I’m a female pornographer and know a lot about BDSM because of the research I did while writing my pornographic response to 50 Shades of Grey entitled, The Submission of Emma Marx. I’ve spoken to people within the BDSM community and read countless articles and books on the lifestyle. Don’t be fooled by the floggers and restraints used in 50 Shades of Grey, there’s nothing healthy or accurate about the film’s portrayal of BDSM.
BDSM is an exploration of trust at its very core. It’s a relationship born from a mutual willingness to explore physical and psychological boundaries within an emotionally safe environment. Where both the dominant and the submissive are willing participants who recognize the benefits of adhering to their roles for the purpose of their own sexual growth. This was expertly done in The Secretary, where the lead characters don’t subscribe to conventional standards of normal and whose self-discovery through their BDSM relationship serves to elevate, not diminish, their own quest for self-acceptance. It is not, as depicted in 50 Shades, a manipulation of one person into a lifestyle that doesn’t resonate with them.
On the surface level the film follows the formulaic pattern of most traditional romance stories where you have the wilted flower (Steele) who falls for the mysterious bad boy with a tortured past (Grey). But where the formula quickly derails is with the film’s use of “BDSM” to set up a power dynamic between the lead characters, by a writer who clearly has no education or understanding about BDSM.
Trust is critical to the safety of a healthy BDSM relationship and Grey’s actions throughout the entire film do little to build upon this. He is obsessive in his pursuit of her, even after his repeated warnings to Steele that she “stay away from him.” He shows up to places he is uninvited, grows agitated when she is unwilling to contractually commit to their arrangement, and even freaks out when he discovers she has plans to visit her mother in Georgia (only a horror if that mother was Joan Crawford). For a man who says he “exhibits control in all things,” Grey certainly shows quite a lack of it throughout. This isn’t exactly the hallmark of a true dominant.
Emotionally fragile Steele is resistant to the lifestyle, so Grey responds with textbook manipulation tactics. He bestows upon her lavish gifts – a new car, a laptop, a rare, original copy of Hardy’s Tess of the D’ubervilles (a book that romanticizes the same kind of abuse witnessed in 50 Shades and which James’ story parallels frequently). Manipulation and emotional volatility are incredibly dangerous behaviors in BDSM relationships because trust, desire, and consent are core factors in the emotional and physical safety of that world. There is a great deal of vulnerability in relinquishing control, in having your arms and legs restrained, being blindfolded, engaging in psychological role play – this is why trust, desire, and consent are critical.
Steele claims to trust Grey (ok, so she has really poor judgment). She does, albeit half-heartedly, consent to the relationship (not through a signed contract, but through her own involvement). But her desire for the lifestyle is absent. Her only desire is to be close to him, conventionally. She continually asks Grey why it has to be this way. She wants movies, flowers, dates. And when she asks him what she would get out of being his submissive his answer is quite simple. “Me.” The grand prize for entering a dangerous relationship with a volatile man who has no understanding of BDSM is – him? And that answer is good enough because he knows that is ultimately what she wants.
At its core, BDSM is not the ownership or “gain” of anyone regardless of the parameters established in a dominant/submissive interaction. BDSM can open profound psycho-sexual doors, where pain is pleasure, and control and power alone are arousing. Where submitting can be liberating. But for Steele, this isn’t an exploration of her sexuality, it’s a pathetic attempt to win the affection of a man who has done nothing but disrespect every one of her boundaries. Steele isn’t a sub, she’s a woman suffering from Stockholme Syndrome at the hand of a man who continually abuses her.
I fear for people who look to 50 Shades as a guideline for BDSM, because it isn’t one. Not by any stretch of the imagination. 50 Shades plays like a telenovela with no depth or substance and “BDSM” is defined by coercion, manipulation, and fear.
As someone who feels a great sense of responsibility in presenting sexuality in both a healthy and positive light, I’d like to recommend a few films that offer accurate portrayals of the power and control dynamics within healthy BDSM relationships. Relationships that are not only consensual, but are also incredibly sensual.
The Secretary – Easily the best depiction of a true BDSM relationship without any of the fancy equipment and bondage parlours. Delving more into the psychological aspects of dominant/submissive role play, we find two people who overcome their own inner turmoil as a direct result of their BDSM relationship. It is one of the best and most original love stories to come out of Hollywood.
9 ½ Weeks – A film involving a woman’s explosive affair with a mysterious stranger that depicts consent, sexual curiosity, and eroticism at its finest. Despite the fact that female protagonist has an insatiable need to know and understand the man she’s with, she’s also fully aware of the emotional ramifications that come with not knowing.
The Story of O – This is probably one of the more polarizing BDSM stories, but nonetheless is an excellent representation of extreme submission by a woman fully willing and aware of her choices. It is a descent into madness, but one well worth watching if “mommy porn” ain’t your thing.
For something a little more pornographic, The Submission of Emma Marx from New Sensations. The film centers around a woman’s struggle accepting that she doesn’t fit into society’s views of “sexual normalcy” and the inner peace she finds from a budding BDSM relationship. It is BDSM for beginners, with hardcore sex, desire, consent, and trust.