Fifty shades of Oxford

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Whether or not you’ve read 50 Shades of Grey, you probably know the story- a rich young Adonis, abused as a child, is driven to re-enact that violence, and has found an outlet, and a method of control, through BDSM. There are a lot of arguments, by people wiser than me, both for and against the novels, and I’m not interesting in joining that debate. I only want to give a representation of the kinky community in Oxford- my community.

I’m a humanities student at Oriel. When I’m not mid-essay crisis, I’m usually rowing. I was brought up in a middle-class family, as stable and stereotypical as they come. I have an excellent relationship with both of my parents, I suffered no childhood trauma- I don’t even remember ever being spanked- and I like to think that I’m fairly well-adjusted. And when I was five, as kids do, I developed a schoolyard crush. One day, he walked over with a skipping rope and asked if I wanted to play. “Sure”, I said, sticking my wrists out, “tie me up”.

It’s become commonly accepted, in the LGBT community (and increasingly, in pop culture), that children often know very early on who they are as a person. It’s only later in life that the ‘social norms’ and inequalities of the world encourage them to disguise, or even disown, the truths that they knew as a child. I’ve found the same to be true in kink.

I’ve ‘come out’ to most of my friends, and I’m usually met with some reaction like this: “Oh, but you’re so normal!” Yes, yes I am. So are most kinky people. Yes, there are people in the lifestyle who have suffered traumas; there are people who have suffered abuse; there are people with every disorder imaginable. What many people don’t realise is that statistically, those numbers are on par with the ‘vanilla’ population. Beyond that, we are all as diverse and unique as the ‘vanillas’. Not all submissives are quiet bookish types; most dominants are not CEOs. In fact, not all kinky people even have sex- because that is not what BDSM is necessarily about.

There are two main facets to BDSM- Domination/submission, and Sadism/Masochism. The first is psychological, the second, physiological. D/s is a power exchange- one person serves, the other receives service. Sadomasochism is an exchange of physical sensation. The two aspects often overlap, but not necessarily. And, as with many things, they exist along a spectrum. Likewise, levels of involvement vary. Some people exist in 24/7 power exchange relationships, which can be a form of consensual servitude; while others want to be on top in bed. Some like rough sex, others play until the bottom is bloody and fainting. Some ‘bottom’ types genuinely enjoy the sensation of pain; some like feeling useful, and making coffee and supper for their S.O. Some ‘tops’ want the stress release of violence, some enjoy the feeling of encouraging their S.O.’s personal growth and development. The most important thing is that every relationship is unique to the individuals involved.

50 Shades sets out the expectation that every kinky relationship adheres to a plan: both D/s and SM, a contract, sex. I, on behalf of my community, would like to disagree. Within Oxfordshire, and even within the University, there is any number of kinky students. I know this, because we have socials about once a month. There are people in collared D/s relationships. There are partners who switch- they take turns being the top and the bottom. There are those who have contractual relationships, and those who are single but have a number of play partners that they meet casually with, for a bit of stress relief (just like FWB). Some people have more sex than Mr. Grey himself, and some, like me, have decided not to have sex until marriage. We all make different choices- the only common thread is that we learned, often very young, that society considers us to be ‘weird’.

That boy on the playground didn’t understand. In school, my friends appreciated the fact that I would always volunteer to do the washing up, or make tea, but I knew I couldn’t tell them that I wanted to be held down when I was kissed. I was 18 before I found the ‘scene’, the community of kinky people, where I could talk about these things without people suggesting that maybe I needed therapy. 18, before I learned that it was okay to ask for these things- and that there were people who enjoyed the other side, not out of malicious intent but from the same fate of personality. That’s when I discovered consent, and what it means to this lifestyle.

When I enter a relationship- of any level- my partner and I negotiate everything. It’s not a business meeting, in fact, it’s usually pretty casual, and flirty. The key is honesty. I say exactly what I’m looking for, what I want, what I am agreeing to- and so do they. We’re honest, with each other, and with ourselves. That honesty allows each person to make the choices best for themselves. It allows us to be ourselves- as normal and typical as any other person.

With the imminent release of 50 Shades of Grey, BDSM has come out of the shadows. For some of us, that’s a bit terrifying. We expect two things- that some people will judge us, and that some people will want to join us. If the former, we ask only that you first compare our lifestyle to yours. I guarantee that there will be someone who lives just as you do- only, perhaps, with different motivations. If the latter- we want to welcome you, but please remember that our community, like any other, has guidelines. Ours centre around consent and communication. And if anyone has any questions, do come find us – we’re usually sat in the back of a pub, talking about essays we haven’t written yet.

CARTOON/ HARRIET BOURHILL