Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele in the film Fifty Shades of Grey
Focus Features

Kink is going (sort of) mainstream with the release this weekend of the movie Fifty Shades of Greybased on E.L. James’ book of the same name—just in time for Valentine’s Day. The three-volume book series quickly garnered a huge following for its taboo plotline of BDSM (bondage, discipline/domination, submission/sadism and masochism) between lovers Christian Grey—the wealthy dark knight in shining armor with a penchant for whips and chains—and Anastasia Steele, the mousy, insecure, studious college kid who falls for his charms. And given the characters’ tense relationship sprinkled with kink and romance, it’s no surprise that the book-and-film phenomenon has become so immensely popular.

There’s one problem, though—actually, two. First, at least for me, the book was a—ahem—painful read with its thin and cyclical storyline.

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More significantly, the relationship depicted in the book isn’t quite representative of people living BDSM lifestyles. Sure, it’s probably exciting for a lot of us to have a somewhat forbidden kink fantasy about sex with a billionaire who’s buttoned up on the outside but who has very “singular” tastes in private. It’s just that there’s a bit more to it than that.

Christian—though he’s portrayed as the dominant partner in his relationship with Anastasia—has behavioral patterns that don’t fit a dominant lover who’s respectful of his partner. He’s more like an abuser who uses kink to mask his dysfunction. The popularity of Fifty Shades has done more to spread stereotypes about the BDSM community than to educate people about it.

So what exactly, then, is BDSM?

Author, blogger and educator Orpheus Black says, “BDSM is an erotic ritual that’s designed to bring two people closer together, not only in a primal understanding, but in a caring and loving matter.” He makes a point to distinguish between people who practice BDSM as a lifestyle, who use it as a way to connect with others, and those who engage in BDSM as sex work, who use it to capitalize on the stigma and glamour associated with the fetish.

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“BDSM, the industry, builds off perpetuating kinks and stereotypes that people can feed on,” he continues. “That they make consumable based off of kink or fetish.”

BDSM, the business, versus BDSM, the lifestyle, is an important distinction because it helps us understand where films like Fifty Shades get it right or wrong when depicting the real people behind their characters. Of course, people in BDSM enjoy the kinks and sexual dynamics that are alluded to in the story, but there’s a lot that gets misconstrued in portrayals of the fetish in commercial contexts.

“A lot of times, people have this misconception that BDSM is about women acting as mistresses wearing corsets,” Black goes on to say. He recognizes the book’s many shortcomings but credits James with showing a BDSM male-dom/female-sub relationship that’s often muddled by the more commonly depicted (and satirized) mistress/male-sub dynamic. “The community has both male and female subs.”

There are upsides to Fifty Shades of Grey. The book and film’s campy portrayals of kinksters have still managed to bring the topic of BDSM to a mainstream stage for people across categories of class, age and race to openly and seriously talk about after decades of being stuck in the dungeon. As Corset Magazine’s Arielle Loren points out, despite problems it poses for those invested in dispelling misconceptions about BDSM, Fifty Shades isn’t meant to represent everybody.

“I think that authors should be given the opportunity to write their own stories, and I think that this is just one story from one author’s imagination,” Loren says. “It just happened to really go mainstream.” 

And the popularity of James’ work just might enhance the platforms of writers who have already spent years holding educational conferences and meet-ups, as well as writing books and blogs, to spread awareness for their community—thus inviting new people and fostering unity that’s been in kink culture for years.

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Feminista Jones, Twitter power broker and author of Push the Button, says, “I think people have been writing about [BDSM] for some time, but it’s remained underground because I think there’s this lack of desire of wanting to understand. I don’t think people care other than in ways that they can condemn it.”

But “if we’re getting anything, we’re just happy to get something that looks like what we do,” says Black. “I think you have to look at it like when black people started acting in film. No, they weren’t the best roles; no, they didn’t really portray us, but we had to start somewhere.”

Monique John’s writing has been featured in For Harriet, the Feminist Wire and Redbook. She has spoken at Fordham University, Tulane University and the Borough of Manhattan Community College on black sexual politics and violence against women. You can find her musings on hip-hop feminism and strip-club chic at her blog, Twerked. Follow her on Twitter.