I recently was asked to watch “50 shades of gray” by a friend, who is exploring BDSM and wanted to know what I thought of the representation of D/S in the movie. For starters, it was wrong in every possible way and was badly acted and the dialogue was terrible, besides. But there is a thing that it almost kinda sorta gets right* namely that the two protagonists utterly “do not get it” through the entire movie. He is so intensely focused on his desire to be a “dominant”** that he utterly fails to see that there’s another person involved. She’s so, uh, well, she’s such a cardboard cut-out that perhaps he’s right that there really isn’t anothe person involved. But the one little slice of “getting it right” the movie manages to accomplish is at the end, when he finally gets sadistic on her*** and she freaks out and leaves. OK, that was great: utter failure to understand her other than as part of a relentless effort to manipulate coupled with utter failure to understand him as part of being beglamoured by wealth and attractiveness****
The reason it’s relevant to this discussion is that there are (as Dr Carrier says) people who legitimately like to play on both sides of erotic power exchange. But it’s a textbook example of what happens when someone who is kinky tries to forcibly introduce someone “vanilla” to kink. Vanilla relationships take a lot of communication. Kinky relationships take a lot more, especially if they involve any kind of edge-play. Putting your hands on someone’s throat is edge-play. If some idiot watches a bunch of BDSM porn and decides it looks fun and they try to introduce their vanilla partner to it, they are flat-out wrong. Because that’s not what the vanilla partner originally signed up for. This applies to BDSM, or threesomes or moresomes, or pretty much anything else in a relationship. If I’m into ballroom dance competition and I get into a relationship with someone and somehow neglect to mention that fact, it is going to affect our lives together: my partner either learns to dance with me, or expects me to be gone a lot. It’s a matter of violating the initial expectations you establish when you are forming a relationship. It’s nightmarish when it happens. It’s like falling in love with someone and forgetting to find out that they are a Republican, or a racist, and then you have this great big WTF that both of you have to deal with. Cue me up a gender-neutral version of Paul Simon’s “50 ways to leave your lover” at that point.
There are powerful critiques that can and should be levelled at porn, and the question of how much consent counter-balances them; often when I think about this issue I am minded of the brain-washed individuals who claim that wearing a burqua is their choice. I know several sex workers and porn performers and they’d all say they are happy with their jobs, etc. The economic/patriarchy critique of porn is powerful and relevant and I don’t want to even pretend to have anything to say about it. 50.S.O.G. appears to address that critique by the simple expedient of making both characters utterly thoughtless shallow chucklefucks who are thereby excused from attempting to unpack the vast power-differential between them until he exceeds her limits*****. In the BDSM communities I’ve hung out with, the 50.S.O.G. scenario or the “watches porn now wants to choke” scenario would have triggered at least some sad head-shaking or some sotto voce advice to either or both parties.
Tl;dr of the above: in scenarios where you are seeking consent for things that are beyond the edge of “normal” consent, you need to communicate a whole lot more and brain a bit harder. I would file this not as a porn problem, though there are plenty of problems with porn, but more as a didn’t talk enough/didn’t listen enough/didn’t think enough problem that should be addressed with improving understanding of consent and expectations in a situations not just in edge-play.
(* I am pretty sure that the sequel, if there is one, will un-right it)
(** Actually, he’s an ‘asshole’ who mistakes himself for a ‘dominant’. Picture what being in a ‘relationship’ with Vox Day must be like: you’re an inflateable accessory)
(*** He’s a “sadist in denial” not a ‘dominant’; there are a lot of them in the BDSM community)
(**** Other than that, he appears to have no personality except ‘asshole’ and ‘control freak’)
(***** Prior to that the majority of the movie appears to be about him trying to gain written blanket consent to do whatever he wants, which someone who was experienced in BDSM relationships would take as a Big Red Flag unless there was solid reason to believe there was no danger)