Ouch

02.06.15 10:50 AM ET

Your Dominatrix Is So Bored by ‘50 Shades’

The 50 Shades movie trailers show restraints and sex dungeons, but why do BDSM-themed books and films get the practice so wrong?

What do Altoids, Axe deodorant, Ikea furniture, Dannon yogurt, and Bass Ale have in common? At some point in the last two decades, advertisers for each have bet on reaching consumers by channeling elements of BDSM, a set of sexual practices encompassing bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism, and masochism.

This might seem like a surprising promotional strategy for such varied household goods, until you consider how saturated pop culture is by one specific brand of erotica.

An Amazon search for “BDSM books” yields 61,562 results as of this writing. TV programs as tame as Will & Grace, TLC’s Trading Spaces, and HBO’s Togetherness have featured BDSM-centric plotlines.

Pop music darlings including Rihanna (“S&M”), Britney Spears (“I’m A Slave 4 U”), and Janet Jackson (“Rope Burn”) have performed similarly themed songs. And then of course there’s E.L. James’ mega successful Fifty Shades of Grey, out on the big screen next week.

Many assume that BDSM devotees are pleased by this escalating attention—that the spotlight must be driving awareness of an alternative lifestyle, thereby freeing the marginalized from judgment. Indeed, aficionados are quick to note the benefits of the broadened scope of dialogue. However, a growing sense of discontent is permeating the community.

According to actual BDSM practitioners, when content creators lean on kink as a device to advance their narrative objective—whether the aim is to inject comic relief, amplify suspense, or establish erotic tension—they tend to do so at the cost of authenticity. The result is that BDSM as it’s depicted in bestselling books, blockbuster films, and TV shows barely resembles the actual practice.

Instead, potentially dangerous, inaccurate information is disseminated while harmful stereotypes are promoted. As dominatrix turned writer Nichi Hodgson puts it, what the masses get from Fifty Shades is “torturous for all the wrong reasons.”

The concern is that such reckless portrayals undermine the advantages of BDSM’s increasing prevalence. But how exactly does the mainstream media, and especially Hollywood, get BDSM so wrong in the first place?

The main complaint amongst the experts interviewed for this story is the trope of the emotionally damaged kinkster. In perhaps the most widespread, offensive example, Fifty Shades’ Christian Grey is a self-made billionaire whose mother committed suicide when he was four after years of abuse at the hands of her pimp. “I had a rough start in life. That’s all you need to know,” Grey confesses to his naïve young lover, Anastasia Steele.

Associate Professor Ummni Khan of Carleton University, the author of Vicarious Kinks: S/M in the Socio-Legal Imaginary, is optimistic about Fifty Shades’ overall impact, but she deeply regrets that “Christian Grey’s hardcore side is a result of his traumatic childhood, which perpetuates a false myth.”

The same tactic of conveying instability through fondness for BDSM is used in 9½ Weeks, Basic Instinct, and Showtime’s Shameless. Even in Secretary, a film credited for its realistic bondage scenes, the two main characters are painted as fragile and dysfunctional.

Mounting evidence suggests that BDSM behaviors are more “normal” and healthier than pop culture allows. In a 1998 Playboy poll by Dr. Marty Klein, 49% of male respondents and 38% of females admitted to spanking during sex, and 30% of males and 32% of females said they’d experimented with restraints.

A recent study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that BDSMers scored higher than “vanilla” participants on measures associated with mental health such as extroversion, conscientiousness, and open-mindedness.

“I’d like to see BDSM portrayed by emotionally intelligent, mentally stable, high functioning people, because that would be accurate,” says Kat, a self-proclaimed psych nerd and Certified Tantra Instructor who practices BDSM regularly.

Through formulaic mischaracterizations by mainstream storytellers, Kat points out that the concept of role reversal is also lost. “I exercise control in all things,” Grey explains to Steele in a contrived back-and-froth intended to foreshadow his sexual preferences.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

In pop culture, control freaks like Grey are cast as dominant in the bedroom, while pitiable men like Desperate Housewives’ Rex Van de Camp are predictably submissive. But in the real world, BDSM is often a tool for tapping into desires that don’t align with daily life. For instance, Kat, a staunch feminist, derives satisfaction when her boyfriend commands her to scream, “I’m a cock-hungry slut!”

