By now I’m guessing that a lot of you have heard over and over again about what a bad book 50 Shades of Grey is, and how its portrayal of BDSM and kink is horribly inaccurate, blah blah blah. Well, I’m assuming that the millions people who are fans of the book are probably especially tired of listening to a lot of people bitch about a book that they loved and enjoyed. As someone who is deeply involved in the kink scene, I also think that it’s okay for a work of fiction to show fallibility in its characters, especially when they are fallibilities that appear a lot in the real world. And so the case with 50 Shades, I think. I believe one of the reasons the book so annoys the kinksters who’ve actually read is that they know too many people like Ana and Christian (minus the billion dollar financial empire…), and wish they didn’t.
Also, unlike many of the people who are railing against the book, I’ve actually read it (twice) and seen the movie. I can’t honestly say that I found any of that to be especially pleasurable, but I at least know what the hell I’m talking about. I should caution that I haven’t read the subsequent books, though, so I’m really only talking about the first book. My understanding is that Ana and Christian stop being kinky in the second and third books anyway.
And so, without further ado, I give you the 7 things that 50 Shades of Grey gets right:
- Many people enjoy D/s without wanting to engage in it full-time.
Despite the fact that “24/7” relationships get most of the hype both inside and outside of the BDSM scene, in actual fact, lots of very kinky people don’t do this in the context of relationships where one person is the full-time Dom of the other one. At the heart of 50 Shades is at least one nuance that Christian is basically oblivious to up until the very end (sort-of): it’s entirely possible to have a very happy D/s relationship with someone that only functionally exists inside a bedroom or playroom. Being someone’s Dom or sub all the time is a HUGE commitment, and even a lot of people who do it often finesse it by having the Dom tell the sub “you’re in charge of managing your own life.” It’s clear that what Ana really wants is a part-time D/s relationship (even though she’s terrible at articulating that), while Christian thinks they have to have a full-time D/s relationship in order to satisfy his Domliness.
This conflict is one which frequently emerges from real kinky folks all the time in both directions (i.e. subs who want their Doms to control them more, Doms who want more control of their subs, subs who feel over-controlled, and Doms who feel excessively submitted to). Christian seems to think that being the Dom, he just gets to dictate all the terms of his and Ana’s relationship, and that’s not usually a great recipe for success in D/s relationships (although a common mistake). It’s especially stupid of him, since he is obviously actually turned on by her spirited disobedience, which leads me to…
- Many subs are “brats” and many Doms are assholes
When my friends and I sat around to make collective nouns of our people (you know, like a “murder of crows”), among the ones we can up with was an AssHole of Dominants, a doormat of submissives, and a waffle of switches. All of us who hang out in the Scene know That Dom—the one who insists that because he is a Twu Dom, he gets to boss everyone around. Well, Christian Grey is That Dom, as he says in one of the first pages of the book: “Oh, I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele,” he says without a trace of humor in his smile. Sigh. For most of us, this doesn’t make our panties wet, this just makes us annoyed. But these are very real people out there who haven’t quite figured out the difference between “Dominant” and “domineering.”
Meanwhile, there’s an entire sub-class of subs who identify as “brats.” These are subs who like to be “punished,” but who, like Anastasia, don’t actually like to be punished, and indeed, are often offended by the very idea. The idea behind “bratting” (and yes, the Scene culture has actually verbed that one) is that you mouth off and misbehave around your top, and then they get to “punish” you for it, which excites everyone. The tops aren’t actually trying to change the “brats” behavior because both people enjoy having a fun excuse for a nice consensual beating. In real life, as in 50 Shades, sparks often fly in complicated patterns between some Doms who yearn for obedience but find that they’re kind of turned on and simultaneously annoyed by bratty subs. There’s something really satisfying about slapping someone who’s mouthing off to you, but if you are genuinely annoyed by their behavior, it tends to become a problem after a while. And when Those Doms try to punish those subs and change their behavior, the sexy sparks turn into a big fiery mess… just like what happens in 50 Shades.
- A lot of Doms refuse to date their subs
There actually is an entire group of Doms that refuses to date their subs. Like, as a matter of principle. I have seen posts from them on FetLife complaining that their subs keep violating their hard limits and falling in love with them! Such disobedience!
…this dynamic is not to be confused with non-sexual D/s arrangements, which are a very different thing that 50 Shades never addresses… No, I mean there really are Doms who fuck their subs and expect them to be loyal to them, but have no feelings for them. Except, you know, all that trust and submission and desire and stuff. But no feelings.
