BDSM 101: Consent, consent, consent

This week I’m blogging about kink up to the film release of Fifty Shades of Grey. In the previous three days I’ve covered mythbusting, finding out more, and figuring out what you’re into. Today – to finish – I’m focusing on the most important issue of consent.

Consent, consent, consent

Despite what you might think from Fifty Shades, consent is not just a matter of having a safeword! In fact we can see from Fifty Shades itself that safewords are not enough. The first time that Christian spanks Ana she’s really not sure if she likes it. Her feelings about it change from when it happens to later when she reflects on it. She has similar ambivalence on other occasions but clearly doesn’t feel that she can use her safeword to express that uncertainty.

There are huge cultural pressures around sex. We often feel – as Ana seems to – that we must have certain kinds of sex a certain amount in order not to lose a relationship. We feel that we should ‘perform’ certain kinds of sex in order to be a ‘real’ man/woman, or a ‘proper’ straight or queer person. We feel like if we’ve had a kind of sex before we’re obligated to have it again. We feel too embarrassed or awkward to say we’re not enjoying something. We feel that because we’ve done one thing we should automatically do others. All of these are deeply problematic ways of thinking about sex which hurt us badly, but they are also really hard to completely step away from because they’re so engrained in our culture.

So, when it comes to consent, we can’t just rely on partners to say ‘no’ or safeword if they’ve stopped enjoying it. Instead, consent should be about trying to minimise the pressures that they – and we – are under, so that we can be as confident as possible that what we’re doing is consensual. How can we do this? Well it is definitely worth talking about the messages we’ve received about sex and reassuring the other person that we really wouldn’t want them doing something they don’t enjoy. We can also deliberately avoid making any suggestion that kink or sex should involve certain things (e.g. genitals, pain, orgasms, or fancy outfits) or that certain things are more or less normal.

power

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BDSM 101: Figuring out, and communicating, what you’re into

This week I’m blogging about kink up to the film release of Fifty Shades of Grey. Yesterday focused on finding out more. Today I’m covering how to figure out, and communicate, what you’re into.

Figuring out what you’re into

There’s a sense in Fifty Shades that the kind of ‘kinky fuckery’ that Ana finds herself enjoying is fine, but that the kind of ‘real’ BDSM that Christian is after is not okay. Please put these kinds of distinctions from your mind! People are always trying to draw lines between what kinds of play are okay and what kinds aren’t. For ages it was that missionary penis-in-vagina man/woman sex was fine and nothing else was. Then it expanded a bit to any kind of sex involving genitals was okay, but other stuff wasn’t. Now, after Fifty Shades, we’re told that a bit of light spanking and fluffy handcuffs is okay but anything ‘more than that’ isn’t. All this focus on what counts as normal, right, proper sex (and what doesn’t) takes us aware from far more important questions such as what the people involved actually enjoy, and how to do it ethically.

Fifty-Shades-Grey-Trailer

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BDSM 101: Finding out more about kink

This week I’m blogging about kink up to the film release of Fifty Shades of Grey. Yesterday was an introduction. Today I’m focusing on how to find out more about kink.

Finding out more about kink

In Fifty Shades Christian swears Ana to secrecy about their kink relationship so that she can’t talk to anybody else in her life about it. This is a terrible idea! It’s a huge warning sign in a relationship if there are areas you’re forced to keep secret. Given how common kink is there may well be people already in your life who you can chat openly about your ideas with. However there is still stigma around kink, so you might prefer to talk with people who’re already involved in BDSM.

If you’re new to kink, there is a huge wealth of information available to help you get started. It’s definitely worth checking this out and learning from people who have been there and got the Tshirt.

Tshirt

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BDSM 101 (or what to do and what not to do from Fifty Shades of Grey)

The film of Fifty Shades of Grey is out this week to much excitement and media attention. As somebody who has researched with BDSM communities for over a decade, and written about the Fifty Shades books, I thought it’d be useful to give my suggestions for people who are thinking about getting into kink for the first time having watched the movie.

So, over the next four days, I’m going to cover the following topics, including where I think Fifty Shades gets it right, and where it has a lot of room for improvement:

Before we go on it’s important to say that pretty much everything covered here is also true for any kind of sex – not just kink. It’s sad that people often don’t think about tuning into what they enjoy, or ensuring consent, until they’re considering BDSM. So you might well find it useful to read on even if kink isn’t something you’re particularly interested in.

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Why be normal?

This Valentine’s day I’ll be taking a break from my usual topics of this time of year and I’ll be blogging about the Fifty Shades of Grey movie which is released for Valentine’s weekend.

Meanwhile here’s a link to a blog post which I did about normal sex for the Sick! Festival which I’ll be taking part in up in Manchester in March.

Why be normal?

BDSM: What do we know?

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s a longer one on BDSM following the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Can you tell me a bit about your background and your past research into BDSM practices?

I’m a senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University and I’ve been studying BDSM and other sexualities for around ten years now. In 2007 Darren Langdridge and I published a book called Safe, Sane and Consensual (Palgrave, 2007) which brought together many of the main people researching BDSM at the time.

What drew you to study this subject?

I’m generally interested in sexualities and relationships that fall outside the mainstream and what people in general might be able to learn from those who do things differently.

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Dominant and submissive relationships

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d start to post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one I did on dominant and submissive relationships after Fifty Shades of Grey was published. You might also find it useful to check out some more posts I did about the same topic – around the time the movie came out – here:

Why do people sometimes prefer Dom/sub relationships?

