I started out thinking that this would definitely not be a blog post about the 50 Shades books or film, but about the myriad of ways to identify outside of binaries—for example, all of the shades of gray between straight and gay, top and bottom, kinky and non-kinky, and all of the intersections thereof and beyond. It can be a tricky for people to admit that they reside in the gray area somewhere between the categorical binaries of gender and sexuality—for example those who are not 100% kinky or 100% vanilla; or are versatile or a switch; or who like different things at different times with different people. There can be a tendency to feel devalued or anticipate judgement by any given community’s majority for not fitting into a binary role, which can prevent people from experiencing the fullest sense of who they are.
I have been so inspired by the all of the conversations around identification and sexual exploration that have come out of reactions to the 50 Shades franchise that I can’t help wonder how the expansion of consciousness happening around kink right now will influence ideas around non-binary identifications. And while I can’t say I’m exactly a fan of the content or its presentation, I think it’s wonderful that 50 Shades is making discussions about kink more accessible and acceptable. This is important for so many reasons, one of my favorites being that in opening up conversations around kink, it makes it easier for a lot of kinky or kink-curious people to come out of the closet, or consider embarking on a new exploration of their sexual identity.
Having said that, because the general public has historically not been privy to the inner workings of the BDSM dynamic, an unfortunate side effect of the current focus on kink as mass marketed by the 50 Shades franchise is that people might assume this depiction is actually what BDSM is. The collective understanding of sexuality is reciprocally created by and influences popular culture and media, which is why I’ve been thrilled to see all the articles calling out how 50 Shades is an egregiously inaccurate representation of BDSM interactions. If we don’t have these conversations, we may end up getting set back decades in the fight against pathologization and criminalization, and people’s lives will continue to be seriously affected, such as the all too common problems of custody cases being lost because of sexual orientation, or discriminatory firing, et cetera.
Let me give you a real life, first hand example of this type of problem. I gave a talk a couple of weeks ago to a group of kinksters in NYC, and a woman stood up at the end to thank me. She had been considering exploring her submissive desires for some time and had been reluctant for many reasons, but on that night, she gained the understanding that she actually has a say in what a prospective dominant might do to her. Though it is common knowledge in the BDSM scene that the submissive or bottom holds most of the power in their ability to use a safeword or gesture to stop a scene at any time, not having interacted with the scene before, and going off common (lack of) knowledge of BDSM, she had no idea about the importance of negotiations, or having firm boundaries, or really what consent means in the context of a BDSM interaction. I was so happy that she spoke up, and that she felt empowered to explore submission in a safe way with a dominant she trusts, because this is a ongoing issue that I’m concerned will be exacerbated by the insidious consent violations in 50 Shades. (One of many examples: A kink-identified person who clearly understands the concept of consent would never give a person who does not sexually identify as a submissive, and who has not yet had a chance to figure out much at all about her sexuality, a 24/7 D/s slave contract. Ana wasn’t capable of giving consent because it would have been impossible to wrap her mind around what that means, and therefore impossible to give consent to any of it. It would basically be like trying to convince a straight-identified person to be gay, or vice versa.)
That is not to say that people who enjoy vanilla sex can’t also be interested in trying kinky sex, or vice versa (though that really doesn’t seem to be the case at all with Ana or Christian.) The most important thing in any kind of relationship or sexual interaction is communication. So many relationship issues come from important information or preferences not being brought up early on, and a lot of the challenges people face come from not knowing how to do this. We’re just not taught to talk about sexuality in our society, in fact, we’re taught not to talk about it, which is pervasively problematic. It can be extremely uncomfortable when you’re not used to it, and it can make people feel vulnerable to merely consider a disclosure of information when they’re not in the habit of doing so, especially when you add the expectation of resistance or rejection to atypical preferences.
To get back to my original thought process, the aforementioned books and film might very well encourage a lot of formerly non-kinky people to consider adding kink to their sexual repertoire, which has the potential to be a good thing, if it turns out that BDSM is something they find they’re actually into, and if it’s something they learn how to go about in the right way (consent, consent, consent). Speaking transparently about sex—any kind of sex—with current or potential partners is crucial; for example, discussing both kinky and non-kinky sexual interests before having sex for the first time; and how often you might like to indulge in kinky as opposed to vanilla sex, for those who are into both at different times; or if you happen to be someone who prefers to incorporate kink into vanilla sex, or incorporate vanilla sex into kink. Since sexuality is an extremely individualized aspect of identity, as long as you’ve communicated ahead of time what your interests are or may be, and you’re doing what you’re doing consensually and with someone who shares your interests, you’re doing it right. The options are endless, but they will remain beginningless without having that conversation.
The bottom line is this: There are so many shades of sexual interaction, and while it’s comforting for many to self-identify in a specific way, it’s also not necessary to adhere to any one particular orientation or identification. We are all multi-faceted individuals with a variety of aspects to our identities, and we all have sexual identities that are fluid from childhood to old age. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—confining ourselves to a specific set of society-approved sexual acts could at minimum result in a stifling of sexual identity and self-actualization. Encouraging clear communication, education, and tolerance for if not full on acceptance of sexual diversity is the antidote.