BDSM, Abuse, and 50 Shades of Grey

If you want a good primer on how to identify abuse-masquerading-as-BDSM, you could read 50 Shades of Grey and take notes on Christian’s behavior.

I wish I were kidding.

The thing is, it’s very easy for people who know nothing about BDSM save what they’ve read of a few Gor novels or, possibly, 50 Shades, to categorize all expressions of it as abusive, or woman-hating.

Because, you see, the kink subculture is a microcosm of our larger culture. And our larger culture is abusive and woman-hating. So you’re going to get  a lot of that sort of shit — the tropes of kinkdom, I call them. The male-dom/fem-sub dynamic seen as the only TWUE way; the view of submissive as subhuman; the equation of submissive to “liking pain and humiliation” and vice versa; the belief that all women are naturally submissive and would be so much happier if they would just submit to a Domly Dom who would show them their TWUE nature; an actually abusive relationship that uses BDSM as a cover-up. You’re going to get these tropes, and worse ones, as much as you’re going to find sex-positive, queer-positive, liberating, non-tropey expressions of BDSM. More, in fact.

I’ve been through two abusive relationships that used BDSM to cover up the abuse. (And one other fairly vanilla relationship that was abusive.) They were so pernicious that I didn’t realize what was happening until far after the fact. I didn’t even realize that because these relationships were my introduction to BDSM I ended up letting my true nature as a domme be subsumed under my partners’ needs for me to submit. The fact that I enjoy being topped made it easier.

Towards the end of the first relationship, we were talking seriously about doing 24/7 Master/slave relationship, complete with collaring ceremony for me. I didn’t even know enough about myself to know that I’d never do that with a human being (gods are another matter). I was so enamored with my first boyfriend, oh my gods you mean a man actually finds me attractive what the hell I should settle for him, that I didn’t take any of my own needs into consideration. I let him manipulate and use me to his own ends, and then I lashed out and did really crazy shit that eventually led to his dumping me (and thank the gods for that).

When I was on the rebound from him, I met another guy who proceeded to put me through psychological torture for six months before telling me I was just an easy lay and that’s all he’d ever wanted from me. During those six months we were long-distance, and I wore a collar for him. To this day I get nightmares about him, and I can’t speak his name without having a minor panic attack.

So when I read the recaps of 50 Shades of Grey at Jennifer Armintrout’s blog, and saw all the excerpts of the book…first, I was really glad I’d decided to read the recaps before picking up the book myself, because now I know it would have triggered the hells out of me. Second, I was horrified.

Horrified that people are shlicking to this book that, quite frankly, glorifies abusive relationships as romance. Not only does it glorify abusive relationships, it glorifies abusive relationships that use a thin veneer of BDSM to make the abuse seem okay.

(Never mind the fact that the sex in 50 Shades is incredibly vanilla-with-kink-sprinkles and really makes it quite clear that neither the characters nor the author have the first clue about what BDSM actually is.)

This does two things. For people who are getting off to this depiction of abuse and have no clue about actual BDSM, it tells them that if they ever do suffer abuse-with-BDSM-face that that’s completely normal and just part of being in a BDSM relationship. For people who see the abuse as what it is and know nothing about actual BDSM, it re-affirms the cultural paradigm that all BDSM is abusive.

BDSM is no more inherently abusive than rock and roll is inherently Chinese. But when our culture normalizes it as abusive, it perpetuates the idea that anyone who’s into BDSM is an abuser or a victim of abuse. This leads to kinky folk to be closeted as much as possible, because their expression of sexual joy is seen as deviant and unnatural and as a synonym for abuse. It also leads to BDSM as being a prime hunting ground for abusers and rapists, because no one in the kink community, in our desperate plea to disassociate with the mainstream view of “all BDSM as abusive,” wants to address that this actually happens. When it is brought up, victims are silenced in an effort to “not make waves” — but he’s such a respected community member! She must be lying, to get attention.

This is the same issue we have with associating cross-dressing with murderers (TW for murder, sexual assault, and anti-cross-dressing language). The problem here isn’t with the BDSM or the cross-dressing, it’s with the culture at large. The culture at large teaches us that there is hierarchy in everything, including our relationships. It teaches us that those at the top of the hierarchy are naturally more deserving of love and admiration than those at the bottom. It teaches us that those at the bottom of that hierarchy need to be punished and humiliated. And, because our culture is kyriarchical, it teaches us that those at the top of the hierarchy are cisgendered, white, heterosexual, dominant, able-bodied, neurotypical, religiously mainstream (ie, Christian), men. Everyone else is lesser; everyone else should be submissive. And anyone thinking of straying outside the small boxes made for them — by, say, wearing clothing that’s supposed to be for the opposite gender — is twisted and deviant and obviously wrong.

Spend all your life being told this, and you’ll start to believe it. Perfectly natural inclinations to cross-dress or elicit pleasure from pain or domination or submission get tied up with cultural paradigms about the same. You may suppress it until it comes out in an expression of violence against someone else. Or you may become depressed, because there’s no outlet for what should be a totally healthy expression of sexual joy.

Or, you do get into BDSM, but you accept abuse as common and expected. Or you can’t even recognize it until you’re out of it — which is very common for victims of abuse. Because our abusers are not horrible all the time, and not all at once. They ensnare us with sweet talk and lies, and then treat us like shit. And just when we think about leaving…here comes the apologies, and the flowers, and “You just make me so crazy, baby.”

Abuse is so clear when you’re looking at it from the outside, or the future. Hindsight is 20/20. When you’re in the midst of it, it’s murky waters filled with danger.

I think we need to start teaching people about healthy relationships, whether vanilla, chocolate, or Neapolitan. We need to be clear on what abuse is and what it isn’t, and we need to stop saying that stories that glorify abusive relationships are okay if that’s what floats your boat.

Because they’re not okay. They’re not okay unless you’re going to use them as a teaching tool on what abusive relationships look like, which is honestly the only legitimate use I can think of for 50 Shades of Grey and its predecessor, Twilight*.

-Morag

* (Yes, 50 Shades started as a Twilight fanfic. It was rewritten only slightly, and published as original fiction. Both sets of books glorify abusive relationships; one with BDSM, one with “waiting for sex until marriage,” which I suppose is a type of vanilla.)

About The Spinner

Morag Spinner is a writer, a witch, and an activist (sometimes all three) living in British Colmbia, Canada. Zie's fat and genderqueer, and zie crafts all manner of things, from spell jars to duct tape bags to shawls to blankets to random bits of kitsch. Zie's obsessed with chocolate and listens to far too much Evanescence. View all posts by The Spinner

2 responses to “BDSM, Abuse, and 50 Shades of Grey

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