The success of Fifty Shades has opened a Pandora’s box of curiosity into edgier sexual practices, leading some in the kink community to argue that that it’s crossroads in a civil rights struggle
by Kim Wall
Blindfolded on a chair, the woman tenses visibly as the knife flicks open behind her. The man, tattooed, wearing a black velvet vest and gothic boots, pulls her hair to bend her head back. She smiles. He caresses her neck, and then puts the blade to it, hovering it across her body’s thickest and most vital arteries. Continuing downwards, he draws intricate patterns on her décolletage. She moans faintly.
He picks a new knife – sterilized, razor sharp – and slashes off the buttons of her black blouse. The shredded garment falls off. Her jeans follows, until she’s in her underwear. He then grabs a larger blade, and methodically penetrates the first two layers of skin (the third causes bleeding), leaving a symmetry of pink lines across her belly. He kisses her nose and forehead, strokes her glossy red hair (which he, a hairdresser, has spent hours dying), and removes the scarf from her eyes. The scene is over.
The air in the room, a suite of a classy hotel in midtown New York,where I was invited to attend the annual BDSM Writers Conference, is tense. The audience – mostly white, middle aged and female – is spellbound. One woman is so uncomfortable that she moves to a designated safe-person in the back, but remains too intrigued to leave.
Knife-play may appear extreme to those not versed in BDSM fetishes. But it can also be curiously sweet. For Nauttiboy and Troublemaker, together for 15 years and playmates for 10, knives are a path to intimacy. He’s dominant, she’s submissive. He has “trained” her and keeps the key to the collar she always wears. Sometimes they play at their New York home, sometimes in dungeons, but whatever they do invariably follows the three strict commandments of the kink lifestyle: safe, sane and consensual.
Having no intention to cut her (“Don’t harm your toys, or they won’t want to play with you”), Nauttiboy uses a classic ER trick – finger on the point – when removing her clothes to prevent any bloodshed. Just in case, he always carries hospital-grade disinfectant wipes and a first-aid kit. They’ve never had an accident, and the faint scars on Troublemaker’s body are all intentional: souvenirs and badges of honor.
Still, all the mutual pleasure in the world can’t change the fact that the couple’s games remain illegal.
Today, the fetish lifestyle has become fetishized by the mainstream. The 50 Shades of Grey trilogy has sold more than 100m copies worldwide, and author EL James was 2014’s highest-earning author. The film adaptation, to be released this week, became 2014’s most watched trailer within days.
This landslide commercial success opened a Pandora’s box of curiosity into edgier sexual practices, leading some in the kink community to argue that the bestseller marks a crossroads for their civil rights struggle.
“Fifty Shades was our Stonewall moment,” says Susan Wright, author and activist at National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), an organisation promoting the rights for all adults engaging in safe, sane and consensual behavior. “Because of it, BDSM has burst into the mainstream media, allowing everyone to start talking about kink. Before, the media coverage of BDSM tended to be more negative, but now you can’t go on the internet without finding a new article about exploring your fetish.”
Even so, the kink community protests that it remains stigmatized and even criminalized. The spectra of the BDSM community – which includes various fringe preferences such as master-slave, dominance-submission, leather, polyamory and a diversity of fetishes – spans from hobby to lifestyle. For professional dominatrices, it is even a job. And these days, it’s also a political movement.
Dr Charley Ferrer – therapist, sexologist and talkshow host – is the mastermind behind the BDSM Writers Conference. Puerto Rican, curvy, wearing black jeans and a glittery top, Ferrer tears up as she recalls her own “coming out”. Losing her teaching job at an east coast college over her sexual orientation (she insists she never revealed it to her students and says the college found out through her book) she turned stigma into gold. Coming out as a “dom”, she reversed racial and gendered expectations of meekness that never fit her (“so many fucking rules! It just had to stop at some point”). As a Latina, woman and mother, kink became her rebellion.
