There are many ethical dilemmas in BDSM, and here you can read about how to make sure that your BDSM practices are ethical. Another dilemma is visibility in newspapers, advice columns, movies and television. BDSM has been much more visible in the last few years. As a sex educator I can see that more people are curious about BDSM, and I’m happy that information about BDSM is more easily available. But is all of this visibility a good thing?

When BDSM is mentioned in the media it’s often associated with crime. It’s usually mentioned because a sexual predator or murderer has tried to excuse their behaviour as consensual BDSM that was misunderstood or just “went wrong”. A common prejudice against BDSM is that it’s just an excuse to be violent. I think this prejudice at least in part comes from the way that BDSM is portrayed in the media. If people are allowed to excuse sexual abuse as BDSM without contradiction, some people might believe that BDSM in itself is damaging. In reality, there is not a higher prevalence of predators in the BDSM scene than outside of it, and it’s important to know that it’s not BDSM unless it’s consensual. I wish that news outlets would interview BDSM positive sexologists or sex educators when reporting on crime stories where BDSM is mentioned. That way people would stop confusing BDSM and domestic violence.

With more BDSM in porn, movies, television shows and more, inspiration is more accessible. But sometimes people are seeing activities that in reality are quite advanced without context. I’m happy that more people are being introduced to BDSM and feel inspired to try it. I only wish that for every sexy episode or movie where BDSM is shown, there was as much easily accessible information about how BDSM really works. I don’t want anyone to experiment with BDSM and have a negative experience because they didn’t know what they were doing.

After Fifty shades of Grey came out, sales of BDSM toys went through the roof, and there was a sharp increase in sex related trips to the emergency room (50% in London). It’s important to take the increase seriously. Even though some BDSM activities are inherently risky, injuries have been rare because people take precautions and educate themselves before trying new things. (Bear in mind that 2 with a 50% increase is still only 3.) BDSM has a long history of being something secret, underground and a bit mysterious. In the old leather scene you had to earn new titles and toys, and you usually had a mentor to teach you how to do things. Then, you probably wouldn’t see or try anything difficult before you were quite experienced.

With increased visibility, more people are trying BDSM without being taught how to do it safely. That might explain some of the increase in sex related injuries. It’s also possible that more people are just being honest about how they got hurt. In that respect, visibility could be a good thing because knowing how the injury occurred can help doctors give you the best treatment options. I’m sure that many sex related injuries have been reported as something else in the past because people were embarrased to say that it happened during sex.

When BDSM is portrayed in the media, especially in movies or on TV, there are several common issues. The first is that it’s often shown as being “weird” and rare. In reality lots of people are into BDSM, and almost everyone has fantasized about it. If anything, bad media representation might prevent people from realizing that they are kinky, or being open about it. Some might feel alienated by what they see, and decide not to explore it further or to be open because of how it was portrayed.

The second issue is that it’s often connected to mental illness. Of course people who are mentally ill can also be into BDSM, but mental illness is not more prevalent among kinksters. Some movies like Secretary (which is otherwise a very good film) connect BDSM and self harm, others suggest that people are into BDSM because they have somehow been “damaged” or abused. We don’t know exactly how you develop a taste for BDSM, but we do know that it’s not because of abuse or trauma.

It’s not that surprising that BDSM is often associated with mental illness. Being into BDSM was a psychiatric diagnosis for a long time. On june 18th 2018 the diagnosis was removed from the International classification of diseases. I wish more media outlets reported on this important victory when it happened, to make sure that people know about it. Too many of us are still being shamed or discriminated against because people still think that being into BDSM is “sick”. It never was of course, but old laws influenced by religion and conservative views on sex have a way of influencing how people see things. When writing about BDSM, reporters should include factual and useful news, and not just sensationalize it.

