Life&Style writer Charlotte Whittle analyses depictions of BDSM in visual media, considering its typically harmful connotations

I’m a third year student from London. I study English Literature with Creative Writing.
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With the outburst of Sally Rooney’s Normal People on BBC, it seems appropriate to discuss the increasing normalisation of BDSM. Normal People has been widely praised for the realistic and intimate sex scenes between Connell and Marianne, but also for highlighting how important and telling sex can be in a relationship. However, the show’s portrayal of BDSM has become quite controversial, re-sparking the conversation that Fifty Shades of Grey started when it was published in 2011.

So, first of all, what is BDSM? Bondage, domination, submission, and masochism. Second of all, what is the harm in romanticising it? People who actively practice BDSM outline how it is built on consent, safe words, and a comfortable environment. However, this can often get lost. In fact, there is a rise in men using BDSM, specifically choking, as an excuse for murder by suffocation. But assuming that safety is secured, the harm – as it is with everything sex related – lies in the comfort and security of the people involved. Done right, and by right, I mean there has been an open conversation where consent and a safe word is ensured, the romanticising of BDSM may simply lead to disappointment *hands you a leaflet that says ‘so you are not as kinky as you thought’*. Societally, the romanticising of BDSM may lead to some feeling boring, or inferior, as society tends to favour extraverts and their outgoing spirit. Therefore, people may be ostracised for being turned off, disturbed, or simply disinterested by a whip, handcuffs, or latex.

I feel for most people in our generation, Fifty Shades of Grey was the first real introduction to BDSM

Pop culture is consistently being called out for unrealistically portraying BDSM. Personally, and I feel for most people in our generation, Fifty Shades of Grey was the first real introduction to BDSM. It first appeared in my life when I overheard my Mum discussing it with her book club friends. I was eleven years-old and it was even juicer for us because the author was also a mum at my brother’s school. When the film came out, I was fifteen and was more exposed to the world of sex, masturbating, and porn. I was afraid, not literally but of the social backlash, of watching the film alone (as if the boys at school would somehow find out), so I watched the film with one of my friends. I believe that it is the intimacy, passion, and the strength of desire portrayed that seduced many women to watch and enjoy this film. I’m sure some, if not most, of the boys our age watched it because of the nudity (or that was their excuse anyway).

The charm of Fifty Shades of Grey also lies in the attractiveness of the actors, yet despite its success, the films have been widely criticised for their depiction of BDSM. Ana often says yes to violent sex when really she is uncomfortable, and whether she has put pressure on herself or Christian has, that is a generally flawed message to send to viewers. It is also important to note how rushed the whole agreement is. Ana begins as a virgin and within a month, she is taking part in 24/7 BDSM. Perhaps the most damaging element of the trilogy is Christian’s character. He is manipulative, selfish, dangerous, and lacks empathy or really a capacity for love. This outlook should not be romanticised or praised. Others have taken issue with the neatness of the sex: the absence of talking, of sweat, and smudged makeup.

BDSM has been seen more broadly as an option to enhance excitement in sex, due to an inability to find satisfaction in ordinary, everyday sex

The general idea for BDSM enthusiasts is that they want to have sex with someone who is equally eager. This is not relayed in the films. There is a lingering doubt of Ana’s interest, comfort, and willingness throughout the film. Fifty Shades of Grey has opened up many conversations about BDSM and shown it as something attractive and desirable – where it has previously been painted as something malevolent and deviant – but ultimately this is all that can be said positively about how the films presents BDSM.

In more recent years, BDSM has been seen more broadly as an option to enhance excitement in sex, due to an inability to find satisfaction in ordinary, everyday sex. But, generally, BDSM carries connotations of an absence of emotion or love and is looked down on. Sally Rooney’s Normal People is a recent example of this attitude. Connell and Marianne’s sex is superior. Everyone else we watch Marianne have sex with are all presented as completely unappealing. The show is sneaky and aligns Marianne and Connell’s reunions very closely to her sex scenes with the other men in the show. After watching Connell and Marianne have passionate, deeply connected sex, we are exposed to sad, boring, lifeless sex with Gareth. Then there is Jamie, who Marianne later calls a sadist. This is interesting because Jamie, from his first appearance, is dislikeable, arrogant, spiteful and this follows through into their sex life. BDSM advocates take issue with this because it suggests that people who engage in BDSM are violent people and this is not only inaccurate but damaging as an ideology to suggest.

Violence in sex plays a crucial role in Normal People but for Marianne, BDSM is something completely psychological

Another harmful aspect of their relationship is Marianne’s passivity. She seems to be going along with it, echoing similar traits of Ana and Christian’s relationship in Fifty Shades of Grey. When Marianne goes to Sweden, she meets Lukas and again, we dislike him. At first, he seems charming and sweet but when Marianne says she wants ‘the opposite’ of him liking her, he seems to jump at this chance, with an almost menacing look on his face. Marianne, once again, appears miserable, cold and lost and Lukas capitalises on this. Even the lighting and cinematography is icy. We are not meant to like this. Consent suddenly and heart-wrenchingly comes into question when she wants to stop, but Lukas continues. When Marianne leaves, we are thinking ‘finally’, but what we should be thinking is ‘why don’t they have a safe word?’. Violence in sex plays a crucial role in Normal People but for Marianne, BDSM is something completely psychological and while this may reflect a negative and unrelatable experience for BDSM enthusiasts, it demonstrates the experience of this individual.

It feels ignorant to state that BDSM is detached from deeply rooted ideologies and self-beliefs

When Marianne asks Connell to hit her, he says no and Marianne flees, crying. She is humiliated by this. Much like with Jamie’s character, Marianne’s damaged personality bleeds into her sex life. Not once is she seen enjoying violence in sex, but she seeks it over and over. She says to Connell that she thinks she deserves it, and this creates a controversial argument. It feels ignorant to state that BDSM is detached from deeply rooted ideologies and self-beliefs. In Sex Education, Netflix’s sensational TV show, a teacher tells her boyfriend she wants him to talk dirty to her and explains that she wants to feel desired and sexy, not like a neat and plain teacher. Of course, this is still fiction, but it reinforces that there is reasoning – often logical, often not – as to why people engage with BDSM.

However, for a lot of people BDSM is not a source of punishment or psychological torture. Marianne is someone who, like Connell, sees sex as a very emotionally charged experience, but this can send a bad message about why BDSM exists. Normal People’s portrayal of BDSM is cruel, passive, and undesirable and suggests that by romanticising it, women could have relationships similar to Marianne’s. Nevertheless, it also asks us to question why someone wants to partake in BDSM and I don’t believe that is a bad thing.

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