Spotlight

How Media Did BDSM Dirty

Image Credit: Anna Kerslake

Image by Anna Kerslake- @starryeyeddoodles

By Maja Metera

Th issue of misrepresentation has been studied by researchers for probably just as long as the area of media studies exist. It has covered various types of sexual and racial minorities’ portrayal in media. This text – in a less scholarly but not less educational way – will try to explain how film and TV mistreats BDSM and kinky community in their productions. It will talk about adaptations such as 50 Shades of Grey series and 365 Days – the latter making me ashamed of being Polish. Both were called hurtful, awfully misogynistic and sexist. But putting that – nonetheless very important – point of view aside – what do they teach the general public about BDSM? But before we dive right into “everything that’s wrong with..” – I would like to introduce you to some basic terms and rules that apply in the BDSM community.

What is BDSM?

BDSM stands for Bondage, Discipline, Domination, Submission, Sadism and Masochism or Sado-Masochism. It’s an umbrella term that covers most sexual/erotic practises that go beyond what is called ‘vanilla sex’ – a traditionalised intercourse, sex without elements of authority exchange, roleplay or pain. BDSM involves kinks (practises) and fetishes (non-sexual in nature objects causing arousal) so everything from spanking, choking and foot fetish to more advanced scenarios like beautiful shibari bondage and so so much more. In every dynamic there are two sides – Dominant and submissive, Top and bottom, who engage in “play” or a “scene” that is not inherently leading to or being a part of sex.

No matter what you’re into, BDSM is based on three pillars that make the practise safe. First of all, two or more potential partners engage in negotiations – pillar number one – during which they establish each other’s limits – what they are into, what they are willing to try under specific circumstances and what is off the table completely. Also things like honorifics – titles with which they would like to be addressed, health conditions that all parties should be aware of – both mental and physical, STI status and often previous partners or experiences are discussed. Then, as everything in sex, each element of the scene needs prior consent – so everyone agrees on the pillar number two – safewords. Those are verbal and non-verbal indicators that something is wrong, that the scene needs to be paused or stopped entirely. They can be used by both Dom(me)s and submissives. It is a quick and definitive way of withdrawing consent during play. After the scene, it’s time for pillar number three called aftercare – cuddles, music, alone time etc – that prevents drastic changes in the mood. All those elements make BDSM a form of fun – not violence, and stop it from falling into the vicious circle of abuse.

Everything that’s wrong with the 50 Shades

Now that you are a bit more familiar with the rules, you might think – what is actually wrong with the series then? She signed a contract! As a person who had a dubious pleasure of reading a first part of the book – there is a lot of it and the film did even a worse job that James herself writing it.

First of all, let’s focus on the character of Christian Grey. He is a well-established businessman who chooses to find a girl who interview him. He stalks her on multiple occasions – at her workplace, when she’s drunk at a club and then shows interest in having sex with her in that state – which would be rape. He is multiple times referred to as a “control freak” who does not reveal the whole truth about himself to anyone.

He was introduced to BDSM by an older women whose submissive he was. It shows that the abusive manners he has learnt from an experienced member or the kink community. Consequently, it reflects upon the community and BDSM in general making them look like a coverup for sexual violence and abuse. Moreover, later on in the series, he ‘dominates’ a woman who is threatening Anastasia. The girl quivers and goes onto her knees without a word of objection. This is not okay. This is not how submission works. Christian is no longer her Dominant and has no right to act as if he was. Moreover, being a sub does not indicate acting brainwashed and obedient at all times to anyone. Subs are still individuals with free will.

On the other hand, Anastasia Steal is a shy, young women, a recent university graduate and a virgin who hasn’t expressed any sexual interests in the past. I think that it is safe to say that she knows nothing about BDSM. Yes, Ana did sign a contract with Grey. In the book, it was his way of stating what she has to do – including following a strict diet, exercising every day and going on a pill so that they don’t have to use condoms, and must not do – like talk about the nature of their relationship with anyone apart from Christian himself. Toxic much? He also clearly states that he will not sleep in the same bed as her and that “he doesn’t make love”. Just to make it clear – kinky people are able to have vanilla sex, they just choose not to.

The contract is quite problematic. It seems like it might be considered a form of negotiation as in the book it does includes limits and safewords, however – in it is a binding legal document through which Ana didn’t go with a lawyer. Negotiation’s outcomes can be written down and review but they would not create a legal form. Additionally, in the film, she barely reads it, doesn’t ask questions about statements and kinks she doesn’t understand nor does she states her own limits. To be fair – she has no way of doing so as she has so prior sexual experience. That also means she is not able to give consent that by definition needs to be informed.

