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February 24, 2015
by Candice Hopper-Owrey, Psy.D, LPC

50 Shades of Controversy: Professionals Weigh In on 50 Shades of Grey

February 24, 2015 05:55 by Candice Hopper-Owrey, Psy.D, LPC

Whips. Blindfolds. Handcuffs... These were the Valentines Day gifts presented between couples around the world this year. The movie, Fifty Shades of Grey, was released in theaters February 13. This movie is based on a novel that has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism (BDSM) is the unique theme in the book and movie.

Fifty Shades of Grey features a theme of a couple in the BDSM culture. While a hot topic, the interest in BDSM has been around many years. Dominance and submission themes are hardly new in romance novels. There is even a term sometimes called the "Harlequin formula" to describe how to write a successful romance novel.  Harlequin is the best-known company to produce romance novels. This formula features a masculine hero and virginal submissive heroine (Quale, 2013). While dominance and submission are common themes in romance novels,  sadism and masochism  are not generally presented to the masses of popular culture.

In 1993, Janus and Janus found 14% of men and 11% of women have taken part in BDSM activities. Most people, however, engage in only mild pain or even symbolic (Sandnabba, 2002). Mild BDSM activities might include restraint using Velcro handcuffs, blindfolds, or light spanking. True sadists need their partners to experience real pain. Extreme activities may include practices such as cutting and shocking. This is very different from sexual exploration and play that is safe and emotionally respectful of both partners. The DSM-V (2013) notes healthy people can experience "kinky" sex that isn't a disorder. If it causes "distress or harm" then it is then a disorder in need of treatment.

The book and movie have fans from a variety of demographics. They are not people who would be described as strange, abnormal, or amoral. In fact, nine percent of the readers are self-identified Christian women. The book targets mainstream "mom types" according to an article at

Benefits of Fantasy Play

Ryan (2012) interviewed sex therapist, Bianca Ruckeras, who explains why many couples need spice in their sex life.  Some couples find being comfortable with one another adds to their intimacy. Other couples will experience depletion of sexuality with such cozy comfort. Ruckeras explains that comfort, cuddling, and coziness do not bring adrenaline and dopamine surges in the way fantasy play does.

Perel (2006) says couples need novelty in their sex life. She explains that sex allows people to do and say things they would never do in their everyday life. She explains that erotic fantasy is not politically correct or even socially acceptable at times.  For many people, their sexual fantasies have nothing to do with their beliefs. People engage in activities they would never consider outside of their fantasy life.  She goes on to explain that a common fantasy for women is one where a woman is able to release her "inner lioness". The fantasy is about allowing the female to be a sexual woman, rather than a mother figure.

Why All the Hype

Women enjoy the book because it allows them to escape into their fantasy world. Berman explains that women enjoy the erotic fantasy of being with a man who knows exactly where to touch her. She goes on to explain that BDSM takes away the shame of sex acts because the dominant male figure is "making" her do all the naughty sex acts and women get to hold on to their "nice girl" image. Dr. Berman does a fantastic job explaining that men need visual stimulation, but women respond to romance and fantasy.

 Dr. Edward Dreyfus, a sex therapist, notes the book and film will likely lead to more discussions about sexual fantasies. He says that when a couple shares their fantasies that a bond is created between the couple.


There is, however, much criticism of the novel and the movie. It isn't just about a little "kink" in the bedroom. There is a legal contract where the main female character is asked by her dominant to avoid eating certain foods, wear only the clothing he provides, and engage in whatever sex he desires.  This differs greatly from furry handcuffs and light spanking as erotic play. This is more about a true power over another human being. 

Gail Dines, author of "Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality" says in an Entertainment Weekly Interview that Christian Grey meets the criteria of a sexual predator. She believes he is only accepted because of his wealth and power. Dines goes on to say, "If this guy was living on food stamps in a housing project, she would have told him to f--- off at the first sign of violence".

