First of all, while I come not to praise Fifty Shades of Grey, neither do I come to bury it. The bashing and dissecting of its prose style and its depictions of D/s relationships have already been done, sometimes to excess. Whatever its flaws might be, if the Fifty Shades makes you feel a nice, sexy glow in your nether regions, that's fine. Embrace the fantasy and enjoy it to your heart's content.

But one word in that last sentence is critical to keeping your sex life healthy, pleasurable, and safe: fantasy. Above all else, the Fifty Shades trilogy is a fantasy. Acting it out in real life is about as safe as if I were to act out my lifelong fantasy of being Spider-Man by putting on tights, jumping off the tallest building I could find, and trying to shoot webs from my wrist. While I might be able to provide a sterling example that yes, a free-falling mass does accelerate towards the earth at 9.8 m/sec2, that's definitely not what's been driving my fantasies of webslinging since I was a wee lad.

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One of the leading criticisms of Fifty Shades has been that Ana and Christian's relationship is manipulative, abusive, and that he regularly violates consent. Betty Mars and Bastard Keith covered all of these criticisms more cogently than I can in their review last week. Even if you acknowledge that as the reality, the fantasy can still be compelling.

If you are interested in trying out BDSM for the first time, there are lots of ways to do it safely and pleasurably, and a lot of resources to help you do so.

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When you ask most experienced kinksters what the difference is between BDSM and abuse, they will almost always give you some variation on a single answer: “BDSM is consensual.” The problem with this answer is that it's both correct and depressingly inadequate. Consent — sexual or otherwise — is highly complicated. Even people who have been in the scene for years have heated debates over it, and sometimes they get it wrong.

As a primer to thinking about the issues of how to protect yourself while acting out your secret evil desires, I recommend that you look to the comics. Specifically, this comic by Erika Moen and Abby Howard condenses a lot of basic advice into a very small space: Have your first meeting in a public place, don't do anything that makes you uncomfortable, and if you're acting as the dom, periodically check in with the sub, whether they use their safeword or not.

When I was thinking about this piece, I talked to Ernest Greene, a well-known adult film director and the Executive Editor of Hustler Taboo. In the name of full disclosure, I have a business relationship with Ernest; I edited and published his new erotic novel, Master of O as part of my day job at Daedalus Publishing, which specializes in books about kink.

The sex in Ernest's book is pretty graphic and intense, but in all cases, the consent of all parties is enthusiastic and clear. “In BDSM, consent is more than just the absence of ‘no,'” he said. “It’s not obtained by manipulation or overcoming resistance. It’s a freely given, enthusiastic affirmation of a desire to engage in specific activities…No matter what roles people may choose to adopt for purposes of mutual enjoyment, for consent to be meaningful it must be an expression of mutual desire between equals.”

The most important point in that passage is this: consent is more than a “yes” or a “no,” or whether the sub uses their safeword or not. It's a process, not a simple action. Saying “yes” isn't consent if it's given because of badgering, intimidation, threats, pressure, or humiliation; it's useless for a sub to have a safeword if they've already been made to feel like they're failing their dom by using it.

As BDSM has moved more towards the mainstream, we've seen more examples of abusers who have tried to disguise their abuse as kink gone wrong. One of the most notorious examples happened last October, when the Canadian DJ and interviewer Jian Ghomeshi was fired by the CBC when it turned out that he had a habit of beating up his dates. Ghomeshi initially tried to claim that he was being persecuted for his private sexual preferences. The problem was that Ghomeshi hadn't bothered negotiating consent with any of these women; he just took them home and attacked them. In at least one case, he's charged with choking a woman into submission.

I've known people who actually would consider choking or suffocation something you do on a really hot date, but implicit in that kind of scene is a huge amount of trust. For such a potentially scary and dangerous scene, the partners would almost certainly negotiate it in detail beforehand; the sub makes sure they feel comfortable that the dom knows what they're doing, and will stop if the sub shows signs of being in trouble. The dom, in turn, would make sure that they understand how far the sub is willing to go, and pay careful attention for signs of distress whether the sub makes a safe-signal or not. Choking somebody without an explicit agreement and careful attention to their safety isn't kink; it's assault.

