Erasing the Politics of Consent
This articlie originally appeared on Truth-Out.org on Dec. 30, 2013.
By Jill Weinberg
There aren't 50 shades of nuance about the book-to-movie Fifty Shades of Grey, which began filming recently in Vancouver, British Columbia. People view the saga as the guilty pleasure that reignited a flame in sexless marriages or as the glamorization of abusive relationships, all shrouded in the cloak of a Harlequin romance.
The book's release and the hotly anticipated movie release in February 2015 raise questions about whether Fifty Shades is good or bad for relationships, women's empowerment or sexual liberation. These discussions are important but certainly not new. After all, BDSM has been in the limelight for many years with films such as 2002's The Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, as well as Rihanna's 2011 pop hit "S&M."
But there is an important question that has not captured public attention. Is Fifty Shades good or bad for the individuals who engage in BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, and/or Sadism and Masochism) in real life? It is unclear how many people in this country voluntarily engage in BDSM, but a handful of studies suggest that 5 percent to 10 percent of the American population participate in these practices.
In my view, the asymmetries of power, wealth, age and sexual experience magnify the vulnerability of a young virginal female who, at times, was afraid to say "no" to her partner and unable to end the relationship without him showing up at her house unannounced.
But underneath these concerns is one that is just as important, if not more important: consent. The notion of consent is taken very seriously in the BDSM community, even though mainstream entertainment completely disregards it. The BDSM subculture, or "community," as individuals refer to it, treat the infliction of pain as a learned skill in terms of using "toys" such as a bullwhip and understanding how to use communication to maximize a moment of pleasure.
For those who read the Fifty Shades trilogy, we know that consent made a cameo appearance. The male protagonist, Christian Grey, presented his prospective submissive, Anastasia Steele, a contract that established limits on what they would and would not do during their partnership. Later in the plot, however, Christian disregards the contract and says "lovers don't need safe words" and even more directly, "screw the contract."
This storyline may be exciting for those who love a good trashy romance. But this portrayal of consent is inaccurate to the way the vast majority of individuals in the BDSM lifestyle actually talk about and "do" consent.
As a lawyer and a cultural sociologist, I study how individuals and groups develop rules and norms around consent. As part of my research at Northwestern University, I studied the BDSM community over a 21-month period, attending events and private clubs where I interviewed 52 individuals who participate in these activities. These events range from $200 for a weekend or with a club membership fee starting at $25 per month. Anyone can attend as long as the person is 18 years old and have a valid government-issued ID. In some cases they must also agree to be subject to a criminal background check.They must also play by the rules.
But it's not just about playing safely. BDSM is a community devoted to explicit consent and communication. My research consistently shows that there are detailed rules to obtain consent. There are books, web sites, orientations at BDSM clubs and seminars that look like conference panels - all stressing the importance of consent. Even long-term relationships adhere to an ethic that people need to articulate what he or she does and does not want physically or emotionally at that particular time.
The ethic of consent pervades this subculture. The importance of explicit consent also defines the BDSM community with credos such as "Safe, Sane and Consensual" and "Risk Aware Consensual Kink" plastered on brochures and stickers.
Even though BDSM is largely illegal under criminal battery law, the community's enforcement of consent rules does a good job at regulating harm. My research reveals a strong community ethic of consent effectively discourages people who do not wish to play by the rules, and the threat of tarnished reputation is a powerful deterrent to make sure a person obtains consent. This would explain why only two of my 52 interview subjects said they have experienced a consent violation.
But most Americans are not aware that a thriving BDSM community existed before - and will after - the novels have collected dust on our bookshelves and the movie has long gone to DVD. The book-turned-movie may be tantalizing, but there was a missed opportunity to shed light on a lesson that mainstream society can learn from: We can be a little clearer when we consent, and we can be a little more mindful when we are obtaining consent from someone.
After all, the activities people engage in freely are likely sexier than anything you'll read in a book or see on the silver screen.
- Jill Weinberg is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Northwestern University.