Photo credit: Pedrosimoes7, via Creative Commons.
After reading Fifty Shades of Grey, you might think you've learned something about men who wish to sexually dominate their partners.
In particular, you might conclude that being a sexual Dominant probably means one had a very bad childhood, as Christian Grey did. And that like Grey, one has problems loving, being loved, and being touched.
You'd be wrong on all counts.
Those are common stereotypes. And they're common enough in such men who present for sex therapy. But one can't generalize from people presenting for treatment to people in general.
Let's look more closely.
Does BDSM suggest childhood trauma?
Patients in treatment often seem to have turned past tragedy into current triumph by re-packaging scary memories into sexy feelings.
When one starts out as a beginning sex therapist, among one's first hundred or so sex therapy patients, there are often many who resemble the fictional Christian Grey of Fifty Shades—people with kinky sexual tastes who come from horrible early environments and have led lives of great torment.
But, if one is not blinded by always expecting to find trauma, one finds among one's next several hundred patients many with unusual sexual tastes who don't fit this mold.
Some come from perfectly decent homes and have been loved every bit as a child ought to be loved, but nevertheless experience cravings to tie people up, to be whipped, or to make love to amputees.
And what of the universe of sexual humans who never come for psychological help? In the absence of more objective information, it's important not to conclude that someone had an especially traumatic childhood just because they get sexual satisfaction out of being tied up.
How about being able to love?
In Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele is frightened by Christian Grey's craving to sexually dominate her. OK, both turned on and frightened.
But what gives her much more trouble in the long run is his inability to accept her love in a conventional romantic sense. He doesn't want to sleep in the same bed together with her. He can't stand for her to touch his body.
It's the book's central problem. It's what drives her to distraction trying to penetrate his wounded soul in order to heal it.
If one isn't careful, one might come away from Fifty Shades of Grey with the idea that people with variant sexual interests are unable to love.
In fact the world does contain many Christian Greys. Emotionally damaged individuals whose main channel of intimate communication is through over-intense sexuality. But again, the same may be said for many individuals who are sexually "plain vanilla."
In my work as a sex therapist, I've known many individuals with unusual sexual tastes who were quite able to love and be loved. And some who were virtuosos in this regard.
One has to be cautious against generalizations.
Another love that dare not speak its name
Often a kinky person's chief obstacle in the path of ordinary love is not his sexual need per se, but rather the fact that he has to keep it secret. Because it's likely to be frightening to many of the people he will fall in love with.
It's easy to overlook how much conventional sexuality gives one a free ride in society. One doesn't have to be especially loving to pass muster in the ordinary dating world, marry, and have a family. One has to supply so little that's bold or original; the culture's expectations take care of everything.
But for someone with unconventional sexual tastes: for example, a man who despite a reasonably loving and wholesome childhood, discovers that his main erotic interest is in women's feet, or in being tied up.
Imagine having to go through life knowing that the thing that really turns you on will be incomprehensible or even frightening to most people you're interested in as potential partners. Not exactly a recipe for promoting healthy self-regard.
Life is a little better for such individuals since the Internet. But the internet can't take the place of a real neighborhood of people who accept you as you are.
When we enjoy the eroticism of Fifty Shades of Grey, let's be careful not to generalize from this one fictional character to the real world of diverse human sexual beings.
Thanks to James Cantor, Sari Cooper, and William Picker for helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.