“It’s paradoxical for me to want to submit to degradation and objectification, but humans are paradoxical,” says Kat.

Kristen Boyer, a professional dominatrix and the author of Playing Karma, confirms that many of her submissive clients are hardworking, successful people “aching to relinquish the control they exercise day to day.”

Another major point of contention is pop culture’s disregard for the BDSM community’s standard safe, sane, and consensual (SSC) code of conduct. In addition to establishing soft and hard personal limits, BDSMers agree upon a “safe word” and check in with each other regularly throughout sessions.

“Negotiating a kink dynamic properly requires the exchange of a lot of emails, drinks over dinner, and walks in the park,” says Hodgson, describing an intricate process Hollywood mostly dismisses.

An authentic dom-sub dynamic doesn’t leave room for hesitation, and it is too well defined to trickle into people’s personal lives.

“A big problem with the book is that Christian Grey non-consensually and non-sexually dominates Ana in many ways,” says Khan, referring to Grey’s interference with Steele’s friendships and career.

To see what it looks like when the sanctity of consent is sidelined in the name of dramatic effect, just watch the official Fifty Shades trailer. “I don’t know if I can be with him the way that he needs me to,” says Steele in voice over. Cut to Steele, blindfolded and handcuffed, while Grey glides the tassels of a flogger across her naked body.

Guy Sanders (aka Sir Guy), an award-winning dominant and a Board Member of The Eulenspiegel Society, a nonprofit sexual liberation support group, warns that “those who don’t fully understand mutual safety and consent are more likely to engage in practices that could by physically or mentally harmful.”

Reportedly, people who treat Fifty Shades as a manual are actively incorporating cable ties into their sex lives, something Hodgson says no one abiding by SCC would advise since cables are difficult to wriggle out of and can puncture the skin.

Speaking of injury, BDSMers fear that it’s too easy for audiences to internalize the misconception that BDSM is primarily about pain. In one of Fifty Shades’ steamiest scenes, Grey unlocks his Red Room of Pain. Dressed as a dominatrix in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Angelina Jolie teases her enemy before viciously snapping his neck. The Story of O, a 1954 French film often associated with BDSM, is really a tale of sexual slavery. And in disturbing scenes from Videodrome, Hellraiser, Bride of Chucky, and Pulp Fiction, the line between BDSM and torture is blurred.

The truth is that whips, chains, and handcuffs don’t have to be symbols of suffering.

“There are doms who will shove a strap-on dick up your ass if you want, but BDSM is about eliciting a sexual response through an energy exchange that can be quite playful and innocent,” says Boyer.

“I don’t personally love pain. I like the power exchange,” echoes Kat.

As Sir Guy explains, “The mental and spiritual aspects of BDSM are far more important than anything physical.”

So discomfort is secondary to the psychological element. As it happens, so is sex, though you wouldn’t know it from reading Fifty Shades, in which the loss of Steele’s virginity is a central plot point, or from digesting pop culture in general. The misunderstanding that BDSM necessarily leads to intercourse is yet another troubling taboo advocated by mainstream media.

“If a novice enters into a session with an expectation of sex that isn’t met, boundaries can be violated and things can get ugly fast,” says Boyer.

Clearly, when pop culture picks an “it” fetish, the potential downside isn’t limited to its existing practitioners.

Luckily, for those interested in learning how to tackle BDSM correctly, the Internet is teeming with instructional books, dedicated online forums, and videos produced by established professionals such as Midori, Lorelei Lee, and Ernest Greene.

Clarisse Thorn, author of BDSM & Culture: Fifty Shades of Stereotype, recommends thorough research because education and training are paramount. She also notes that many dungeons double as community centers, offering workshops to teach amateurs everything from whipping to preserving emotional safety during intense encounters.

The problem isn’t a lack of informative resources, but that Hollywood’s ratings-driven glitz overshadows the factual material.

Certainly, storytellers have a right to craft fiction, celebrities have a right to act, and studio executives have a right to make money. But change often starts when public figures take a stand, sometimes simply by discussing a controversial topic without flinching. Perhaps BDSM’s widespread misrepresentation would be less frustrating if the people broadcasting the fallacies weren’t the ones with the power to dispel the many myths.