D/s is one aspect of the wider category of BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadomasochism), sometimes also known as kink. Some people are into all of the things listed under BDSM, and some only some of them. D/s is generally distinguished from SM because it is more about power than about physical sensation (although some use these terms more interchangeably).

In D/s activities one person generally dominates the other, or has power over them, therefore people tend to prefer D/s if they find a power dynamic to be exciting in some way. Of course it is pretty common for sex and power to be mixed together in our culture. For example, a lot of romance fiction involves people being rescued from peril or being swept away by somebody more powerful, and a lot of people fantasise about having the power of being utterly desirable to their partner.

What is involved in a Dom/sub relationship?

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Fifty shades switched

As part of my writing on Fifty Shades of Grey I’m thinking about gender and other aspects of social identity in the novels. I thought it would be interesting to see what the book read like if these aspects of characters were changed. Here is what a gender switched version of the first meeting between the two main characters is like:

I push open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own feet and falling headfirst into the office.
Double crap – me and my two left feet! I am on my hands and knees in the doorway to Ms. Grey’s office, and gentle hands are around me, helping me to stand. I am so embarrassed, damn my clumsiness. I have to steel myself to glance up. Holy cow – she’s so young.
‘Mr. Kavanagh.’ She extends a long-fingered hand to me once I’m upright. ‘I’m Clarissa Grey. Are you all right? Would you like to sit?’
So young – and attractive, very attractive. She’s tall, dressed in a fine gray suit, white shirt, and black tie with unruly dark copper-coloured hair and intense, bright gray eyes that regard me shrewdly. It takes a moment for me to find my voice.
‘Um. Actually – ‘ I mutter. If this woman is over thirty, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. In a daze, I place my hand in hers and we shake. As our fingers touch, I feel an odd exhilarating shiver run through me. I withdraw my hand hastily, embarrassed. Must be static. I blink rapidly, my eyelids matching my heart rate.
‘Mr. Kavanah is indisposed, so he sent me. I hope you don’t mind Ms. Grey.’
‘And you are?’ Her voice is warm, possibly amused, but it’s difficult to tell from her impassive expression. She looks mildly interested but, above all, polite.
‘Andrew Steele. I’m studying English literature with Ken, um … Kenneth … um Mr. Kavanagh, at WSU Vancouver’
‘I see,’ she says simply. I think I see the ghost of a smile in her expression, but I’m not sure.
‘Would you like to sit?’ She waves me toward an L-shaped white leather couch.

Interesting questions, I think, include:

  • What is striking about this version which isn’t in the original, and vice versa, and what does that suggest about our common understandings of masculinity and femininity?
  • What kind of woman and man do we imagine Clarissa and Andrew to be (compared with Christian and Ana)?
  • What impact would other changes have on our reading of the text? (e.g. making it a ‘same-gender’ relationship, having the student as the dominant person and the rich CEO as the submissive, switching the backgrounds such that Ana has the history of abuse and adoption rather than Christian, or altering other dimensions such as age, class, race, body-type, etc.)?

Thirsty for more? Try reading:

Sex Critical?

There’s a great new blog up by a colleague of mine called Sex Critical.

In the first post the author defines what they mean by the term which is an attempt to move beyond the dichtomy of ‘sex positive’ and ‘sex negative’. New sex-related phenomena (such as the recent 50 Shades trilogy, or any new ‘sexualised‘ trend amongst young people) tend to be met by two responses: either criticism of the ways in which the phenomenon reproduces and reinforces problematic gender roles, and often coercive or violent sexual practices (sex negative), or defence of all sexual practices and erotic materials as liberatory, with an emphasis on people having freedom to choose what they do sexually (sex positive).

[Note: as Radtransfem, commenting on Sex Critical, points out, it is also often the case that the ‘sex’ in ‘sex negative’ and ‘sex positive’ actually means different things. For example, in ‘sex negative’ what is meant is often ‘objectifying-women-negative’ and in ‘sex positive’ what is meant is often ‘diverse-sexual-practices-positive’]

The author of Sex Critical argues for an alternative position to sex negativity/positivity – being sex critical – whereby all sexual representations and practices are considered equally critically. This is an important point because it tends to be non-normative sexualities (such as sadomasochistic sexual practices or lesbian, gay and bisexual sexualities) that are subject to scrutiny in wider society, whereas people rarely question the sexualities that are considered to be ‘normal’. It is also important because there is a tendency for some ‘sex positive’ writers to assume that all sexual representations and practices are inherently good and liberatory, when actually there might be reason to question the ways in which they operate, and problematic norms that may be present.

So being sex critical we wouldn’t assume that any sexual representation or practice was beyond question, or inherently  positive. Rather we would ask questions about it such as how it fits within wider culture, what ideologies it upholds, and whether it really offers any kind of truth about who we are (something that is often assumed about sexuality).

Sex Critical is written by a humanities scholar, so is perhaps more focused on representations of sexuality than on our own sexual practices. From a psychology/therapy perspective I am interested in how the idea of being sex critical might be useful in people’s daily lives. My chapter on sex in Rewriting the Rules certainly has a sex critical flavour as I question how people might be constrained by the cultural rules about what kinds of ‘good’, ‘normal’ or ‘great’ sex we should be aspiring to, and then look at the possibilities that are opened up, and closed down, by various sexual communities who understand and practice sex in different ways to this (e.g. bisexual, sadomasochistic, erotic fan fiction, and asexual communities).

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