7 Strange Realities of BDSM '50 Shades of Grey' Leaves Out

By now, you've either seen the new hit sorta-porn Fifty Shades of Grey or you've been inundated with enough talk about it that you feel like you've pretty much got the idea. The franchise has served as a kind of "Intro to BDSM" class for tens of millions of people, which is too bad, considering how hilariously wrong it gets the subject.

To be fair, no movie has done a good job of portraying this kink as anything besides "creepy and kind of dangerous." So we sat down with Julie Fennell, a member of the Washington, D.C. BDSM community who is also a sociologist and associate professor at Gallaudet University. In addition to having quite a bit of firsthand experience, she's interviewed dozens of her fellow members of the subculture. She told us ...

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7
It Often Involves No Intercourse at All

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Hollywood BDSM is 1000 percent about sex. Hell, a huge number of you probably caught your first glimpse of anything BDSM-y when Bond villain Xenia Onatopp scratched some general's chest raw as foreplay and then murder-fucked him to death.

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There's no way that beard is regulation in any post-Civil-War military.

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Fennell interviewed some 70 members of her community to ask how big a factor actual, penis-in-vagina/butt-sex was to their enjoyment of BDSM. Only 29 percent said it was a big factor, 21 percent said it was no factor at all, and everyone else was in the "it depends" category. As Fennell explains, the line between sex and not-sex can be kind of blurry: "... There are plenty of dungeons around the country that flatly forbid sex. Some people laugh at that because they get really permissive of what's allowed -- I went to one and was allowed to fuck a girl with a baseball bat." She added that, for her, fucking that girl with a bat wasn't particularly erotic. "I didn't feel sexual ... I felt like I was topping someone."

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"The background music wasn't helping, either."

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So what's the thrill of BDSM if you're not going to fuck during, or immediately after? Julie told us one story of a "ritual" she and her partner planned out ahead of time. They had a longstanding agreement that whenever she wore an all-black dress around him, he was allowed to destroy it. The "how" was left up to him. Later, at a Pagan altar party (more on that in a moment), she says that he ...

"... threw me down on an altar and ripped my dress apart ... It felt like he was ripping ME to shreds. It was just my dress, but it felt like he was ripping me, offering ME as a sacrifice ... and I think he slapped me around a lot too while he did it ... the thing that sticks out in my mind is just the way I felt blissfully helpless. A lot of people I interviewed talked about how it's almost religious to give up control."

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So how in the hell does a person wind up at such a place in their life? Well ...

6
If You Want to Get Into BDSM, There's a Whole Community Waiting for You

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In Fifty Shades of Grey, the submissive protagonist Ana meets the Dominant Christian Grey while interviewing him for her school newspaper. Eventually, he flies her to his home to show her his private dungeon and have her sign a sex contract.

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"I don't think I want to do this."
"... That's not your line."
"I meant the movie."

While the BDSM community is filled with dungeons in private homes, some of them probably in a neighborhood near you, it's also filled with large, professional dungeons where you can take classes and engage in kinky shenanigans without the risk of being butchered by a stranger. Fennell recommends finding one of these places if all this talk of BDSM has you curious:

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"They have members, regular meeting nights, they sponsor regular education events and play parties. There's an expectation at those events that people will be acting as dungeon monitors, making sure people follow the rules."

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"Anyone violating them will be punished ... or not. Basically the opposite of whatever you're into."

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Those dungeon monitors can be employees of the dungeon, or volunteers in the more ad-hoc sorts of sexcapades. People teach classes and write books on BDSM safety. If you're in, say, Washington D.C., you could visit this semi-public dungeon and attend a BDSM 101 class for like ten bucks.

In case you think that sounds boring, Julie recently attended several of these workshops: "One was on hairplay. It was being taught by my friend, who is a submissive. She got me to pull her around by her hair and demo more creative ways to pull on hair, like braiding rope into it ... She was showing people how to find more ways to pull hair and incorporate that into a scene ... sensual ways, like rubbing or brushing as well as mean, sadomasochistic ways."

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And that's only head hair. Your imagination is the limit.

