Why 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Is an Important Movie For America


Hear us out: Fifty Shades of Grey is actually a significant movie.

Not because it's high-quality, per se. We imagine the 2015 film, like the book before it, will not be without its flaws, particularly when it comes to accurately portraying the sexual practices known as BDSM. But hate on it as we might, there's no denying one powerful positive impact of the Fifty Shades novel: It brought female sexuality and sex preferences into the light. And in doing so, it provided the opportunity to clear up important facts about what BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) really is.

And the Fifty Shades movie can allow that conversation to happen all over again. With a new trailer that will air during Thursday's episode of Scandal, the film has the potential to reprise the impact of the 2011 book, which included sex toy sales going through the roof. 

In the first quarter of 2012, Nielsen Holdings saw $4.4 million in vibrators sold, up by 14% from the first quarter of in 2011. Toy brand Lelo reported sales of light bondage toys like whips and handcuffs climbed by 50% and pleasure bead sales increased more than 200%. Pure Romance, a company that provides in-home sex toy parties, made $120 million in sales before 2012 came to end. It's unsurprising yet encouraging that curiosity piqued by the book spilled over into real-world experimentation, with women purchasing things that might have made them feel ashamed a year before.

The wave of sex-positivity has extended beyond sex toy sales. Fifty Shades of Grey has given women a way into the conversation about sexual satisfaction. Not only was the book's title on everyone's lips throughout 2012 and 2013, but as research scientist Debby Herbenick of Indiana University told the Washington Post, Fifty Shades got "a lot of people thinking and talking more openly about sex, sexuality, desire and interest. ... It's helping many women to feel comfortable enjoying something about sexual fantasy and arousal." The fantasy of being dominated is more common for women than we might have assumed, and Fifty Shades offered reassurance that those fantasies aren't unusual or perverse. 

And for those who might not have had those fantasies, it presented them as a possibility. Gynecologist Michael Krychman told the Washington Post that the explicit sex portrayed "helps with creativity and imagination, and can give people ideas that help counter sexual boredom." 

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More importantly, Fifty Shades also presented an opportunity to clarify what BDSM fantasies and acts actually entail. One of the book's biggest problems was how inaccurately it portrayed many aspects of BDSM; but experts were able to use that as an opportunity to educate the public.

As many critics of the book have noted, one of those inaccuracies is about the people who participate in such sexual role-play. The emphasis here is on "role-play," because that's exactly what is: Contrary to misguided beliefs, those who either participate in or even fantasize about BDSM aren't asking to be abused or seeking out pain, mistakenly confusing it with pleasure.

Those who engage in BDSM also haven't necessarily been abused themselves. In Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian Grey tells Anastasia that the reason for his sexual desires is because his childhood left him "fifty shades of fucked-up." But that's not generally the case for those in a BDSM relationship.

As for what BDSM actually consists of, critics of Fifty Shades noted that Christian doesn't demonstrate model behavior as a dominant (or "dom"), not fully explaining techniques and risks to Ana. Others have pointed out that limits and consent were not properly respected throughout the book. The number one factor in enjoying a healthy BDSM relationship is setting limits and sticking to them, including using a safe word to be immediately acknowledged should things become a bit too intense. Without that, things can veer dangerously close to an abusive relationship, instead of one steeped in sexual fun and mutual respect

Luckily, Fifty Shades of Grey is sliding back into our lives as a movie this February. While the trailers haven't told us much, we can probably expect few of the book's sexier scenes to be portrayed on the big screen, unless the producers are looking for a NC-17 rating. But that would defeat the purpose of capitalizing on the mass phenomenon that is Fifty Shades, which, in turn, would get fewer women talking about the powerful ownership they have of their own sexual preferences — BDSM and otherwise.