References to fetish are everywhere right now; on my morning commute, in pop music, in clothing, in fashion spreads. When a girl group or young female actresses or singers have an image overhaul and reappear in leather and metal studs, they're often described by the media as “all grown up”.
Fetish and BDSM seems to have captured society’s imagination to such an extent that, until recently, I don't think I'd really noticed, let alone questioned it.
Instead, I started questioning myself.
I’ve never been into pain. Unlike Rihanna, that beautiful siren of leather and lace, I am not excited by whips. I mainly see them as practical items, having been brought up in a family of horse riders.
I don’t crave punishment. I don’t want to be tied up, or hit, or insulted, or scared. I don't find the thought of those things a little bit naughty or risque, I just think they sound....well, horrible.
I like sexual congress that is - to fully lay bare before you my wholesome vanilla-ness – nice. Hot and steamy, sure, but essentially nice.
I mean….that just sounds bad, doesn’t it? Embarrassing even.
Until recently, I didn’t really think about the fact that I wanted sex to feel pleasant. But over the last few months, I’ve started wondering whether I SHOULD want to try a bit of light spanking or domination, if I’m actually horribly square and old fashioned, and missing out by insisting on pain-free sexual encounters.
I even started to feel like potential sex partners would be put off by my lack of kink.
And then one day it hit me square between the bum-cheeks, like a well-aimed crack from a pleather cat o’ nine tails. I was no longer questioning whether violence had a place in sex for me. I was questioning the fact that it didn't.
One of the reasons that this bothers me is that it is so insidious; I simply hadn't noticed it happening. I also worry that violence has become shorthand for erotic, and is being displayed as such to young women who are just starting to explore their sexuality.
I am very deliberately using the word "violence" because without a careful, open-minded and affectionate exploration of what BDSM means, I feel that we're starting to get on shaky ground.
If we get to a place where we are presenting sex as good only when there are violent elements involved, and the only “sexy” image as born out of bondage-wear, we're going to diminish the full, glorious spectrum of sex, which is the opposite of what the scene is all about.
50 Shades Of Grey - atrocious dialogue aside - was written by someone who isn't from a BDSM background, and as such doesn't have any particular insight into the scene.
It was also originally a fan-fiction based on the Twilight series, and therefore has implicit appeal to a younger female readership. It is a pick and mix of various kinky practices, without any of the background exploration or indeed affection that I understand to be a part of the BDSM world. It’s by no means a template for “a good” sexual relationship.
Now, please don't get me wrong, I am not in any way saying that people shouldn't be into BDSM. Tying up, spanking, role-play, and domination - these are things that plenty of people get off on, and I doff my very-much-not-a-gimp-mask cap to you all.
Nor am I saying that we shouldn't have a healthy and open-minded attitude towards exploring sexual inclinations, or that it's bad that people are becoming more open about the things that get them off.
However, I am worried about us reaching a place where violence towards women becomes a byword for "sexy".
As you may have guessed, I don’t really know much about the world of BDSM. But, I have some friends who are on the scene (get me, right?! COSMOPOLITAN!) and a couple very generously agreed to answer a couple of questions for me about their sexual proclivities.
It seems to me that Christian Grey likes dominating Anastasia in the bedroom because he is dominating in every aspect of his life, but this isn't necessarily the case in BDSM relationships in general.
So, I asked the lovely men who agreed to answer my questions if they thought that their desire to be a dom stems from patriarchal roots (I was being deliberately provocative). One replied:
“ In my vanilla life I am largely a passive person who has to do what other people say. Therefore in my BDSM relationships I want a break from that by taking charge. Now, as I am a straight male that means that my partners are female and largely submissive. While that is what seems to work for me and my partners it is not ‘how it should be’ and I am supportive of all other types of dynamics.”
Whereas another answered:
“I tend to lead teams of people at work and in social activities, and friends often come to me for advice and guidance. I think my BDSM practices are an extension of that; a combination of the way I like to be in control and being comfortable with having people rely on my judgement.”
And this is the point. As in every aspect of life, the nuances behind sexual identity are subtle and completely individual. One person enjoys domination because it is a contrast to his everyday life, another because it is central to it.
The responses I received were thoughtful, intelligent and, above all, completely individual. But by taking certain practices, neutralising and packaging them up all shiny-like for a commercial market, I worry that we are cheapening them and also making them more dangerous.
I mainly worry that young women are going to believe that for them to be “good at” sex they will have to engage in certain activities that they might not necessarily want to. And that is no fun for anyone.