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We asked Julie what journey lead her to BDSM. She explained that she known she found "pleasure in pain" from a young age, but never considered herself kinky. Then she got into Paganism -- as one does -- and found out about polyamory, because those subcultures have a fair amount of overlap. She and her husband identified as non-monogamous for years before venturing into a public BDSM "playspace." Julie gradually grew more active in the community, eventually getting to the point where she now runs events and hosts classes.

So wait? Does all this mean these people are just ... BDSM-ing it up in big private dungeons together, all around the country? Don't people prefer to do this at home or, at the very least, in a hotel room? You know, like in the movie! Well, here's the thing ...

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5
Making BDSM Public Makes It Safer

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Listen, kids: If a strange man ever offers to fly you to his private dungeon and make you sign a fuck-contract (AKA, exactly what happened in Fifty Shades), DO NOT GO WITH HIM. You will end up in a series of trash bags. Large, organized dungeons are a much safer place to experiment with your sexuality than some guy's apartment closet.

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As Julie put it: "... I can't imagine meeting a random guy at a bar and going home with him. Within the structure of the subculture, if I meet a random guy ... I don't even do pickup play as a top with people I don't know well in private. I had a guy I'd played with in public proposition me to play in private, to stomp on his balls in a hotel room. He was really strong, so I didn't know what he could do to me even if I chained him up ..."

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She'd seen enough Hercules movies to know that was a terrible idea.

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Julie turned down that ball-stomping adventure. While it definitely seems safer, doing something so intensely sexualized in "public" probably seems terribly awkward. The BDSM community has an intricate set of rules for minimizing that: "... watching is encouraged, but in a way that's not 'creepy.' You're not supposed to stand too close to somebody, you're not supposed to interrupt somebody's scene -- there's this real attempt to carve private spaces out of public ones."

But even if you're doing it in a group, surely the whole "pleasure from pain" thing is terribly dangerous, right? Bondage, sadism, masochism -- these aren't generally words we associate with "safe" activities. In The General's Daughter, the title character is lured to her death in part because of her unhealthy love for BDSM. Sexy videotapes reveal her interest in erotic asphyxiation after she's discovered strangled to death.

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If she'd been a furry, we presume she'd have been beaten to death by a football mascot.

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Then you read that the rate of sex-toy-related hospitalizations has doubled since 2007. That makes it seem like BDSM and kink in general could be a major health concern. But the vast majority of that doubling happened the year Fifty Shades was released, and the year after. Sex was a lot safer back when only dedicated kinksters were sexily whipping and beating each other. In that sense, it's no different than yoga -- it's safe if you do it right, but easy for a novice to do it wrong. We realize it might kill the mood to stop to read the instructions before, say, inserting a butt plug. But trust us, it's worth avoiding the trip to the emergency room.

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4
The BDSM Community Polices Its Own

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The most unsettling thing about Fifty Shades of Grey is that there are real, creepy men out there with a working understanding of bondage and the desire to lure in any young girls they can. What happens when those predators come a'stalkin' for prey in BDSM events?

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According to Julie, that exact thing happened in her community: "... I had created this house party as an event on FetLife [a Kinky people social network]. A number of people, including this guy, had RSVP'd to it, even though I didn't know who they were. But I didn't have my address on there, and I didn't give it out to anyone unless I knew them. Two weeks before my party, someone found out through the newspapers that this guy had just been arrested for molesting a twelve-year-old."

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Holy shit! Child molesters, like Miller Lite, are a terrible addition to any party.

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This is why you never post your address in a public (Facebook counts as public, goddammit) place when planning a get-together. So how did Julie's community deal with the news? "They quickly posted in several forums that this guy was on FetLife ... it took less than an hour for nearly the entire community to know this guy had been arrested for being a sex offender."

That's one definite advantage people who organize their communities via the Internet have: It's incredibly easy to share information about dangerous people. That doesn't mean the responses to such creepers are always ideal, though: "It was a lot harder when a guy who had been working as a local dungeon monitor got charges pressed against him for abusing three different women." The owner of the dungeon leapt to his defense, and the resulting situation was "a mess," although a community boycott eventually lead to the dungeon's closing a month later.

