BDSM Beyond The Red Room: Experts Bust Myths

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Popular fiction, books, TV and movies barely scratch the surface of erotica. Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill, a novel published in 1988, depicts a BDSM relationship with more nuance than a shabby trilogy that earned millions at the box office. Bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism – BDSM is an umbrella term for a dynamic set of sexual adventures and preferences. However, modern portrayals have shrunk it to degrading role play performed in uncomfortable latex bodysuits and bad make-up. In India, the perception around it is especially problematic. Sexuality Educator Karishma Swarup explains,“BDSM is a niche topic globally, not just in India. But I think that the state of BDSM education here is even worse. People don’t have easy access to education and awareness about it.” She believes that this stems from a larger issue of unwillingness to engage in open conversations around sex and sexuality. Regular or comprehensive sex education and conversations about consent, healthy relationships and boundaries are rare, particularly for younger or non-married audiences. Urban communities might have better access to information around it via the internet, but not every source will be reliable. Multiple forums consist of people talking from personal experiences or sharing opinions. But accessing ethical, qualified kink practitioners is extremely difficult, even in a space as vast as the internet.

There are a lot of misconceptions about BDSM. Sex and Trauma Psychotherapist Neha Bhat reveals, “People tend to conflate abuse with BDSM. I think it’s important to remember that BDSM is one of the higher forms of sexual engagement. It requires attention to detail, slowness and complete trust between partners. Abuse is the opposite; abuse often happens when one person is breaking trust, not paying attention to the other’s or their own body’s language, and is only pleasure-focused. This is where consent tends to be dismissed by people who abuse trust.” She further explained that the sub-culture is often pigeonholed to be about a role and an image that one has to fit into (like the “dom” and the “sub”). But in reality, BDSM and kink are about crafting your own definitions and roles with each other. 2002 sleeper hit Secretary featured a submissive woman’s journey from being told what to have for dinner to actually role-reversing into a dominant role when she felt empowered. S&M relationships are not black and white; they belong on a whole spectrum of behaviours, customs and rituals.

CONSENT IS KEY

Consent is the essential nature of a BDSM relationship. Neha informs, “Step one is a gentle conversation between partners. When the foundation of a relationship is safe and strong, open and honest, BDSM can become part of a couple’s lifelong erotic map.” Establishing consent begins with discussing what each partner wants to do and how. Many also believe that consent is a one-time thing but it’s supposed to be established every single time, before each act and in as much detail as possible. The conversation also doesn’t happen in a swanky office with a fancy view and a non-disclosure agreement. It starts slow; casual dinner conversations and movie dates are usually where couples talk it out. It can take weeks, or even months, to reach an understanding with a new partner. The tone doesn’t have to be serious, there is space for candour. Neha elaborates on establishing boundaries

as well. ”When I say chilli, please know I’m asking to stop” or “When I say green, I’m saying go for it” are phrases that can be used. Discuss the nearest exit in the room, in case one person wants to leave. Also, talk through any triggers from previous sexually traumatic experiences. It can feel like a lot of conversation can be dampening, when in fact it is the opposite—a lot of conversation can create the safety that is important for exploration.”

The misconceptions bleed into people too. Internationally trained medical doctor and gynaecologist-in-training Dr Tanaya Narendra reveals, “In the general community, people who engage in BDSM are perceived as individuals with a history of mental illness, abuse or having their boundaries violated in some way. This is entirely inaccurate. You don’t need a prerequisite for enjoying or engaging in BDSM practices!” The focus on consent and acknowledgement that submitting to a partner sexually can be challenging makes this an experience more nuanced than what it’s portrayed to be. She reveals that these relationships are often better at upholding consent and boundaries. The people engaged in them are well versed in what consent means and what the lack of it or breaking that trust entails. She also shuns the idea that you have to be sexually promiscuous, or “adventurous”, to engage in BDSM. In reality, there are various levels to it. “You don’t necessarily have to be strung in multiple ropes and hung from a ceiling to experience it. There are various levels to engagement with no restrictions to age, race, gender or sexual appetite. Married for fifty years, even extremely vanilla couples engage in BDSM,” reveals Dr Tanaya.

Possibly the most erroneous criticism of BDSM relationships is that they are essentially anti-feminist. “The misconception arises from popular images of tied-up women,” confesses Dr Tanaya. Off the screen and pages of sleazy erotica, the relationship dynamic is gentle, neutral and for everybody. It can even be empowering for many because it’s about upholding what one is okay with and pushing the boundaries of what they enjoy. She concludes with a simple anecdote, “You don’t need to have fancy equipment! Fifty Shades Of Grey features a dedicated red room but you can also engage in BDSM simply with hands or with yourself.” So, while toys can help, the unavailability of the same need not be a deterrent for anyone who wishes to try the lifestyle for themselves.

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- Director at ELLE

Director at ELLE

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