A Therapist’s Take on Fifty Shades of Grey


Everyone should know by now that Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t become the fastest book to sell one million copies—beating records previously set by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beetle the Bard—because of the plot. And the movie, which debuts on Valentine’s Day, isn’t going to break box office records for cinematography. How, then, has a story focused exclusively on sexual domination of a female character attracted such a massive, mostly female, audience?

The centerpiece of the film, based on the best-selling book series by E.L. James, is the sexual subculture known as BDSM—bondage and discipline (or domination), sadism and masochism. Some definitions are helpful here:

Sadism: Getting sexual pleasure from inflicting pain.
Masochism: Getting sexual pleasure from one’s own pain or humiliation.

The romance of pain

Releasing the Fifty Shades of Grey movie on Valentine’s Day seems to imply you’d be getting a romantic storyline with all that sex. You could call the stalking and seduction of Anastasia Steele romantic, but only if you’re looking for a movie that hits you right in the heart with a sadomasochistic sex grenade. Any shrapnel of romance that propels the plot is based on this theme; Lust and love are fed by the insatiable human appetite to control and conquer.

On the heels of the Rolling Stone article about a purported campus rape which blazed a spotlight on the legal definition of consent during sex, Hollywood’s version of Fifty Shades of Grey explodes on America at an interesting time. California just passed a “yes means yes” law, requiring would-be sexual partners to receive explicit, verbal consent before sex. In the first Fifty Shades book, Christian Grey seems to be far ahead of California and pays careful attention to the permission-based aspect of his play with pain. He serves a legal document to his submissive sexual partners (known as “subs”) that outlines the responsibilities and limits of his sexual domination. The current debate over consent laws spawned by Rolling Stone seems to have naturally shifted our attention from the prior sex scandal du jour of sexual assault in the U.S. military. The placement of E.L. James into this media carousel seems fiendishly brilliant—if you’re E.L. James.

Is everyone doing it?

So does the mainstream popularity of a BDSM-themed story like Fifty Shades mean that everyone is doing it? Some estimates place the prevalence of BDSM, or kink, behavior to be roughly 10-15% of the population. The kind of kink in Fifty Shades of Grey—in which both partners consent to “sexual play with pain” and respect pre-established limits—is how some kink aficionados like to portray the entire subculture. One blog comment about the Fifty Shades of Grey movie noted:

“BDSM has been around for a very long time underground. What Fifty Shades of Grey has done was make it more mainstream….There’s not a street in United States that someone is not being tied to a bed, blindfolded and spanked. We are more normal than you think.”

As kink is normalized through songs, books, television, and movies it’s important to also remember that there’s a difference between someone that is sexually adventurous and someone that needs to abuse his or her partner to feel good.

Is BDSM a sign of a mental disorder?

BDSM encompasses a broad range of sexual behavior that, until recently, was considered a sign of mental illness by the mental health bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Until the latest revision of the DSM was published in 2013 (the DSM-V) if you asked your partner to tie you to a bedpost or wanted to be slapped hard while in the throes of making love the information could be used against you in family court custody cases. But because of a huge effort by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), an advocacy group founded in 1997 “to advance the rights of and advocate for consenting adults in the BDSM-Leather-Fetish, Swing, and Polyamory Communities,” the DSM revised the definition of sexual disorders that involve BDSM. The new definition makes a distinction between a behavior—like consensual rough play in the bedroom—and a symptom of mental illness.    

According to Rivka Sidorsky, LCSW-C, an AASECT certified sex therapist, there are some who may engage in kink play and BDSM exploration in a safe and emotionally-well manner. For others it can be an outlet to recreate unhealthy sexual patterns or abusive memories from their pasts. They have connected sexuality with pain, loss of control, and domination due to abusive or traumatic experiences. Sidorsky notes, “In these individuals, BSDM behavior recreates their trauma and reinforces harmful connections where they are unable to enjoy sexuality or have sexual pleasure without the connection to pain.”

Some critics of the Fifty Shades phenomenon especially implore young women to use a great deal of caution when consuming entertainment that depicts violence against women. One study appearing in the Journal of Women’s Health surveyed 655 women between the ages of 18 and 24 and found that women who had read the first book in the Fifty Shades trilogy were 25 percent more likely to have a partner who yelled or swore at them, 35 percent more likely to have a partner who exhibited stalker-like behaviors and more than 75 percent more likely to exhibit behaviors of self-harm in the form of an excessively restrictive diet.

Seven Reasons Why Christian Grey is Hard to Resist:

Fifty Shades of Grey has such popular appeal for many reasons. Here are some likely factors that have made Christian Grey hard to resist:

1) Women want their partner to have more passion and see them as sexual.

2) Wanting more creativity and inventiveness in the bedroom.

3) Pure voyeurism and curiosity about kinky sex.

4) Identifying with the innocence and naiveté of Ana.

5) Attraction of making a “bad boy” good.

6) Comfort in numbers: Validation to hear another woman’s struggle against manipulation

7) Desire to explore the possibility of enjoying surrender during sex.

50 shades of grey

Is a “red room of pain” necessary for an inventive and vibrant sex life?

You don’t need Christian Grey’s red room of pain to elevate the discussion about sex in your relationship. There’s a risk that reading the series or seeing the movie will reinforce the common myth that “other people are having more and better sex than me.” Research has shown this is a normal judgment just about everyone feels. In the same way that studies of users of Facebook havw shown that frequent focus on what other people are doing lowers your self–esteem, focusing too much on the fiction of Shades can do the same. Instead, choose to appreciate your own sexuality and unique tastes and desires.

There’s a rich benefit of having the freedom to talk about sex—particularly this kind of sex, which is usually associated only with shame and secrecy—at a cocktail party, with trusted friends, or with your partner. Take advantage of this window of freedom to talk more freely even if you’re not a fan of leather. Fifty Shades of Grey is bound to stir up a lot of different feelings if you watch it. Pay attention to these feelings and use them as a springboard in your relationship to talk about sex with your partner. If you look at it this way, fifteen bucks is a very cheap therapy session.

Keith Miller, LICSW is the director of Keith Miller & Associates Counseling and the author of Love Under Repair: How to Save Your Marriage and Survive Couples Therapy. Originally published on Hitchedmag.com.