40718-2The Fifty Shades of Grey Phenomenon and the S/M Sensational

Ming-May Jessie Chen


The film Fifty Shades of Grey, the adaptation of E. L. James’ book, opened in the theater this Valentine’s Day weekend. With its release, the sadomasochism (S/M) scenes in the film have raised a serious discussion upon the sex and violence issues. I happened to have read the novel and seen the movie, and frankly speaking, I did not enjoy either one at all. They embody the typical cliché of romance between a young handsome billionaire, Christian Grey, and a naïve beautiful college girl, Anastasia Steele. The poor directing and production did not improve the film at all. Thus, for anyone who wants to stand out to boycott the film for artistic reasons in particular, I honestly do not have any problem with it, because it is “not a good film,” as The New York Times’ film critic A. O. Scott has said, it is actually “a terrible movie.”[1]

However, the film has its own intrinsic cultural value when it comes to the exploration of human sexuality, particularly the sadomasochistic acts. In 1969, the anthropologist Dr. Paul H. Gebhard had already pointed out that S/M is a cultural phenomenon, one which has been “embedded in our culture since our culture operates on the basis of dominance-submission relationships,”[ii] which means that we have actually exercised it on the daily basis through social interaction, but we did not even know it.

As a sex-media teacher, I have long seen S/M as a form of freedom of expression, and to a degree, I believe that we all are more or less S/Mers, no matter in which expression, dominance or submission. As Krafft-Ebing has pointed out, oftentimes young couples are possibly “engaged in some sort of “horseplay,” teasing, biting, pinching, and wrestling “just for fun.”[iii] It can be argued that the very core of S/M is not to harm, but to heal, to comfort, and to support using an alternative, unconventional way. Nevertheless, recent negative voices attacking the S/M sexual behavior in Fifty Shades of Grey have somehow bothered me.

In its related news, anti-porn conservatives have been reported they claimed the S/M scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey will “cause domestic violence,”[iv] and this simple conclusion has made me quite uneasy and anxious, as they endeavor to connect S/M with the acts of violence, exploitation, and abuse to women, which is, I have to say, a complete preconception and misunderstanding toward S/M.

With these unfriendly milieu to S/Mers, I feel I have certain responsibility to clarify the core ideas in S/M along with its various definitions. Considering the sadomasochism to be complex, Paul H. Gebhard has defined it as “obtaining sexual arousal through receiving or giving physical or mental pain.”[v] As for Jay Wiseman, an experienced S/M practitioner, S/M is “the knowing use of psychological dominance and submission, and/or physical bondage, and/or pain, and/or related practices in a safe, legal, consensual manner in order for the participants to experience erotic arousal and/or personal growth.”[vi] To Wiseman, S/M has “ritualized” sexual aggression and submission,”[vii] which is seen as “a caring, consensual, safe form of intense erotic play that causes no significant damage” and it is nothing to do with the “images of rape, wife-beating, mental coercion, kidnapping, and psychopathic torture,”[viii] Besides, Wiseman indicated, a lot of S/M possibly stems from imprinting, past trauma, or early childhood experiences, and the pathological motivations might come from frustration (dominants), dependency (submissives), anger (sadists), and guilt and self-loathing (masochists).[ix]

Untitled-1Sallie Tisdale, in her book Talk Dirty to Me, has taken S/M as one kind of “rough sex” with a “therapeutic nature” that requires a good amount of “negotiation” and “talking.” To her, rough sex is “play,” that “is replete with laundry-listing, detail-oriented planning, tools, complicated games, rules, and toys.”[x] To put them together, I thus have defined S/M as a scripted sexual performance or “an arranged situation,”[xi] where the participants give and receive pain and aim to reach the ultimate “gratification,” or pleasure from each other. The participants as such are assumed to be communicative and mature with self-disciplined mind in order to “make the sex safe and mutually gratifying,” as Emma Green has noted.[xii]

Since 2012, following 50 Shades of Grey’s first publication, the “kinky” sex contents had already caused certain backlash among anti-porn groups and conservative religious groups. For example, the Wearside Women in Need, a charity for victims of domestic violence in Sunderland (UK), has considered it “an instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman,”[xiii] according to The Guardian, and the leading feminist website Jezebel.com referred the novel to “50 Shades of Abuse.”[xiv] The ideological war on S/M act has even extended to the film status quo. According to the Time of 4 February 2015, some protesters have already launched a campaign to “boycott” the film, saying that “the movie glorifies violence against women” and “encouraging would-be moviegoers to donate money to domestic-violence victims” instead of going to see the movie.[xv] Moreover, archbishop of Cincinnati Dennis Schnurr has declared that “[t]he movie is a direct assault on Christian marriage and on the moral and spiritual strength of God’s people.”[xvi] Similarly, the right wing LifeSiteNews.com has asked its readers to sign a petition to boycott Fifty Shades of Grey based on the ground that it “promotes misogyny, abuse, and sadomasochism under the guise of ‘romance:’”

While the marketing campaign is selling the movie as a “romance,” there is nothing authentically romantic about the tale of a sado-masochistic sexual relationship . . . .

