Is "Fifty Shades Of Grey" An Accurate Depiction Of The BDSM Community?

“Why don’t you like to be touched?” I whisper, staring up into soft gray eyes. “Because I’m fifty shades of f*cked up, Anastasia.” – Excerpt from Fifty Shades of Grey (page 369)

A collection of BDSM sex toys, including handcuffs, a blindfold, and a whip

It seems as though everyone and their mothers (and a fair number of grandmothers, from what I hear) has read E. L. James’ erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey. The book describes the sexual exploits of Christian Grey, a successful and sexy businessman who introduces a young female college student (Anastasia Steele) to the world of bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism (BDSM). After hearing so much about Fifty Shades, I couldn’t help but wonder about the contents of this book. Is it an accurate depiction of the BDSM community, or is it pure fiction? As you'll see below, the answer to this question is somewhat of a grey area.

Based upon the excerpt I chose to start this article, you could probably tell that the male lead in Fifty Shades is carrying some major emotional baggage. Grey experienced an abusive childhood, was neglected by his "crack whore" of a mother, and had a Mrs. Robinson-like introduction to sex at the age of 15. The book’s implication is that these experiences helped to shape Grey’s dominant and sadistic sexual persona. However, this is one of the major areas where Fifty Shades splits from reality.  Contrary to popular belief, most people who practice BDSM are not psychologically disturbed. Research over the past few decades has consistently found that engaging in BDSM is not associated with an increased likelihood of having experienced childhood sexual abuse or reporting elevated levels of psychological distress as an adult [1].

Part of the reason so many people assume BDSM is inherently pathological is because both sadism and masochism (i.e., the act of giving and receiving pain for sexual purposes) appear in the DSM, the definitive book psychologists and psychiatrists use to diagnose psychopathology. However, one thing that is often lost on people outside of the mental health field is that sadism and masochism are only diagnosable as psychiatric disorders when they cause some type of distress to the individual or result in harm to others. Thus, just because someone enjoys light bondage or spankings or plays with sex toys does not necessarily mean that they have psychological issues or require therapy.

So Grey’s backstory would appear to be rather atypical for someone in the BDSM community. But what about the specific sexual behaviors he engages in? As described in the book, Grey has a fairly extensive sexual “playroom,” although I think it would be easy for the average person to see it as more of a dungeon than anything. The room is full of masks and restraints, not to mention implements for spanking and gagging, among other things. While most people likely can’t afford the luxury of their own private dungeon, the specific types of sexual behavior described in the book are all quite common in real life among people who practice BDSM. Certainly, the exact way in which these behaviors are practiced varies widely, so Fifty Shades should not be considered a how-to guide. Also, I can't vouch for the safety of the book's depictions—but it will give you an idea of some of the more commonly expressed BDSM behaviors. For example, in one recent study of BDSM, over 80% of participants reported engaging in bondage and flagellation (i.e., whipping or flogging) in the past year [2]. Most participants also reported making use of masks or blindfolds, as well as gags. However, an extremely wide range of behaviors was reported in this study, and these are just a few of the many activities that made the list. On a side note, it’s worth pointing out that more extreme forms of BDSM (e.g., cutting, piercing, electric shocks) tend to be pretty rare. For most people who engage in BDSM, just mild or symbolic pain is often the goal and the activities generally aren't violent or dangerous.

The take-home message is that Fifty Shades may expose readers to some common forms of BDSM, but readers should not walk away from the book thinking that people who enjoy such activities are necessarily disturbed or that the behaviors described are the only things practiced in the BDSM community. Bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism are just part of the broad range of erotic interests adopted by human beings and the should only be considered problematic to the extent that they cause harm to the self or to others.

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[1] Richters, J., de Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E., & Smith, A. M. A. (2008). Demographic and psychosocial features of participants in bondage and discipline, 'sadomasochism' or dominance and submission (BDSM): Data from a national survey. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5, 1660-1668.

[2] Sandnabba, N. K., Santtila, P., Alison, L., & Nordling, N. (2002). Demographics, sexual behaviour, family background and abuse experiences of practitioners of sadomasochistic sex: A review of recent research. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 17, 39-54.

Image Source: iStockphoto.com

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