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Fifty Shades of BDSM

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BONDAGE
Andreas Schlegel via Getty Images

The Fifty Shades of Grey trailer is now the most-watched trailer of the summer. 100 million and counting in little over a week! Between now and the release of the film next February, there will inevitably be a renewed interest in BDSM among people who want to experiment and test their limits. I think this is great. Mazel tov on all your future bedroom endeavors! But it's important to know a few things before you begin. BDSM is more than just dropping your voice, spanking or telling your partner to do whatever you want. To properly understand what you're getting yourself into, there are a few things to understand.

Bondage and Discipline. E.L. James' sexy trilogy has made the public more aware of a certain kind of sex -- one involving constraint (by ropes, handcuffs, tied scarves, blindfolds, etc.) and punishment (by whips, spanking, paddles and so on). These activities are certainly fun and can help focus one's senses to the sexual act itself. However, whatever form of play BDSM involves, consent is what it is all about. Not the beatings and blindfolds. This cannot be emphasized strongly enough: BDSM is predicated on trust, mutual consent and having fun. In the BDSM community, the popular saying is "consent is sexy." Many couples have a "safe word" which will cause all sexual play to come to an immediate halt. Personally, I do not enjoy sex unless I know my partner is having fun or has consented to everything we are doing, so communication is an absolute must. You need to communicate your "limits" with your partner, and they need to acknowledge and respect them. If you and your partner(s) are playing with BDSM, and you're not "into" it, get yourself out of that situation immediately and seek help because that is abuse.

Dominance and Submission. I think this is why the books have been so popular -- sexual play often involves power dynamics. Put in humorous terms, there's always a "pitcher and a catcher." At any given moment, someone is always in more control than the other and this can be incredibly exciting. We like to know that our sexuality is valued -- that our partner thinks we are something of a god or goddess in the sack. This is communicated pretty strongly when they turn their sexual expression over to us. "You're in charge," they tell us. "And I trust you to make me feel good." Having read the books, this is probably the part I'm looking forward to the most, seeing how Dakota Johnson ("Anastasia Steele") communicates that onscreen to Jamie Dornan ("Christian Grey"). If the trailer is any indication, I won't be left unsatisfied.

Sadism and Masochism. This may seem another way of expressing dominance and submission, but it's quite different. Sadism is the word for people who enjoy hurting others, and a masochist is someone who enjoys being hurt. This element of BDSM is not always physical -- sometimes it is emotional, or even verbal, because of the things a partner says to us during sex. The terms come from the popular French political philosopher Marquis de Sade, who had a side business writing erotica. His writings are not for everyone, but they have undeniably influenced the American experience, even our bedroom practices.

BDSM, in these ways, is not one lumped form of sexual expression. Many people enjoy the bondage and discipline, but have nothing to do with sadism and masochism. Their bondage play is fun and light without the harsher tones that S&M brings. This is where many people get confused about the BDSM experience -- it doesn't have to be just one way. It is what you (and your partner) make of it!

What's more, it is important to know in advance that if you read the books or see the movie and it's not for you? Great! That's awesome! Anastasia and Christian are fictional characters. You don't have to be phenomenally wealthy and own your own company to be a "dominant" any more than you need to be a college graduate to be a "submissive." And you don't have to bring their antics into the bedroom. Fifty Shades of Grey is a fantasy, and my unique fantasy is not the same as yours are. When coworkers or friends talk about it, maybe you'll be better able to say how you can see the appeal and wish them well without enjoying it yourself - or even enjoying certain elements but refusing others.

Many people in the BDSM community (because yes, birds of a feather flock together) say that BDSM is not "a game, it's a lifestyle," but I've not found this to be true. It certainly can be. And for many, it is. But you can still have fun with this form of sexual expression without it consuming you! The reason why author E.L. James was able to make a trilogy out of pretty simple idea is because her characters decided to make it a lifestyle. They choose -- together -- to reorient their entire relationship around the power dynamic of a dominant male and submissive woman. Christian Grey commands his partner in the bedroom as well as the kitchen -- dictating when she eats, how much and when (for the record, he encourages a healthy appetite). And the submissive Anastasia Steele enjoys this... kind of... so she agrees to change her daily routine and behavior to "submit" to his wishes. To the modern Feminist, this is highly objectionable -- and with good reason. I admit, it sounded difficult to me as well until I had two partners who approached me and asked for this. They enjoyed it when I attended to the incidental issues of our relationship and "took charge." Both partners told me that they felt more loved and more special when they "submitted" themselves to our relationship. Many of us make trade-offs, compromises and reluctantly go along with whatever our partner wants. What if we were more intentional about this and expressly "submitted" to a partner? It's not for everyone, or every relationship, but it can work.

My only concern is that the film will inspire some, perhaps younger, couples to try something without knowing these things and ruin a perfectly good relationship. Don't let that be you. If you decide to try BDSM, know what you're doing and take it at a pace you and your partner are comfortable with -- don't be the kids in the candy store. Don't rush things just so you can say you've tried it all. Make sure you are talking things through, especially during those first days, so that you are both having fun. If it's not for you, stop and try something different. Regular, committed sex with someone who enjoys you in and out of the bedroom is more important that checking boxes off a list so you can be an expert before your friends are.