Reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” (I didn’t) never was about experiencing great literature, or so I hear from many friends.
Seeing “Fifty Shades of Grey” (I did) is not about experiencing great filmmaking. Or writing. Or acting.
But the sexual bondage movie, which opened in time for Valentine’s Day, is likely to make a boatload of money, and likely also to inspire lively discussions about what we will and won’t do in the bedroom, or in the “red room” if you happen to have one of those.
Talking about sex with our partners is a healthy thing, but a tricky thing, which is why it’s typically a rare thing.
So if a movie — even one during which I kept checking my watch and editing dialogue in my head — encourages us to broach a difficult subject, that’s good.
Just keep in mind that real sex is also gray. What’s exciting to one person may be off-putting to another. Desire flows, then ebbs, over time.
And it’s common to worry that everybody else is having more sex than you are, but they probably aren’t, particularly if they have kids, a dog and day jobs.
Celebrity sex therapist Laura Berman of Chicago says that the first question she often gets from people, usually cornering her at cocktail parties, is “Am I normal?”
Normal. There’s a gray word if there ever was one.
“Normal,” said Berman, “encompasses a broad range of behaviors and bodies. As long as your sex life isn’t harming anyone and you’re safe, there’s no reason to be concerned about the shape of your desire.”
On the other hand, Berman works with many couples who say they have no time for sex. Make time, she tells them. “If you don’t schedule it,” Berman said, “it won’t happen.”
Others come to her because they’re stuck in a sexual rut. She suggests that they create a “fantasy file,” with individual desires written on pieces of paper that they pull out “whenever things get dull in the bedroom.”
One of her female clients turned her partner on by dressing up like Princess Leia, hair buns and all. One husband wore a Zorro cape for his wife.
Normal, as she said, encompasses a broad range of behaviors.
So, what about blindfolds, whips and handcuffs, a la “Fifty Shades”? The items are among many making their way into stores, including Target, in kinky homage to the movie about an innocent young woman’s introduction to games of sexual bondage.
Sure. Just remember three things:
“Safe, sane and consensual,” said Minneapolis sex therapist Scott Eugene Bartell, who has clients who are members of the Twin Cities bondage, domination, sadism and masochism (BDSM) community. And yes, there is a community here.
Bartell read the first of the three-book series soon after it came out. “I was quite curious,” said Bartell, a therapist for 40 years. Plus, he enjoys erotica.
He gave the book a three on a scale of 10. He was even less impressed with the second two books in the series, calling them “pretty preposterous and pretty boring.”
And, much to the dismay of the BDSM community, pretty inaccurate.
“This book goes so far astray,” said Bartell, a designated “kink-aware professional.” That Christian Grey, the wealthy white male, holds complete control over innocent young female Anastasia Steele borders on domestic abuse, he said.
It’s a claim others are making. Two Canadian women’s shelters, for example, are calling for a boycott of the movie, arguing that “Fifty Shades” promotes violence against women.
BDSM, Bartell clarified, “is always done with informed consent. Participants always have safe words and a way to stop.”
Some relationships among people in the BDSM community, he added, don’t involve pain at all. Other activities don’t even involve sex but, instead, the excitement of suggestive visual cues.
“And communication is the most important part,” he said. “The characters in this book don’t have good communication at all.”
That applies to the movie as well, due to Grey’s shuttered emotions.
Bartell hopes the movie will get us communicating, honestly, about desire. He estimates that anywhere from 10 to 60 percent of adults are curious about activities “that might be seen as kinky, such as spanking and tying wrists.”
“But, given a national administration policy that mostly forbade research into sexuality, we don’t have a good base line about what people do sexually.”
Left to his hunches, Bartell said, we fall onto a continuum. “For some, sex should be very gentle.
“There are other people whose nervous systems are wired to need a heavier level of stimulation. They say, ‘I like it really rough and vigorous.’ Is that kink? Some people like bland foods. Others like a wide variety of spices. Probably every person who is sexually active has at least a fantasy of doing something that others consider very odd but, to them, is really, really exciting.”
And yet, a stigma remains, which is why he sees people in his practice who want to know if they’re normal.
“They say, ‘I like to dream about being tied up. Is that crazy?’ ”
They’re sometimes afraid they’ll lose their jobs or kids.
If “Fifty Shades” can remind us that sexual desire is far from black and white, good for it.
And your neighbors? Probably once or twice a week, according to Berman.
So relax, and start scheduling.