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BDSM…Why Media Needs More Positive Portrayals

BDSM

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Although the popular and controversial series, 50 Shades of Grey sparked conversations about kink and BDSM in mainstream culture, BDSM had existed long before its famous and problematic portrayal. BDSM is a giant umbrella term that refers to a variety of practices, including the use of bondage, domination, sadomasochism, role-playing, humiliation, in addition to lifestyle practices that are not sexual. The way in which participants choose to express their BDSM/kink practices can look very different across individuals, but what remains constant is the inclusion of respect for all parties, including their interests, desires, and boundaries, along with every individuals’ right to make decisions, and ultimately consent from all involved. 

The titillating “50 Shades” franchise seemingly encouraged a more open discussion or consideration of BDSM/kink dynamics, but many have pointed out how the relationship between the main characters,  Anastasia and Christian Grey, does not depict consensual kink with agreed-upon boundaries and limits. Furthermore, it has been noted that their relationship is instead a form of sinister manipulation, coercion, and ultimately glorified abuse.

Therefore, the fictional pair do not accurately present the experiences of a consensual couple engaging in kink. However, the “50 Shades of Gray Franchise” is not the only problematic on-screen portrayal of BDSM dynamics. It seems that the majority of BDSM/kink representations in the media do not properly explain what BDSM is and how to practice it safely.

The erotic Polish film, 365 Days was released in 2020 and quickly gained popularity among viewers for its shocking sex scenes, but despite the film’s one hour and fifty-four minute run time, none of the scenes included open communication regarding sexual desires or needs, the development of trust and mutual respect, an agreed-upon safe word for consenting parties to use, or aftercare following a sexual encounter. 

An earlier film titled The Secretary also failed to illustrate to its audiences how properly safe BDSM dynamics should be practiced. In the film, the main character, Lee Holloway, engages in a sexual relationship with her boss. At first, the relationship brings her great joy and excitement, but as the film progresses, the audience watches as her boss repeatedly decides to prioritize his personal pleasure and needs over hers, often choosing to control the nature of their sexual encounters as well as their frequency, without any regard for Lee and her needs. 

One might wonder, why should it matter if a film or novel does not include accurate or positive representations? It might seem nitpicky or unnecessary on the surface, but in a world saturated with information, it is extremely important to pause and consider what media is truly telling us about our lives, our sexuality, the ways in which we express sexuality, and whether these messages are positive or not. Fantasies are not the problem. The problem arises when we mistake fantasy for reality and watch content like “50 Shades of Grey” without recognizing that the foundation of safe, consensual BDSM is trust and respect for other people’s space, interests, fears, desires, and boundaries. 

BDSM is often mischaracterized as being a deviant social practice which focuses exclusively on the unwilling subjugation, exploitation, control, and abuse of others. The truth is far from this exceedingly negative and dangerous depiction. Kink/BDSM is safe, sane, and consensual. Therefore, practitioners of safe, sane, and consensual BDSM recognize that consent is an ongoing process and that it can be revoked at any time. Having obtained consent once, twice, three times, or even four times, does not necessarily guarantee consent in the future. 

Additionally, participants acknowledge that the immense trust their partners’ have in them is sacred, but not promised. Power is exchanged. Even individuals who might be considered the “dominant” or “top” in the dynamic, do not assume that they have complete and ultimate power over another. The true nature of a kink relationship is mutually decided on and is free to change. The dominant/dominants earn the respect and trust from their partners.

There is fluidity within the relationship itself and power play (if and when it is used between consenting parties) does not suggest the abuse or manipulation of another being. All participants are free to make decisions that fit them as well as their needs. 

To best emphasize this point, and communicate what the positive foundations of a healthy BDSM lifestyle/relationship are, the media must begin to consider the importance of their portrayals and then diligently work to include improved depictions of kink/BDSM. Sharing more nuanced, realistic, and positive depictions can help to prevent the spread of misinformation that surrounds the BDSM community, educate those who have been misinformed, and even aid individuals who are relatively new to kink and who wish to have a deeper understanding. 

Erroneous or negative portrayals of BDSM and by extension negative portrayals of those in the BDSM community may encourage stigmatization, ostracization, and feelings of shame for individuals interested in consensual BDSM practices. Negative portrayals of BDSM often lead people to assume that BDSM must be inherently “bad” and/or that the primary characteristic of all kinks is the nonconsensual manipulation of an intimate partner.

Many films forget to include in their depiction of kink or BDSM is the development of boundaries, limitations, agreed-upon terms, mutual respect, active listening, the employment of a safe word, and aftercare immediately following the conclusion of a sexual scene. By including representations of BDSM in the media that take the time to depict mutual trust and respect of all parties within the context of safe, sane, and consensual dynamics, sexual shame can be avoided and in its place, more positive messages surrounding sexuality can be shared. 


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