The Globe and Mail
by CHARYN PFEUFFER
They’re back, and ready to tie up some loose ends: Fifty Shades Darker, the highly anticipated sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey, opens in theatres next Friday, Feb. 10. Whether you loved, hated or ignored the first movie or the 150-million-copy book trilogy that preceded it, there’s no denying that the blockbuster started a larger conversation about BDSM in popular culture.
Just in case you somehow missed it, BDSM is an abbreviation: It stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission and sadism and masochism. In other words, it’s an umbrella term to describe a myriad of sexual kinks, including but not limited to bondage (rope, blindfolds or handcuffs), impact play (spanking, flogging or caning) and kinky role-play (think doctor/patient or teacher/student scenarios).
When Fifty Shades of Grey hit bookshelves in 2011, people got all hot and bothered. Kinky traffic on the adult website xHamster in Canada rose 28.56 per cent in the year after the first film came out, which, by the way, grossed $81.7-million (U.S.) in North America in its opening weekend. The storyline goes like this: Boyishly handsome millionaire Christian Grey woos recent college grad (and virgin) Anastasia Steele with spendy gifts before introducing her to the Red Room of Pain in his basement. The books arrived at a time when BDSM wasn’t part of the mainstream dialogue and it catapulted women’s hidden desires into mainstream conversation.
If Fifty Shades is your guilty pleasure, that’s fine. But if it’s inspiring you to explore BDSM, keep in mind that long-time practitioners – or players, as they call themselves – largely criticize author E.L. James’s depiction as woefully inaccurate. More than once, Christian refuses to listen to Anastasia’s “no,” but the community has put big efforts into prioritizing consent for many years. And, advocates say, since sexual consent is a critical topic everywhere from postsecondary campuses to criminal courts, a better understanding of BDSM could probably help society at large.
“He is a powerful, rich man with a lot of social power and he uses that to manipulate her and coerce her into a relationship that he wants,” says podcast host Dawn Serra about Fifty Shades. “Nothing about the agreement is about what Ana wants, nor does he ever acknowledge how his power automatically makes her agreement questionable.”
On her show, Sex Gets Real, Serra often discusses the importance and practicalities of two core BDSM beliefs about consent: that all acts should be safe, sane and consensual, or SSC, and that everyone should practise risk-aware consensual kink, or RACK. “The goal is ultimately the same,” says Serra, who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. “That everyone involved in an activity understands the potential risks and has taken the necessary precautions for their required level of safety, and that everyone involved has the ability – mentally, psychologically and socially – to choose for themselves whether or not to engage in this activity.”
BDSM players typically communicate via a “safe word”: an agreed-upon verbal safety net of sorts. The most common one is “red,” meaning stop, like a stop sign. According to Whiplr (Tinder for the kink community), fruits and colours make up nine of the top 15 most popular safe words. Banana or pineapple, anyone?
“In BDSM, it is common practice to discuss ahead of time what all partners want to do, and what limitations they have,” says Carol Queen, the staff sexologist at San Francisco sex-toy shop Good Vibrations. She adds that these limitations are sometimes based on boundaries, and sometimes on health issues, “as when a person who has asthma shouldn’t have a hood put on them.”
Queen began exploring BDSM in the 1980s, and says that it’s where she first heard the actual word “consent” used regularly, and discussed as an integral part of an erotic experience. She says it’s far less common for those having “old-fashioned skin-to-skin sex” to have involved conversation about what they like, don’t want to do and what kind of STIs they might have.
She believes that most of us are poorly equipped to have an honest dialogue about sex and that many negative experiences – from awkward misunderstandings all the way to sexual assault – might be avoided if we got comfortable with these conversations. “The BDSM players are among the only people on the planet who elevate sexual/erotic communication this way,” Queen says. “We all have tons to learn from them.”
The official trailer for Fifty Shades Darker has been viewed more than 17 million times on YouTube, but it’s unlikely that the franchise will help teach us about healthy sexual consent. Here’s a line from the first book, written from Anastasia’s point of view: “No,” I protest, trying to kick him off. He stops. “If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you.” Trust and communication is essential in BDSM relationships, but it’s nowhere to be seen in these scenes.
“It romanticizes a coercive, manipulative, abusive relationship that is not consensual, while also insisting that being abused is the reason someone would be into BDSM,” Serra says. “In the second and third books, it’s clear that Christian begins to let go of his sadism as Anastasia begins to fix him, which reinforces a lot of dangerous cultural messaging around women being responsible for fixing emotionally unintelligent, unavailable men. Ana never had a chance.” ...