What 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Got Right (& Very Wrong) About The BDSM Experience, According To A Submissive

I walked into the Fifty Shades of Grey movie expecting to hate it all, especially its misrepresentation of BDSM culture. I had read the book and already knew it presented kink apologetically and inaccurately. The billionaire dominant, Christian Grey, is given a traumatic child abuse back story to explain his perversions. The lip-biting submissive, Ana Steele, only goes along with it because she loves him, but she secretly hopes to change his ways. There’s never any discussion that perhaps people who are kinky are just having fun and aren’t suffering from inner demons any worse than the rest of the world. Would the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey do any better at representing BDSM?

As a kinky person myself, peripherally involved in the San Francisco BDSM community, I expected the movie to aggravate me with its moralistic distortion.

But that’s not entirely what happened. Instead, Fifty Shades on the big screen unsettled me with how much it had right. It held up a mirror to some of my own BDSM experiences, from the erotic to the abusive.

Please note that the rest of the article contains detailed spoilers of the Fifty Shades of Grey film. 

On The Upside...

It’s hard to write a fact vs. fiction review of Fifty Shades of Grey when the kink experience itself is so varied. There are gay male doms and straight female dommes, bi submissives and transgender switches. We come in all shapes, colors, and sizes from all places and experience levels, and I represent only the tiniest sliver of them. So I cannot speak gospel about the accuracy of the movie’s portrayal, but I can speak from my own perspective.

When you set aside the ridiculous trappings of the film — a cheeseball script, dates on helicopters, and a moody man stalking around — what remain are moments of truth. 

As Christian told Ana she’s a “good girl,” giving more of a command than a compliment, I felt a chill of recognition. I’ve heard those words, uttered in that tone of voice before. I understood the mixture of anticipation, excitement, nervousness, embarrassment, and perhaps shame it might’ve evoked in actress Dakota Johnson, were she actually Ana Steele. The shame would’ve come from grappling with her feminist values, trying to understand why she’s so turned on by being told she’s a good girl, wondering if it means she doesn’t really believe in equality.

As Christian strings Ana up in the playroom the first time, attaching her handcuffs above her head and eyeing her slowly, my hands tingled and my blood raced. Old memories surfaced, and I started missing one of the doms I used to date who loved the craft of Japanese bondage. He’d spend hours creating intricate knots against my skin, eyeing his handiwork appreciatively after trussing me up, pinching exposed my exposed flesh possessively and laughing as I blushed.

When Christian bathed Ana gently, or carried her into the bedroom, I remembered the warmth of a dom’s arms around me, holding me close after I had submitted to him the first time. It’s hard to describe the loving intimacy of these so-called “after care” experiences, when all boundaries between a sub and dom are stripped away.

But It's Not All Roses

People have pointed out, rightfully so, that in other ways Ana and Christian’s relationship borders on abusive. Christian cuts Ana off from everyone else. He requires that she sign a nondisclosure agreement, makes her swear not to tell anyone about his fetish, and frets when she wants to leave town to visit her mom. Isolating someone is one of the key signs of intimate partner violence.

In “real life” kink, there are usually local communities of practitioners, safe neutral places to get to know potential partners, research their reputations, learn about best safety practices, and slowly immerse yourself in this world. But in Fifty Shades these communities are never mentioned. Ana trusts only Google, crossing her fingers that her stalking, occasionally creepy suitor isn’t a psychopath. 

The majority of BDSM relationships are not, as Christian would say, “50 shades of f—ked up.” Consent is held in worshipful regard by skilled BDSM practitioners. It’s a constant topic of conversation and it’s explored frequently in posts on the trending section of FetLife, a social network for kinky people.

But I’d be lying if said I had never experienced betrayals of consent with a dom.

The truth is, kink isn’t always perfect. Submitting to someone doesn’t always happen under a written, explicit contract and people have different definitions of what constitutes consent. Playing with erotic power can be incredibly fulfilling — frankly it’s a core part of who I am now — but that doesn’t mean it always goes as planned.

And moments of abuse that unfolded on the Fifty Shades screen resonated with me.

Christian asked Ana to submit in the middle of seducing her, and I shook my head. When a dom puts you in what is called “sub space” — sort of this ethereal, oxytocin filled daze where you’ll say yes to almost anything — that is not the time to be negotiating the terms of the relationship. I can also tell you that I’ve been in exactly that position before and it’s a terrifying feeling.

For my friend, a fellow kinkster who accompanied me to the screening, the final scene hit her the hardest, watching Christian whip Ana with his belt, as tears well up in her eyes. Ana doesn’t stop him, but afterwards she shirks away, yelling at him not to touch her. My friend recently submitted to a man who pushed her limits too far like this, without checking in with her throughout to see if she was ok. Although she didn’t stop him in the moment, it traumatized her to an extent, and she’s been wary of touching, let alone submitting, to anyone else since.

We giggled throughout the entire movie —  it’s hard not to at "Laters baby" and the awkward faces of Jamie Dornan. But reflecting afterwards, mulling pints of beer and our own kinky experiences, we had to admit the movie wasn’t entirely a joke.

Images: Universal Pictures (screengrab) (3)

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