07/11/2012 09:28 EDT | Updated 09/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Fifty Shades of Grey critics slam bondage stereotypes

Booksellers recently reported that E.L. James’ erotic trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey accounted for up to 20 per cent of all the print novels sold in the U.S. this spring.

While the series has obviously titillated readers, sex experts and members of the alternative sexual community say the books draw a problematic and unfounded link between sadomasochism and mental illness.

“As a researcher in this area of sexuality, it doesn’t sit well with me,” says Caroline Pukall, director of the Sex Therapy Service in the Department of Psychology at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

The best-selling books focus on an enigmatic billionaire named Christian Grey, who becomes romantically involved with a sexually inexperienced young woman named Anastasia Steele and asks her to become his “submissive,” or sex slave.

The virginal Anastasia finds the world of handcuffs and leather whips both alarming and arousing. She soon learns, however, that Christian’s predilection for bondage and spanking is a consequence of being sexually abused as an adolescent.

While the books are fiction, this explanation plays into stereotypical attitudes toward the alternative sex lifestyle, says Tristan Taormino, a U.S.-based sex educator and author of The Ultimate Guide to Kink.

“There is an assumption that the reason he’s kinky is because he is damaged, because he had a rough childhood,” she says.

“There’s this assumption that there’s this one-to-one correspondence, which in real life there’s isn’t.”

The reality of BDSM

Studies on the psychology of BDSM (bondage, discipline, slave and master) practitioners have found that very few are mentally disturbed. If anything, the opposite is true.

An Australian study from 2002 that interviewed 19,307 respondents aged 16 to 59 found that BDSM buffs were no more likely to have been coerced into sexual activity than those who engage in so-called “vanilla sex,” the generally accepted term for non-BDSM sexual activity.

The study also suggested that men who partook in BDSM were less likely to have psychological distress than other men.

“I would say 95 per cent of the people I know that are engaged in this lifestyle are consensual, they’re adults, they can make good choices, they own their sexuality,” says Morpheous, a Toronto-based BDSM enthusiast and author of the books How to Be Kinky and How to Be Kinkier.

Fifty Shades of Grey, as well as films like Secretary (2002) and 9 ½ Weeks (1986), suggest that people who are into alternative sexual activities fit some sort of psychological profile — typically negative.

“The inherent mistake in the book is Anastasia’s question really early on, which is, ‘Why is he this way?’ I think it really flies in the face of everything I know about sexuality,” says Taormino.

“It’s not really a question that can be answered. People are so different in their turn-ons, turn-offs, fantasies, fetishes, kinks, and their sexuality is so individual.”

BDSM attracts all kinds of people

She says people who are into BDSM run the gamut from doctors to kindergarten teachers to organic farmers. The one generalization she will make is that most of them are in a higher income bracket, because kink events often “happen at really nice hotels, and there’s all this gear.”

Nonetheless, the stereotypes around BDSM remain strong. Last week, the RCMP announced it was investigating one of its own officers, Cpl. Jim Brown, after violent and pornographic photos of the officer on, a social networking site for sexual fetishists, came to light in the media.

While acknowledging Cpl. Brown’s personal right to freedom, RCMP assistant commissioner Randy Beck said, “I am personally embarrassed and very disappointed that the RCMP would be, in any way, linked to photos of that nature.”

Caroline Pukall of Queen's University says the book’s attitude, as well as public reaction to Col. Brown’s extracurricular activities, reflects a widespread belief that BDSM relationships are inherently abusive.

“It’s because people confuse BDSM with sexual sadism,” says Pukall.

“We think of Paul Bernardo, we think of these criminals who violate other people and cause pain during sexual acts and a lot of suffering and death, in many cases. But these are two very, very, very different phenomena — they are not the same at all,” Pukall says.

Code of conduct

To ensure safety, the BDSM community imposes a behavioural code of “Safe, sane and consensual” or Risk-Aware Consensual Kink (RACK), which basically ensures that sex play is mutually agreed upon.

“The first rule of BDSM is you have to get informed consent,” says Taormino. “That’s the crucial principle on which we all operate.”

Pukall says that as in Fifty Shades, most sadomasochistic relationships involve a contract that delineates boundaries for both the dominant and submissive partner. The contract typically includes both “hard limits” (activities a person utterly refuses to engage in) and “soft limits” (activities they might consent to in special circumstances, or with an experienced partner).

Pukall says she was impressed with the depiction of the contract in Fifty Shades, “because it really laid down the law of what was and was not acceptable to Christian, and it was actually modifiable by Ana.”

Taormino, who recommends sexual contracts for their clarity and as a subtle form of foreplay, laments the circumstances of the contract in Fifty Shades.

“I wouldn’t give a contract to someone so inexperienced — it would be irresponsible,” she says.

Although he takes issue with its somewhat closeted view of the BDSM world, Morpheous does say the Fifty Shades books mark a positive development.

“I could recommend way hotter BDSM fiction, but I think Fifty Shades of Grey is a really great, mainstream way to get people sort of used to the idea,” says Morpheous, who has been in a master-slave relationship with his girlfriend for the last two and a half years.

“Maybe 1,000 people read it, and maybe five people look up their local kinky social media site and get a chance to explore a little bit more – well, that’s five people that are going to be happier and little more satisfied with their sex life.”