- Lots of kinky people think they aren’t
Now I admit, I’ve got my own personal biases coming into this story, but when I read 50 Shades of Grey, I read a story about a virgin girl, who’s actually quite kinky and fairly submissive, who really just isn’t comfortable admitting that. So she displaces a lot of her own feelings of guilt and anguish onto a guy who is, conveniently, pretty fucked up completely aside from his kinky preferences.
It might surprise some of you reading this to know when first invited into a private dungeon, I turned down the invitation saying “I’m not really that kinky” (that guy still occasionally mocks me for that. With good reason). It turns out that it is possible to deny one’s own kinkiness in the face of a truly spectacular array of evidence to the contrary if one is determined. And lo, we get a woman like Anastasia Steele, who can orgasm from being hit on the clit with a riding crop, (which, while I have seen people do it, is certainly an extraordinary feat, even amongst those who consider themselves very kinky)… but maintains throughout the book that she isn’t kinky. Dude, I’m jealous of that kind of fucktastic kink power. But whatever that is, it’s not vanilla…
I’m pretty sure the VAST majority of kinky folks out there are (like Ana) busy believing that they’re “just not that kinky.” I think that’s a big part of why 50 Shades is so fucking popular. It feels okay to be turned on by kink as long as you aren’t actually kinky yourself. Believe me, I know from experience.
- Lots of kinky folks worry about how others will perceive them
In one of the more telling passages in 50 Shades, Ana worries: I don’t even know how to categorize him. If I do this thing… will he be my boyfriend? Will I be able to introduce him to my friends? Go out to bars, the cinema, bowling even, with him? The truth is, I don’t think I will. Kinksters constantly complain that they don’t even know how to explain their relationships to vanilla people. And they’re clearly a bit ambivalent about categorizing their relationships themselves—people will almost always introduce a boy/girlfriend (but not spouses) more comfortably as “my Dom/sub.” On the one hand, most real-world kink couples live surprisingly ordinary boring lives; on the other hand, they often end up feeling isolated from vanillas because they’re constantly afraid of being judged.
- It comes down to trust
In one of the wisest exchanges in 50 Shades, Christian says, “Again, it comes down to trust. Do you trust me, Ana?” Ana! “Yes, I do.” I respond spontaneously, not thinking… because it’s true – I do trust him. “Well then,” he looks relieved. “The rest of this stuff is just details.” I think one of the ways to look at BDSM is just as a giant trust-building exercise, like one of those weird camp activities where they make you fall into your friends’ arms with your eyes closed, or climb up some weird… rope… ladder. For a lot of people (like Ana and Christian), BDSM involves sex. But at its root, it’s really about finding intense and powerful ways to build trust between two (or more) people through what often feel like dangerous, risky, scary, exciting, and/or titillating activities. And it is remarkably effective at that.
What Christian constantly loses sight of is that normally, we expect Doms to have to *earn* their sub’s trust, not just hand it over after a helicopter ride and a kiss in an elevator.
- Don’t feel guilty about it
The smartest thing in 50 Shades is Christian’s advice to Ana: Don’t waste your energy on guilt, feelings of wrongdoing etc. We are consenting adults and what we do behind closed doors is between ourselves. You need to free your mind and listen to your body. These ideas are major philosophical underpinnings of the kink subculture: rather than feeling guilty about what we want to do, let’s find safe and sane ways to do what we want with people who have matching desires.
Christian spends most of the novel incorrectly telling Ana what she wants, and simultaneously correctly showing her what she wants over and over again. The best kinky fun happens when you can free yourself enough to listen to what you really want instead of what someone else or society tells you to want. So… do as Christian said, not as he did.
If you read this stuff in a novel, you probably wouldn’t believe it… Meet the real people who engage in BDSM (Bondage & Discipline/Dominance & submission/Sadism & Masochism). Kinky will introduce you to a woman who can orgasm from being whipped, a man who likes to take a woman’s entire fist and forearm up his anus, and a Queer woman who likes to groom and train people who identify as “ponies.” As a professional sociologist and long-time member of “the Scene”—the social world of people who call themselves “kinky,” Dr. Fennell describes the lives of the many kinky people she has encountered with an insider’s unique brand of empathy and playful wit. Drawing from her extensive experiences interviewing, observing, and frolicking with kinksters throughout the mid-Atlantic, Fennell explains what it is that kinky people say they do, what they actually do, and why they do it. A tourguide who knows the scenery intimately, Fennell takes you to a world that is simultaneously exotic and unexpectedly mundane, but where the rules are just… different. It’s a world where the ties that bind are tighter than those of the outside “vanilla” world, and not just because there are usually ropes or chains involved. And it’s a world where love (and sex) can get very, very big, and very, very, very loud.