“BDSM is currently where LGBT was 30 years ago,” she says. “Our struggles are parallel to those experienced decades ago when gay people were also thought to be suffering from a ‘mental illness’ that needed to be cured.” …
The blockbuster fantasy has become a movie. What happens now?
by Emma Green
What is a fantasy? From Freud to Ludacris, it's been an elusive idea, suggesting both an escape from reality and an expression of hidden desire. In culture, fantasy works like a mirror: It reflects who we are, but it also shapes what we become.
Love it or despise it, American culture's sexual fantasy of the moment isFifty Shades of Grey. Since Random House bought the rights to the trilogy in 2012, the series has sold well over 100 million copies worldwide. Trailers for the movie adaptation of the first book have been viewed 250 million times, according to an ad aired in early February; it’s expected to gross at least $60 million at the box office in its opening weekend.
And that means the Fifty Shades fantasy is about to become all the more influential. Yes, the story will likely reach an even larger audience, but more importantly, it will be told in a new, visual form. When the movie comes out, the Fifty Shades version of hot, kinky sex will become explicit and precise, no longer dependent upon the imaginations of readers. Early reports say the movie shows at least 20 full minutes of sex, although it's only rated R.
The story is fairly simple. Anastasia Steele, a middle-class senior at Washington State University Vancouver, meets Christian Grey, an incredibly handsome, debonair 27-year-old multi-millionaire CEO. They fall in love, hard and fast. Theirs is a romance full of drama and passion, and they end up living the conventional American fantasy: love, marriage, and a kid.
What’s not so conventional is their sex. Early on in the first book, Ana discovers that Christian has a “dark secret”: He’s obsessed with BDSM—a condensed abbreviation for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. This is the central tension of the books: Ana loves Christian, but she doesn’t want to be his submissive; Christian loves Ana, but he’s turned on by violent sex.
As several experienced BDSM practitioners emphasized to me, there are healthy, ethical ways to consensually combine sex and pain. All of them require self-knowledge, communication skills, and emotional maturity in order to make the sex safe and mutually gratifying. The problem is that Fifty Shades casually associates hot sex with violence, but without any of this context. Sometimes, Ana says yes to sex she’s uncomfortable with because she’s too shy to speak her mind, or because she’s afraid of losing Christian; she gives consent when he wants to inflict pain, yet that doesn’t prevent her from being harmed.
This is a troubling fantasy in American culture, where one in five womenwill be raped within their lifetime, according to the CDC; where nearly 40 percent of those rapes will happen to women aged 18 to 24; and where troubling evidence of casual attitudes toward rape—such as in 2010 when a number of Ivy League-educated men thought it was okay to chant “no means yes, yes means anal” on their campus—is not uncommon. As images of Ana being beaten by Christian become the new normal for what’s considered erotic, they raise questions about what it means to “consent” to sex. Clearly, consent is necessary; but is it sufficient?
This is a lot to pin on one book, especially since it is neither the first nor the only romance novel to feature kink and BDSM. But it's a book 100 million people chose. It's a movie that has already flooded the Internet with sexy GIFs and endless trailers.
If anything has the power to shape sexual norms, this does. ...
Could you juggle multiple romantic relationships at one time — if each of your partners knew about the others? How about setting up your household as a triad, rather than a couple?
And what do you think of people who do such things?
Chances are, the more you know about the relationship style called polyamory, the more accepting you are of such setups, according to new research. The findings echo what psychologists know about how people respond to gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities: The greater the familiarity, the less severe the stigma.
"If people know even one gay person that they like in their life — a friend, a relative — their attitudes are much more favorable," said study researcher Traci Giuliano, a psychologist at Southwestern University in Texas. Likewise, the study found that "the more aware people were of polyamory, the more positive their attitudes were," Giuliano told Live Science. [5 Myths About Polyamory, Debunked]
Polyamory is often confused with swinging, but the terms are not interchangeable. Unlike swingers, who go outside their primary relationship for sex only, polyamorous people maintain simultaneous romantic ties, all with the consent and knowledge of everyone involved.
