What Movies Get Wrong About BDSM Relationships

Please take a moment to imagine your favorite elementary school teacher wearing a studded loincloth and a ball gag. That's just a little bit weird right? Even though every bored housewife in America read Fifty Shades of Grey years ago, most of us think of BDSM as something to experiment with behind closed doors, in our freakiest of moods.

But, there are people out there who are in 24/7 master/slave relationships, complete with collars and/or certificates tagging them as lifelong partners. They're not doing it to shock you or to "spice up" boring marriages -- this is their marriage.

As you'd expect, the existence of these couples raised lots of questions in our minds. We talked to Rain DeGrey, "Valleycat," and "Seven," all of whom are or used to be in long-term BDSM relationships, along with Julie Fennell, a sociologist and BDSM-er who's spent years studying her fellow kinksters. They said...

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5
BDSM Starts With Trust, Then Pain

Everyone likes pain sometimes. Hell, spicy food is painful, so is a hot bath. If you're trying to understand the BDSM lifestyle, this should be the least weird part (and in fact, the concept of getting turned on by pain was a pretty common one long before Fifty Shades came along). Anything that gets your heart pumping (pain, danger -- even just the knowledge that you're doing something taboo) can make sex better. If you don't believe us, try it.

What Movies Get Wrong About BDSM RelationshipsMaks08/iStock
Just, you know, make sure everyone is in on it.

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For most people, though, the part that probably inspires fear and/or muffled snickers around the office is the idea that someone could totally immerse themselves in the BDSM lifestyle. The people we're talking about today wear some of the gear all the time and may have BDSM-related decorations on their walls. If you don't find it weird that some people like a little slap on the ass now and then, you probably still draw the line here. "Why in the hell would you need to be tied up and smacked with a riding crop every waking hour? Isn't that a full-blown mental illness at that point? "

But at that point it's not about a kink, but an emotional bond. "Most of the time, [BDSM] slavery seems to play into CNC (consensual-non-consent) fetishes," says Valleycat, "which is where someone will consent to allowing someone else to do anything they want to them. On the surface, it can sound pretty terrifying but CNC tends not to be something people take lightly, everybody involved needs to have absolute trust in each other so that nobody ends up with any permanent damage. It's not something you would do with just anybody."

What Movies Get Wrong About BDSM RelationshipsHeavybondage/Wiki Commons
This isn't really a "first date" kinda thing.

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That's a word you'll hear over and over again -- trust. Sure, somewhere out there is a dentist who for the first time is paying a prostitute to tie him up and enclose his scrotum in a tiny iron maiden -- that guy is probably getting off on the danger. But in a long-term relationship, it's about saying, "I am making myself totally vulnerable to you and granting you absolute power over me, because I know you will not abuse that power."

As Valleycat puts it, "[My husband] is the person I trust the most and for me, both love and BDSM are built on foundations of trust. It's part of the relationship adventure for us." Like going to IKEA together, only in BDSM, all your pent-up anger eventually leads to some pretty wild sex.

What Movies Get Wrong About BDSM RelationshipsTonyBaggett/iStock
We assume that's the difference, at least. If getting plowed on a flat-pack dresser is your thing, have at it.

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4
In BDSM, Collars Are The Equivalent Of Wedding Rings

When you get down to it, people in BDSM and regular "think buying a dildo is the kinkiest thing ever" relationships aren't all that different. They fight, they cry, they laugh, and when they finally find that special someone, they want to put a ring on it. Only with the BDSM crowd, "it" means their partner's neck.

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"Essentially, a collar would be the BDSM equivalent of a wedding ring," says Rain, an experienced BDSM educator. "There is a lot of ritual associated with them. People have collaring ceremonies for their submissives [which] are essentially the equivalent of a wedding ceremony."

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These collars are sacred objects, according to Julie. "Outsiders are not supposed to touch them without permission. They're usually regarded as very special ... the submissive body is sort of owned by the dom, who is seen as giving it to them ... I was at a ceremony that took place at a consecrated BDSM dungeon at a pagan BDSM event. It's very much like a wedding ceremony ... the main thing that's different is there's no kids at the collaring ceremony."

