The film Fifty Shades of Grey is being released on February 13th, just in time for Valentine's Day. Sexual images are everywhere, and often the most awkward conversations involve parents talking to their children about sexual exploration and personal safety. We need to have these conversations, because if we do not weigh in on this, the Internet and their peers most certainly will.
If you were not someone who purchased one of the over 100 million copies sold worldwide, Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2011 erotic romance novel by British author E. L. James. The book focuses on two people who experiment with their sexuality through a dominant-submissive relationship, including BDSM (bondage, discipline/dominance, submission, sadism and masochism).
Due to the controlling nature of the relationship in the book, many in the BDSM community have concerns about how BDSM is being depicted, especially the danger potentially being promoted. An insightful article on the myths the movie perpetuates about BDSM can be read on DivineCaroline.com.
Like Shira Hirschman Weiss's review of the book, many professionals I work with on college campuses have expressed concern with the lesson of encouraging women to find their sexual liberation through the domination of a male partner -- a male partner who is controlling. In the book, Anastasia expresses fear of her partner -- a sign of both a dangerous and unhealthy relationship.
As the release of the film is now here, there is an increasing amount of media coverage surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey. As a parent, you may begin to wonder, has my college kid stumbled upon this book yet? Will my high school student watch the film? Are they equipped with what they need to handle exploring their sexuality in a safe and healthy way?
Where is the dialogue about safety and consent? If you jump into a room and pull erotic toys out, you better know for certain that there is consent and you are in a safe environment for everyone.
PROACTIVE GUIDELINES FOR TEENS AND YOUNG ADULTS WHO ARE EXPLORING THEIR SEXUALITY
Parents, if Fifty Shades of Grey is the way you can open the door and talk to the young adults in your life about exploring their sexuality, then use the opportunity to talk about establishing and honoring boundaries.
Here are some guidelines to encourage your children to talk with their partners and create healthy boundaries in which to explore their own sexuality at the appropriate age and time in their lives:
HONOR YOUR VOICE
This guideline is first because consent is required in all sexual activity. When exploring sexual intimacy with a partner, you will want to identify ways to communicate using your voice (and your partner's voice) to keep everyone comfortable and feeling safe. Plus, talking about what you don't like and do like can be very erotic (BDSM or not).
OWN YOUR BODY
Having complete ownership of one's body is an essential element to healthy sexuality -- each of us deserves to have our boundaries respected. One of society's most common and dangerous clichés is connecting women's sexuality to a notion, or fantasy, that being dominated is to learn, and the way to explore this is to allow a partner to have some sort of power over you.
The greatest freedom is knowing what you want, what you like, what you don't like, and having the voice to express all those feelings and wants. That includes being able to state what you want to try and see if you like it or not. Gain your strength through your own comfort zone and not through another person's dominance or control of you.
Emotional and physical safety is vital to healthy, passionate sexuality. You need to be able to ask your partner questions before having sex, so everyone feels safe and so both of you are enthusiastic about your choices.
For example, "Do you feel safe if we start using toys?" "What would you like?" It can be as easy as one person starting the conversation with "have you ever seen a movie with BDSM like 50 Shades of Grey or the books?" These are questions you should be able to answer.
And if your partner says yes, you could say, "Well, what do you think about that kind of role-playing?" You need to be comfortable enough to ask, "What specific acts do you want to try and want do you not want to try?" If both partners are able to have these conversations honestly and respect the answers, you are creating a consensual and safe setting for each other. That is the goal.
"Just do what you want to me," can be an extremely dangerous, unhealthy perspective. After all, if you can't talk about it, then you know you are not ready. Recognizing you are not ready can be a great gift to enable you to slow down until you are ready.
BE CLEAR ABOUT EXPECTATIONS AND BOUNDARIES
Being vulnerable does not have to mean that you are willing to be dominated. Let your partner know that any interest in experimenting must be discussed and agreed upon ahead of time. Any toys, bondage, and language should be fully talked about and agreed upon before you are in the bedroom.
It is never okay for a partner to think they can do whatever they want to you. Establish clear boundaries with each other and agree either of you can stop what is happening at any moment that person chooses for any reason that person chooses.
Discussing your boundaries and your comforts with someone is essential before any sexual acts take place and it is just as important to maintain that open communication throughout the relationship. As mentioned, consent is an ongoing part of any healthy sexual relationship, not a one-time agreement.
Sexual exploration, whether it is made popular by the media or not, can be healthy. But it will not be healthy without candid conversations, a willingness to be honest, mutual respect among partners, and a commitment to be responsible for each other's emotional and physical safety throughout each sexual encounter.