a very different stance. To quote Mistress Trinity:
Fifty Shades doesn’t explore BDSM as a potentially meaningful, consensual sexual practice to the individual or collective female experience. Rather, the book keeps the taboo in kink with the misconception that a person must be really messed up (abused) to explore this erotic practice. It also doesn’t explore the beauty and the power of submission, nor does it touch on the harder elements of BDSM play.
True BDSM is a consensual role-play experience where both parties negotiate and agree to act out specific erotic desires in a safe context. There are a variety of activities, fantasies, and fetishes that are explored, but there are specific rules in place to keep things safe, sane, and consensual, or risk aware. And unlike Fifty Shades, real BDSM can be very, very fun.
Naturally, I’m more inclined towards Mistress Trinity’s perspective on whether kink is abuse. The whole raison d’être of this blog, after all, is to help people understand the difference between healthy and abusive kink.
There is a very real concern within kink circles that people who read the book will assume that it’s an accurate representation of kink. This may lead said people to draw erroneous conclusions, which may turn them off to the world of kink or worse, impel them engage in potentially dangerous/emotionally abusive power dynamics. I won’t deny that I share this concern. That said, I have seen and heard anecdotal stories of folks who found their way to kink after reading the 50 Shades novels, and have sought out more accurate information.
I have an additional concern about this discourse. While I am glad to see people actively working to debunk relationship myths and encourage healthy relationship dynamics, both sides of this argument run the risk of shaming their target audience. Yes, these books and the upcoming movie are problematic on a number of levels. Even so, it is important to acknowledge that they resonate with many people’s erotic imaginations. If we shut those people down or berate them for liking this book, for whatever reason, we lose them. It is scary and challenging to reconcile politics, moral convictions, and ideals with our erotic mind. After all, our fantasies don’t give a damn about political correctness. They thrive on taboo and subversion.
Esther Perel immediately comes to mind, whenever such a conversation arises. Her work is all about understanding fantasy and eroticism within relationships. According to her:
Fantasies are a valuable creative resource. They transform our emotional and existential quests into sources of pleasure. They offer us an imaginary pathway to repair, compensate, and transform. Even when they might seem dark or taboo, if we find the courage to connect with them, they may bring us healing.
I am willing to bet that the very subversion of ideals and norms that enrage kinsters and anti-porn folk is what made the series so popular in the first place. It became such successful “mommy porn,” to quote a well worn phrase, because it took women out of their mundane lives and/or marriages and allowed them to entertain the dark spaces of imagination that are so often neglected. When that darkness is denied a healthy outlet, it has away of fighting back and leading people to make harmful choices. How can we frame these important conversations about healthy relationships and consent without shaming those whose erotic fantasies scare, challenge, or offend us?