The new Fifty Shades of Grey film is out, to lackluster reviews, but all this renewed talk of spanking and harnesses takes me back a few years…
…I was a waitress at a trendy restaurant in a very affluent neighborhood in New York where the wives of wealthy Wall Street bankers and corporate CEO’s gathered in snarling little packs around the tables of an afternoon and proceeded to tear to pieces whichever member of their Centurion Card coven wasn’t present that day (think Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, only with more spray-tan and identikit outfits of knee length-leggings, gleaming Reebok pumps and luridly colored zip-front sweater vests).
I didn’t especially like working there – Leona Helmsley’s poor staff probably garnered more job satisfaction than I did. But it did offer great sociological insights into a world I was hitherto excluded from (that, and great tips). And because those women thought nothing more of me than they did their poor maid back home who was on her hands and knees scrubbing between the kitchen floor tiles with a toothbrush, they barely noticed when I hovered around their tables eavesdropping into their conversations.
It happened that my time working at that restaurant coincided with the release of Fifty Shades of Grey, and it didn’t take long before the book became the main topic of conversation among the bored and listless housewives of this particular town – just as it did with bored and listless housewives the nation over.
Now, I hadn’t had a chance to read the book at this point, but I was aware that it was being sold as THE seminal moment when the taboo world of BDSM was brought into the mainstream. And despite how these ice-queens were married to the real life Christian Greys of this world, I still imagined them as being rather sexless, tucked up with their oxygen tanks of a night while their husbands shacked up with their mistresses.
I naturally assumed therefore that the book would bring them no end of voyeuristic sexual pleasure. Oh, how wrong I was.
They, like so, so many others, largely eviscerated it.
BDSM was nothing new to many of the customers of this restaurant – not the version channeled oh so breathlessly through Anastasia’s words and thoughts, but the sublimely dirty, sweaty reality of it that the book entirely misses.
They sneered at the Harlequin romance at the heart of the book. “She wouldn’t be thinking about that with chafed wrists, I can tell you,” I overheard a woman whisper to a table full of giggles and agreements. They scoffed too at the overwrought uncertainty hanging over Anastasia’s decision whether to sign Christian’s contract or not. “If she really was that unsure, trust me, she’d have run,” another said. “And he wouldn’t have risked the scandal!” another immediately responded.
Once I’d read the book, I asked a good friend who has enjoyed a very long and mutually fruitful BDSM relationship with her boyfriend just how wrong the book got it, and she confirmed everything I’d heard at the restaurant: That Anastasia’s fairytale journey through BDSM to romance is just, well, a fairytale – only with a few whips and handcuffs thrown in to keep the adults happy.
BDSM between consensual partners can be, and often is, a rich and incredibly rewarding experience, but the highly sanitized sex of FSOG does a disservice to what BDSM is all about – the kinkiness, the pleasure of ritualism and the intense closeness that BDSM partners enjoy (Note: It doesn’t always have to end in intercourse). Where in the book does it mention the spit?
It should be subversive, not borne of the conventional or the expected – that’s the whole point of BDSM. If you’re seeking the thrill of an adrenaline rush, you don’t head on down to your local Starbucks.
Neither does Anastasia’s somewhat reluctant acquiescence with Christian’s wishes ring true. Ask any BDSM expert whether they have ever had to coerce their partner into their “playroom,” and they’ll explain at great length how mutual consent is at the basis of what makes the experience that much deeper – the connection with one another that much more heightened.
Of course, now that the film is out, many of these same gripes I had with the book are being rehashed. Only, as I recall just how aggressively FSOG was dismissed in my old restaurant, I wonder this: when so many of those same women discussed assuming the dominant role, just how much more subversive and ultimately more accurate FSOG would have been if Anastasia had been the one wielding the whips, and Christian was the one in chains breathlessly enquiring about butt-plugs?