The third issue is all about fetish gear. I have been interviewed in newspapers about kink many times, and they always expect and want me to wear black leather, a corset or latex. I understand that visual appeal is important in media, but not all of us have a lot of fetish outfits, or want to wear them. Fetishwear is sexy, and a very large part of the BDSM experience for a lot of people, but I long to see more kinksters in a wide array of outfits. Everything from casual, everyday clothing to being naked. For example; not all dommes like to wear high heels. Some of us prefer to be barefoot, or in bunny slippers. Not wearing fetishwear can even give us a wider range of motion and make us more dangerous! (Only in a consensual context, of course). 

Interviews about BDSM are also often done in a dramatic setting like a dungeon or playspace, with dark colours, BDSM furniture and toys. Only about 5-15% of kinksters have ever visited a BDSM club or any sort of organized BDSM activity. Being a part of a community is wonderful, but a lot of people prefer not to for various reasons. They should also be able to see people like themselves being visible from time to time. It’s also great to have lots of toys and other equipment if you can afford it and it turns you on, but most people don’t have a dungeon or many toys. I’d say it’s misleading to always show people who are into BDSM surrounded by heaps of floggers, cuffs and playing in a public setting.

The fourth issue deals with diversity. Most often people you see in the media are thin, conventionally attractive, able bodied, white, heterosexual, cisgendered and monogamous, and it’s no different for those of us that are into BDSM. In reality we are an incredibly diverse group that includes all kinds of people, and I wish for more visibility of kinksters who don’t fit the traditional mold. For example: the roles in power play are not decided by gender, but most often you’ll see heterosexual couples shown where the man is dominant, and the woman is submissive. I long for a time when gender roles will be less prevalent, and society is less heteronormative. I want to see polyamorous kinksters, older kinksters, and many other groups represented in the media.

The fifth issue is porn. Porn can be great, but it’s often made by and for men. That influences what kind of porn is shown and made, and porn for other demographics is more rare. Porn is just entertainment, it’s not meant to be educational. But we know that a lot of people view it as a sort of sex education. Now that BDSM porn is more easily accessible, I worry about how BDSM is portrayed in porn. Some videos have introductions where actors are shown giving verbal consent before the filming starts, and some also show a clip at the end where actors say that they enjoyed the experience. That’s a great start, but it’s not enough. 

Porn doesn’t show the negotiations that happen before a session where you discuss wants and boundaries, and often establish a safeword. Porn also usually doesn’t include the all important non verbal communication where the top will check in with their partner(s) by for example making eye contact, and reading their bottoms body language to see that they are doing fine. In a lot of porn you can see advanced techniques being used, or a lot of pain being involved without context. BDSM that is sensual, or not about pain or power play is rare.

There is not a clear line between BDSM and other kinds of sex. When skills from BDSM become popular, they migrate into “mainstream” porn, again often without the context of being safe, sane and consensual. A worrying trend is that more and more women are experiencing suddenly being strangled during sex without having consented to it. That could be a result of choking becoming more prevalent in all kinds of porn. Some men start to believe that it’s something all women like, and that it can be done without talking about it first. Breathplay is extremely risky and should not be done without careful consideration from everyone involved. Sex without consent is rape, choking someone without consent is assault.

I have read sex advice columns in womens and mens magazines and in newspapers. BDSM is   gaining visibility there as well. Not that many years ago it was a shock to read an article about how to give a good blowjob in Cosmopolitan. Now you can often find generalizing advice like “Women like to have their hair pulled” or “Women like men to take charge” in men’s magazines. That’s true for some women, but certainly not for all. As BDSM has gained visibility it’s often mentioned as something we should all try. BDSM isn’t for everyone, and the fact that more people have heard about it and are into it doesn’t mean that everyone should be. It’s important when talking about BDSM to say that it’s perfectly normal and a lot of fun, but you should only try it if you want to.

In total, I think that increased visibility is mostly a good thing, but we need more diversity in how BDSM is represented. We also need better sex education so that people don’t get the wrong impression from porn or other sources. I’m happy that more people are discovering the joys of BDSM and learning how to do it safely, sanely and consensually. Increased visibility and openness is a key factor in that. I also believe that kinksters and sex educators need to make ourselves available to the media so that we can remove stigma and prejudices about BDSM, and continue to teach good practices.