Sometimes truth is so much stranger than fiction.
Want to read more? Click on the 2 sample chapters linked below! If you want to see this book in print, please vote in the poll here, so I can encourage publishers to make it happen!
Editors and publishers: I’m still looking for a publisher for my book! If you’re interested, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll put you in touch with my agent.
Freaked out about your kid’s porn preferences? Chances are, they’re just kinky, not a future abuser. Dan Savage offers some great advice for parents who are worried about their kids.
It’s easy to mock and misunderstand kinky people. We’re weird. I know. Trust me, only kinky people know how really weird we are. But seriously, most of us aren’t that weird, especially compared to say, soccer moms. Everyone deserves to be laughed at for something, and it’s easy to poke fun at kinksters. But if you’re going to laugh, please laugh about the right things. The stereotypes and misunderstandings that “vanillas” (what kinky people call everyone else) have about us undoubtedly exceed the 8 things on this list. Lo, these misinformed stereotypes even recently appeared in a cracked.com article. We already have to deal with the fictional travesty that is 50 Shades of Grey, with its dubious conceptions of BDSM and its lexically challenged heroine. So please take a minute to learn how most of what you’ve learned about BDSM is wrong.
8. “What the hell is that acronym for anyway? Can I just call it ‘kink?’”
The acronym cheats: “BDSM” actually stands for 6 things—Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & submission (and yes, kink orthography traditionally capitalizes the “D” and doesn’t capitalize the “s”), and Sadism & Masochism. The acronym evolved over time from S&M to SM to BDS&M to just plain BDSM. Expect it to change again in 10 years.
And yes, you can just call it “kink.” Kinky people do. Just don’t be a judgmental prick about it.
For a good summary of the history, see CARAS research
7. “All kinky people wear leather. And are gay.”
Long, long ago, there was a “leather scene” primarily for gay men that involved many activities that we now tend to label BDSM. Then some straight-ish people saw what was going on and thought that that kinky shit looked fun and started building their own BDSM subcultures. To this day, gay men and… everyone else… functionally have two separate, albeit related BDSM worlds. Occasionally, we all get together at big events, but for the most part, the “pansexual” BDSM scene and the “gay men’s leather scene” are basically distinct.
Nowadays, all kinksters have the same flag, but the not-gay male kinky people are a lot less likely to wear leather.
6. “All people who do BDSM participate in ‘The Lifestyle’”
The public face of BDSM tends to be folks who are out, loud, and proud.
Cute pic, right? But in reality, you won’t find most kinksters at a pride parade or at their local BDSM “munch” or happy hour (those are kinky social networking events, FYI), or even at the local BDSM club. Despite the visibility of public kink, social scientists actually assume that the vast majority of people engaging in kink are not part of the public BDSM subculture (usually referred to as “The Scene” or “The Lifestyle”).
The BDSM subculture (which is most visible on the internet on the website FetLife) only represents a tiny fraction of kinky folks. Only a few kinky folks are lucky enough to live in a big city with a public BDSM scene. But even a lot of those people don’t like getting dressed up, going to parties, and doing kink surrounded by lots of other people. The public BDSM scene calls to exhibitionists and people who like doing weird things in the company of other weird people. These people also tend to be white and middle+-class.
People who participate in the public BDSM scene tend to participate in a lot of overlapping and adjacent subcultures as well, most notably the geek subculture, the pagan subculture, and the polyamorous subculture. Polyamory??? You know, that crazy thing where people get to sleep with people who aren’t their spouses, but don’t lie about it… or have meaningful relationships with lots of people… or some combination of the above.
Most people who participate in the public BDSM scene in the main urban areas around the U.S. are non-monogamous, while we’re pretty sure the people who like to play at home have more traditional monogamish relationships.
In the public BDSM scene where I live, monogamous kinksters were so rare that they tried to set up their own dating group. But there were so few of them that it rapidly vanished.
5. “Kinksters and swingers are all part of the same subculture”
Au contraire, there is actually a longstanding subcultural war between kinksters and swingers, even though—nay, perhaps because—they often have their events in the same venues on alternating nights. The hostility is so common that the primary group for swingers on the kinky social networking website FetLife is defensively named, “’Swingers‘ is not a dirty word!”
To be clear, kinksters like to play with power and pain; swingers like to have sex with lots of people. These desires occasionally overlap, but mostly don’t.
Many kink gatherings forbid sex; sex is what happens at swinger parties. Most kink events enforce strict rules about consensual touching; most swinger events operate with a “touch unless swatted” attitude. Many kink events are extremely Queer-friendly (despite a decidedly heterosexual male/bisexual female bias); most swinger events strongly discourage two men from staring at each other’s asses, let alone fucking.
