Is 'Fifty Shades' a boon or bust for couples exploring kink?

Story highlights

  • The popular movie and film series may not be accurate but has been helpful to couples exploring kink
  • " 'Fifty Shades' is to kink what 'Star Wars' is to space travel," said one sex therapist

Ian Kerner is a licensed psychotherapist, certified sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author. Read more from him on his website, iankerner.com.

(CNN)"Fifty Shades Darker," the sequel to "Fifty Shades of Grey," hits theaters this month, the second installation in the wildly popular series. There's no doubt that the films -- and E.L. James' bestselling books on which they're based -- have introduced millions to the concept of kink, an umbrella term that includes bondage, discipline and sadomasochism (also called BDSM).

These practices include such practices as restraints, blindfolds, spanking and whipping, basically any act that involves one person consensually giving the other more power in the situation. But are the fictional portrayals in the "Fifty Shades" franchise accurate or responsible vehicles for real-life experimentation? I asked several of my colleagues to weigh in on some common questions about the trilogy.

Is 'Fifty Shades' realistic?

In a word, no. "There were many inaccurate BDSM descriptions communicated throughout the series," clinical sexologist Anna Randall said. "One of these inaccuracies is the inclusion of scenes that violate BDSM's cardinal rule of mutual consent." Real BDSM requires communication and consent. Otherwise, it's a boundary violation.
Still, many experts believe that viewers can parse fact from fiction, the same way one can enjoy an over-the-top romance novel without expecting the same fantasy in real life.
" 'Fifty Shades' is to kink what 'Star Wars' is to space travel, a kind of romantic heroine's journey with about as much realism relative to sexual science as the Death Star has to NASA," sex therapist Russell Stambaugh said. "It is not representative of BDSM, but was never written to be, either."

Does 'Fifty Shades' hurt or help BDSM?

Despite the concerns about its portrayal of BDSM, most of the colleagues I spoke to agreed that "Fifty Shades" has been good for the BDSM community in the six years since the first book was published.
"In general, 'Fifty Shades' has had a positive effect in that it's exposed alternative forms of sexuality to a much broader audience," sex therapist Michael Aaron explained. "It's taken BDSM mainstream in the sense that there's more awareness around it and it is portrayed much less as a bunch of sleazy perverts in dark dungeons."
Some experts take it even further. "It's been said that 'Fifty Shades' was BDSM's Stonewall Rebellion," said sex therapist Margie Nichols, referring to the 1969 protests that marked the beginning of the fight for LGBTQ rights. "It brought BDSM out into the light of day and gave it incredible visibility. Readers got turned on by kink, so now they know what that's like. It's hard to demonize something after you've been turned on by it. It creates an automatic kinship."

What's the appeal of BDSM?

In my opinion, BDSM can appeal to people for many reasons, just like "vanilla" sex. Some people find it hot because it's different. Sex play that's outside the norm can make us feel like we're doing something subversive and getting away with it. "For some people, BDSM also seems to trigger altered states of consciousness that feel very spiritual," Nicholsadded.
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Another appeal is that BDSM can tread the line between pleasure and fear.
"I sometimes call BDSM the 'extreme sports of sex,' " psychologist Richard Sprott said. "There are many similarities between peak experiences in sex and peak experiences in other kinds of activities, so it's not surprising that some people can find self-actualization through kink."

Is there a link between an abusive past and BDSM?

Of the concerns experts do have about "Fifty Shades," the greatest involves the hero's traumatic past.
"My main complaint is that by portraying Christian Grey as someone who is compelled to sadomasochism due to childhood trauma, it plays into the stereotypes that all BDSM practitioners have been traumatized at some point in their lives," Aaron said. In fact, Randall points out, several reliable studies show that people who are into BDSM and other types of kink are no more likely to have experienced childhood abuse or sexual abuse than the general population.
Indeed, BDSM can even be healing for those who have experienced this sort of trauma.
"I once worked with a couple in which the husband was submissive, but the wife had been physically abused as a child and couldn't imagine dominating him," Nichols said. "Through therapy, she got to the point where she was less bothered by the idea, and they tried BDSM. She found she was able to see that what they were doing was a loving act, not a harmful one, and she was able to shut the door on her abusive past."

Other benefits of BDSM

One of the biggest benefits of BDSM is the closeness it can facilitate. "Kink requires a lot of talk, negotiation and exploration, so communication is the starting foundation," Sprott said. "Kink play depends on consent and knowing what is arousing and what is not, which is different and unique for each person."
Because of the vulnerability involved in giving someone else power over your pleasure, BDSM can create profound depths of intimacy and trust. But you might not realize that from the "Fifty Shades" franchise.
"It's a poor representation of the kind of communication involved. In fact, it's abysmal," Stambaugh said. "In 'Fifty Shades,' Christian is magically intuitive about (another character's) needs and yet keeps violating her boundaries. They would never have made it as a couple in the real world of kink."
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If you're interested in exploring BDSM, the key is to educate yourself about it beyond fictional portrayals. There are plenty of good books about BDSM, as well as instructional videos (check out those on Kink Academy's website, a comprehensive library of educational videos from the country's leading sex educators).
Talk about what interests you and what doesn't. To get your feet wet, try experimenting with blindfolds, light restraints, spanking or role-playing.
Whatever you do, make sure you and your partner are in agreement. "There are no rules in BDSM except for consent," alternative life coach Bo Blaze said. "So just have fun, and don't let yourself get caught up in trying to be what you think a dominant or submissive is. Communicate, be brave, talk to your partner and find out what they desire. And then have fun trying to give it to them."