Quale (2013) points out that the male , Christian Grey, commits punishable felonies. The dominant Christian Grey tracks down his eventual submissive partner before they start their relationship. The submissive Anastasia Steele had not told the man where she was at, which sounds a lot like stalking. He takes her home and she finds herself in his hotel room. He kidnapped an unconscious woman. Once in the hotel room, he takes her clothes off while she is unconscious, which constitutes sexual assault.

Bonomi (2013) notes that there is emotional abuse present throughout the novel and the movie. The dominant stalks, intimidates, and isolates his submissive. Bonomi believes that there is sexual violence in Fifty Shades of Grey and that the submissive has reactions typical to that of an abused woman. On page 304 of the novel, the submissive experiences "a deep dream uncurling in my stomach" when she has to call her dominant. On page 392, he tells her that when she next flies he will have her bound and gagged while crated in the cargo area of the plane.

In nonabusive dominant and submissive play, the masochist enjoys the pain and the submissive role. Ana does not seem to enjoy the sexual activities at all. At one point in the novel, the main character says, “He hits me again… this is getting harder to take… and he hits me again and again. From somewhere deep inside, I want to beg him to stop. But I don't” (p. 275). Bonomi explains Anastasia is manipulated and emotionally abused to coerce her to engage in activities she doesn't want to be a part of.

Wood (2001) points out that romance novels may lead to women in domestic violence situations normalizing their abuse. They see the hero rape and abuse the heroine, then profess love, and finally marry her. Wood explains these scenes rationalize to the abused women a reason to stay with their abuser.

Gail Dines, a professor at Wheelock College, founded the "50 Dollars Not 50 Shades" campaign. The campaign suggests donations to domestic violence shelters, rather than to buy movie tickets. Dines believes that the movie glorifies an abusive stalker and abuser.

Geri Weitzman, a licensed psychologist, is BDSM friendly with many clients in the culture. She maintains a website that gives information about when BDSM activities become abuse. If the submissive partner doesn't enjoy the activities and her role and can't discuss this openly with her partner, she may be in an abusive situation. She also notes that the submissive should feel loved, admired, and cherished.

The Result

The opening weekend, the film grossed 93 million at the box office. This makes it the highest-grossing film to open in February ever. In summary, the film could be applauded for getting women to talk about their fantasies and to acknowledge their sexual needs with their partner. The concerning area is the mans control outside of the sexual intimacy.

50 Shades of Grey: A Sex Therapist’s Perspective | Psychologically Speaking. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2015, from

Bonomi, A., Altenburger, L., & Walton, N. (2013). Double Crap!” Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey. Journal of Women's Health, 22(9), 733-744. Retrieved from

Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

'Fifty Shades' of a kinky sex revolution? Maybe not. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2015, from

Janus S., Janus C. The Janus report on sexual behavior. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons; 1993.

Quale, A. (2014, April 1). Pursuit of Empowerment: The Evolution of the Romance Novel and Its Readership in. Retrieved February 15, 2015, from

Ryan, D. (2012, December 12). 50 shades of conflict. Retrieved from

Perel, E. (2006). Mating in captivity: Reconciling the erotic + the domestic. New York HarperCollins.

Sandnabba, N. K., Santtila, P., Alison, L., & Nordling, N. (2002). Demographics, sexual behaviour, family background and abuse experiences of practitioners of sadomasochistic sex: A review of recent research. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 17, 39-54.

The Story of 'No': S&M Sex Clubs Sprout Up on Ivy Campuses, and Coercion Becomes an Issue. (2012, November 16). Retrieved February 15, 2015, from

Why Women Love Fifty Shades of Grey. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2015, from

Wood, J. T. (2001). Gendered lives: Communication, gender, and culture (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

About the Author

Dr. Candice Hopper-Owrey Dr. Candice Hopper-Owrey, Psy.D, LPC

Are you struggling? Sometimes it feels like the pain will never go away? Are well-meaning loved ones telling you 'It's time to get on with your life?' I know this can be a very difficult time. If you could use some support, I'd like to help.

Dr. Candice Hopper-Owrey can be found at
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