It's unclear how many people identify themselves as polyamorous, but a 2013 study in the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy estimated that between 4 percent and 5 percent of people in the United States are involved in some sort of consensually nonmonogamous relationship.
What's clear is that polyamory is moving out of the underground, with shows like Showtime's "Polyamory: Married & Dating" bringing the lifestyle to a broader audience. However, polyamory remains stigmatized: A 2013 survey of nearly 4,000 polyamorous people found that 28.5 percent had personally experienced discrimination because of their relationship style.
Giuliano was interested in researching this stigma in part from personal experience. Though she is not polyamorous, Giuliano is in a relationship that can seem unfamiliar to some people. She is "not generally attracted to women," Giuliano said, but she fell in love with and is married to a woman.
"This is just so confusing to people," she said. But once people get to know her, she added, they are generally accepting and tolerant.
She said she wondered if the same familiarity effect might benefitpolyamorous people. For the study, she and her colleagues gave 100 people between ages 18 and 63 an online survey about their understanding and attitudes toward polyamory. The researchers found that 60 percent of the respondents knew what the term meant, and 30 percent personally knew someone who had been or was in a polyamorous relationship. ...
The 50 Shades movie trailers show restraints and sex dungeons, but why do BDSM-themed books and films get the practice so wrong?
What do Altoids, Axe deodorant, Ikea furniture, Dannon yogurt, and Bass Ale have in common? At some point in the last two decades, advertisers for each have bet on reaching consumers by channeling elements of BDSM, a set of sexual practices encompassing bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism, and masochism.
This might seem like a surprising promotional strategy for such varied household goods, until you consider how saturated pop culture is by one specific brand of erotica.
An Amazon search for “BDSM books” yields 61,562 results as of this writing. TV programs as tame as Will & Grace, TLC’s Trading Spaces, and HBO’s Togetherness have featured BDSM-centric plotlines.
Pop music darlings including Rihanna (“S&M”), Britney Spears (“I’m A Slave 4 U”), and Janet Jackson (“Rope Burn”) have performed similarly themed songs. And then of course there’s E.L. James’ mega successful Fifty Shades of Grey, out on the big screen next week.
Many assume that BDSM devotees are pleased by this escalating attention—that the spotlight must be driving awareness of an alternative lifestyle, thereby freeing the marginalized from judgment. Indeed, aficionados are quick to note the benefits of the broadened scope of dialogue. However, a growing sense of discontent is permeating the community.
According to actual BDSM practitioners, when content creators lean on kink as a device to advance their narrative objective—whether the aim is to inject comic relief, amplify suspense, or establish erotic tension—they tend to do so at the cost of authenticity. The result is that BDSM as it’s depicted in bestselling books, blockbuster films, and TV shows barely resembles the actual practice.
Instead, potentially dangerous, inaccurate information is disseminated while harmful stereotypes are promoted. As dominatrix turned writer Nichi Hodgson puts it, what the masses get from Fifty Shades is “torturous for all the wrong reasons.”
The concern is that such reckless portrayals undermine the advantages of BDSM’s increasing prevalence. But how exactly does the mainstream media, and especially Hollywood, get BDSM so wrong in the first place? ...
To some, the world of sexuality is a black and white one, a place where you're either straight or not. But it's far from that -- the LGBT movement's symbol has long been the rainbow flag, including shades of varying sexual orientations and identities.
Taking it even further, there are even more ways of expressing sexuality and gender, and for 15 years, it's been the mission of the Center for Sex Positive Culture in Seattle.
"I personally do not like the word 'alternative' sexuality because I think that all of our sexuality is legitimate," said Allena Gabosch, the executive director. "But for people in areas of sexuality that are not as mainstream... there's not a lot of space to be that way and be with people that are like you."
Sex positivity, in short, is the idea that if it's a sexual lifestyle where all adults involved are consenting -- whether for pleasure, an expression or love, or part of spiritual belief -- why dismiss it? With its roots in the free love movement of the '60s and '70s, Gabosch says sexual positivity has since shifted from a sexual revolution to its renaissance today.
