Wednesday, August 15, 2012

On 'That Book', Kink, and Public Perception: 1 step forward, 50 steps back.

I swore I wasn't going to discuss this book on my blog again. After all, once was enough. But after a few recent conversations, I need to. Hopefully I can keep this brief.

So. Fifty Shades of Grey. Here we go. Again. (As an aside, if you haven't already read it, I highly recommend Dear Author's review, posted last February.)

Recently, I've heard people say that the publication of this book, for all its faults, is positive because it's getting people talking about and interested in BDSM.

I don't think that's a positive thing. Not at all. In fact, I think it's quite the opposite.

Here's why. 

The other day, while traveling back from New Orleans, I was stuck in an airport terminal for a couple of hours. To pass the time, some other travelers and I were chatting, and in the course of the conversation, the book in question came up. There was some snickering about the quality of the writing, some teeth-gnashing about the fanfic-turned-bestseller, etc. The usual. 

Then the conversation turned toward the content of the book. Specifically, the sexual content. More specifically, the kink.  I grumbled that it bothered me to no end that Fifty Shades had become the first -- and in many cases, only -- exposure a lot of people had to BDSM, and that it is giving a very ugly, dark impression of what kink is all about. That unlike that of most kinky people I know, the kink relationship between the protagonists was seriously unhealthy.

One of the other passengers wrinkled her nose and said, "Well, I don't see how something like that could be healthy anyway." I insisted it could be healthy, that there were plenty of people who engage in consensual power exchanges and pain play for various reasons, but this was met with disgust, revulsion, horror. Anyone who does that sort of thing is obviously sick. Etc.

The conversation continued in that vein, and as I walked onto my plane half an hour or so later, I was left with an unsettled and deeply frustrated feeling. I was upset because in spite of my best efforts -- and that of another passenger involved in the discussion -- we could not break through the wall of myths and preconceptions. This wasn't the fault of the people we were talking to. They had a very different frame of reference, and from that frame of reference, BDSM was an ugly, scary, and dangerous thing.

So how do you explain to someone that a Dominant/submissive relationship can be healthy when their only exposure to such a thing is what they read in this book? How do you explain that flogging and pain play can be very safe and cathartic -- never mind hot -- when a person's only exposure to it is reading about someone who beats a submissive to punish her by proxy for someone who hurt him at another point in his life

Like it or not, it's hard to forget a first impression. If your first experience with drinking involved doubling over in agony and generally being miserable, you will likely regard every alcoholic drink with suspicion. (I speak from experience: my first time drinking was excruciating, and 13 years later, I'm still wary of drinking)  If your first time eating in a new restaurant gives you food poisoning, you'll probably be hard-pressed to go back. When the first Rottweiler you ever encounter attacks you, it's a safe bet you're going to steer clear of that kind of dog in the future. You get the idea.

The same goes for kink.  While it's more common than people think, it's not something to which the general population is exposed on a regular basis.  When their first exposure is squicky and weird, that's the taste that remains. Sure, someone might get off on what they're reading, but what happens when they start thinking about people who really do these things?  When you've only learned about a dominant who is using flogging as an outlet for barely suppressed rage, it's difficult to imagine that there are dominants who are controlled and calm while inflicting pain for the mutual enjoyment of themselves and their submissives. When you've only seen a helpless, clueless submissive being tied up and beaten at her master's whim, it's hard to comprehend that there are intelligent, healthy people who consciously make an informed decision to be bound, beaten, and engage in a power exchange with someone they trust so deeply they can surrender without fear. 

The conversation in the airport was not an isolated one. Not by a longshot. I was at my dentist's office recently, and learned that everyone in that office has read Fifty Shades. They loved it and discuss it frequently.  But when it came to the actual kink, more than one person got a disgusted look or shuddered and said, "I can't believe people actually do that. I mean, in a book is one thing. But in real life? There are some sick people out there."

I've had that conversation with too many people. Ditto with the conversation I had in the airport. Yes, Fifty Shades is putting BDSM on the radar of the general population but I don't see this as a positive step at all. I see it as a major obstacle for those of us who want people to understand something that can be an amazing and healthy practice between informed, consenting adults. 

