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5 Things About BDSM 50 Shades Got Wrong (And What It Got Right)

When Fifty Shades of Grey first came out, the book topped almost every Bestsellers’ List. The first out of three hugely successful movies broke records. Fifty Shades of Grey is still among the most-watched R-rated movies of all time.

Even now, it’s still an immensely successful franchise. It may be far from the first novel to center sex in its themes. But whenever BDSM comes up in party conversation, it’s the title on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

It was only to be expected that more conservative consumers would slam the book. But here’s the funny thing. Despite the promo and the branding, Fifty Shades of Grey wasn’t exactly claimed by the BDSM community, either.

“Not BDSM at all,” and other bad press

Two books of Fifty Shades of Grey on a table.
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Early on, critics, evangelists, authors, actors, and even a few plucky DJs from Wisconsin who threw a “burning book party” would decry E.L. James for ‘glamorizing abuse’ and ‘promoting sexual violence.’

The kink community itself would be used to and bored of these accusations. But that’s because prior to the pop culture movement Fifty Shades would trigger, it was massively misunderstood.

Whether the creators intended to be accurate or not, BDSM practitioners had good reason to fear its popularity. They were worried Fifty Shades would perpetuate harmful ideas and negative stereotypes that were already circling BDSM.

Debunking Misconceptions

1. BDSM scenes are not always extreme.

BDSM is not a catchall phrase for everything sexual that’s nontraditional. What does belong under the umbrella are Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism — which means it deals with physical or psychological control, power dynamics, and giving or receiving pain.

That said, while BDSM as a keyword would conjure up all manner of bondage and fetish gear from ball gags to whips, BDSM is still BDSM without props. If you’ve ever gotten turned on from being spanked, tied up, or called a ‘bad girl,’ congrats. You’ve dipped your toes into BDSM.

In the first book, there’s a part where Christian ‘gives in’ to being gentler with Ana because she was a virgin. This scene completely runs afoul of the fact that (a) dominance doesn’t automatically equate to rough, and (b) ‘vanilla’ sex is in any way inferior to kinky sex.

2. BDSM doesn’t always involve physical pain.  

BDSM is an umbrella term, but that doesn’t mean one size fits all. Everyone has their own set of preferences and kinks. Respecting those of your partner’s is the key to a healthy relationship — D/S or otherwise.

There’s a psychological element almost always, especially when power dynamics are involved. Take bondage, for example. Even the simple act of handcuffing someone, which may seem purely physical at first, requires trust and giving up control.

There are other nonphysical ways to be submissive, such as performing a service or following instructions. Unless you’re intentionally exploring it, scenes don’t ever have to include inflicting or receiving pain. 

Grayscale photo of a woman screaming
Photo by Emiliano Vittoriosi on Unsplash

3. Doms are always on top.  

The terms ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ were originally used to differentiate positions in gay sex. But in BDSM, ‘top’ refers to who controls the scene, and ‘bottom’ refers to who receives the action. In bondage, for example, the one getting tied up would be the ‘bottom.’

BDSM, in reality, is incredibly LGBT+ friendly and diverse and not the heteronormative picture Fifty Shades of Grey wound up portraying. Doms can be masochistic and prefer to receive pain. There are ‘service subs’ who ‘top’ because it’s their kink to follow instructions and be of service.

4. BDSM is not an effect of childhood abuse. 

One of Fifty Shades’ biggest sins is how it contributed to the unfair linkage of BDSM to child abuse. Around the second book, it’s a major plot point that Anastasia meets up with Christian’s old domme Elena, who seduced him when he was only fifteen.

While there are people who engage in BDSM as a means to explore their own trauma, they’re the exception, not the rule. There are many different and varying reasons to try BDSM, and the truth is that — and studies can back this up — BDSM and other kink practitioners are not significantly any more likely to have experienced child abuse.

On the other hand, much of what adult Christian does to 21-Year-old Anastasia Steele is scarily downright abusive behavior. From breaking into her home, ignoring her objections, to touching her without consent. That brings us to:

5. Consent should always matter.

It doesn’t matter that Anastasia signed his ‘sex contract’ at the beginning of the book. On the one hand, sex contracts as legally binding documents are not a thing. On the other, she was sexually inexperienced and wouldn’t have been able to give informed consent.

Furthermore, a good dom should know better than to ask for blanket permission. Circumstances can change, and it’s impossible to gauge whether your partner is ready or prepared unless you ask.

The difference between sex and abuse is clear, explicitly communicated consent, whether it’s vanilla sex or extreme BDSM. It’s even a draw for many people that BDSM comes with strict rules, guidelines, and clear negotiations. For them, the only way for them to truly consent is to be 100% aware of what they’re getting into.

Now, as much as I want things to be black and white. There was one thing I felt the novel tried to say that I would agree with. If only it had been a little better expressed.

BDSM can change you.

At the end of the third movie, a shirtless Jamie Dornan says ‘”You’re topping from the bottom, Mrs. Grey. But I can live with that”.

I think it was trying to show that they’d both grown and that their relationship had evolved. Ana’s more confident, and Christian’s more open. While I don’t particularly appreciate how the franchise portrayed it, BDSM can absolutely be that transformative in real life.

Grayscale photo of man and woman facing each other and lying on grass
Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

There’s a lot BDSM can teach you about how and when to communicate your needs or desires. Whether negotiating a fantasy or knowing when to stop (or add to) a scene, it’s paramount that everyone involved is on the same page.

Second, the emphasis may be on the dom being in control. But scenes are built around what the sub can and can’t handle. It’s about giving the sub what they want — even if it’s for pain or to be punished. 

Sometimes there’s no just better way to explore your own limits than to (safely) experience them.

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