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'Fifty Shades Of Grey' Isn't A Movie About BDSM, And That's A Problem

02/16/2015 01:54 pm ET | Updated Feb 16, 2015
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Like its source material, the "Fifty Shades of Grey" movie is a phenomenon. Sam Taylor-Johnson's much-derided adaptation of E.L. James' more-derided novel broke all kinds of box-office records over the holiday weekend, with more than $94 million in ticket sales. In the wake of its release, some critics praised the film for its feminism and sex-positive depiction of an S&M relationship. Others, not so much: "'50 Shades' is domestic abuse" read one sign held by protestors during the film's London premiere.

Maybe the problem was all in the marketing of this material: As it turns out, "Fifty Shades of Grey" is less of a movie about BDSM and more like an average stalker-thriller. It's easy to get hung up on Christian Grey’s Red Room of Pain with all his floggers, crops, rope and cable ties. But the movie, which only features about 20 minute of sex scenes in total, is really about the obsessive lengths Christian (Jamie Dornan) goes to convince Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a 21-year-old virgin, to sign a contract that enters her into a dominant-submissive relationship, not the relationship itself.

It's only Christian’s extreme wealth and the romanticized notion of his overarching dominant persona that barely mask what’s really just completely creepy behavior. In any other movie, a man or woman who tracks down another person at their job, local bar, home and, oh, their mother's home in Georgia, a plane ride away, would probably end up in back of a police car.

"Everyone wants to focus on the spanking, because that’s the sensational part -- that’s the part that everyone is going home and masturbating to anyways," Mistress Couple, the head mistress at La Domaine Esemar, the oldest BDSM training chateau in the world, told HuffPost Entertainment. "People aren’t masturbating to the part where they’re fighting and he’s stalking her at work."

Christian's self-admitted inability to leave Ana alone shouldn't be romanticized, nor should his controlling, domineering behavior be conflated with sexual dominance.

"He suffers from what I call 'Domitis,'" said Mistress Mona Rogers, a professional dominatrix in New York City. "He walks around acting dominant all the time and that's not realistic."

Christian says he always gets what he wants, which he does by lavishing Ana with extravagant gifts (first-edition set of "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," a new Macbook Pro, selling her busted powder blue Volkswagen Beetle in exchange for a shiny red Audi A3) and manipulating and controlling her into being with him on his terms.

"There is a very big difference between being true to yourself and ruling with an iron fist, and letting your desire for control, control you," Mistress Couple explained when asked the difference between being dominant and being controlling or abusive. "At La Domaine, we say that if your fetish is controlling you, then it’s a paraphilia. This is something that’s potentially harmful to you as a person and I feel that is what Christian Grey embodies."

For those who are blissfully unaware, Christian reveals he's "50 shades of fucked up" because he "had a rough start in life." [SPOILER ALERT] That's code for he was born to a woman who was "crack addict and a prostitute." In James' books, his birth mother died by suicide when he was 4 years old. In the second book, "Fifty Shades Darker," he tells Ana, "I'm a sadist, Ana. I like to whip little brown-haired girls like you because you all look like the crack whore -- my birth mother."

"BDSM is about creating vulnerability, opening yourself up to your partner in a way you can trust them to take you to some of these dark places that are considered taboo overall, but in a loving way," Mistress Couple explained. "That’s what’s missing from the 'Fifty Shades of Grey.' Christian continuously violates [Ana's] trust and her ability to feel safe, and that any person in their right mind would get out of a relationship that’s like that."

Beyond simply being a movie cliche, how Christian's own encounters with abuse formed his sexual desires is an inaccurate and problematic representation of what might motivate someone's interest in BDSM.

"There is such confusion about the whole abuse issue. That if you are into [BDSM] you were abused as a child, which is absurd," said Master R, the head master at La Domaine, who previously was a professional submissive in New York City for almost a decade, before exploring his own dominance and later opening the training chateau in 1993.

"The concept that if you are into it you are going to be abusive, is also absurd. Most psychological studies coming out now say that people in BDSM relationships are very healthy, and often far more balanced because we communicate so much, and we are trying so hard not to be abusive. That’s why this film is so objectionable and this character is so objectionable," he said. "I don’t think [author] E.L. James understands what domination and submission and mastery really is. She’s used caricatures that she’s encountered previously and prejudices that she’s encountered previously, so the whole character is going to be carrying not only a lot of falsehoods but false understandings."

In fact, while Christian Grey is all "fucked up" a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2013, found those involved in BDSM scored better on certain indicators of mental health than their counterparts. Other studies suggest bondage can induce altered mental states and reduce anxiety.

Mistress Mona also dismisses the notion of trauma inspiring someone's interest in sexual dominance, and is quick to point out something everyone who practices "safe, sane, consensual" BDSM knows: The submissive is really the one who has all the power and sets the limits. And while "Fifty Shades of Grey" spends a lot of time talking about consent, with tedious discussion and even negotiation of Christian and Ana's relationship contract, Ana never signs the consent form. Not that it would even matter, since Christian never adheres to his own rules anyway. At one point he even says, "Fuck the paper work."

Another reason "Fifty Shades" isn't really a BDSM movie is that, at its core, the film rejects [D]iscipline, [S]adism and [M]asochist. Anastasia is down for some light bondage, and even a little over-the-knee spanking, but she just can't understand why Christian wants to "punish" and inflict pain on her.

For those who haven't experienced it, the motivations behind these desires can also be difficult to understand. But as Mistress Couple emphasized, rarely do motivations stem from abuse. In her case, she sees herself as a "sexual or spiritual guide," or even as somewhat of a coach to an athlete.

"Athletes are revered in our society for their endurance and strength. Nobody ever stops to consider that the pain and endorphin rush a runner feels from getting a side cramp is comparable to the sting of a mistress' whip," she wrote in an email after our interview. "Engaging in intentional BDSM is like training for a long distance marathon. Some who engage in it are looking to be trained (the submissive and or masochist), others are drawn to coaching (the dominant and or sadist)."

Because those who practice BDSM are frequently portrayed in popular culture as broken people, we know why these misconceptions exist. But Mistress Couple breaks it down very simply for those, like Ana, struggling to understand why anyone would want to inflict pain on anyone else:

"It's about being able to control a person and guide them to a place that is exciting for them -- and also creating that intimacy by being the leader," she said. "It’s not necessarily about getting turned on by hitting someone as hard as you can. For someone people it is, and they just want to see just how hard they can push that person, but I think operating like that all the time can be really dangerous."

As for Christian's need to whip brunette women who remind him of his birth mother, Master R explained that in "real, loving, partnered BDSM, it is possible to use it to deal with emotional damage, if you are open and honest." But as anyone who has seen the film or read the book will agree, Christian is not truthful. "He’s as closed off to himself as he is to Ana. No matter what it’s going be, it’s going to remain an emotional crutch. It’s not going to do you any good to hit a woman who looks like your 'crack whore mother.' It will do you emotional good to get inside your own heart and see what happened and learn to be loving," he said.

For more on BDSM and the reality behind "Fifty Shades of Grey," check out HuffPost's Love and Sex Podcast:

Also on HuffPost:

'Fifty Shades Of Grey': Everything You Need To Know
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