Fifty Shades of Debate: Safe BDSM flourishes with open communication

Fifty Shades of Debate: Safe BDSM flourishes with open communication

Photo illustration by Shana Oshinskie

Names have been changed for the privacy and protection of sources.

Lounging with a glass of wine on a bed with black silken sheets and talking about BDSM, Kelly looked like she could be in the new “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie. If you said that to her face, however, she would have a few issues with the choice of media.

“I feel like, in general, people just have a concept of what BDSM means and they don’t really get it, especially with things like 'Fifty Shades of Grey' going on,” she said.

Her main issue with the franchise is how, in her opinion, they incorrectly categorize the people who are into BDSM, which stands for bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism and masochism.

“You don’t have to be damaged to be into BDSM, and people who are into BDSM aren’t necessarily overbearing, domineering or overly submissive people,” she said. “Like I don’t like controlling people’s lives, but I might like controlling their orgasms.”

Kelly’s name has been changed in this story because she doesn’t want her name publicly associated with BDSM, a sentiment shared with many people in the community. On websites like FetLife, a social website aiming to connect people with different sexual interests, users create a FetName that has nothing to do with their real identity, and it’s the only thing that will be displayed. They can also choose a profile photo and many profiles opt to either not upload one or upload one that doesn’t explicitly show the user’s face.

“There’s the whole [image] like she’s the crazy girl in the leather with the whip and she will dominate you in every aspect of your life, or the guy who’s domineering and he’s got some incest/pedophilia thing going on, like the whole little girl aspect to it,” Kelly said. “I’m not saying that can’t be the case. I’m just saying that’s kind of usually not the case, at least in my experience.”

In fact, most of the time, Kelly doesn’t use whips.

“Gosh, you can do all kinds of stuff just with things around your house,” she said. “Some things you can’t replace, but as far as the basics go, yeah, a good belt will get you there for sure.”

However, the stereotype of Kelly standing holding a whip continues, and Alabama as a state also contributes to the taboo stereotype.

Kalli’s Love Stuff on Hackberry greets customers with blacked-out windows. As soon as they cross the threshold, they’re required to show their ID to prove they’re legally old enough to be there. Once inside, giant legal notices remind everyone everything in the store is only there for a “bona fide medical, scientific, educational, legislative, judicial, or law enforcement purpose.” The signs also let customers know that no recording of any type, photo, video or audio is allowed within the establishment. Most of these rules stem from a sense of propriety within the state, said Chandra Ramsey, a manager of the store, but the final policy regarding recording is more to protect a nervous customer.

“It’s a privacy thing,” she said. “Customers think you’re recording them and they feel nervous, and we lose them.”

Ramsey said after the release of the new "Fifty Shades of Grey" movie, the store is going to be “slammed” with people coming in to try new experiences for themselves.

“People who are usually vanilla watch it, and you know, it sparks their interest,” she said.

Whether someone is ready to bring equipment into the session can change from person to person Ramsey said.

“It all depends on the communication level with their partner,” she said. “Everybody’s pain levels are different.”

Kelly said the stereotype of the people who are into BDSM prevents constructive and open conversation, which is the most important part to practicing it safely.

“You need to have an explicit conversation with them about hard limits, which are just things you would not under any sort of circumstance ever want someone to do,” Kelly said. “If there’s somewhere you don’t want to be touched, if there’s some action that you’re not comfortable with, that you would under no circumstances be comfortable with, that’s what we refer to as a hard limit, and it’s 100 percent no.”

Kelly said these limits aren’t something to be heavily explored through action. The forethought is important in order to get the most pleasure for everyone involved.

“The last thing a dom ever wants to hear is your safe word because it means they’ve failed,” she said. “They don’t want to do anything that makes you uncomfortable, anything that you can’t handle, and they should be trying their best, ideally, to read your body language and get you right on the edge of exactly where you want to be.”

Kelly is someone the BDSM community calls a switch. She can and has performed in both the dominant and submissive roles.

“The submissive person has all the power at the end of the day,” she said. “The whole point of the session is to please them. It’s not to take advantage of them; it’s not to use them to satisfy the dom; it’s to fulfill what they want. If you don’t feel that way in your proposed situation with your partner, then something is wrong.”

Kelly said after a sub session, one of the most important aspects for the emotional safety is the aftercare, and a dom who won’t participate isn’t a dom worth being with.

“Aftercare for me was just cuddling afterwards,” she said. “He’d play with my hair and rub my back and then we’d just go to sleep. It would be nice. Or if it was the morning just cuddle and then we would, like, scroll through Twitter together and just talk about silly things and then I would just sort of gradually feel kind of grounded together.”

Catherine Roach, a professor with the New College who specializes in gender and sexual relationships, said the BDSM stereotypes shouldn’t apply to safe practitioners.

“Any consensual sexual practice that is cliterate, that closes the orgasm gap would be a good thing,” she said.

Fifty Shades of Grey is one of the first successful box office movies that explicitly portrays a BDSM relationship, but many say the movie goes about it all wrong.

“I think BDSM can certainly be consensual and healthy and mutually pleasurable and responsible, but whether the relationship in 'Fifty Shades of Grey' meets all of those criteria is a debated question,” Roach said. “My sense is the majority of the debate comes down on 'no.'”

She said there are other examples out there that demonstrate a better example of healthy relationships if that’s what someone is looking for.

“If we’re going off of a sort of feminist test for example, or just a basic human respect test, I would say that Joey Hill would be an example of a BDSM romance erotica that passes the test,” Roach said.

For people not involved in the debate, like Ramsey, the Fifty Shades series portrays a handsome, rich young man who’s really good at pleasuring his partner.

“Yeah, everybody wants a Christian Grey,” she said.

People who are into BDSM aren’t always victims of a dark past, but it doesn’t mean that people who have suffered are excluded from the community either.  

“A loving, healthy, positive BDSM relationship could be helpful and healing to somebody who does have a traumatic past,” Roach said. “I did a previous book on strippers and some of the research I was looking at there explored that same connection. Strippers, whether they all have been sexually abused or assaulted, and while that’s a false stereotype, some of the ethnography that I looked at talked about how working as an exotic dancer can be a way for a woman who happens to have been traumatized in some way in the past to regain a sense of control over her body, over her sexuality.”

Roach, who has also done research on the structure and culture of romance novels, said despite the controversy and seemingly risqué topics in the "Fifty Shades of Grey" novel, it’s actually pretty standard.

“Women feel free to read something different and be transgressive and to think about their own sexuality in regard to this story line, and to have this sort of pleasurable, naughty escape time, but also it’s a very safe read in that it’s a happy ever after,” she said. “It doesn’t disrupt that cultural narrative.”

No matter what the outcome of the debate is, Roach said the consequences of controversial franchises like "Fifty Shades of Grey" can benefit the audience more than hurt them.

“I think readers are smarter than that, and lots of people read 'Fifty Shades' or any other book and argue back and talk back at it, and it becomes an opportunity to ask exactly these questions about what constitutes a good relationship,” she said.

Either way, if people are trying intense sessions or beginner handcuff sessions, Kelly said there’s room for everyone in the community.

“There’s good BDSM and then there’s talented BDSM and then there’s put on handcuffs and hope for the best BDSM,” she said.

Tuscaloosa’s BDSM community isn’t pervasive or large, but it exists. There’s a munch scheduled for this Saturday on FetLife. For a more established community, new and familiar practitioners alike can also go to Birmingham for biweekly munches with The Red Chair on Wednesday in the upstairs of Books, Beans, & Candles Occult and Metaphysical Shoppe.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Crimson White.