When the center was formed in 1999, the executive director had no idea that it would become what it is today. Throughout the month, the center hosts socials and meetings for people who consider themselves to be LGBT, polyamorous and polygamist, kinky, asexual, and a litany of other sexual persuasions. Here, people can learn more about a lifestyle they might be interested in or meet other people like them in a safe place where they're not odd.
"The sex positive movement affects everyone," she said. "Those in our community who are LGBT even more so in that sex negativity and sexual shaming seems more prevalent toward those who identify as LGBT."
Today, there are 2,200 active members and over the last 15 years 16,000 people have been a part of the center. Gabosch has also noticed that the movement has become more mainstream as television shows and books tackle BDSM and polyamory. The scripted drama, "Big Love," and reality TV shows "My Five Wives" and "Sister Wives" on TLC have shown the idea of adults being perfectly happy with more than one spouse is possible.
Also, while bodice-ripper novels and pulp fiction have been around for decades, the mainstream "50 Shades of Grey" got more people talking about bringing kink into the bedroom... or talking about how they and their partner had already been doing it.
"Young people today are so much more fluid around orientation, around gender, around sexual interest," Gabosch said. "I've been speaking to colleges for 20-plus years and I've watched students' reactions and I've listened very carefully to the kinds of questions, and the questions I get now are more well thought out. They're less reactive, they're less shamefaced, they're less fearful." ...
“A pervert is anybody kinkier than you are” (Wiseman, 1996, p. 23).
The novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” introduced BDSM into polite public discourse. Since then, hallowed papers such as the New York Times have published articles on bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. Harvard University now hosts a student group for undergraduates interested in consensual S&M. And Cosmo’s sex tips have taken a distinctly kinky turn.
With the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie soon to be gracing theaters, it seems like a good time to take stock of what we know, scientifically, about BDSM. Who does this stuff? What do they do? And what effects do these activities have on the people who do them?
1) How many people are into S&M?
According to researchers, the number likely falls somewhere between 2 percent and 62 percent. That’s right, somewhere between 2 percent and 62 percent. A pollster who published numbers like that would be looking for a new job. But when you’re asking people about their sex habits, the wording of the question makes all the difference.
On the low end, Juliet Richters and colleagues (2008) asked a large sample of Australians whether they had “been involved in B&D or S&M” in the past 12 months. Only 1.3 percent of women and 2.2 percent of men said yes.
On the high end, Christian Joyal and colleagues (2015) asked over 1,500 women and men about their sexual fantasies. 64.6 percent of women and 53.3 percent of men reported fantasies about being dominated sexually. On the other side, 46.7 percent of women and 59.6 percent of men reported fantasies about dominating someone sexually. Overall, we can probably conclude that a substantial minority of women and men fantasize about or engage in BDSM (Moser & Levitt, 1987).
2) Are they sick?
For Sigmund Freud, the answer was a clear yes. Anyone interested in S&M was in need of treatment (treatment that, by fine coincidence, Freud and his contemporaries were qualified to provide).
But recent research tells a different story. Pamela Connolly (2006) compared BDSM practitioners to published norms on 10 psychological disorders. Compared to normative samples, BDSM practitioners had lower levels of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychological sadism, psychological masochism, borderline pathology and paranoia. (They showed equal levels of obsessive-compulsive disorder and higher levels of dissociation and narcissism.)
Similarly, Andreas Wismeijer and Marcel van Assen (2013) compared BDSM practitioners to non-BDSM-practitioners on major personality traits. Their results showed that in comparison to non-BDSM practitioners, BDSM practitioners exhibited higher levels of extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and subjective well-being. BDSM practitioners also showed lower levels of neuroticism and rejection sensitivity. The one negative trait that emerged was agreeableness: BDSM practitioners showed lower levels of agreeableness than non-practitioners.
