Why “Fifty Shades of Grey” Is Not A How-To Guide For BDSM

This Valentine’s Day weekend, a lot of couples will be heading out for dinner and a movie—and for many of them, their film of choice is likely to be the big-screen adaptation of the popular book Fifty Shades of Grey. Fifty Shades tells the tale 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). For some viewers of this film, it may very well be their first exposure to the topic of BDSM—and that’s rather unfortunate. Not only does Fifty Shades perpetuate false stereotypes about the people who are into BDSM, but it also presents an inaccurate portrayal of how BDSM plays out in the real world. 

“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.”

In the Fifty Shades book series, the male lead is portrayed as 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]. Instead, the available evidence suggests that, on average, people who practice BDSM tend to be just as psychologically healthy as people with more conventional sexual interests

Part of the reason so many people assume BDSM is inherently pathological is because both sadism and masochism (i.e., the acts of giving and receiving pain for sexual purposes, respectively) appear in the DSM, the diagnostic manual used by psychologists and psychiatrists. However, one thing that is often lost on people outside of the mental health community is that sadism, masochism, and other unusual sexual interests are only diagnosable as psychiatric disorders to the extent that they cause some type of personal distress to the individual or result in harm to others. Thus, just because someone enjoys bondage and spankings or plays with some kinky sex toys does not necessarily mean that they have a “disorder” or require any type of therapy.

In short, Grey’s backstory is not typical for people in the BDSM community. So what about his sexual practices? The specific types of sexual behavior described in the book are actually quite common in real life among people who practice BDSM. Consistent with the acts depicted in Fifty Shades, 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, the way these behaviors are represented in the book is not exactly characteristic of how they occur in the real world.

For most people who practice BDSM, their mantra is “safe, sane, and consensual.” In other words, they only engage in behaviors that fall within the bounds of their mutually agreed upon limits and that do not pose any serious risk of physical or psychological harm. In the Fifty Shades books, however, consent is depicted as optional. Although Christian and Anastasia initially sign a contract establishing their limits, this contract is ultimately ignored (at one point, Christian says, “screw the contract” and “lovers don’t need safe words”).   

The take-home message here is that, while the Fifty Shades books and films may expose readers to some common BDSM sex acts, the rest is fiction. This is not a how-to guide for BDSM, nor is it revealing of the psychological motivations behind an interest in combining pleasure and pain. In the real world, people who practice BDSM are not psychologically disturbed, nor do they view consent as optional.

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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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