“Fifty Shades of Grey:” What the Hell is BDSM, Anyway?

'Fifty Shades of Grey' still (MoviePilot)

‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ still (MoviePilot)

This week, we’re examining different aspects of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” in preparation for the upcoming movie, opening on Feb. 13th. 

“Fifty Shades of Grey” depicts BDSM as pretty hardcore: There are whips, chains and cable ties all in Christian Grey’s Red Room of Pain. A person (let’s be honest, woman) reading the book with no prior knowledge and/or experience of BDSM would likely be inclined to believe that’s primarily what the consensual sex practice about.

But BDSM isn’t just about the hardcore stuff. It encompasses a wide variety of activities. The four letters can be arranged to refer to different practices under the BDSM umbrella: B&D (bondage & discipline), S&M (sadomasochism), D&S (dominance & submission).

Dr. Richard A. Sprott, executive director of the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities (CARAS), notes that BDSM can be synonymous with “kink, fetish, leather, and S&M.” The term can denote “a practice, lifestyle or orientation.”

Sprott labels the two most important components as “consensuality and mutually defined activities.” Other common aspects include “eroticization of power, role-playing/fantasy, and intense sensory stimulation and/or physical restriction.” Roles include the dominant, submissive and switch (someone who plays both dom and sub roles as needed). A BDSM “scene” (single session of play) has three parts: negotiation (deciding what will happen), play (the scene itself) and aftercare (coming down from the scene).

The Teramis website concedes that “no acronym is ideal in defining” the term, and open communication must be used to find out a person’s specific kink. The most important rules are that things are kept “safe, sane and consensual.”

How widespread is it? The 1990 Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex found the following:

Researchers estimate that 5-10 percent of the U.S. population engages in sadomasochism for sexual pleasure on at least an occasional basis, with most incidents being either mild or stage activities involving no real pain or violence.

As “Fifty Shades of Grey” makes clear, audiences will react to the most extreme version of BDSM. But there are a lot of, dare I say, shades of grey within the moniker for practitioners.

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