Oprah Winfrey, one of America’s most vocal female figures, recently endorsed the book “Fifty Shades of Grey”, calling it one of her “guilty pleasures”. Her OWN cable network ran a TV special called “Shades of Kink” on the show “Our America” with Lisa Ling. These occurrences are symptomatic of a growing interest in the sadomasochism movement in American sexual culture. The acceptance of practices such as handcuffing your partner, or even beating that person, have become widely accepted to the point where “Fifty Shades of Grey”, a book which deals extensively and graphically with this topic, is read by millions of women across America openly.
What message does this interest in sadomasochism send to women about what it means to be a woman? I would contend it is teaching them a false idea of what sexual union should be between two people, and reinforcing the idea that the partner is there as a tool for pleasure, not as an equal person with hopes, dreams, and human dignity. Consider one of the most common tools of so-called “kinky” sex, the whip. The whip traditionally has two purposes as a tool; it beats slaves and it beats animals, both of which are property, are objects without human dignity or privilege. So then, what is the so-called “dominant” partner telling the “submissive” when he beats her? Consider also the use of handcuffs, which are generally used on prisoners to keep them from harming others, but were also used in other times of human history to help with the transport and detention of slaves. Technically back then the tools were called shackles or manacles, but those were the ancestors of the modern handcuff, and serve the same purpose. So consider carefully the implications when she chains him up and uses a riding crop on him.
Considering that women are oftentimes presented as being the “submissive” partners, this can lead to a false image of what women desire from men, and also what acceptable conduct is toward women. Consider the fact that in shows like Law and Order SVU, when sadomasochism is mentioned, it generally includes the mention of a “safe word” and the show’s characters talk about how this word substitutes for “no” since the submissive will be saying no, or even begging the dominant to stop often. What does this tell the listener? No means no, except when it doesn’t? If “no” and pleading for the experience to end isn’t even an absolute statement of a woman’s right to protect her intimacy, what is? Consider further what the implications are when sex can become a violent act instead of an expression of love. If the submissive is really going to be yelling no and pleading for the dominant to stop, the partners are both essentially involved in a very in-depth simulation of rape, are they not?
Sadomasochism, although it has existed in various forms for centuries (in fact almost assuredly since the beginnings of human culture, since there have always been people interested in such monstrosities), has never had this level of exposure in American culture. I think it can best be likened to the rise of pornography in the US, which is another way that women are seen as object for pleasure, a collection of pleasurable body parts, rather than a person worthy of respect and love. What image do we as a society want for our women to conform to?