The Aquinian

BDSM stereotypes perpetuated by media  

(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)

(Hadeel Ibrahim/AQ)

Jack Sullivan was 15 years old when she discovered her interest in BDSM. Like many people, she explored that interest through online forums and chat-rooms. It was not difficult for the fourth-year St. Thomas student to find like-minded people who accepted her and shared her curiosity.

Not until one of her friends stopped speaking to her, after she admitted her interest, did she know the full extent of the stigma surrounding BDSM.

“She thought it was strange and wrong,” Sullivan said. “If I thought it was wrong I would have to think that my preference of sexuality is wrong.”

BDSM – bondage, discipline or dominance, submission or sadism, masochism – has been slowly spreading into mainstream media in the last decade. Movies, novels and songs have been including BDSM themes. But often the practice is ridiculed or misunderstood. And the recent firing of Jian Ghomeshi for alleged non-consensual physical assaults on women has put BDSM in the spotlight.

“BDSM paraphernalia seems to be coming more popular now,” said Alicia Smith, the manager of Pleasures and Treasures, a franchised sex shop in Fredericton.

However, she points out that many of the new customers don’t understand the full extent of the lifestyle. She uses the popular book 50 Shades of Grey as an example of how the mainstream side of BDSM doesn’t accurately portray the whole.

“It sparked an interest, a curiosity, in people,” Smith said. “They think it’s light and playful, but when they actually start asking questions… they are scared a little bit.”

Miranda Fudge, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology and a sex researcher at UNB, said BDSM is a role-play activity that is always consensual.

“And there’s two things about the consent that matter: one is that it is explicit so it is verbally stated and agreed upon. And two is that it is in advance of the activity,” Fudge said.

Fudge said 50 Shades of Grey raised people’s curiosity, which is a good thing, but the novel doesn’t represent BDSM as a whole. She said there is more direct consent in BDSM than other sexual acts, because it is so important.

“One thing I hear a lot is ‘That’s sick,’ but it’s not sick. It’s a variation of other healthy sexual behaviours,” she said. “It is not distressing to the people who are practicing it.”

In a Facebook post, Ghomeshi, who had been the host of the CBC Radio show Q, claimed he was fired for his BDSM sexual preference. Fudge draws a clear distinction between sexual assault and BDSM.

“Sexual assault is violence that happens without consent,” she said. “BDSM is very consent-based and rule-bound.”

Regardless of how much people are exposed to BDSM, Sullivan believes the stigma remains. According to Fudge, part of the reason may be that we are too dependent on media for information.

“People go to the media for education, which is problematic in some ways,” said Fudge. “There is good information out there… but it’s probably not trending.”

Smith also prompts customers and potential customers to seek better and more accurate information.

“People should educate themselves more about it before they try it.”

Sullivan eventually reconnected with her friend her who turned her away for her interest in BDSM. The STU student is adamant not to let the stigma limit her.

“We’ve since made up because she realized that not everybody fits into her set idea of what’s normal,” she said. “By letting it get to me, I would be letting outside influences dictate my sexual freedom. That’s not what I’m about.”

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