The popularity of 50 Shades of Grey is pretty baffling, when you think about it. Not because the books are so breathtakingly bad, which they are (I tried to read the first one after it was ‘gifted’ to me, but couldn’t get beyond a few pages of the sloppy, juvenile prose) but because they emerged and became a phenomenon at exactly the same time that, in Britain at least, a rancid moral panic was first taking hold – a moral panic that has grown constantly since, and which is continually fretting about sexualisation, pornification, patriarchal sexism and sexual violence – even if that violence involves the consent of all parties. Indeed, the novels have been attacked by Rad Fem fanatics as being a rapist’s manual. Yet they remain awkwardly popular amongst the mainly female readership, a fact that is rather inconvenient for the moralists who hide under the guise of supporting women’s rights. Anyone would think that groups like Object actually didn’t speak for all – or even most – women. But that can’t possibly be true.
Of course, BDSM has never achieved the sort of acceptance that other sexual minorities have. You’d never get away with saying that gay men and lesbians, bisexuals or trans gender people were labouring under some sort of false consciousness and are in fact victims (female) or victimisers (male) who need to be stopped from expressing their sexuality, but that sort of thing happens all the time to the BDSM community. Politicians feel free to stand up in Parliament and talk about those “funny people with strange tastes” as they pass legislation to outlaw visual representation of entire swathes of sexuality, and even now, anyone into the heavier side of kink runs the risk of imprisonment for assault.
We’re in a world now where sexual activity is supposed to come with a written consent form and the sight of a female nipple is apparently enough to corrupt, distress and disempower. Yet the popularity of 50 Shades suggests there is a wider yearning out there for sex that has elements of danger and unpredictability, sex that allows one person to cede control to another and where pain is also pleasure. In other words, sex that isn’t so damned vanilla and polite. Not everyone who reads those novels will want to take things further than fantasy of course, but if the books are good for anything, then it’s helping BDSM take a little step into the light. Who knows – when our current batch of sour-faced politicians and campaigners finally wither and die, we might yet see kinksters given the same rights and respect as other groups of consenting adults.
All this preamble brings us to this new documentary (screen title Inside The Fifty Shades), which of course is a shameless cash-in, but which might nevertheless be a handy introduction to the scene for those curious bystanders. As a documentary, it’s not all that hot, frankly – it’s a mix of talking heads and ‘dramatised clips’ (no nudity but a fair amount of tease), and is rather sporadically edited – it feels like it runs out of things to cover quite early on and so consists mainly of anecdotes from assorted scenesters (men and women, despite the title), most of whom are pro-doms or pro-subs. But while the film doesn’t perhaps offer much insight into the BDSM scene of today, it is an interesting collection of interviews nevertheless.
Entirely one-sided – thank God no one felt they had to interview psychologists or concerned individuals here – it allows people who are into the scene to explain in their own words just why they do what they do and what they get out of it. They can’t, of course, really explain why they enjoy this form of sexuality, but then who can? And, frankly, why should they have to?
The interviewees include a variety of people who I’m guessing are well known in the US scene. One suspiciously youthful chap talks about how people have flown across the country and paid him to discipline them, which is surprising – I’m not saying male doms should be older and more distinguished, but… actually, that’s exactly what I’m saying. This would surely be like being whipped by a schoolboy. Equally, at least one female interviewee doesn’t seem entirely committed to the scene, but who am I to judge? On the whole those, people give a decent account of themselves and seem well balanced, aware individuals – though no doubt RadFems who protested about the book (and who are presumably lining up Guardian columns about the forthcoming movie as we speak) would be screaming ‘false consciousness’ and ‘abuser’ at everyone involved if they were to sit down to watch this.
The ‘dramatised’ scenes involve porn stars Seth Gamble and Allie Haze. Haze, who is smart and gorgeous, is also interviewed, though she makes it clear that she’s not a part of the scene herself, enjoying sub-dom sexuality only as part of her broader sex life. It makes her interview participation a little odd, but I’m never going to complain about a film having too much Allie Haze. These clips are very soft focus, sexy underwear and lightweight kink, but they break up the interviews nicely and add a little eye candy to proceedings.
If you have any connection to the BDSM scene, then this won’t tell you anything new, though it might be a welcome, rare spot of validation. For anyone kink-curious, this might give you a sense of reassurance that you are not an abnormal betrayer of the sisterhood or rapist-in-training, and that is a good enough reason for this to exist – even if some of the descriptions of heavy bloody play – definitely not the norm in most BDSM relationships – will be eye opening.