With the recent buzz being created by EL James’ book Fifty Shades of Grey, I felt compelled to discuss the elements of the relationship described in the book as well as disband myths that have recently come up in the media regarding BDSM type relationships. The definition of BDSM describes a relationship in which people take on a role of Dominant or a Submissive and may involve some type of restriction (Bondage) and the setting of rules by the Dom which if not followed properly by the Submissive he/she will be punished through some sort of discipline. People who participate in BDSM come from a variety of ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages and social classes
The Dom is in a position of power and authority and the Sub is in a position of helplessness and vulnerability in many capacities. These relationships are consensual and the submissive has code words to let the Dom know if he/she has had enough. Therefore, the myth that the Sub is actually being abused and in danger of being hurt is not true at all in a true D/S relationship because the Submissive has all the power to stop a ‘scene’ by using the code word. The draw for people involved in the BDSM scene is multi-layered and varied but coincide with the desire to experience a non-Vanilla type of sensual, sexual erotic experience that occurs outside of the normal rational mind. When Ana first experiences this type of experience she is surprised by her erotic response which is immediate and highly charged despite her intellectual mind telling her she shouldn’t be getting turned on.
Many people when they first hear about Bondage-Discipline and Sadomasochistic relationships think that there must be something pathologically wrong with the person(s) administering or receiving the pain, humiliation or restrictions which can be involved in this type of dynamic. However, couples involved in this type of relationship only come in for therapy when there are issues outside their sexual relationship that need help, or because one of them is not adhering to the detailed contract which was set up at the beginning of their relationship. Like the heroine Anastasia in Fifty Shades of Grey, she is asked to read over a list of activities to see which are hard limits (meaning activities she would never want to do under any circumstances) and soft limits (meaning activities that she might consider trying) and sign a contract.
People in this type of relationship describe it at times as an orientation the way other people might say they’re gay or Lesbian in that they need certain threats or actions of pain or restrictions to make them feel turned on erotically. Many people do not want or give pain but rather another type of sensation that can cause the partners to get a type of “high” that other people might get finishing an Iron Man. It can put people in a type of trance-like state that lifts them out of their ordinary experience. For many people the actual act of intercourse or touching one another is not part of the experience and yet one or both partners are brought to orgasm through the anticipation, rule setting and/or restrictions put into place. One of my clients who was involved in this type of relationship acted as a Dom and her male partner was not allowed to touch her in any way except perhaps to stroke her boots as she set up restrictions for him.
In the press recently, it has been suggested that the book is reflecting a change in society somehow and that because women have broken the ‘glass ceiling’ in their careers they are more likely longing for a place in which they can relinquish control. I would argue that these types of relationships have been around a long time and that the gender of the Dom and sub has been inhabited by both sexes. The most famous example of a man taking on the masochist role might be in the novella Venus in Furs written by Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch in 1879 was based on his own experiences as a sub to his mistress Baroness Fanny Pistor. In this relationship he begged to be treated as a slave and that she wears fur while subjugating him. The term Masochism was named for him by the Austrian psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing in 1886 due to Sacher-Mosoch’s writings on the subject. A modern interpretation of this novel entitled Venus in Fur is being performed currently on Broadway in which the characters are introduced as an actress who is auditioning for a director for the play based on the original novella by Sacher- Masoch.
The subject of this book should not be viewed through a social-political lens since it lies in a realm that is purely psychological, emotional and sensual. It is an adult form of playacting that many people would rather just keep in their fantasies. Therefore, just because the book has become a hit in the suburbs, does not mean that all these female readers want to enact these roles. Some may and some may not, but you have to open up the topic in order to find out.
As I say to male clients sitting in my consulting office, the fantasy of being so irresistible to a man that he cannot control his desire is the ultimate libido cocktail for most women.
That involves creative pursuing that builds anticipation psychological engagement. There is in fact a multi-billion dollar industry of romance novels that are filled with bad boy heroes and desired heroines that succumb to the alpha-type hero. Just as men watch their porn online, there are many women who go to websites in which laypeople share their erotica stories for others to read. A portion of these stories contain stories of BDSM. It is not weird, it is not pathological, it is a flavor of erotica, just as chocolate (and vanilla) are flavors of ice cream.