As a psychotherapist who specializes in sexual fetish, I almost felt a sense of responsibility to read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Since most of my work consists of counseling individuals with fetishes and their spouses who don't quite understand them, I was hopeful that this book might actually open the door to some intelligent discussion about fetish, BDSM, and other sexual arousals that are out of the ordinary. After all, the time is right. Gay, lesbian, and transgender people are finally starting to be acknowledged in the mainstream.
Perhaps those who have sexual fetishes related to BDSM behavior can now have a chance as well.
Fifty Shades of Grey is actually a fairly useful roadmap for those who have fetishes and their vanilla partners. More often than not, a fetishist's partner will not be understanding or accepting of any fetish so their general response is to reject. Since having a fetish can be so drenched in shame, the rejecting partner inadvertently validates the bad feelings the fetishist already has about themselves. This doesn't help anyone.
When someone is rejected, it causes anxiety which usually leads to addictive behaviors. A sexual fetish itself is not a disorder, but when it's coupled with anxiety, it can easily get out of hand. That's because the fetishist is in so much emotional pain that they do whatever they can to self soothe. And this can manifest itself in undesired and inappropriate behaviors.
As a therapist, I help fetishists normalize and incorporate fetish into their lives. My goal is to help them express their fetish in a safe, balanced, and healthy way. I also help their partners to understand where the fetish comes from and how to accept and even embrace it as a part of the person they love. This is easier said than done.
While I have had tremendous success doing this, I have also endured my fair share of huge couple-fights, tantrums and tears. I've had to listen to name-calling, threats and vengeful acts of retaliation all in the name of dealing with a partner's fetish.
A fetish is strong, powerful and never goes away. And contrary to popular belief, it is literally impossible for a person to choose between their fetish and the person they love. But I have sat in my office and listened to the same ultimatum over and over, "It's either me or your fetish!"
An Example Couple . . .
Bob loved the idea of bondage and spanking. He had never done it before and didn't have the nerve to tell his fiancé, Julie, about his desires. Deep down he thought they were politically incorrect. He was raised with the notion that women are "fragile flowers." It was never OK to inflict pain. Yet the thought of Julie tied face down readied for a spanking was the image that popped into his head consistently at the moment of orgasm.
Bob tried to think of other things during sex. Stay in the moment. But the same picture always came to mind. One day, Bob brought Julie to my office in order to divulge his secret. He hoped that Julie would be open to discussion and eventual participation. However, the moment he told her, his hopes were smashed.
Julie was aghast. She felt shocked and betrayed. She even threatened to call off the wedding.
I asked her, "What do you love about Bob?"
"Oh, that's easy", she replied "I like that he's confident, smart and protective of me. I feel safe and secure in his arms. I love him to pieces. Can't we cure him of these sick, sadistic thoughts?"
I spent the next few months working with Bob and Julie to help deal with Bob's fetish and save their otherwise excellent relationship. I utilized the same three principles I employ with all fetish couples who seek my help:
1) Keep An Open Mind
Bob and Julie had rigid thoughts about sexuality. They both had preconceived ideas about what sexual arousal "should or shouldn't be." Education was necessary in order to change their thinking. Knowledge and understanding are key ingredients towards acceptance.
I encouraged Bob to identify fetish needs vs. fetish desires. Julie was also asked to envision herself engaging in some or all of Bob's fetishes. As it turns out, she admitted she liked the idea of wearing sexy, fetish-style clothing. That was a beginning! Compromise is an essential component for bringing fetish to life.
Bob and Julie agreed to start out slow. The first time they played, she donned a pair of black fishnet stockings. She looked so enticing that Bob took her into the bedroom and made love to her then and there. As time went on, she asked Bob for a light spanking. Of course he was thrilled to comply. Little by little they expanded their fetish play. After each encounter they took the time to talk about the experience. They each shared high points as well as points of improvement.
I recommend thoughtful, slow exploration with lots of communication for any couple new to fetish and BDSM play.
Fetish vs. Abuse
Fifty Shades of Grey was a welcome delight for me because it paints a portrait of a couple navigating through several stages of fetish acceptance in their relationship finally ending up in a healthy compromise. However, I feel it is important to differentiate between a "fetishist" and an "abuser." With Christian Grey, we need to separate his general personality from his fetishes as described in the book. He definitely exhibits some characteristics of being an abuser. I was taken aback by his tendencies to stalk and be intrusive with her friends. He was definitely over-controlling as evidenced by his interest in her eating and driving habits. These behaviors are not fetishes. People who have a sexual fetish are turned on by something rather than someone.
Christian's enjoyment of bondage and spanking are classified as a fetish while his stalking and over-controlling behavior are classified as abusive. While I whole-heartedly support healthy fetish play in a relationship, I do not endorse abuse. It's very important to know the difference. Christian's abusive behaviors are not as much about BDSM as they are about abandonment trauma from his past.
When a couple like Bob and Julie come to me for help, the first thing I do is assess for any kind of violent or non-consensual behaviors. I knew right from the beginning that Bob was a pure fetishist. His arousal points were unconventional, but his behavior proved him to be respectful and caring of Julie.
Couples like Bob and Julie existed long before the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey.
I hope that the book will open up some discussion for fetishists who have been afraid to bring the topic up with their partners. Anastasia models good behavior when it comes to being curious and open minded. She voices the same concern that most women feel when faced with the topic of sexuality out of the norm. She is concerned with boundaries and engaging in sexual behaviors outside of her comfort zone. Good for her. This means that she's willing to experiment with light bondage, spanking and sensory deprivation but anytime it goes too far, she speaks up. And that's fine—communication is key when it comes to any form of sexuality. No one is a mind reader. We all need a reminder that it's vital to communicate what does or doesn't feel good.
As long as fetish activity is performed between two consenting adults and limits are respected, it's perfectly okay. Now is the time to accept what is true and join with a loving partner who wants to learn more. So to the millions of women who LOVED Fifty Shades of Grey, I urge you to be open to fetish play with your partner.
Still confused if you or your partner is a fetishist? Here's some helpful questions to consider. (Inserts tongue in cheek.)
1) Has he recently taken up a new hobby?
Has he purchased some leather crafting tools, but hasn't given you a new wallet? Are you hearing the sound of a table saw in the garage but not seeing any new furniture? This could mean he is preparing to turn the guest house into a Red Room of Pain.
2) Has he ever done something in bed that you told him to never do again?
Has he ever tried to suck on your toes? Has he ever pinched you, bit you or slapped your butt? Maybe he inserted his finger in a place you didn't want him to. This could be a sign that you may have a Christian Grey in your bed.
3) Are there any charges on your credit card that just don't make sense?
Did he buy something at Victoria Secret but you never got it? While your first reaction is to accuse him of having an affair, he might just be wearing the lingerie himself. Closets aren't just for gay people. Cross-dressers love them too.
4) Does he have any items in the house that just don't make any sense but he won't let you throw them away?
Does he own a riding crop but has never been on a horse? Does he own a rattan cane but is not a Charlie Chaplain impersonator? Be careful, the next time you're naughty you might find yourself getting a surprise spanking.
5) Have you ever found anything on his computer or in his web browser history that was out of the norm?
Have you ever come across any photos or movies that are not in the realm of mainstream porn? Does his browser history have links to websites containing fetish activity? Are there bookmarks or links to events, parties or professional sex workers that specialize in fetish? You may not be the only one in your house with a NSFW book.