What the Cast of '50 Shades of Grey' Needs to Learn About BDSM

What the Cast of '50 Shades of Grey' Needs to Learn About BDSM

After visiting a BDSM dungeon while preparing for his role as Christian Grey in the 50 Shades of Grey film, actor Jamie Dornan told Elle UK, "Then going back to my wife and newborn baby afterwards... I had a long shower before touching either of them." 

It's this kind of shame, fear and judgment that has kept the BDSM community out of the limelight in the past decades, with the exceptions of a few progressive books and films. Until now, when the explosive popularity of E.L. James' 50 Shades of Grey trilogy has resulted in more than 100 million copies sold worldwide and a film trailer that has been viewed more than 54 million times.

The impact 50 Shades of Grey has had on popular culture can't be overstated. In episode 427 of the Savage Lovecast, sex advice columnist Dan Savage noted that Dornan's kink-phobic statement reflects the same "you don't have to be one to play one" mentality that has historically distanced mainstream actors from the underground sexual communities they represent. 

In this case, it deeply reinforces the sex-negative taboos surrounding BDSM.

Today, we don't know of any openly kinky actors, and cannot rely on 50 Shades of Grey — as astronomically popular and conversation-starting as it may be — to proliferate healthy or entirely accurate representations of kink. And that's a big problem.

Whether you hungrily devoured the book or feel it romanticizes abusive relationships, we could all be more informed about the BDSM community — its myths, its best practices and its real-world participants. This is a lifestyle, not a trend, and it's nothing that requires a shower.

Myth: BDSM always includes pain because kinky people like to suffer.

Fact: BDSM is not one sexual act, but rather an umbrella term for a number of safe, risk-aware practices. BDSM stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism, and as a 2008 study published in the Journal of Homosexuality concluded, "Clearly, sadomasochism cannot be thought of as a unitary phenomenon: People who identify themselves as sadomasochists mean different things by these identifications."

Stella Dance, who runs a regular play party, knows that BDSM practices come in all stripes, and that pain is only part of the equation for some. "Are you kidding? BDSM/kink is an 'all types for all types' umbrella term for anyone who does any number of rule 36s," Dance told Mic

"While pain does come into play for many people, even that has a huge range, from gentle hair-pulling and running your nails across someone's back to flogging and caning," Shanna Germain, author of As Kinky as You Want to Be, explained to Mic.

Pain is subjective, fetish sex expert and therapist Galen Fous reminds us. "Don't think of it as pain, think of it as sensation," he said in an interview Mic. "One person might be freaking out and screaming, while another person might be thinking, 'Woo, that feels nice.'"

Myth: People who engage in BDSM must have experienced childhood trauma.

Fact: An enjoyment of BDSM practices is not a symptom of abuse — the drive originates from elsewhere. Ever since the American Psychiatric Association changed the categorization of BDSM in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2010, the scientific community has rightfully noted that kink is an erotic behavior, not a pathological one. 

But that doesn't stymie the stereotype that BDSMers suffered from early abuse and kink is their way of coping, as with Christian Grey. Fous described it as "an innate, genetically-derived practice." Gloria Brame, a sex therapist specializing in BDSM/fetish and author of Sex for Grown-Ups, explained to Mic that the predilection for kink "originates in our biology. For whatever reason, it just turns them on. Fetishists don't choose to be fetishists. It's too pervasive for anyone to believe that BDSM has to do with trauma."

Myth: You can spring kink upon a partner to spice it up in the bedroom.

Fact: Initiating BDSM without a conversation is unacceptable. While one might not ordinarily associate a classroom with BDSM or D/s practices, entering the community involves a number of conversations surrounding consent, safewords and aftercare between partners, even sometimes taking classes or tutorials

"The only thing that makes BDSM or sex okay is consent," Dance said. "Negotiations first! You always need to check in with your partner [...] do it with a hand squeeze sometime, or you can ask your partner for a color, like a stop light."

In fact, three main pillars of the BDSM community are being "safe, sane and consensual." But in recent years, some in the scene have adopted a new credo: RACK, which stands for "risk-aware consensual kink." Fous explains the difference: "If you want to be a bungie jumper, you know it's not safe, but you take the risk. Most people do it successfully."

Common myth: Every person is either kinky or totally vanilla.

Fact: Sexual preferences, fantasies and identities are not that cut and dry. Most of us end up somewhere in the middle of the vanilla-kinky spectrum.

"If we think of vanilla as being sex that the mainstream considers classic or 'normal,' there is also a huge spectrum of other flavors. Yes, some people are double-chocolate fudge, but lots of folks enjoy just a few sprinkles in their sex life. A pair of fuzzy bondage cuffs, a naughty pair of underwear or the occasional spanking are really common," Lee Harrington, sexuality educator and co-author of Playing Well With Others: Your Guide to Discovering, Exploring and Navigating BDSM, Kink and Leather Communities, told Mic. "Just remember not to say vanilla isn't good sex."

Myth: Submissives are victims.

Fact: The power dynamic in true BDSM relationships isn't skewed, manipulative or based in abuse. Within 50 Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele is portrayed as helpless and victimized by Grey's control, so much that some activists started a hashtag campaign, #50dollarsnot50shades. The campaign asks people to donate $50 to a battered women's shelter in lieu of seeing the film. As WBUR notes, many critics feel the film "glamorizes and perpetuates violence against women."

Who someone is in a BDSM bedroom scene has no reflection on who they are as a person on the street. Zoë Tersche, a writer for Fetish.com and founder of the Wink, an online list of kink events across the U.S., told Mic that submissives aren't necessarily victims. "Sometimes they are and sometimes they're not," she said. "People in 'vanilla' relationships are also sometimes treated poorly, and sometimes are not. Stepping into a submissive role is acknowledging that submission is a roleThis act in and of itself is a declaration that the person partaking is not innately submissive, or else the role would not be, well, a role." 

In many ways, submissives might be the ones in power. "They set the parameters and the boundaries and — most importantly — they make the choice to submit," Germain said. "They choose it. They consent to it."

Myth: People who engage in BDSM have something wrong with their brain wiring.

Fact: BDSM requires planning and mental agility. Tersche told Mic, "BDSM requires cerebral strength, stamina and a capacity for learning and honing new skills."

That mental well-being has played out in surveys. In fact, a 2008 study of the BDSM demographic published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine examined a representative sample of 19,307 Australians ages 16 to 59 and found that of that sample, 1.8% had engaged in BDSM play in the last year. Compared to the vanillas, the study found that BDSMers "were no more likely to have been coerced into sexual activity, and were not significantly more likely to be unhappy or anxious."

Additionally, the Kinsey Institute has estimated that 5% to 10% of the U.S. population has engaged in a form of sadomasochism at least one time in their sex lives. Brame stresses this kind of pervasiveness, pointing out that if kink culture had this many fans, how could it really mean there was something wrong with them?

As reported earlier this week, couples who engage in BDSM play might even enjoy stress-relieving, relationship-strengthening benefits from both the physical and emotional aspects of the experience. 

Journalist Jillian Keenan, who recently wrote "Spanking Is Great for Sex," explained to Mic, "For some people, BDSM is a fun change of pace. But for many of us in the kink community, a preference for sexual partners with dominant, submissive or 'switch' identities is not a trend – it's an innate, unchosen and lifelong sexual orientation."