This is not to say that everyone into sadism or masochism is doing so for psychologically healthy reasons. The latest version of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (the DSM-5) still includes Sexual Sadism Disorder and Sexual Masochism Disorder as potential diagnoses. But a diagnosis now requires the interest or activities to cause “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (or to be done with a non-consenting partner). BDSM between consenting adults that does not cause the participants distress no longer qualifies. ...
The B in BDSM is having a moment. Fifty Shades of Grey, the film version of which is opening on Valentine's Day, has sparked a loud cultural discussion about kinky sex. FKA Twigs is into bondage, too, and HBO's new show Togetherness has also dabbled. Given that more than half of all men and women admit to having some sort of domination-and-submission-related fantasy, it's unsurprising that pop culture is starting to reflect — and spark increased interest in — what was once a rather taboo subject.
Whatever one thinks of BDSM, given the pain and intensity associated with it, it certainly doesn't come across as a stress-reducing activity — to most outsiders, there wouldn't appear to be anything relaxing about whips and handcuffs. And yet practitioners say that BDSM is more than just kinky sex. Some practices, they argue, can enhance the psychological well-being of their participants. And recent science has started to support these claims, suggesting that certain forms of BDSM may have anti-anxiety effects, as well as other mental health benefits.
The transformative effects of bondage are well known within the BDSM community. “We call it ‘rope space,’” says Roxie, who leads the New York chapter of Hitchin Bitches, a rope bondage group for women. Also called “subspace” or being “rope drunk,” submissives describe entering an altered state of consciousness in which one feels totally released from stress and present in the moment.
“There’s this ripple through your body. It’s like a drug,” said Christy, 23, who was tied up at a recent fetish party at a bar near the base of the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan. A Lynchian red light bathed the scene as a tall person with a husky voice in a white gimp mask and full body latex French maid outfit stood watching a few feet away. Christy looked dazed and dreamy as her partner, Dan, a banker, wound rope first around her waist and then in a tight criss-cross pattern down her leg. They were practicing Kinbaku, or Shibari, a form of Japanese rope bondage popular in some BDSM circles in which subjects are intricately bound and manipulated into strenuous positions, sometimes while suspended in midair.
Once the rope was unwound, the spell seemed to lift quickly. There were indentations on Christy’s thigh, and while bound her skin had bulged around the rope's edges — yet despite the physical stress involved, Christy's bliss is a common experience during this type of activity. While subspace can supposedly occur during any type of bondage or submissive activity, practitioners say it’s most easily achieved through rope. “It’s very tactile, very sensual, more so than say handcuffs or other forms of bondage,” said “Ratie,” an international-relations expert at a large NGO and longtime BDSM practitioner, at another bondage event on a recent Friday evening (she didn't want her real name used).
“I do a lot of yoga and meditation,” she said. “I think rope can have the same effect. When you’re tied up it’s like you’re not responsible for anything else that happens and there’s a sense of freedom in that. It’s one of the few moments where I don’t have to worry about all of my responsibilities.”
“It's presence. It feels like an opportunity to completely let go and to be completely present at the same time,” said Gorgone, a 22-year-old Shibari model who was tied up that night. “There’s a certain release from anxiety you get from it. Some people do it by drinking. They are looking for something that is going to take them away from themselves,” she said. With bondage, though, she said the high is also clearer and perceptions can become sharper — closer to a state of mindfulness than inebriation.
Doms are supposed to experience a corresponding mental state called “topspace,” described as feelings of deep focus and concentration. Both doms and subs say that they feel closer and more emotionally attached to their partners after engaging in BDSM.
Although preliminary, there is growing scientific support for some of the BDSM community's observations. In a study from 2013, researchers surveyed 902 BDSM practitioners and 434 “vanilla” people, asking them questions about their personality, relationships, attachment styles, and general well-being. Practitioners of bondage reported less neuroticism, a trait similar to anxiety, and more security in their relationships than people strictly into vanilla sex. Since this was a survey, it doesn't show that BDSM activities caused these effects, but it does indicate that people who practice BDSM seem to be calmer and more comfortable in their relationship than people who don’t, lending some weight to the idea of a link. ...