Even in BDSM circles, breath play is one of those things that will make many kinksters flinch. Most will approach such play with extreme caution, if at all. There are even those, like author and educator Jay Wiseman, who thinks it can't be done responsibly under any circumstances.

In a more recent incident, Mohammad Hossain, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was arrested on charges of raping and beating one of his fellow students. He allegedly told the arresting officers that he was re-enacting scenes from the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Whether Hossain got the idea from Fifty Shades or that's an excuse he came up with out of last-minute desperation doesn't really matter. According to the woman, they hadn't negotiated any such scene, and when she pleaded for him to stop, he held her arms down and raped her. Hopefully I don't have to explain why this isn't even remotely acceptable.

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The bad news is that kink communities often have the same problems dealing with consent and abuse as people in the mainstream. Although kinksters are legendary for having endless, heated debates about the ethics of consent and safer sex techniques, the reality of how those ethics are put into action can be very different. One of the most outspoken activists on the issue of abuse within kinky communities and the need to respond to it is Kitty Stryker, the co-founder and editor of Consent Culture. Besides her own material, Kitty has a great resource list gathered from around the Internet on consent issues and support for abuse victims.

When abuse happens within a kinky community, the victim faces some extra issues. Not only do they face the usual slut-shaming and speculation that they might be making the whole thing up, but the very fact that it happened in a dungeon or at a sex party can close off a lot of potential avenues. Going to the police may not be an option for people who are trans, queer, poor, or identify with other alternative sexualities or genders. Counselors and therapists might interpret an interest in BDSM to itself be a sign of mental illness.

BDSM communities themselves often fail to support their members who have survived abuse by other members. This is partly because there's still huge amounts of stigma against most sex that's not strictly of the cisgendered, heterosexual, ten-toes-up-ten-down type, and that means that drawing attention from the outside world can have consequences. It's also because there's a pecking order in the dungeon just as much as there was on your school playground, and no one wants to be the first to accuse a well-respected pillar of the community of sexual assault.

I'm not saying don't go to your local dungeon, or don't join your local BDSM or leather organization–either of those things can be richly rewarding in many ways. I am saying not to get too drunk on the fantasy and the excitement of it all; you're still dealing with people, after all, and people by their nature are complicated, beautiful, and problematic all at once.

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Whether you're playing with a date at home or in a public dungeon, the one thing that I would advise is this: Think carefully about what your limits are, and insist that other people respect them. Inevitably, you're going to find someone who tries to push your boundaries by a subtle form of shaming that works on some variation of saying “Well, if you were really kinky…” By the same token, listen very carefully to the limits and needs of your partners and respect them.

Peoples' limits are extremely fascinating to me. One of the reasons that it's important to articulate what your boundaries are, and to listen carefully to what your partners are saying, is that the way we're taught to think of limits is all wrong. The way it works in popular culture is that we're taught to think of sexual variation as if it could be drawn as a linear scale. Maybe 1 on the scale is “Prim and proper, missionary only,” and 10 is “Holy SHIT! What a freak!” By that standard, we think that if someone's into getting pissed on, a little light bondage and spanking should be no big deal, but people don't work that way.

If you have the chance to talk to enough people, you realize that any given person's limits are likely to be so scattered as to seem almost arbitrary. One person might get really turned on by being called a slut, but completely freeze up at being called a bitch. Or vice versa. What turns someone on or kills their libido dead is the result of a complex interaction of life experience, cultural messages, and what their body wants.

So if Fifty Shades of Grey is your thing, enjoy the hell out of it in your own private masturbation sessions, but remember: it is not a how-to guide. As soon as you want to involve anyone else, look into something that's geared more for the real world.

Further Reading and Resources:

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Posted by Chris Hall

Chris Hall lives in the distant hills of Berkeley, California, where he writes about sex, politics, atheism, pop culture, and whatever else comes into his head. You can follow him on Twitter as @LiteratePervert or read his occasional writings at his blog, Literate Perversions. He is firmly in denial about middle age, so please don't bring it up at parties.

3 Comments

  1. […] Update: If you’re also interested in more resources on proper BDSM conduct, check out our follow up article from Chris Hall, “What is the Difference Between BDSM and Abuse?” […]

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  2. […] quick word about consent. Even though I was largely unprepared for what ended up happening, I consented to this crazy […]

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