Fifty Shades Of — Good God, What Are You Doing? An Expert Explains What The Film Gets Wrong

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
This post was originally published on February 13, 2015.

As a dominatrix who sometimes switches with her clients (and is strictly submissive in her personal life), I have desperately avoided Fifty Shades of Grey. All I heard from colleagues and other kinksters about the books was that they were a terrible representation of BDSM, written by an outsider with a dubious grasp on the concept of consent. I dismissed the books as irrelevant, but with the release of the movie adaptation this weekend, the buzz about Fifty Shades has become unavoidable. I finally decided to see for myself just how bad it could be.

It was bad. I’ve attempted to catalogue all of the ways in which it was bad, but I did have to narrow the movie's failures down to 10 items. Some of these are straight-up incorrect depictions of safe and consensual BDSM; others merely have erroneous implications for audience members who aren’t knowledgeable about kink. Here are the truths behind the myths.

1. There is more than one way to incorporate BDSM into your sexual and romantic relationship(s), and Christian’s "lifestyle" is rare.
If a guy tells you he’s into BDSM, don’t assume that means he wants you to sign a contract that will allow him to dictate your wardrobe, diet, and sleeping arrangements. This is an extreme form of BDSM, often called "total power exchange," and it gives a strict structure to not just the couple’s sex life or romantic relationship, but also to the participants’ entire lives. The film implies that this is what it means to be “into” BDSM, but the reality is that most people who are kinky casually incorporate individual acts like spanking and bondage into their sex lives. There’s a whole spectrum between that and using BDSM as the guiding principle of one’s existence, so don’t let this movie fool you into thinking "lifestyle" kink is the only — or even the usual — alternative to vanilla sex.

2. There is also more than one way to be a dom — and, as demonstrated by Christian, many ways NOT to be one.
Christian’s style of dominance is strict. It’s all about following the rules — at least, for his submissive. Christian breaks just about every rule he establishes for his BDSM relationship, plus several more pre-existing rules of the general social contract (like don’t fucking stalk people). It’s true that many dominants have a serious demeanor and use reasonable, negotiated, and agreed-upon forms of control like orgasm denial and spoken protocol (“Yes, Ma’am!”). But it’s also true that doms can be playful and permissive, caring and nurturing, casually in charge, or any combination thereof. By definition, the only thing the dominant has to do to is call the shots (again, based on reasonable, negotiated, and agreed-upon terms). The dominant can even order her submissive to spank her, and still be the one in charge!

3. Dominance and romance can actually coexist.
Throughout the movie, Christian repeatedly insists that he “doesn’t do” romance, that he simply “isn’t like that.” His interest in BDSM is depicted as being in opposition to any kind of romantic affection, but for the overwhelming majority of people who enjoy kink, that isn’t the case at all.

4. Being into BDSM, being abused, and being abusive are not necessarily related in any way.
It’s heavily implied that Christian’s inability to engage in romantic affection is not only tied to his kink but to his traumatic childhood. His mother was physically abusive (and a crack addict! and a prostitute!), and so Christian is both unable to love and unable to have vanilla sex. I absolutely won’t deny that childhood trauma can create later emotional problems for some survivors, nor will I insist that trauma cannot reshape sexuality. However, there is hardly evidence to suggest that most kinky people are like Christian, or that most abuse survivors grow up to be abusive, like he is.

5. Consent is more than just the absence of a "no."
Yes, Christian is indisputably abusive. He is overly controlling, stalking Ana across the country and forcing upon her extravagant gifts to make her feel beholden to him. He repeatedly tells her she can leave at any time, but he never allows it. The most horrific example of this disregard for Ana’s wishes and wellbeing comes after she emails Christian to let him know she doesn’t want to see him anymore. Christian then materializes in her bedroom, having presumably broken into her house. He throws her down on the bed and doesn’t allow her to say a word before he forcibly rapes her. No, Ana did not protest; yes, it is still rape to break into someone’s home and shove your penis inside of her after she has explicitly told you in writing to go away.

I would be remiss not to point out that Christian himself had been raped — but neither he nor Ana acknowledges it as anything but "seduction." At 15, a kid cannot consent to be the submissive of his mother’s friend. Just in case we weren’t clear on that.
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Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
6. Fetishizing inexperience is a bad sign.
E.L. James’s writing was never the selling point of Fifty Shades, and some of the dialogue is downright cringe-worthy. One of the worst lines Christian utters in the film is in reaction to learning that Ana is not just a BDSM virgin, but a virgin virgin: “Where have you been?” he asks with something approaching reverence. Anyone who finds inexperience especially appealing is practically waving a red flag; only predators want their partners to be ignorant about what BDSM should look like.

7. Some bondage materials are better than others.
Cable ties are incredibly dangerous to use on people. Someone somewhere noted that police began using similar plastic ties when making arrests and assumed that thin, flexible handcuffs must be a great alternative to metal. Except police departments are now being sued for putting them on improperly and causing permanent nerve damage. While most bondage materials can be misused in ways that inflict injury, cable ties are especially easy to tighten and the injuries they can cause are severe. There’s no reason to take that kind of risk for the purposes of consensual sexual restraint. Stick to rope (or leather cuffs, or bondage devices like stockades).

8. Never use a crop backhanded.
At some point, Jamie Dornan forgot whatever training he’d been given to play Christian. Either that, or the training he was given was terrible, because there is no other explanation for the egregious shot of him taking a backhanded swing with a crop. Crops should always be swung forward, using the pointer finger as a guide. Backhand simply doesn’t allow enough control for such a precise implement.

9. There is an important difference between silk neckties and silk scarves.
The second most common BDSM-newbie mistake (other than giving a spanking the way a porn star whacks his partner during doggy-style) is using silk scarves for bondage. It’s possible to tie them safely, but people with enough experience to do so aren’t the ones buying the "Beginner Bondage" sets with lengths of silk and satin fabric. The problem? When the fabric of a thin, silk scarf bunches up, it tightens and creates pressure points, increasing the risk of nerve and tissue damage. If you’re new to kink and want the silky-soft feel, you’re going to have to sacrifice a necktie like Christian did. Most neckties have material that is thick enough not to bunch up on itself when the submissive pulls against the fabric.

10. Expensive equipment is nice, but not necessary.
Luckily for Christian, he has an endless supply of silk neckties, every BDSM implement imaginable, and an entire room devoted to discipline and stocked with bondage furniture. I suppose most kinky people might do the same if we were billionaires like Christian is, but sadly, most of us aren't. Most of us spend very little on BDSM equipment, and we still have plenty of kinky fun. Once you know what activities and sensations you’re into, you can buy two or three outfits or implements that meet those needs. And, that’s it — you’ll probably be satisfied without 50 nurses’ outfits, 50 kinds of leather restraints, or 50 paddles in various shades of a color that is hopefully not grey.
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