It’s tiresome to entertain any notion that begins with “____ used to mean so much more than it does now...” Still, as unremarkable as generational superiority is, the history – and eventual distillation – of a thing has power: dating (in person versus online), dinner time (does it even exist anymore?), kink (enter 50 Shades of Gray and all of its literary and cinematic iterations).
And yes, kink. And if you’re kinky, you should care about this.
The history of kink isn’t a well-delineated and archived record (because taboo), but the Kama Sutra existed in the 4th century, the Marquis de Sade and Pushkin both kept saucy diaries of kinky adventures in the 18th century (both to their own peril), and we’ve at least known about submissive secretaries since 2002 (thanks, Maggie Gyllenhaal, for always playing the roles that attempt to normalize and debunk sexuality). Still, while these ideas, figures, and concepts have been a part of our general landscape of sexual knowledge (in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink kind of way, or in a small corner of Good Vibrations where old floggers go to die), a robust conversation about what kink is – and isn’t – hasn’t really become mainstream until the introduction of 50 Shades of Gray. The E.L. James novels have a cult following that is similar to that of Twilight, with a wide-range of discourse around acceptability: is the content responsibly introducing outer boroughs of demographics into a richer, kinkier world, or is it abusive? According to The Conversation, an academic publication aimed specifically at journalists, the series is dangerous precisely because of the method through which it’s delivered: film, print, and media, which utilize manipulative pathos and taboo in order to sell products.
“After the first movie, there was debate about its romanticisation of an abusive relationship. The sequel confirms that this wasn’t a misconception. As researchers, we are interested in the representation of women’s sexuality in media and how this influences women’s sexual health. Films such as Fifty Shades Darker, seen by millions of men and women around Australia, have the power to influence our perceptions of women’s sexual agency.”
While the conversation about the novels/films and their portrayals of kink as inherently abusive is a valid one, what seems to be the particular moment of distillation (from movement/community to actual commodity) is the disparity between what kink was originally considered to be, versus what it is now being sold as.
The imperative being "sold as."
Kink, if we’re looking historically to the aforementioned works rather than modern commercialized forms of it, has something of a philosophical baseline: there is a difference between kink as a created space or a curation of experience versus a reduction of the space with the intention to either sell a product or excuse harmful behavior.
John Altman writes in In Defense of Kink, “In these instances the Other is not destroyed but reaffirmed, the body of the Other being nothing more than an object for pure consumption and often times, a recipient of non-consensual violence. Where kink separates itself is that it begets community. Kink destroys the Other because the spaces that are created by the bodies involved to manifest their kinks are manifested on consent, with both parties being cognizant of what their relationship with each other is and what ends that relationship looks to attain. It is the highest degree of intimacy possible because it necessitates a strong sense of communication, care, etc. with the people involved.”
The common ground here – around what is kink and what is “Other” – appears to be the involvement of a set of standards, agreed-upon ethics, and intention to either place consent at the forefront of play, or to at least differentiate between the moments of entering play-space, and leaving it.
What 50 Shades of Gray does is create a reduced, commodified, and wholly saleable product purporting to be kink (absent the community, which takes the philosophy out of it) that can be manipulated to a one-size-fits-all template of BDSM; while accessibility in the kink community is imperative, the reductionism of kink to a product makes a photocopy of the experience of it. As a reduced commodity, the "kink" sold through this version of is without the careful curation, boundaries, consent, and accountability that community would otherwise bring.
The concept of something being distilled down to a lesser meaning from a previous bastion of worth is, admittedly, not a new one; it's the trail of anything that moves from high-end or niche to mainstream, really. Louis Vuitton was a luxury retailer that once sold things real people couldn't afford. Now the autocomplete when you type it into the search bar is "Louis Vuitton outlet." Hipsterism has been long criticized for this very reason; while previous “movements” that manifested in particular aesthetics tended to have social justice or sociocentrism behind them, hipsterism has been a cardboard cutout of social justice, which a reliance on product as a core value. A wholly commercial group of people or movement, without basis, can subsist sort of indefinitely under capitalism, because capitalism is inherently timeless (until it’s not, one supposes).
So the tricky thing about differentiating between the good old glory (hole) days of kink and the abbreviated version it exists as today appears to be one of principal versus access – does it matter if kink has become a commercial shell of itself if the result is a net positive towards sexual understanding? Perhaps not. After all, in the fragmented world of the internet and late stage capitalism all of identity is basically in the same boat; queer bars don’t really exist anymore, how we meet, have sex, and build community doesn’t exist as it used to – even human communication has dramatically different graphing points of meaning and achievement.
Perhaps the better question is one of responses. After all, a free market is both ruthless and egalitarian in its capacity to hold many sides to the same story. A kink purist who values consent, community, and taboo as bright lines can still find ample resources that will satisfy those needs. Conversely, a suburban couple in Wisconsin who want to try a little light whipping every once in a while can still identify themselves as kinky. This is made possible not only by global capitalism (such as with the franchising of 50 Shades of Gray), but also by our evolved understanding of identity, and how it is self-created.