Op-Ed: 50 Shades of Consumerism

by  Ava Mir-Ausziehen

Ever since the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon, various sex-toy companies have been jumping on board and cashing in. A more mainstream, middle class interest in BDSM and power play offers countless avenues to market long-standing erotic products to new markets and audiences. I’m signed up to the newsletters of a couple of choice toy companies and stores. Both have sent at least two 50 Shades themed communiqués this past summer. As I see the subject lines pop up in my inbox I am tempted to roll my eyes. Are companies going to use this 50 Shades business to find new ways to make consumers feel insecure if they do not want to role-play along with 50 Shades, offering them a quick purchase to assuage the fear that they are inadequate, prudish lovers without it? Is this simply another way to make people feel they are incomplete without the right products? S/M is not about buying the right stuff – it is about trying a new form of sensual communication and stimulation, tapping into a new framework of fantasy, and you don’t need the leather corset and braided cat o’ nine to do that. Of course, at the same time I’m elated – this is a great opportunity for this literary curiosity to develop into a bedroom revolution, guiding people through comfortable exploration.

One of these emails was from Extreme Restraints – now these folks have been specializing in quality BDSM gear, from the light to insanely serious, for ages. The other was from Good For Her, a super smart sex shop in Toronto oriented towards women. Their 50 Shades list, to my delight, also included great books and the chance to join in on workshops they run. The toys they highlighted oscillated between floggers, clamps and other S/M toys, to vibes and other ‘regular’ sex toys (interspersed with corresponding quotes from the novel – now that is serious research!). In this way S/M is not placed as something altogether that bizarre, but as just an extension of other erotic play.

While CalExotics should by no means try to corner the market or feel obliged to sell tons of S/M gear, what little they have is relegated to a ‘Fetish’ tab on their website – demarcating S/M off to some dangerous ‘other’ zone. I know that if I am hesitant about exploring, I am certainly not going to stray from the safer heading of ‘Toys for Women’ towards Fetish, a word full of confusion, misuse and apprehension. One such ‘Fetish’ product is the handy all-in-one ‘Mistress Kit’ – granted, this kit’s copyright (2005) predates 50 Shades, but it is perhaps enjoying a new success, and sadly so. At 31$ I find this a total rip-off. You could easily get this gear for less; in fact I’ll bet you already have most of it hanging around your home.

To start, I by no means want to suggest that BDSM is a case of ‘go big or go home’ – with boundaries and consent at the heart of good S/M, it should be all about experimenting within your comfort levels and gently pushing the edges with someone you trust. And if you never want to go past a silk blindfold, there is absolutely no shame in that. I myself have enjoyed some pretty extreme stuff, but only after a lot of time spent with way more subtle forms. As a young adult trying this stuff out for the first time, I did not have recourse to a ‘Mistress Kit’ – (to be honest, I wasn’t technically allowed in the sex shops yet!) and I was working on a pretty tight budget with my cashier job at the local grocery store. Regardless of your income, BDSM gear, costumes, and furniture are expensive. Before you drop cash on serious high quality stuff, it’s great to try out some power and pain on a budget, to see if you like it and if you want to get more committed. Not only will you avoid wondering what to do with that 700$ steel cage and suspension rig that you never use, hiding it under sheets in the garage, but you get the fun of crafting your own customized toys, all while recycling and saving money. Here are some ideas for light S/M toys you can find or make, rather than buying a cheap feather duster, fuzzy handcuffs and elastic band blindfold from the Dr. Laura Berman approved ‘Mistress Kit’:

Sensory deprivation
Losing your habitual recourse to sight or sound can heighten your senses and put you in an anxious frenzy, requiring total faith in your partner. For blindfolds, use an eye mask from your last airline flight, a scarf or long sock tied around your head, or use sheer stockings if you want to still have partial vision. Better yet, add in some simple foam earplugs and you will be at the whim of your touching senses.

The pet shop and hardware store are amazing resources for S/M stuff – try dog collars for your neck and cat collars for your wrists and ankles. Use leashes and chains with small clamps. Or just slide your arms, behind your back, into a pillowcase and lie down. Belts can tie your thighs together and double as a spanker, or simply use some nylon rope (nothing that will chaff too badly). Scarves and stockings work great as well, and won’t bang up or dent your bed’s headboard. But if you want handcuffs, you can sometimes get decent, metal safety cuffs in kid’s stores. Look for the ‘cops and robbers’ section.

Ticklers, paddles and spankers
Hands! Yes, good ol’ flesh on flesh, fingernails, and flicking or pinching.
Hairbrushes, especially if you have one with natural bristles and a wooden base, with rounded corners. Use the wood side for spanks and the bristles dragged lightly over the skin. You can make a flogger out of an old bike tube (just Google it). For light tickling, use a (new, clean) feather duster or glue or tape some feathers (or chains, beaded necklaces, etc) to a dowel or long pencil. A small cutting board with a handle can be adapted to make all kinds of cool sensations for spanking. Try some faux fur or light grain sandpaper glued to it. Or the good ol’ wooden spoon, plastic spatula or whatever (just be careful for splinters and cuts by sanding down any rough edges) and like anything that goes in or on your body, be sure it is clean and easy to disinfect if needed.

Heat and cold
White paraffin wax candles (coloured dyes and beeswax burn at higher temperatures and can cause burns) and ice cubes, interchanged on the skin, make for some great play.

Get creative! You can use old jewelry, kitchen, pet and hardware supplies to make a kinky toolbox you can be proud of and customize to the sensations you enjoy.

I can see the appeal of buying an all-in-one ready made kit, and if you are really strapped for time but not for cash then sure, go nuts on this handcuff/eye mask/weird feathers on a stick trio. But the art of S/M involves a great deal of time, patience and communication – don’t expect to be able to simply buy it. Better to sit with your lover and talk about your desires, boundaries and fears while crafting some kinky gear together!

When it comes to sex, I don’t like the idea that we need a million books in order to know what we’re doing. Often this only serves to make us feel insecure, perpetually incompetent, or reluctant to trust our own instincts and gut feelings. That said, when it comes to some things, making use of other people’s experiences isn’t a bad idea, and can save you some hurt and heartache. For less mainstream sex, we don’t often have models or examples to work from, and it can be hard stuff to bring up with friends over dinner. How to spank someone without hurting their kidneys, how to deal with jealousy issues in an open relationship, or the best angles to try anal sex on your boyfriend, these are tough activities that can be very worth trying. But great rewards require some education. If anything, referring to experienced advice can get ideas brewing so you can follow your own desires.

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