Critics have described the book as misogynistic, pornographic, exploitative, sexually violent, and anti-romance – and there is little reason to expect the film will be anything different. This upcoming Valentine’s Day, join this movement by pledging to take stand for true love and true romance. Together, let’s make 50 Shades the worst box-office flop in history.[xvii]

As of February 16, 2015, 105,683 people in total signed the petition over the course of 3 months. Hereby, I want to ask these petitioners to answer the serious question they have raised: What is “true” romance then? The petition itself has immediately revealed the hierarchies of sexual value where have provided the classification of the good and bad sex.[xviii] I assume that these petitioners has come to believe that the vanilla sex (superior, good sex) is the only standard sex to fit into one of the pictures of true romance, and to them, S/M (inferior, bad sex) is only for those “perverts” who cannot tell the differences between the “true” romance and the “fake” one.

To see S/M as a dangerous sex is a mistake. There is no single victim within the staged activities. Also, S/M is not a form of misogyny. In reality, the submissive role is not limited to women; a male masochism is not uncommon. As I have emphasized earlier, any S/M practice must be consensual. Under such a scenario, S/M is absolutely not a violent act against any woman or man. It is surely not conventional, but not abnormal or unnatural. In a word, it is built within a trusted relationship instead of an abusive one.

At last, I would like to provide some elementary materials to any beginner who is interested in exploring the topic or see if he/she has hidden sadomasochistic tendency. You may once have questioned if you are a sadist or masochist, and these materials may be able to help you to find the many shades of your sexuality. First of all, Jay Wiseman’s book S/M 101: A Realistic Introduction (in English) is a good starter to lead anyone into the secret world of S/M. As for Chinese speakers, I strongly recommend Yau-Shen Hsu’s[xix] SM愛愛─The Joy of SM. For more academic articles, “S&M: Studies in Dominance & Submission,” edited by Thomas S. Weinberg, has collected classic literatures upon S/M themes. Additionally, the following films can also provide the audience with different subtle dimension of S/M cultures respectively from the United States, France, and Japan. They are Secretary (怪ㄎㄚ情緣), a 2002 film directed by Steven Shainberg, Romance (羅曼史), a 1999 French film by Catherine Breillat, and the 2014 Japanese soft-porn Captive Market (性奴隸市). These films are true enough to S/M nature, more precisely, true to human nature.

[1] Scott, A. O, “In ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Movie, Sex Is a Knotty Business.” Review of Fifty Shades of Grey. New York Times, 11 February 2015; available from http:nyti.ms/16Sfm0b.

[ii] Gebhard, Paul H, “Sadomasochism.” In S&M: Studies in Dominance & Submission, edited by Thomas S. Weinberg , New York: Prometheus Books, 1995, 42.

[iii] Quoted in Weinberg, Thomas S., and G. W. Levi Kamel. “S&M: An Introduction to the Study of Sadomasochism.” In S&M: Studies in Dominance & Submission, edited by Thomas S. Weinberg, New York: Prometheus Books, 1995, 15-16.

[iv] Ohlheiser, Abby, “Need a Reason Not to See ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’? Here Are a Few.” Washington Post, 13 February 2015; available from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2015/02/13/need-a-reason-not-to-see-fifty-shades-of-grey-here-are-a-few/.

[v] Gebhard, 40.

[vi]Wiseman, Jay, S/M 101: A Realistic Introduction. 2nd ed. CA: Greenery Press, 1996, 10.

[vii] Ibid, 16.

[viii] Ibid, 16-17.

[ix] Ibid, 15.

[x] Tisdale, Sallie, Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex. New York: Anchor Books, 1994, 297.

[xi] Gebhard, 43.

[xii] Quoted in Ohlheiser.

[xiii] Flood, Alison, “Fifty Shades of Grey condemned as ‘Manual for Sexual Torture.’” Guardian, 24 August 2012; available from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/aug/24/fifty-shades-grey-domestic-violence-campaigners?CMP=share_btn_fb.

[xiv] Quoted in “Say No to Abuse. Boycott 50 Shades of Grey, the Movie: Sign the Petition,” Lifesite [cited 16 February 1015] . Available from https://www.lifesitenews.com/petitions/50-shades-boycott.

[xv] Alter, Charlotte, “There’s Already a Campaign to Boycott Fifty Shades of Grey.” Time, Feb. 4, 2015; available from http://time.com/3696254/50-shades-of-grey-boycott/?xid=newsletter-brief.

[xvi] Dockterman, Eliana, “Fifty Shades of Grey Is a ‘Direct Assault’ on Marriage, Archbishop Says.” Time, 11 February 2015; available from http://time.com/3705713/fifty-shades-of-grey-marriage/

[xvii] “Say No to Abuse. Boycott 50 Shades of Grey, the Movie: Sign the Petition.”

[xviii] Regarding the idea of “sex hierarchy,” see Gayle S. Rubin’s noted article “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.”

[xix] The Chinese name is許佑生.


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