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.