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3
"Submissive" Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

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Even if you don't know one shade of grey from another and you've never so much as slapped a pair of handcuffs on somebody for erotic purposes, you probably know that the relationship between a "Dominant" and a "submissive" is a big part of BDSM. Most mainstream depictions of these relationships portray the Dominant person as being wholly in charge. For one example, in "The Girl in the Fridge," an episode of Bones, the writers decided that naturally, a "sub" husband would happily follow his "dom" wife into a murder plot. Quoth the Mr. Bones (Booth) himself:

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Meanwhile, that Fifty Shades of Grey movie/book currently raking in money hand over fist portrays a relationship that's less illegal, but one in which the Dominant person holds the power. In a healthy Dominant/submissive relationship, the reality is exactly the opposite. The bottom determines what happens. They are supposed to have the absolute power to make a "scene" stop, and that's kind of the point -- it's about trust. Fennell explained, "... that's part of the art of being a bottom: communicating clearly to your top, while still letting them feel like they're guiding things."

On one hand, this seems about a thousand times healthier than anything Christian and Ana get up to in Fifty Shades. But Julie was clear that this power dynamic isn't without its own potential for abuse: "... the subculture tends to construe communication as more of a submissive's responsibility."

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Which at certain times is harder to actually do than others.

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One of Julie's interviewees, Karen, described how putting the burden of "saying no" on an eager-to-please newbie can go very wrong: "Someone in the dungeon had said, 'Hey can I take a couple whacks at your boy?' And I was about to say no and he said, 'Oh it's okay.' ... so I'm just kind of standing between the two of them off to the side and the guys like whack, whack, whack. And he said, 'Ew. Okay I think I'm kind of done.' Guy comes across with another whack and he screams, 'Red.'"

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"Red" is BDSM code for "STOP," and in this case the flogger didn't, for whatever reason. He kept going until Karen got between them. So yeah, clearly it's not an infallible system. But Julie's dress-ripping story is evidence that can work out perfectly well, if people are clear about their limits beforehand. In fact, at the far end of Dominant/submissive relationships are so-called "Master/slave" relationships. These often involve contracts, where limits on behavior are set and slaves sometimes even agree to limit "... what they will eat, how they can dress ... where they can go."

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"And by signing this, you agree to never ask me to watch that shitty movie, or read the book."

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These are known as "total power exchange" relationships, and they sound ripe for terrible abuse. Julie's seen some situations where that happened and the relationship fell apart ... but she's also seen Master/slave couples who stayed together for decades. Relationships that extreme are far from the norm, though, and most evidence shows that, in spite of how weird it seems ...

2
BDSM Can Be Good For Your Mental Health

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In The General's Daughter, the eponymous character's bondage dungeon and sex tapes are horrifying evidence of her spiral into madness. Presumably, she got into BDSM as a way to cope with the (15-year-old SPOILER ALERT) traumatizing rape she experienced at West Point. That kind of thing does happen, but generally without the murder (or the Travolta). Julie knows a survivor who dealt with her rape by recreating it in a dungeon:

"They mock-drowned her in a pool, did all these really serious abusive type things. She had a rattle in her hands, and whenever she dropped the red rattle, everything was supposed to stop. And she dropped it, and it did. I talked to her after the fact, and she told me how powerful it had been, because now she could say no."

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It was a good day.

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There's a lot of anecdotal evidence from survivors in the BDSM community about how helpful it can be to revisit a traumatic scene of abuse with the power to stop it. There's some professional skepticism over whether or not this is a good idea, but no scientists have studied this with rigor. What we can say is that when researchers from the Netherlands studied 1,300 BDSM and "vanilla" people, they found that the folks into whips and chains had statistically healthier brains.

And while Fifty Shades' Christian got into BDSM to cope with past abuse, science says a history of trauma makes you no more likely than "normal" people to become a BDSM aficionado. That survey also put lie to the idea that BDSMites tend to have problems with "normal" sex, an offensive stereotype that has another Bones quote to go with it ("when the sex is good, you don't need any help"). Apparently that show hated kinky people.

20th Television
No one tell them the truth about Wonder Woman.

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So what sort of mental health benefits might BDSM have for the mass of participants who aren't wrestling with demons via a cat-o-nine-tails? Fennell told us about "cathartic" scenes in which, "... you agree beforehand that the scene ends when someone starts to cry." And the crying is an important part -- it helps purge stress hormones and increase the production of endorphins. That's why we do it. Julie described people using cathartic scenes to cope with shitty weeks and break-ups that they hadn't been able to cry about.

