When E.L. James wrote 50 Shades of Grey in 2011, she had an excuse for explaining her whips-and-chains sex god Christian Grey as mentally ill. According to the American Psychiatric Association, he was.
The APA's heaving Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classified BDSM as a psychological disorder. Outed kinksters risked losing their jobs and even custody of their children. Two years later, the fifth edition of the DSM downgraded dominance to a quirk, but it remains in the book, an embarrassment waiting to be excised just as homosexuality was in 1973.
“We've been trying to get it out,” says veteran dominatrix Mistress Tara Indiana. “It's a sexual orientation.” A petite redhead in a casual sweater and jeans, Indiana is planted in front of the Regal Cinemas in Downtown L.A. protesting Fifty Shades of Grey, a movie she worries will rewind the clock. There's a line of people waiting to go inside and watch some hot, lightly submissive sex. But Indiana's worried about the movie's post-coital climax: Grey's confession that he's only into BDSM because he was tied up and statutorily raped at 15. Cries Grey, “I'm fifty shades of fucked up.”
Indiana is annoyed.
“It says this is the only kind of sex he can have because he's damaged, and through the love of a virginal woman, he's finally cured. We don't want to be cured—we're not sick,” she beams. “It's like it was for gay people in the 1980s when they were going to therapy and the therapists were telling them, 'Well, you had an overbearing mother and an absent father and that's why you're gay.'”
Indiana isn't trying to stop audiences from seeing the movie, which made over $80 million opening weekend. But she wants them to know it's faker than a female porn orgasm. First, E.L. James never reached out to anyone in the BDSM community to fact-check her information. Second, she's peeved that Grey's so-called abuser was a female, playing into Hollywood's long-standing tradition that women who like sex are nuts. Third, male doms like Grey are incredibly rare. In her community, women are in charge. “There's no dungeon that caters to dominant men because there's no demand for it,” says Indiana. Fourth, as her sign screams, her own childhood was just fine.
“If somebody wants to make up stories about vampires, that's fine because vampires aren't real people,” says Indiana. “I'm a real person, and if you're going to make up stories about my sexual orientation that are going to influence the way hundreds of millions of people see me, I'm going to have a problem with that.”
So she rallied some friends on Facebook to join her in protesting the film. The first night, only two people showed up. They're afraid of being visible, she explains. The second night, there's four. Indiana is hoping their numbers will grow. For now, she's patiently handing out fliers and talking to anyone curious enough to listen. Says Indiana, “I'm shocked at how accepting everyone has been.”
A man shuffles up. “Why y'all against the movie?” he asks. A male friend of Indiana's starts into his spiel of persecution. On some level, they're also protesting the protestors who have decried the BDSM in Fifty Shades as sexual abuse, overlooking how the film fetishizes consent in a goofy, semi-erotic scene where Grey (Jamie Dornan) and his potential submissive Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) strike out vaginal and anal fisting from their canoodling contract. Outsiders always ignore their commitment to consent, making it hard for BDSM practitioners to seek simple medical care.
“Vanilla people can go to the doctor for vaginal tearing and it's fine," says Indiana's friend. “If we go to the doctor and say, 'I was hit with a whip too hard and now I have this cut,' the doctor could call the police and have them arrested.”
“If you can't tell your doctor what you're practicing, they can't really help you,” adds Indiana. “Most people are afraid to tell their doctor they're getting kicked in the balls.”
Still, on some level isn't it good for the BDSM community that so many people have been tantalized into buying a ticket, the books, and Fifty Shades-approved floggers and hand-ties and how-to classes? A little, Indiana concedes. “Nothing is black and white,” she says. “They made all that money off us, we can make a little money off them.” (Yet her own course descriptions kick off with the caveat: “Are you 50 Shades of Grey curious? Then do not come to this class.”)
On a deeper level, she sees a parallel between the men who run Hollywood and the men who run the porn industry: both refuse to consider what turns women on.
“There are these powerful men at the top, and if they have a kink they like, they assume everybody likes that—and if they don't like something, no one does,” sighs Indiana. “When I was doing S&M movies, the directors would always have us do women dominating other women because they said nobody wants to see women dominating other men. And I said, 'Um, that's how I make my living. That's all I do all day long.' And I think it's like that for men in Hollywood, too. I think we're seeing these characterizations in movies because they can't imagine that a woman would enjoy feeling sexually dominant.” Instead, sexually powerful women are demonized as crazy killers. Adds Indiana, “Or she's just doing it for the money or because her husband likes it. Never for herself. It never occurs to them that we actually like dominating—that it gets us hot.”
Have any big names gotten it right? Indiana lights up at Anne Rice, whose erotic novel Exit to Eden was the last BDSM book to get a huge Hollywood retelling. “You can tell that she understands it,” says Indiana. “We don't really know what her personal life is, but we suspect.” But even that movie was a total buzzkill. “They made it a comedy!” moans Indiana. “And Dan Ackroyd and Rosie O'Donnell just killed my boner.”
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