Fifty Shades of Grey and Consent in a #MeToo Era

Fifty Shades of Grey and Consent in a #MeToo Era

The blockbuster franchise started a larger conversation about BDSM in popular culture.

By Charyn Pfeuffer

Fifty Shades Freed, the concluding chapter of the Fifty Shades trilogy, opens in theaters on February 9: Whether you loved, hated or flat-out ignored the first two installments that preceded it, there’s no denying that the blockbuster franchise started a larger conversation about BDSM in popular culture.

To get new and non-kinksters up to speed, BDSM is a condensed abbreviation for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. In other words, it’s an umbrella term to describe a myriad of sexual kinks.

When Fifty Shades of Grey first hit bookshelves in 2011, it got audiences hot and bothered all over the world. The story goes like this: Debonair millionaire Christian Grey woos recent college grad (and virgin!) Anastasia Steele with pricey gifts before introducing her to the whips, blindfolds and ball gags in his basement. The books arrived at a time when BDSM wasn’t part of the mainstream dialogue and it opened the door for many women to explore their innermost sexual fantasies.

Although the film dangerously blurs the line between hot sex and harm, it did spark a conversation on consent, especially in D/s, or Dominant/submissive, relationships. One in five women will be raped within their lifetime and, in recent months, the viral hashtag #MeToo has increasingly been used by women to acknowledge that they've experienced sexual harassment and assault. In this era, these dialogues have never been more important.

Sex education in the U.S. is patchwork-y at best. It’s not regulated by the federal government in public schools, so programs pick and choose what they want to teach. Less than half the states mandate any sex ed at all. Affirmative consent is taught in one state — California. This is especially troubling given that 40 percent of rapes will happen to women aged 18 to 24. The whole state of sex ed is, frankly, a mess.

The kink community, however, has put major efforts into prioritizing consent for many years. Since sexual consent is a serious topic everywhere from criminal courts to college campuses, a better understanding of BDSM could probably benefit the greater good.

“Navigating D/s in a #MeToo landscape is much as it was before,” says Courtney Watson, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. “Since the two mottos for the kink community are ‘safe, sane and CONSENSUAL,’ as well as ‘risk aware, CONSENSUAL kink’ (or RACK), having full consent of whomever you are playing with or in a D/s relationship is the rule.”

There are healthy ways to consensually combine sex, pain and power dynamics, but it’s imperative that everyone involved in any activity understands the potential risks and can voluntarily participate in any physical or mental activities. 

In BDSM, players typically communicate via a “safe word:” an agreed upon verbal safety net of sorts. The most common one is “red,” meaning stop, like a stop sign. According to a recent LoveHoney survey, Donald Trump is currently the most popular safe word for bondage lovers. “Being that kink is definitely on the fringes of mainstream's society idea of ‘normal sex’, I imagine many folks hold somewhat progressive views and saying Donald Trump in a hot and heavy scene might be an immediate buzz kill,” says Watson. 

“In BDSM, it is common practice to discuss ahead of time what all partners want to do, and what limitations they have,” says Carol Queen, Center for Sex & Culture founding director. Queen began exploring BDSM in the 1980s and says that’s when she first heard the actual word “consent” used regularly and discussed as an integral part of an erotic experience.

She believes that most of us aren’t properly equipped to have an honest dialogue about sex and that many negative experiences — from awkward misunderstandings all the way to sexual assault — could be avoided if we got comfy with these hard conversations. “The BDSM players are among the only people on the planet who elevate sexual/erotic communication this way,” says Queen. “We all have tons to learn from them.” 

The official trailer for Fifty Shades Freed has been viewed more than 30 million times on YouTube, but it’s doubtful it will help teach us about healthy sexual consent in such a key cultural moment. Remember, no matter what type of relationship you’re in, consent is sexy —and essential.

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