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50 Shades Of Grey (Matter): How Science Is Defying BDSM Stereotypes

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It seems that no one is immune to E L James' controversial novel, 50 Shades of Grey. Television shows, magazines, popular blogs, even side conversations outside the school pick-up line are filled with talk about how hot it is -- and how it may be solely responsible for jump-starting the sex drives of bored housewives across the country. While I agree that some of the sex scenes are quite titillating, I find myself annoyed at the overt Bondage/Discipline/Dominance/Submission/Sadism/Masochism (BDSM) stereotypes advanced by the book. Especially since the latest scientific studies concerning sexual behavior do not back them up.

Handsome, charming and incredibly wealthy, 50 Shades' Christian Grey is considered Seattle's most eligible bachelor, the kind of man that no woman can resist. But readers soon learn that Mr. Grey has a dark side: He is a Dominant who likes to tie up and whip submissive brunettes like his innocent new conquest, Anastasia Steele. And when Anastasia digs deeper to understand his strange sexual predilections, she learns that he had a violent early childhood, was neglected by his "crack whore" mother and abused by her pimp. Grey tells Anastasia that his perverse desires stem from being "50 shades of [effed] up" -- hence the provocative title.

Whether we are reading about Mr. Grey, appreciating a young Mickey Rourke in 9 ½ Weeks or being horrified by the latest potential perp on Law & Order: SVU, we have, as a culture, hooked into the worst kind of BDSM stereotypes. We are conditioned to see those who practice the lifestyle as imbalanced, damaged and potentially violent. We believe they are incapable of building or maintaining successful sexual or emotional relationships. We think these are people to be both pitied and feared -- but mostly feared. And most dangerously, we think these are people who need to be fixed. As one acquaintance told me, "I admit that 50 Shades was kind of sexy. But I think that kind of sex is just really, really wrong and dangerous." I've heard more than a few folks, some of them with lots of letters after their names, wholeheartedly agree with her.

But is BDSM really wrong and dangerous? While there is an overall lack in the study of sexuality in general, new studies across the globe are defying some age-old casts -- and helping us to reassess the way we look at BDSM culture and what we consider "normal" sexuality. Here are a few of the most brazen stereotypes seen in 50 Shades of Grey -- and what science has to say about them.

Myth: BDSM is violent.

Tristan Taormino, a sex educator and author of The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play and the Erotic Edge, says that 9 times out of 10, media portrayals of BDSM link it to violence and crime. Joe, a friend of a friend who organizes a BDSM date night for over 100 people, says that is one of the stereotypes that bother him the most. "The mantra for BDSM is safe, sane and consensual. With an emphasis on consensual," he told me. "But there are so many different shades of non-vanilla sex out there. Everyone has their own flavor -- what my kinks are may not be the same as everyone else."

Debby Herbenick, sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute and author of Sex Made Easy,
says that BDSM is a huge umbrella term for a wide range of activities. "It's important to understand that there are so many different ways of engaging in BDSM play, from the fuzzy handcuffs you can buy at a women-oriented sex boutique to the more extreme sexual dungeon set-up," she says. "Even if you are just using one device, like a flogger, there are so many different ways to use it. Some may stroke a partner with it while another person will really whip them with it."

In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Homosexuality, Finnish researchers found a wide range of behaviors under the BDSM umbrella. When they gave a questionnaire to nearly 200 individuals who consider themselves part of the BDSM community, they discovered that the study participants did not view BDSM as a singular phenomenon -- there were multiple subcultures with different themes -- even some that did not involve pain play at all. "For some people, kink is a feather," says Joe. "For others, it's the whole chicken. You can't generalize."

Myth: Men like Christian Grey are into BDSM because they were abused as children.

A friend of mine once told a counselor that she liked to be spanked hard in bed. He immediately asked her, "Were you sexually abused as a child?" and suggested that she might be working through abuse issues. As someone who had never been abused, she was stunned. There is a pervasive notion that BDSM must be linked to past abuse. Again, the science does not support this idea at all.

"While it is probably true that there are a lot of people into BDSM that were abused, there are a lot of people who are not into BDSM who were also abused," says Debby Herbenick. "The sad fact is that a lot of people have been abused and it's not fair to pin someone's whole sexuality on that."

