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Dominatrix © Endla/Shutterstock
Dominatrix © Endla/Shutterstock
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How 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' Got BDSM Completely Wrong

Picture of Nikki Vargas
Travel Editor
Updated: 10 February 2017
On any given weekend in Manhattan, BDSM enthusiasts will gather at Paddles — an S&M club in Chelsea that is inconspicuously nestled near a veterinary practice and jazz record center on West 26th street. Fetishists from all walks of life congregate, bonded by nothing more than a mutual respect for kink.

The world of BDSM is one shrouded in mystery and misconceptions. To those who do not practice it (playfully referred to as “vanillas” by those who do) this form of sex play may cause pause. But in its most elemental form, BDSM— or Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism — is a consensual type of sex that leverages ropes, paddles, clamps, and other “toys” within the realm of fantasy play.

In the wake of the box office success, Fifty Shades of Grey, and its anticipated sequel, Fifty Shades of Grey Darker (release date Feb 10, 2017), the idea of using handcuffs or whips isn’t as radical as it might have once been. When the film premiered in time for Valentine’s Day 2015, moviegoers watched as main character Anastasia Steele recoiled in fear at Christian Grey’s high end collection of crops and ropes — a fetish the film suggests is a result of abuse in Grey’s past. Although BDSM had been depicted in previous films, Fifty Shades of Grey, a best-selling phenomenon, pushed the fetish into the public eye on a global scale.

To those actually imbedded in the world of kink, the portrayal of BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey is far off base. To explore the stereotypes of BDSM and those who practice it, I went into the world of spanks and bondage to ask a professional dominatrix, a local BDSM enthusiast, and the founder of NYC’s Paddles just how wrong the film was.

BDSM © Victor Moussa/Shutterstock
BDSM | © Victor Moussa/Shutterstock

Is BDSM Abusive?

The first thought that comes to mind when people bring up BDSM are images of people being tied up, whipped, and wincing in pain. In Fifty Shades of Grey, Steele is punished by Grey anytime she disobeys his requests. What begins as a playful banter ends in an overtly dramatic scene of Steele fighting back tears as Grey mercilessly uses a belt to whip her.

Upon venturing into New York’s underground kink scene, I found that those who actually practice dominance and submission have a relationship that seems anything but abusive. In fact, BDSM operates on a strict set of rules where those who play together mutually agree on everything before they get involved sexually. This is something that the Fifty Shades of Grey film actually gets right to a degree.

This open dialogue about the limitations of BDSM ensures that both people involved are never in pain, abused, or pushed past a personal limit. In a fetish that is all about testing the limits of pain and pleasure, a conversation about personal limitations is essential. A local New Yorker (let’s call him Daniel – when approached for this story, he preferred to remain anonymous) explained, “I’ll practice BDSM with my wife and there are times when it is so emotional and so loving, that afterwards we experience this inexplicable bond together that simply reinforces our love.” For Daniel, Fifty Shades of Grey is a gross misrepresentation of a sexual fetish that is all about bringing two people closer together.

“BDSM doesn’t come from a place of hate where you want to torture your partner,” explains professional dominatrix Renee Trevi, “it is the radical acceptance of the deep and darker aspects of a person.” The “pain” inflicted during BDSM is simply part of the role-playing, and mingles with pleasure as it is kept within the limits of a person’s comfort.

Professional dominatrices like Trevi offer a safe place for clientele to indulge in their fantasies, acting as sort of guides to this fantastical world of kink. “Clients describe who they are and what they want and I listen and accept it fully,” explains Trevi. “For one that might mean being more of a goddess to worship, for another, an actress to act out fantasies or a seductress or a strict disciplinarian. It is about the client and their needs.”

Submission © Endia/Shutterstock
Submission | © Endia/Shutterstock

Are people who practice BDSM “damaged?”

In Fifty Shades of Grey, Steele presses Grey to share why he is into BDSM. Although the full story is never quite revealed, we do gather that Grey was subjected to physical and emotional abuse as a child leaving visible scars and mental wounds that result in his fetish. Of all the BDSM stereotypes presented by the film, the idea that people who practice this kink are psychologically “damaged” is perhaps the most offensive to fetishists.

As Michael (who prefers his last name be omitted), the founder and owner of Paddles, explains, “most of the stigmas [surrounding BDSM] come from people who have no idea what we are doing. The problem is that in the media, if a crime is committed and they find a leather mask in the guy’s house they say, ‘this guy must have been into BDSM’ and that is what the public will see.”

To the contrary, New York’s BDSM scene is home to working professionals, happily married couples, budding romances, and singles. “We are people’s neighbors, co-workers, children, whatever you want to call us,” says Michael. “We are just like everybody else.”

Dominatrix © JT Bioscopen/Flickr
Dominatrix | © JT Bioscopen/Flickr

Are those who enjoy being submissive in BDSM weak?

Walking through the rooms of Paddles, you’ll find a variety of people paired off. Some are spanking their partners, others are receiving foot massages from their submissives, and other pairs are tying each other up with ropes. In BDSM relationships, people tend to identify as either the dominant or submissive role.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, Grey is depicted as strong, assertive, and successful; while Steele is seen as clumsy, shy and meek. In the realm of BDSM relationships, this is not necessarily the case. Women can be dominant, men can be submissive, and the roles chosen don’t always reflect on the person’s day-to-day personality whatsoever. “You have to be strong minded in some capacity if you’re going to give up power to someone,” explains Daniel. “Being submissive takes an inherent strength to push aside your ego.”

While the average New Yorker may remain oblivious to the pulsating world of BDSM, there does exist this underground playground of pleasure. The people of this land are no different than those you may see walking down the street. They are couples who have found a way to keep their sex lives exciting. They are singles who are unashamed to explore their fetishes. They are professionals blowing off steam from their stressful careers.

With the upcoming release of Fifty Shades of Grey Darker, assumptions about BDSM and those who enjoy it will continue to grow. But try to look beyond the film. It takes little more depth to realize that not everything we see in pop culture about kink is true.

Read Culture Trip’s Film Editor, Graham Fuller’s review of the film Fifty Shades Darker!