Sexualized Saturdays: BDSM in Fanfiction and Pop Culture

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I am willing to bet that you have been in a fandom and listened to people debate about which characters are doms or subs. Basically, they are asking who, in a BDSM relationship, would be the dominant one and who would be the submissive one. You may have heard people also argue about who is a top and who is a bottom in m/m queer relationships, and while that is not the same as being a dom or a sub, the argument is usually similar. People tend to claim that the more dominant character would be a top and the more submissive or at least less sexually aggressive one would be on the bottom. While that is not necessarily the case, this is an argument I see in fandom a lot. It’s clear from my own experience in fandom that many people are at least kind of interested in the power dynamics of BDSM, even if they aren’t fully into the lifestyle or certain aspects of the BDSM community. However, many of the ideas about BDSM tend to be extremely stereotypical or riddled with misinformation.

Trigger warning for sex and sexual content below.

Regrettably, many people have this idea that BDSM is basically Fifty Shades of Grey. Spoiler alert, it’s not. I would say Fifty Shades is an excellent portrayal of an abusive BDSM relationship, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. The point is, since Fifty Shades, and even before that, the general understanding was that women were always the submissive ones and men always the dominant ones. In the wake of Fifty Shades, many novels have been trying to capitalize on the books’ fame by writing more stories with a female submissive and male dominant. While there is nothing wrong with a woman being a sub and a man being a dom, it certainly doesn’t capture the whole spectrum of the BDSM community.

Even in fanfiction, where gay pairings reign supreme, it seems like it’s always the male character who is viewed as more stereotypically “feminine”, for whatever reason, who is cast in the role of the sub while their more masculine partner is depicted as the dom. This has several issues varying from, again, not showing enough of the spectrum of the BDSM community to the heteronormativity that plays out with stories like this. Furthermore, few characters are ever portrayed as a switch. A switch, as the name implies, is someone who enjoys being a dom and a sub and switches roles with their partner(s). People don’t seem to like that these power dynamics can be played with and so switches are rarely portrayed in fanfiction or even in pop culture.

Both pop culture’s and fandom’s biggest issue when it comes to BDSM is the misinformation that it spreads. With the media, that tends to mean writing BDSM as a sign of trauma and showing bad BDSM etiquette as if it is normal, which further makes people think that such relationships are unhealthy. For example, it is baffling to me that anyone could read Fifty Shades and assume that is a healthy BDSM relationship. Anastasia has never even had sex before, let alone engaged in anything related to BDSM, and Christian gives her a contract that she doesn’t sign! Furthermore, he is constantly pushing her hard limits, which are hard limits for a reason—that means you don’t push them. Hard limits are certain sexual or behavioral things that a person is not willing to do in a BDSM relationship under any circumstances. On top of just overall bad BDSM etiquette, Fifty Shades also perpetuated the myth that people who enjoy BDSM relationships and sex must have some kind of psychological trauma, which again is completely false.

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Before I talk about how fandom portrays BDSM, let me first explain what good BDSM etiquette is. Like other relationships, it involves a lot of communication. A lot of people go through a list of different sexual kinks, dom/sub behavior, and more to figure out what people are okay with and interested in. On the list, you can say something is a hard or soft limit. A soft limit is something you might not enjoy but would be okay with doing occasionally if your partner wanted to. Hard limits are something that you never want to do and are not interested in. On top of this, there are safe words, aftercare discussions, and safety discussions, and ongoing and continual talks about whether or not things are still going well.

I would argue that fanfiction actually gets a lot of things right when it comes to BDSM sex and relationships. (Either that or I’m reading more fanfic written by actual kinksters.) So in fandom, the misinformation tends to be of a different variety. There are rarely, for example, any assumptions that people interested in BDSM are interested because of past traumas. Don’t get me wrong; I have occasionally seen fanfiction like that—but not nearly as often as I’ve seen it in mainstream pop culture. And usually, even if the character is portrayed as having some sort of trauma, the writers tend to make a point of saying that it’s not connected to BDSM. My main issue with how fanfiction portrays BDSM is that many—not all, but many—fanfics seem to want some hot steamy kinky BDSM scene, but don’t want to actually portray a BDSM relationship. Thus, similar to how pop culture portrays BDSM, we end up with some bad BDSM etiquette. We see characters simply decide things like who is the dom and who is the sub and maybe a discussion of safe words, but that’s it. There isn’t any more in-depth discussion about what they are or are not comfortable with. There aren’t any discussions about what their hard and soft limits are, nor are there any discussions about safety.

Fanfiction, in a lot of ways, can thus end up being fannish BDSM porn. BDSM porn doesn’t show any of the above either, because that’s not what you go to porn for. The issue, however, is that many people who never knew anything about BDSM might discover it because of a fanfic. Some people can read these fanfics and think this is how BDSM actually works.

The last thing this world needs is newbies to the BDSM community thinking that abuse is normal or acceptable in a BDSM relationship, or that if you are a woman you can’t be interested in BDSM if you don’t want to be submissive. Spreading misrepresentation about an already misunderstood community is never helpful.


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One thought on “Sexualized Saturdays: BDSM in Fanfiction and Pop Culture

  1. Great writing! I agree with your view ot bdsm in littérature. and in mainstream works.But what i have so far observed is that there are two type of bdsm stories.One which place the event inour reality thus making the creation far more complicated.A second which place the stories in a imaginary world of bdsm lore.Writers and readers knowing perfectly that THIS IS FANTASY! For my part,i set my work in a world not exactly ours ,i call it fairy tales for adult.

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