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And, yes, they wear the collar all the time. "I've heard stories from people who forgot their collar at home when they went to work," says Seven, "and they felt just as put out as if they'd left their wedding ring at home by mistake." You might be wondering what kind of company allows people to come into work wearing collars, but we aren't talking about pink, leather numbers with spikes and "SLUT" written on them.

What Movies Get Wrong About BDSM RelationshipsBondage Couture/Etsy
Not that those don't exist, you just don't necessarily have to wear it when visiting grandma.

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"The main type of collar we use is a very polished thick band of metal sold by eternity collars," Rain says. "They lock via a special key and cannot be removed without the key. Lifestylers that take their collars very seriously can refuse to remove it even for airport security." That seems like a good way to develop a fetish for getting groped by annoyed civil servants, but whatever.

3
Dealing With "Vanillas" Is A Weird Balancing Act

Just to be clear, people heavily into BDSM don't think of it as just a quirk -- they see it almost as a separate sexual orientation. There are actual BDSM guides about coming out as kinky to "vanilla people" and even columnists talking about how kinky and unkinky people just don't work. Hell, some BDSM writers feel ashamed that they are capable of having sex without chains, whips or handcuffs. It's a key to their identity.

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But they are, of course, living in a majority-vanilla world. Depending on your audience, revealing that you're into BDSM might get you treated as a joke, a creepy deviant, or the coolest couple in the room. This means making compromises.

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It also involves learning the difference between "No dress code" and "Wear whatever you want."

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Like with the collars we mentioned above -- Julie explained that the hardcore tend to have "day collars" suitable for wearing in public and others for when it's time to hoist their freak flag. "I have given a collar to my male partner, but it's very much tailored to his tastes ... he really likes being choked with bicycle chains, and so I actually found someone on Etsy who makes silver jewelry that looks like bicycle chains ... I gave them that too him for his fancy dress collar that he does not wear in public. And I gave him a bracelet that he refers to as a day collar."

OK, so choking people with bike chains sounds more like how John Wick murders people than how lovers treat each other. But all symbols are nonsense to those who don't understand the meaning behind them; the only reason we don't consider expensive diamond engagement rings weird is because marketers for a giant diamond company spent millions convincing us otherwise.

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Then you have things like the BDSM Slave Register. It's a website where, as Rain explains, "you get paperwork and a slave barcode number for your submissive partner."

What Movies Get Wrong About BDSM RelationshipsSlave Register
You don't want to know what you have to endure to recover a forgotten password.

"That symbol means a lot to some people," says Rain. "I have been in houses where the slave registry certificate is proudly framed and displayed on the wall ... Some slaves actually tattoo this barcode on them, usually on the back of their neck." And, while that can totally help someone pull off that Hitman costume on Halloween, you can imagine that declaring yourself a "slave" at the very least would trigger a long, awkward conversation with some visitors.

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"If you're having vanilla people like family come over, people do often 'unkinkify' their house for visiting vanillas. In such cases the contract would be removed off the wall and put back after the vanilla family members have left ... [but] some people that are totally out would not remove it even for visiting vanillas."

What Movies Get Wrong About BDSM Relationshipstetmc/iStock
Plus side: You've got the one house in town where the Jehovah's Witnesses take one look and leave on their own.

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2
There Are Prejudices And Taboos In The BDSM Community, Too

One would think that the second you strap on leather underwear and/or an actual strap-on, you lose all right to ever criticize two consenting adults for the stuff that makes them happy in their bathing suit areas. One would also be super wrong on that account. For example, throughout this article the sources have been using the terms "dominant" and "submissive" as if they're set in stone, a fixed part of a person's orientation. Well, when someone alternates between the two roles (known as a "Switch" in the community), that doesn't always go over so well.

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Valleycat says, "When my husband and I were new to the community people would regularly try and work out which of us was the dom and which was the sub (and they were always wrong as we are both switches!)." Meaning, that was basically like asking a male gay couple who is the "woman" in their relationship.

What Movies Get Wrong About BDSM RelationshipsDragonImages/iStock
Reminder: Don't do that. Ever.

