Monday, January 7, 2013

Why We Talk About It

I read an article from The Atlantic the other day about 50 Shades of Grey. It was kind of interesting, proposing that it’s not the BDSM in the story but the number of times the female MC orgasms that readers find exciting. The comments section was depressing—lots of “BDSM is depraved” and “if you like it, there’s something wrong with you” and “subs are willing abuse victims,” etc. 

The article linked to another article from about alt lifestyle advocates who are upset about the way 50 Shades paints BDSM (the whole “childhood trauma leads to BDSM” myth and the idea that it’s cool if you’re a Dominant man to find yourself a naïve young woman with no interest in BDSM and hand her a contract). The commenters on this one seemed to lean more toward, “Who the fuck cares? The books are shitty.” And, “Why do people feel the need to share what they do in the bedroom?”

I found this interesting, since similar comments have been made in the gay rights debate to avoid actually talking about gay rights: “Why do these people want to flaunt their sexuality?” “What they do in the bedroom is their business; I don’t want to hear about it.” Essentially reducing homosexuality to sex. Here’s the thing: what happens between homosexuals in the bedroom is exactly what happens between heterosexuals in the bedroom. But there is a culture, a shared history of discrimination and abuse, a struggle for identity, for respect, and for the rights most people take for granted that goes along with being LGBTQ. That’s why we talk about the LGBTQ experience—not to give ultra-conservatives nightmares about buttsex or carpet munching.

BDSM maybe isn’t a direct parallel, since BDSM is essentially about what goes on in the bedroom. But it’s also about identity, culture, and the struggle against alienation and discrimination. Participants have lost jobs, divorce settlements, and custody of their children through being outed. There’s also a lot more to BDSM play than sex. And when people misunderstand what BDSM is—or decide they don’t want to try to understand it—we run into problems. See: the comments on article one.

I’m inclined to agree with commenters who point out that readers are responsible for telling fact from fiction, that 50 Shades is beach fluff not worth getting in a tizzy over, and that a novelist has no direct responsibility to be accurate, to moralize, or to educate. I also see the point of advocates who are like, "great—this trilogy is going to be a lot of readers’ first exposure to BDSM, and it perpetuates some stereotypes the community’s been battling for a long time."

What I don’t quite agree with is the “shut up; who cares what you do in the bedroom?” mentality about BDSM and BDSM fiction. While it would be nice if we lived in a world where no one cared what anyone else did in the bedroom, our reality is that advanced societies still have sodomy laws. That some people stand to lose a great deal if someone finds out what they do in the bedroom. And that we still giggle and whisper when we talk about sex because it’s “dirty.”

Yeah, maybe some people involved in BDSM talk about it to “flaunt” what they do. But I think the main reason people talk about it is that dialogue increases understanding, awareness, and compassion. We don’t have to all go around sharing the gory details about our sex lives. But I don’t think there’s any harm in open, honest dialogue about the different kinds of things people get up to in the bedroom.

We’re not in fifth grade anymore, right? We don’t have to giggle, blush, or put our hands over our ears and LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA….

So I say let’s talk about it.


  1. A thoughtful commentary. I just read a pretty good article in the New Yorker about the gay rights movement in Uganda, where some people are trying to pass a law that says you can be jailed for what goes on in the bedroom, if it's not heterosexual. So, yes, let's talk about it.

    1. Thank you, Mary. I think I just found the article you mentioned. Horrifying stuff, and definitely all the more reason to keep the dialogue open.

      "Ugandans have traditionally been indifferent to homosexuality, as long as it stays in the closet."

      Yep. Don't Ask, Don't Tell is still alive and well all over the world.

  2. A great post, JA. and a very timely one.

    I agree with that in some ways it's a shame that Fifty Shades is most peoples' first exposure to BDSM, since it comes with so many ugly stereotypes that I can't even begin to list here, my favourite being "he was abused as a child therefore he likes to inflict pain". But leaving that aside, I think that one thing Fifty Shades should be thanked for is dragging BDSM into the spotlight.

    You're right, let's talk about it. Let's talk about where Fifty Shades got it wrong, and let's talk about it by stripping the fantasy away and acknowledging that this is what some people do, and this is what some people are. And you know what, these people are normal everyday people, with jobs and kids and the same dreams and aspirations as everyone else. To some extent, what they do in the bedroom IS irrelevant, but until people stop judging them for it (or, even better, speculating as to how f*cked up they must be to want to do it) then we need to keep talking about it.

    1. Word, Lisa! I agree, we gotta thank 50 Shades for helping open up the dialogue. And maybe making people start thinking about why they don't even want to think about it...