Moreover, the relationship portrayed in 50 Shades would be described as an failed attempt at presenting a “24/7 Dynamic”, meaning that the roles of a Dom and a sub are also used in a day-to-day life. Why failed? Because throughout the story, he forces her to do as he pleases – completely disregarding her objections, which would not happen in a healthy real-life situation. On top of that, he constantly pushes her boundaries – which you are never meant to do – and it is showed as something sexy and exciting.

Nonetheless, it is not the worst portrayal of BDSM in modern media – even if the most popular. You don’t believe me?

365 Days of a Stockholm Syndrome

In this horrible adaptation of terrible book 365 Days by Bianka Lipińska makes my blood boil when I hear it being called ‘kinky’. We follow a story of Laura – a badass, self-confident sales director at a luxury hotel, and Massimo – an Italian mafioso. We meet him as he violently forces a stewardess on a private plane onto her knees to give him oral sex. Was that supposed to be a some sort of sick foreshadowing? 

Laura comes to Italy with her boyfriend and friends. Massimo stalks her on her vacation, drugs and kidnaps her. He takes away her phone and contacts her family to say she got a job offer that she cannot say “no” to in Sicily. Thus, nobody is looking for her. Then, when she wakes up – he gives her a year to fall in love with him. And it only gets worse from that point. She tries to escape multiple times and doesn’t give consent to any of his actions. At least at the beginning.

First red flag is his signature phrase – “Are you lost, baby girl?”. It might not be obvious but “baby girl” is an honorific for some subs and should not be used without discussing it first. It was a first sign that Massimo doesn’t negotiate – he doesn’t even ask for permission. This film is completely stripped off of any nuance as the Italian boss just puts all of his abusive actions down to his difficult childhood and “being used to taking everything by force”. And he surely does get physical every time she refuses to listen to his orders. When he assaults her by knowingly walking in on her in the changing room, he grabs her by the throat, pushes against the wall and says that he is paying for the lingerie she’s trying on so he will be the one deciding if and when he can see her wear it. Between his outbursts of anger, he tries to bribe her with delicious food and expensive clothes. This “push and pull” method messes with her head, makes her not know what’s coming next. This is the cycle of abuse.

Those are all clearly ‘not-okay’ behaviours but I haven’t mentioned them getting sexual yet, have I? Well, first he tries to stimulate her while she’s tied to a chair on the plane. Then, he locks her in a darkened room with himself, terrifies her by handcuffing her by her wrists and ankles to the bed. She’s pulling on them, fighting to leave. In all of those moments he uses sex as a reward or a punishment, manipulates her.

Then, even though she was kidnapped and abused – she does fall in love with him. In my humble opinion, she suffers from Stockholm Syndrome – a psychological response, a coping mechanism which occurs when hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors or abusers. They start to help them and might mistake this bond for friendship or love.

Just because he used bondage gear to immobilise her, it does not mean that this forsaken “erotic” film can be called kinky. This is a show of no respect to the BDSM community. Because of films like 365 Days and 50 Shades of Grey people think about kinksters as of creeps and perverts that like to hurt people for fun – because that’s just how powerful the media are. 

Light at the end of a tunnel

What I wish for at this point is not to show all the benefits BDSM can have on mental health or how some elements of it should be applied to any sexual encounters. No. Because of all of this misrepresentation, I just wish for it to be destigmatised, shown as something a lot of people enjoy in a healthy way.

That’s why if you want to see some better (not perfect but better) representation of BDSM, I recommend Netflix original series Bonding with a diverse cast and no signs of physical or emotional abuse. Its main character is a psychology student who works as a professional Dominatrix – a woman whose work is fulfilling peoples kinky fantasies in a safe, controlled environment. The show mentions a variety of kinks and fetishes and underlines that they don’t really define who we are. Moreover, together with Mistress Mia, also known as Tiff, we learn how much responsibility those erotic workers carry on their shoulders. It shows a glimpse of a healthy, long-term relationship in which one of the partners is involved in this work. We can see also what happens if we repress who we are in our relationship.

“This is not your story to tell” ~ Tiff, about comedy show based on stories about Dominatrix’s work

At the same time, it obviously has its worse moments – shows arguments in which people say way too much – and I am by no means settling for that. However, it is the best I have seen so far, easy to watch and funny. And I couldn’t agree more with Tiff –  we should let communities speak for themselves instead of using their stories and profit off of their misrepresentation.


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