Reference: Morton 2010
4. “All kinksters live in 24/7 Dominant/submissive relationships and do crazy shit like play with enemas and let people pee on them.”
Whoa, there, friend! Um, some of us do… but actually, the vast majority of us don’t.
Just like the gay guys who make the news are often wearing rainbow tutus with sparkly underwear, the people who are conspicuous among kinky folk tend to live at the extremes—but neither is really representative of “most gay guys” or “most kinksters.” Most kinky folks aren’t in 24/7 relationships, have never signed a contract that lets someone else “own” them, and wouldn’t let someone else pee on them.
Sure, lots of kinky people have done all of these things, but your average kinky person likes being tied up and beaten with a flogger on weekends, not wandering around on a leash and eating from a dog bowl in their spare time (not that I’m judging those people—those people totally hot and cool, and I sleep with plenty of them, but they’re still not the average). On Fetlife, discounting oral sex (#2) and anal sex (#5), the 10 most popular “kinks” are: bondage, spanking, hair pulling, blindfolds, biting, talking dirty, handcuffs, discipline, collar lead/leash, and lingerie.
Reference: for Sweden: Carlstrom 2012
3. “All kinky people were abused as children, or have been raped or molested.”
This one just won’t go away: the great kinky romantic comedy Secretary actually opens with the main character being released from a mental hospital; meanwhile Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey has some sort of tortured past of non-consent. Just like psychologists used to try to expend a lot of energy and imagination trying to figure out the experiences in someone’s past that “makes them gay,” the culture still tends to assume that some experience “makes them kinky.”
Despite the persistent idea of kinksters with haunted pasts of abuse and molestation, in fact, psychological research has found over and over again that kinksters are pretty damned normal and as likely to have been raped or abused as anyone else. A lot of kinky people say they were just born this way, with some suggesting that “kinky” is a basic sexual orientation the same way “straight” or “gay” is.
References: Meeker Connolly 2008 Wismeijer & van Assen 2013 (the Netherlands) Richters et al. 2008 (Australia)
2. “All Doms are men” OR “All Doms are women”
Both of these misconceptions manage to float around simultaneously. The idea that all Doms are women is fueled by the fact that most professional dominatrixes are women.
The idea that all Doms are men is driven by sexist assumptions about women all being submissive and having a deep-seated biological urge to spread their legs whenever anyone with a penis tells them to.
Nevertheless, the idea that men are Doms and women are subs turns out to have a little validity: inside the BDSM subculture, women are much more likely to be submissive than dominant. However, in defiance of popular imagination and BDSM imagination both, about a third of men identify as submissive, and switches (people who like to be dominant and submissive) of both genders are quite common.
1. “It’s all about sex”
This pseudo-myth actually gets debated a lot among people in the BDSM subculture themselves. Witness the following:
In wild contrast to the porntastic popular portrayal, many kinksters say that BDSM isn’t about sex at all, and it’s common for public kink parties and gatherings to forbid any sexual activity. When I interviewed American east coast kinksters, about 25% of them said that kink wasn’t sexual for them personally, and that they didn’t think it was sexual in general.
It may seem really counterintuitive, but lots of people do BDSM the way that other people climb mountains—like an extreme sport. Many people report the same kind of endorphin high from getting whipped, beaten, tied up, etc. that other people report from running, rock climbing, etc.
Other people really do engage in BDSM as a religious/spiritual activity, and psychologists have shown that participants’ bodies actually respond in ways that echo those of a person having any other type of religious experience to these rituals.
Please note: none of these photos except the diagram in the middle are original to me. All are live-linked back to their original sources. Enjoy!
I’ve never heard anyone complain that a girl cums too fast. For that matter, in real life, I’ve only occasionally heard girls complain that their male partners cum too fast. Meanwhile, most guys obsess about cumming too fast themselves. It’s often nothing to do with sexual satisfaction; actually, it frequently seems to get in the way of sexual satisfaction–especially their own. It’s not about anybody feeling better or having a better time–it’s about pride and some weirdly misplaced sense of virility. Well, screw that. I value our sexual pleasure more than your masculine values.
I was introduced to this notion in an amusing exchange with a boyfriend at the time:
Him: If you cum, it means I’m doing a good job. If I cum, it means the fun’s over.
Me: That sounds like terrible conditioning. But why do we have to stop just because you came?
There’ve been a series of related post-coital conversations I’ve had with guys that go something like this:
Him [looking slightly confused and embarrassed]: …I came too fast.
Me: Did you have a good time? [“yes”] Did it feel good? [“yes”] Okay, great. I came a lot. So please stop looking embarrassed, and shut up and fuck me again as soon as your dick recovers.