That's not to say fiction should be a textbook. As an erotic romance author, I'm here first and foremost to entertain.  But what happens when that entertainment is painting a negative, frightening picture of real people?  I'm perfectly fine with bad BDSM in books when it's actually acknowledged as bad (i.e., a Dom who is a villain). Because people's exposure to BDSM is very limited, presenting kink to them like it's presented in Fifty Shades is akin to finding a group of people who barely realize homosexuality exists and giving them a book about gay men being pedophiles. What is gained by badly portraying an already vilified group of people to the population at large? Kinky people already have to worry about being ostracized, fired, even arrested because of their practices. This isn't helping matters, you know?

And of course, there is no one right way to do kink. There are as many variations as there are participants. There are, however, wrong ways to do it. Teaching a fifteen year-old boy how to be a Dom because it will help him deal with his issues, when you're neither a therapist nor unmarried, not to mention someone who can be legally involved with a fifteen year-old? That would be a wrong way.  Tying up and flogging submissives who haven't even figured out their own sexuality, never mind yours? I'm no expert, but I'm having a hard time finding anything right about that. Beating that submissive as a way of channeling anger you've been carrying since childhood, when every fucking thing I've ever read about flogging has emphasized that you do not flog in anger? Seriously: just a quick Google search brought up warnings against flogging while angry  here, here, and here. Very adult links, NSFW. So, kinda thinking that's not a good idea.

But that's the kink people have been exposed to now, and as a result, we've gone from BDSM being a mysterious, nebulous thing that no one knows anything about to a dirty, scary, dangerous thing that people think they know about. It's an edgy, naughty fantasy that should never, ever be done in real life, just within the pages of a book where it's safe, and anyone who does it in real life is sick.

We've gone from a world where most people don't know about BDSM, to a world where millions of people have read about a man who channeled anger into his kink before he was ultimately cured of his deep, dark, dirty secret. We've gone from a world where people didn't know there was a BDSM lifestyle, that people really engaged in these things, to a world where finding out someone engages in dominance/submission, sadism/masochism, or other such practices is met with more fear and revulsion than it was before. Because BDSM is sick. Evil. Dark. Something to be hidden and hopefully cured.

Yes, people are talking about BDSM thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey.  

And yes, I firmly believe that's taken us one step forward and fifty steps back.


  1. Do you think a healthy depiction of BDSM could ever grab the public's attention like 50 Shades has?

  2. There would likely have to be some conflict other than the BDSM relationship (since if it's healthy and functional, it probably wouldn't have quite enough tension/conflict to drive the story alone), but yes, I think a book with a healthy depiction of BDSM could grab the public's attention.

  3. I agree completely. I've not read all of 50 Shades, just the small bits and pieces mentioned by other reviewers. but I have to agree.

    There's a thread on Fetlife in regards to folks who came into the lifestyle 'thanks' to 50Shades. No, these people are smarter than the average bunch. They go to Fetlie to learn everything they can about the lifestyle.

    Still, the reactions you mentioned of disgust and such like that has taken the possibility of me telling my family I'm a sub to never telling them.

    I truly hope a better, more recognizable book will come out soon as I don't agree with this crazy at all. I think I mentioned this before, but at a 4th of July picnic, I learned my close aunt was not only reading the books, she and her husband had 'increased their pleasure in bed.'

    I didn't ask for details, but I warned her about safe, sane and consensual. She got a little huffy like I didn't know what I was talking about. Sorry, darling, but it's my job to know about this kind of stuff. I don't write something unless I research it first...fiction or non-fiction.

    I've actually considered buying her a copy of Screw the Roses, but I'm not sure how serious they are.

  4. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    It has been a pain in the ass listening to all the people I know who are reading/have read this book. You've got to understand - I live in West Texas. The nicest people you'll ever meet but conservative to the extreme. While normally I would have been happy to see people "educating" themselves by reading "good" BDSM, that has not been the case here. The people I've run into are very firmly entrenched in the thinking that they are being so naughty and progressive by reading smut in the first place never mind that it's not even good smut.

    Alas, the only reason this caught fire was the Hollywood factor and other, better books will never be experienced.

    I will admit I gave up after the first couple of times I tried to chime in on this subject and was totally ignored in favor of discussing who should play Grey in the movie.