by Samantha Stark
Overnight, the movie “Fifty Shades of Grey,” directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and based on E. L. James’ novel, has intensified fascination and spiked interest in BDSM — acronym for bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism and masochism.
Critics attacked the eagerly-awaited film with an IMDB rating of 3.9 stars out of 10 and a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 4.2 stars out of 10. Critics publicized their less-than-satisfying experiences and disappointment in what they say is an unrealistic depiction of BDSM that dangerously dramatizes sexual violence and glamorizes domestic abuse.
“In ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ it’s this misconception that’s used to explain Christian Grey’s interest in BDSM,” said Clare Palmer, an MSUM alumna who studies the BDSM community. “He was physically abused, neglected and emotionally traumatized during his formative years, which he gives as the reason he likes BDSM and the reason he chooses submissives who look like his birth mother. His interest is depicted as something sick and wrong; an illness he needs to have treated.”
The BDSM community renders concern that those less familiar with this type of sexual play aren’t getting an accurate picture of what it is.
“I honestly didn’t know much about BDSM before the books,” said social work senior Alexa Dixson. “I think the book, as a whole, made that idea less foreign to society.”
Whether critics hate or love “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the story changed the way media talks about BDSM. It’s brought it out of the shadows, making the kinky culture mainstream.
“Personally, I think it made people want to try some kinkier things if they haven’t done it,” said anthropology senior Rayesha Kennedy.
There are organizations, like the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), that work to fight the stigmas and misconceptions concerning BDSM. NCSF continues to battle the widespread misinterpretations in media due to the popularity of the novel and film.
“The community as a whole is impossible to truly generalize,” Palmer said. “The credo of BDSM as a whole is safe, sane and consensual. Beyond that, it can be very different for different people.”
Palmer said that there are different categories of BDSM based on the preferences of participants.
“There are those who prefer the domination and submission aspect, those who are more into S&M; some are merely into bondage, some enjoy discipline and some don’t, and for others it’s a combination of all or some of those,” she added.
She said the misconceptions about BDSM are not recent developments, that its characterization as abnormal dates as far back as 1886.
Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, the first psychiatrist to undertake a major study of sexual perversity in its varied forms, published one of the primary texts on sexual aberrations called “Psychopathia Sexualis.” Early on in psychoanalysis, psychologists attempted to theorize why people participated in BDSM. One of the most popularized theories was that it was result of childhood abuse or trauma.
“There has never been hard scientific evidence to back up such claims, yet the idea of it has persisted,” Palmer said. “It’s a pattern that exists throughout many portrayals of BDSM in popular culture.”
A more recent scientific study by psychologist Andreas Wismeijer at Tilburg University found those who participate in BDSM are generally psychologically well-adjusted and don’t necessarily suffer from previous childhood abuse.
His study surveyed 902 individuals who practiced BDSM and 434 individuals who preferred “vanilla” (non-BDSM) sex. The result specified that people who were involved in BDSM scored better on certain indicators of mental health than those who did not bring the practice into the bedroom.
Each individual filled out questionnaires regarding their personalities, general well being, sensitivity to rejection and style of attachment in relationships; the participants were not aware of the purpose of the study. Its final results stated that BDSM-friendly participants were found to be less neurotic, more open, more aware of and sensitive to rejection, more secure in their relationships and had better overall well-being.
“There are definitely aspects of BDSM that can be incredibly unsafe if you’re not sure or don’t understand what you’re doing,” Palmer said.
She added that communication and respect are the two most important aspects of BDSM.
“You need to be able to communicate limits and the dynamics of the relationship you want prior to getting involved, and you need to be able to communicate what went well and what didn’t afterwards,” Palmer said. “It’s also incredibly important to respect the limits of your partner. Safe words must be established and respected.”
BDSM can be dangerous if participants don’t understand the social dynamics and sexual equipment at play.
Adult toys associated with the practice have flown off shelves worldwide, particularly following the reveal of a “Fifty Shades of Grey” sex toy line affiliated with the film adaptation of the novel. Even local businesses, like Enchantasy’s and Romantix, sell the products and have expanded their bondage product inventory.
“Everyone practices BDSM in different ways. For some, they like keeping it private and in their homes only. Others like being involved in communities.” Palmer said. “You don’t find play parties, BDSM clubs or large local communities in places like Fargo-Moorhead, but you do find them in pretty much every major metropolitan city.”
In smaller and more conservative areas like Fargo-Moorhead, there isn’t much public involvement, but Palmer says there could be a slight increase now that “Fifty Shades of Grey” has reached the number one spot in the box office.