And another annoying, but also related conversation:
Him [looking slightly confused and embarrassed]: …I can’t cum because I spent too long trying not to while I was fucking you.
Me: Why on earth would you do that?
Him: …Because I don’t want to cum as soon as I enter you.
Me [eyeroll]: Check my fetish list on fetlife, dumbass. I’m into that.
…Okay, I’ll confess that I’m not the most compassionate of lovers sometimes, but I really have never claimed that I’d have sex with anyone to validate their sense of masculinity. I’ve said the opposite before (I’m great at validating androgyny and genderqueer), but seriously: I have sex to have awesome sex, and your need to feel like a good lover by postponing your orgasms mostly just gets in the way of my good time. Cum too fast? Okay, fine, whatever. Shove your hand in me, shove a toy in me, eat me out, or do all three. But being embarrassed about finding me pleasurable isn’t particularly hot.
I’m regularly amused that the sexual encounters I have with women are often about half as long as the sexual encounters I have with guys. Sure, some of that might be biological, but I think that most of it is that women have no shame about cumming as soon as we start having sex. Once we’ve both cum 4 or 5 times, it seems like pretty awesome sex to me, even if it only takes 10 minutes. I refuse to let culture dictate to me what good sex is: if I’ve cum so hard that my ears are ringing and my legs shake, I don’t really care how long it took. And most women I know agree. But lots of guys think that if they only have sex for 10 minutes, even if we’re both totally happy, they’ve failed somehow.
I realize there’s a lifetime of baggage attached to all of this that I’ll never erase with a single fetlife post, but I really wish we could try to shift cultural perspectives in two ways. First, I’d rather men found sexual pride in pleasing their partners than in how long their cocks stay hard. I get actively annoyed when guys seem more concerned about how long their dicks stay hard than they do about my satisfaction. For the record, it is totally irrelevant to me if your dick is only in my vagina for 5 minutes if you make me cum the entire time (yes, this is possible). In fact, that sex is almost always preferable to me compared to sex where I get fucked for 30 minutes straight and briefly cum once. I really don’t understand why so many men have difficulty understanding that. It’s a total falsehood to imagine that a hard dick and a lengthy sexual encounter automatically makes a satisfied partner. If they’re less satisfied by shorter sex, that’s a different issue, but they seem way more hung up on pride than pleasure much of the time. And I would assume that sex that just feels good is more satisfying than sex where they spend a good portion of their time trying hard not to cum.
(While I’m on the subject of men’s orgasms, can I tangentially punch the person who decided that men were supposed to cum quietly? This one is totally on women and men both, since I’ve actually heard women mock the noises men make during sex. Newsflash: if you’re fucking my pussy or my ass, I really mostly can’t tell if you’ve cum unless you say so or make some noise, especially when there are condoms involved. So I find silent orgasms slightly disconcerting, and, pardon the pun, anti-climatic. (Although it does amuse the shit out of me how guys often say, “I’m going to cum!” like they’re very surprised or expect this to require some sort of preparation. I’ve never heard a girl say this). Moreover, I promise that tantric wisdom teaches us that both men and women have better sex and better orgasms when they breathe deeply and make noise. In short, guys: you have a right to cum just as loudly as girls do, and it’s sexy when you do.)
Second, I think it’s stupidly unfair that we put all the responsibility for good intercourse on guys: if he cums before she does, he feels bad. But you know what? In this theoretical universe of sexual responsibility, women have an equal responsibility to cum quickly. That sounds like a stupid construction of sexuality to me, but seriously–shouldn’t men and women have equal responsibility for their own and their partner’s sexual satisfaction? I don’t actually want anyone to feel bad for how quickly or slowly they orgasm, but I think it’s absurd for men to feel bad about cumming “too fast” when in reality “too fast” is a totally relative speed that just means “faster than her.” I’m okay with a universe in which both people value their partner’s sexual satisfaction more than their own (I think I prefer that one, actually, as long as it isn’t an extreme). However, I think part of being a mature sexual participant is understanding that (1) what you and your partner find pleasurable is way more important than a load of cultural bullshit, (2) most women need more than just a deep dicking to get off (hey, I’m not knocking it though), and (3) just like men, women are at least partially responsible for getting themselves off, and if they can’t, their own sexual satisfaction is likely going to suffer. I’m not saying that some guys don’t, by some vaguely objective measure, cum too fast. But I am saying that women aren’t entitled to expect men to totally sacrifice men’s sexual pleasure on behalf of women’s.
Maybe you don’t cum too fast. Maybe she just cums too slow.