The Art of Consent: Sexualities on the Periphery
For the past few months, I heard much criticism, and trepidation, about the Fifty Shades of Grey series, and its first movie. The novel’s graphic scenes, the descriptive language, and the overtness of sexuality, or a specific sexuality, laden in the text have appalled many people. Why is that? I know the majority of my academic friends, as well as personal friends, will give me much flak about my attempts to theorize, and parse out the intricacies of “such” a novel; but I feel there many cultural undertones the novel deploys that people can learn, from the series.
A kind of tangential fanatic fiction, based from the Twilight series, Fifty Shades elucidates a kind of sexuality, and/or power play relationship, that leaves many individuals with a vile taste in their mouths. I cannot speak for all Western societies, but in the United States, there seems to be a sex-negative attitude when it involves talking about sex and sexuality: regardless of whether it is heterosexual sex, or anything outside of that realm. Majority of sexual health curriculums, still, praise abstinence as the end all, be all, which does not leave students with many alternatives; nor gives them proper sexual health education. Yet, these curriculums only teach what comprises sex as an act; in which they cover penile-vaginal penetration, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), and other STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections). There is more to sexual health education aside from sex acts, and potential STIs. Sex is only a component of sexuality; which is never spoken about, unless a specific sexuality is seen as taboo, or on the periphery. Thus, it is obvious why Fifty Shades of Grey has received so much attention.
The novel is labeled, categorized, as an erotic romance. The way it reads, it borders the line of erotica/pornography. As aforementioned, those graphic sexual scenes are described with lascivious words, in a sex-negative society, make people rather uncomfortable. Regardless of the explicitness of the sexual acts performed, the novel supplements it with a twist most people do not understand: the element of BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism, Masochism). To many people, this acronym will not ring a bell, or will sound weird upon its pronunciation. However, to others it may cause a squirming sensation, or an uncomfortable feeling. People are not educated about what the inner workings are of the BDSM community. Yes, BDSM is kind of sexuality. An ample understanding of sexuality includes desire, wants, needs, and all things that fulfill a sexual appetite: all things, which are included in BDSM. The only difference in this instance is the relationship is dependent upon power relations; and many people forget, it is the submissive partner whom controls the power. Although, the series does not subscribe to a BDSM frame of reference, it does contain elements of it. Furthermore, the Fifty Shades series is not to be viewed as the “token,” or representative of the overall BDSM community. The fact many people miss about the series is that Christian and Anastasia, much like those individuals in the BDSM community, are two consenting adults, who agree about certain acts on their terms.
In her text, Playing on the Edge, sociologist Staci Newmahr depicts the intimacy, amount of trust, and consent that goes into this sexuality. Newmahr, also a participant in SM play scenes, speaks to the amount of trust the submissive puts into their dominant partner. Majority of society, usually, views the dominant partner as the one who holds the power: however, in BDSM the roles are reversed. While the dominant partner may be the one inflicting pain/pleasure, it is the submissive that knows when they had enough, and can call off the scene. Therefore, these sexual acts take place between two consenting adults. All participants know the potential risks involved and agreed, on their terms, what will happen. Many people seem to fail in comprehending the simple concept of consent because, to them, BDSM is seen as “deviant;” something only “weird” people do. In fact, majority of the people who participate in BDSM lead “regular” day-to-day lives; and majority of the time identify as heterosexuals. The only difference is their sexual desires.
Reminiscent of the arguments many used to maintain, and still do in some places, about same-sex couples, why is it important what between do behind closed doors? No one interrogates what heterosexual couples do in the bedroom, nor the incessant hook up/bar culture. Only when a person’s sexuality is on the periphery of society’s norms is when people are “curious,” or judgmental about what is right. Foucault cautioned us that with the invention of the confessional, sexuality became a science to be studied. With the introduction of the Fifty Shades series, there seems to be a new sexuality to study, to ascertain. Newmahr started this endeavor, and someone must take it up.
- Staci Newmahr. Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy. Indiana University Press (2011).
- Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Vintage Books (1990).