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"People think that we simply can't make up our minds," says Rain. "It is the same grief that bisexuals can get from the gay community ... I've heard submissives say that they could never bottom to a switch." Julie's seen the same thing. "I have definitely talked to plenty of submissives who have trouble submitting to someone who submits to someone else ... more frequently they say they don't want to watch their dominant submit to someone else, because they feel that's awkward." Like that makes them a slave to a slave.

There's also an odd element of old-fashioned sexism at play. "Women who do not identify as submissive can also get grief," says Rain. "Basically, a lot of hardcore male dominants run around thinking that female dominants are secretly submissive, but they just haven't accepted it yet." Submissive straight males don't have it much better. According to Seven, "It doesn't help that a lot of doms complain that many men don't want to submit exactly, they more want an attractive lady to carry out their fetishes for them. This results in doms getting tired of being approached and sub guys feeling even more alienated."

What Movies Get Wrong About BDSM RelationshipsRapidEye/iStock
"It's 2017, for fuck's sake. Can't a guy just get forced to lick a high heel in peace?"

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The point is, even underground subcultures have little lines they don't like crossed -- things they find as ridiculous as the outside world finds BDSM. Take a fetish like "Findomme." We'll let Valleycat explain it: "A Findomme is a dom (usually a woman) whose kink is to be showered with gifts and money and a paypig is a sub (usually male) whose kink is to give money or gifts."

How many of you out there just realized you're secretly a Findomme dom? Eh, sorry to interrupt, Valleycat:

"[T]he anti-findomme crowd will try to belittle the subs and claim they don't understand how they're being used ... Personally I find that uncomfortably close to the arguments that anti-kink people try to use against BDSM in general." Yes, if there's an innate human need more urgent than sex, it's the need to judge other people's kinks.

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1
It Can All Be Surprisingly Routine

There are people in long-term BDSM relationships all around you, whether you know it or not. In between tying each other to racks and heating up branding irons, they do stuff like raise children together. Julie explained that most couples she knows don't go out of their way to explain their kink to the rest of the family, but added that, "Kids usually find out. And they usually find out pretty young."

What Movies Get Wrong About BDSM RelationshipsFairytaleDesign/iStock
There's only so many places you can hide a full-sized medieval rack while the kids are still awake.

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She told us about a conversation between a woman she knew and her preteen daughter. "The mother asked, 'Do you think it's weird that your mommy wears a collar?' [and the kid responded], 'Mommy it would be weird if you didn't wear a collar.' The kids kind of grow up with that being more normalized."

That's because on a day-to-day basis, a BDSM marriage is normal as hell. "It's super important to recognize that the vast majority of these relationships ... are almost comically vanilla," says Julie, "in the sense that you would never know these people are in a kinky relationship unless you talked with them. We have this image of a BDSM relationship as sort of passionately violent and violently passionate ... most of the ones that last long term are more based around service than they are around masochism."

What Movies Get Wrong About BDSM RelationshipsMariaDubova/iStock
"What a beautiful, perfect day together. What do you want to do next, frozen yogurt or electric nipple torture?"

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In other words, a "slave" in a long-term relationship spends a lot less time in a gimp suit than they spend, say, making their "master" breakfast, or cleaning the house for him. Elaborate dungeon play sessions are too exhausting to be the core of a long-term relationship. Not that people haven't tried doing long-term BDSM partnerships that are all whips and no conversation. We're not saying it's impossible, but ...

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"The idea of engaging in BDSM without love makes no sense to me," says Rain, "but I do know a lot of Masters and slaves that try to just stick to strict BDSM without emotions or entanglements. To that I say, 'Ha! Good luck with that.' We're humans."

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OK, make that two human needs more urgent than sex.

Rain DeGrey is an international educator, writer, presenter and performer that has been writing articles and teaching classes, focusing on kink and sex education, since 2009. Her teaching credentials include lecturing at Harvard and Northwestern University. She spends her time teaching classes, writing articles, her online advice column, and providing one-on-one coaching to select clients. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, FetLife, and raindegrey.com. Valleycat runs Sunderland Munch once a month with her husband, and pops up at kink events around the U.K. Julie has a blog Slut, Ph.D. Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at c.j.strusiewicz@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Strange Realities Of BDSM '50 Shades of Grey' Leaves Out and I Am A Professional 'Submissive' Sex Worker: 6 Realities.

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