In the same Finnish study mentioned above, the authors found that individuals who practice BDSM are no more likely than those who don't to come from a dysfunctional family. Similarly, in a phone survey of over 19,000 participants, Australian researchers discovered that BDSM was not a pathological symptom of past abuse -- just a kinky sexual interest that is attractive to around 2% of sexually active individuals.

Myth: Men like Christian Grey lash out because they are unable to emotionally bond with others.

Christian Grey makes it clear that he is only interested in a submissive sexual partner -- not a relationship. And his family is concerned that he'll never be able to form proper emotional bonds. But BDSM practitioners are not lacking in relationship closeness. In a study of BDSM couples published in 2009, researchers found that BDSM activities, when performed consensually, actually lowers cortisol, a physiological indicator of stress, and increases various measures of intimacy.

Myth: Men like Christian Grey are very unhappy and express that unhappiness through BDSM.

In the book, Christian is a solitary man -- and from accounts of his family, very unhappy until he met Anastasia. However, data from the Australia sexual health study suggest that couples who indulge in BDSM and role-playing activities say they are happier than their non-BDSM counterparts. Joe says it has made all the difference for him. "This is who I am, this is who my partner is," he says. "And being able to be ourselves has made all the difference to our relationship and to our overall happiness."

Myth: Men like Christian Grey have brains that are not wired to properly process pleasure or pain.

If you are an avid Law & Order: SVU watcher, you've heard Dr. George Huang explain away kink with the "his brain isn't wired correctly" argument. While it may make good television, his explanations are a gross misunderstanding the science. Taormino reminds us that pain is as much a social construct as it is a physical experience. "The idea that there's one thing called pain and this one thing called pleasure and they're opposite, finite and discrete, well, that's false."

Nan Wise, a sex therapist and neuroscientist who studies the brain at orgasm, agrees. "Nature loves diversity and society abhors it. There are many, many ways that people are wired for pleasure. We all have unique erotic fingerprints."

Kent Kiehl grabbed headlines earlier this year by publishing results that suggest sexual sadists have a heightened sensitivity to pain, as measured by amygdala activity in the brain. But he was looking at hardcore criminals who have no interest in consensual encounters -- which is very different from BDSM.

So what do we know about how pleasure and pain are wired in the brain? We're still learning--but a good deal of neuroimaging work suggests that the two experiences overlap quite a bit. That is, many of the same brain areas that process the perception and experience of pleasure also process the perception and experience of pain. That's something to consider. And Wise says that BDSM can leverage the fact that the brain's reward circuitry is primed for novelty.

"It's unpredicted stimuli that really fires up those dopamine receptors and gives you all that pleasure," she says. "So by exploring new things, including role play and BDSM, couples can re-engage the brain's reward centers, which may be habituated to doing the same kind of sex play over and over again."

While many people take the need for novelty as a sign of pathology, Wise argues she believes that more diverse lovemaking and sex play may actually result in a healthier, flexible brain. "Having a brain that helps you seek out new experiences and new rewards on an ongoing basis results in a healthy pleasure system," she says.

Overall, the science to date, though limited, suggests BDSM is not, as my acquaintance put it, wrong or dangerous, but rather one of the natural variations found in the complex world of human sexuality.

As I researched my own book, Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex and Relationships, Julia Heiman, Director of the Kinsey Institute, told me that sexuality, in all its forms, is incredibly variable -- so much so that we might do better to consider that incredible variability the norm. Our genes, our environments, our experiences -- these things are what make us individuals, with slightly different behaviors, emotions, desires and erotic fingerprints. "Like many, many other sexual behaviors, BDSM is part of a normative sexual experience that feels healthy and enjoyable to many people," says Herbenick. "This is something that is consensual and involves a good deal of communication, which are both things that are important to any pleasurable experience."

It's an excellent point. Taormino says that, if nothing else, she's glad that 50 Shades is allowing more people to talk about BDSM. "This book has captured the imagination of a huge segment of our society that hasn't thought about this kind of sex or talked openly about it before," she says. "And I hope it will give some people a language to talk about sex, ask questions, explore different fantasies and know that those fantasies are okay."