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You get whipped, your brain whips receptor cells. The circle continues.

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And these things go way further than flogging, or even simulated rape. Julie told us about one "community catharsis" project in which a woman agreed to take on people's stories of negative experiences and fears about the BDSM subculture. These stories ran the gamut from people who were disillusioned with the community to those who feared they were getting too old to enjoy themselves in the same ways. She wove those stories together into a poem and read it aloud to an assembled group. The whole process took weeks and the day itself was incredibly emotional, so she wound down afterward by slapping around a woman she'd just met (with her prior agreement, of course). Wondering how you ask someone something like that? Here's how Julie's source, Diane, described popping that question:

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"... I said, 'Okay. I'm about to go into this really intense event. I don't know how it will be for me. I need aftercare. I would like for you, if you should accept, to provide me with aftercare by allowing me to tear you to pieces and metaphorically destroy you.'"

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"I want to drop the mic, then you."

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When her performance was done, Diane descended on the woman like a vengeful god: "... here's this beautiful, tall, strong woman that I'm tossing around. And I'm wrapping her rapidly into this tight little bundle, and I'm standing on her, pushing her head into the floor." Once Diane was done, she said thanks and walked away -- her battered partner was then cared for by a group of friends she'd brought along (again, for that purpose, arranged in advance). At this point, you've probably realized that ...

1
Whips And Chains Are Only the Beginning

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Hollywood has one extremely narrow idea of what kind of "tools" the BDSM community has at their disposal:

Universal Studios, 20th Television, Miramax Films
"Bring out the cliche."

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You've got some whips, chains, ball gags, handcuffs and maybe the odd gimp. That's the extent of a movie bondage tool repertoire. In reality, kinky people value creativity a hell of a lot more than having a wall full of pristine tools:

"... the most interesting ritual I've ever attended involved a person with hooks in her chest, walking with them as she was carrying this heavy log behind her attached via wires, dragging them in the dirt while people come up to the log and yell everything they're angry about, all the things that make them upset, and they take turns kicking the log as it's being dragged. The idea is the log and the person are taking over the group's pain, and at the end of the ritual, the person gets freed from their burden and the log gets burned."

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Rituals like this aren't really common among those into BDSM, but for some members of the subculture, they're a way for the group to deal with their fears and stress together. One of those ways involved playing a live-action homage to The Most Dangerous Game.

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BDSM meet JCVD.

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"... someone volunteered to be a sacrificial animal. We actually stalked him in the woods, caught him with rope, dragged him back into a room and took turns beating him with floggers. I'm not sure what his own personal demons were, but it was clear it made a real difference in his life." Like most human hunts, this was a private event, and Julie wasn't willing to be too specific about where and how it went down. She did explain what she got out of the whole thing, though: "I didn't participate directly in hurting this guy at all. I helped hunt him down. But I would say that what I got from it was largely as a witness -- through his experiences, this powerful feeling of self-transformation."

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"Did I say you could victory pose?"
"Sorry, Mistress."

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It's true that physical and emotional pain both stimulate the same parts of the brain, so that might help to explain why getting beaten (in a controlled setting) helps some deal with their emotional wounds. As for why Julie experienced that feeling of transformation simply by watching? We don't know, but it might have something to do with why millions of Hindus will flock to watch their fellows pierce each other's tongues and bodies with giant needles. The desire for a lot of this stuff goes down deep in the human psyche, and few researchers have taken the time to study how and why people are drawn to, and helped by, this kind of thing. But we can assure you that Hollywood will keep not caring either way, because ambiguity and tough questions don't bring $81.7 million opening weekends.

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Robert Evans's first book, A Brief History of Vice, is available for pre-order now!

Julie Fennell, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Gallaudet University. She also writes sex and relationship advice for smart people at Slut, Phd, where you can find previews of her book KINK: Sometimes Truth Is So Much Stranger than Fiction.

For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Things You Don't Know About Strippers (Until You Are One) and 5 Ways Being a Legal Prostitute Is Weirder Than You Think.

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