Trigger warnings for discussion of violence, rape, and abusive relationships.
There has been a lot of criticism going around for the bestselling book 50 Shades of Gray. I can see where these people are coming from; when you look at the modern BDSM community, you find a lot of really good practices to protect the people who are involved in BDSM. Their motto is “safe, sane, and consensual,” which is obviously important for all sex, but it deserves the extra emphasis when the sex imitates violence of some sort.
Meanwhile, 50 Shades of Gray is this book that purports to depict a BDSM relationship but is absolutely not safe, sane, nor consensual. It depicts a relationship which is clearly abusive, with sexual escapades clearly entering the realm of straight up rape, and where the male main character basically has the female main character sign a contract of slavery.
This is a horrible standard for relationships, yes! This is an absolutely horrible standard for a relationship and nothing in this blog post should be taken as me endorsing this relationship.
But I feel like there’s kinda a missed point here. Yes, BDSM may have the motto “safe, sane, and consensual,” but for someone who sees a couple engaging in BDSM without any prior explanation, it would almost certainly appear unsafe, insane, and nonconsensual. (They were chained to the bed! And being whipped! And they screamed!)
Part of why BDSM is so enticing to many people is the same reason that there are top 10 lists for the scariest movies of all time, and the reason why games like Slender and Five Nights at Freddies elicit so many downloads that their customers crash websites.
People like seeing horror films and playing horror games because it is fun being scared. I’m not going to attempt to go into the evolutionary psychology of this, but if you remove the actual danger but keep the fear, humans will pay you money to experience that. See also: haunted houses!
People like BDSM because it is fun – no, a turn on – to experience sex that might appear to be violent and terrifying, as long as you can make it actually safe, sane, and consensual. 50 Shades of Gray is popular for the exact same reason that BDSM is; it depicts an unhealthy relationship and sex life, but people love it because there isn’t any actual danger in reading it.
But wait, you cry, 50 Shades of Gray normalizes abuse in ways that BDSM doesn’t!
1) Maybe, but no more than Texas Chainsaw Massacre normalizes mass murder and cannibalism.
2) Actually, the evidence is mostly split on whether violent media makes violent crimes more or less common!
On the other hand, Violent videogames create moral disengagement and increase violence, violent movies encourage subsequent hostile behavior, and… well, the jury is actually pretty much out on violent pornography and rape rates.
I couldn’t find anything by googling it, and in my memory I’ve never seen a study that supported the idea that violent porn increased rape rates; only the opposite. (This is why we do psychology, people! Our intuitions can often be wrong!)
But the weirdest part this.
I haven’t actually seen anyone take sex advice from 50 Shades of Gray! I see lots of news articles claiming that people took sex advice from it, but there are the same news sites that claimed that Sex Bracelets and Jenkem. I see lots of posts that talk about how this is normalizing abusive behavior but once again, I haven’t seen a single one of these posts link to somewhere where people are taking this seriously.
Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out there who will read the book and who will become attracted to the idea of the abusive relationship outlined in the book. I just don’t think that the average reader of this book is using it as a sex guide! Rather, they are using it as a way to explore sexual preferences that are common among people but are also stigmatized in society.
50 Shades of Gray is not an accurate description of the BDSM community. But it is a pretty good description of the fantasies that many people, who are involved with, or might be interested in, the BDSM community have.