How Everyone Became Depressed

The rise and fall of the nervous breakdown

Cracking the Whip

Looking at the role of power in 50 Shades of Grey and the rise of BDSM

More than 36 million people have viewed the Fifty Shades trailer since it was released July 24.

The movie promises to be the most successful film of the decade. The novel has been the most successful work of fiction since Jane Eyre.

What is it about Fifty Shades that gives it this incredible staying power, particularly among women?

Key here is that it makes the transfer of power a tangible concept for many women. Transfer of power, of course, is the central concept in sadomasochism, and Fifty Shades is a frankly sadomasochistic novel, with Christian being the top and Ana the bottom. As sm becomes increasingly understood, it ceases to be the terrifying fantasm it once was, of people locked in cages and hideous tortures.

In fact, sm encounters do not necessarily involve the infliction of pain. They involve shifting the locus of control, for that afternoon, in that particular bedroom, from the partners who previously were an equal couple, to a situation, where one partner has all the power and the other partner does what he or she is told. 

So power is the central issue, not flogging, or nipple clamps, or whatever. A sort of symbolic grade B pain may enter the picture as the top tests her control; handcuffs may be produced as the top ensures her dominance by immobilizing the bottom. But those are not the central concepts.

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It is that she runs the scene.

Now, you can imagine that this is very welcome to many women who, in their daily lives, have definitely not been running the scene. They have been the butt of their partner’s casual male assumption of authority, and may go along with his often indifferent and perfunctory sexual performance on the grounds of not rocking the boat.

So, along comes Fifty Shades. It puts on the table the question who is in sexual control. In the novel itself, the control issue enhances a relationship that is already incandescently hot: Christian and Ana are totally and hopelessly in love with each other. What sm does for them is to open up additional psychological space for them to play out their love affair so they don’t have to spend all their time looking into each other’s eyes.

In the real world, few couples have such incandescent relationships, or manage to keep hold of them. So one can, of course, fantasize about incandescence. This is what a century‘s worth of gothic novels, or “bodice-rippers,” have done: making you the love object of the Pirate King. But there is no transfer of power in the gothic novels.

Fast forward to 2014, where many women earn four times as much as their mate. They’re already calling a lot of the shots at home, or feel that they are entitled to do so (and not to embark on a second career as a housewife after they get home from work).

And, all of a sudden, Fifty Shades puts the transfer of power square on the table. Sure, in the novel it transfers to Christian. But hey, darling, in our relationship it’s going to transfer to me. I am going to be dominant in bed, you are going to serve me, she says. 

She might even dress the part, a pair of domme boots for herself, wrist cuffs and a blindfold for him. And somewhere in the closet will be hanging a flogger.

You think I’m kidding. Floggers, wrist cuffs, the whole bdsm party kit (bondage, domination, sadomaschosism) have been flying off the shelves. Sales are on a scale usually associated with the oil industry. In the real world, this is huge.

So here’s the thing. In the bedroom – not in the relationship in general – we’ve got the exchange of power concept on the table. It can go to the guy, if the couple agree that he should top her; or it can go to the woman, if they agree (or she decides) that she’s going to dominate him.

Being a top sounds like so much fun that it’s surprising many people, men and women alike, choose to be bottoms. Yet once the concept is up for grabs, the choice can go either way, and my guess is that, after the movie launches in February, many women are going to opt for being tops.

 

 

As a postscript let me say that I have written about this in:

Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire (University of Toronto Press 2005)

Sadomasochism and Ardent Love: A Reader’s Guide to “Fifty Shades of Grey” (Toronto: Bev Editions, March 2012), E-book available at http://www.beveditions.com

German edition Die Lust an der Unterwerfung. (Dot.Books, December 2012)

Edward Shorter, Ph.D., is the Jason A. Hannah Professor in the History of Medicine at the University of Toronto.

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