The 50 shades of Jews practicing BDSM

Click photo to download. Caption: Christian Grey (played by Jamie Dornan) takes out an eye mask in his BDSM "playroom" during "Fifty Shades of Grey." Credit: Universal Pictures. 

 

By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org

Since hitting theaters on Valentine’s Day, the blockbuster film “Fifty Shades of Grey”—part 1 of a big-screen trilogy based on E.L. James’s wildly successful book series of the same name—has cast an international spotlight on the sexual practices known as BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism). Some members of the BDSM community have said both the film and the book do not accurately depict their lifestyle. But what does it actually mean to practice BDSM, and more specifically, what does that lifestyle mean for Jews who choose it?

People who practice BDSM come from every background “you can ever think about,” says Dr. Limor Blockman, a well-known clinical sex counselor who works with clients in the BDSM and kink communities. Blockman—who is also a member of Jewrotica.org, an online sexual resource for the Jewish community—explains that anyone practicing a sexual kink (which Blockman defines as anything that is not conventional in one’s sex life, love life or lifestyle) has both curiosity and courage. Such individuals “appear to be more able to deal with judgment,” she says.

But BDSM continues to have a somewhat negative reputation, in part due to its frequent association with violence, requiring many practitioners to hide their involvement with the lifestyle. 

Click photo to download. Caption: Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (played by Jamie Dornan) in "Fifty Shades of Grey." Credit: Universal Pictures.

Ariella Perry, a certified clinical sex therapist based in Jerusalem, wrote in the Times of Israel that Judaism “does not idealize the idea of one partner dominating or suppressing the other.” Yet “there is nothing in the world of soft-BDSM that is specifically contrary to halachah and Jewish law, and it can certainly be utilized to spice up one’s sexual relationship,” she wrote.

Blockman believes that Judaism is the most “open religion” for BDSM because it is more “accepting of sexuality” than other major faiths and promotes the responsibility of one partner for the sexual satisfaction of the other. BDSM requires “a lot of communication and comfort, and relying on each other” to set the boundaries of the relationship, Blockman told JNS.org. Such boundaries, says Blockman, are sometimes lacking in what she calls “vanilla” (non-BDSM or mainstream) sexual relationships.

One user of the BDSM and kink-geared online social network Fetlife, who agreed to be interviewed under the pseudonym “Jack,” said he grew up modern Orthodox and attended synagogue on a regular basis. Now in his early 30s, Jack defines himself somewhere between Conservative and Orthodox.

Click photo to download. Caption: A BDSM-style collar. Credit: Grendelkhan via Wikimedia Commons.

While Jack said his Jewish faith did not impact his decision to practice BDSM, he told JNS.org that he has “chosen not to go to certain events or activities because of conflicts with either Shabbos or other holidays, but I do that with other parts of my life as well.”

Engaging in the BDSM lifestyle as a “dominant” for about 10 years, Jack has been involved with four regular partners and has played out BDSM scenes with at least another 15 people. But during this time, he only had actual sexual intercourse with one partner, and that was not until six months into the relationship.

“A major misconception that people have [about BDSM] is the requirement of sex as a part of play,” he said. “Sex is frequently a part of play, but it comes down to the negotiation between the people. I usually rule it out as an option.”

“When sex does happen [within BDSM], it rarely if ever happens with anyone but a regular partner,” Jack added.

Another misconception, some practitioners say, is the idea that BDSM is abusive.

“Abuse is not consensual, and the [BDSM] lifestyle is all about consent,” which can be revoked at any time with the use of a “safe word,” Jack said.

Jack also took issue with the common implication, also illustrated by “Fifty Shades of Grey,” that “you have to be messed up or abused to enjoy something like [BDSM].”

“That is wrong. … For me, at least, BDSM is simply a way for two people to connect at a higher level. … I like pushing the edges and limits of my partner. For me this shows how much I trust my partner and they trust me,” he said.

Eventually, Jack hopes to marry a Jewish woman who would “enjoy the lifestyle” with him—leading to another perception by some that monogamy cannot coexist with that lifestyle.

“People in the BDSM community can choose to be either monogamous or polyamorous or other forms of lifestyles, and they can have their own terms,” Blockman said. “For instance, they can decide that they ‘play’ publicly with other people, but they don’t invite them into their homes. In my experience, most people that practice in coupledom are either married or are in a long-term relationship.”

That is true for Karen Summer, a well-known 1980s pornographic actress. Summer, who is Jewish, has not acted in any BDSM films but engages in those practices in her private life with a steady partner. Summer’s male partner is the only one to whom she is “submissive,” and she plays the dominant role with other people.

“I am what we call fluid monogamous.… I don’t have sex with the [other] people that I play with,” she told JNS.org.

Many BDSM practitioners play out scenarios at locations informally known as “dungeons.” Summer is a member of the Threshold Society, which is a BDSM dungeon but also a non-profit educational organization for Los Angeles-area adults who have an interest in that lifestyle. Threshold offers both “play parties” and educational classes.

Caren, a Jewish female BDSM practitioner who like Jack chose to be interviewed under a pseudonym, grew up in what she called a fairly Reform Jewish household but attended a Chabad-Lubavitch movement Hebrew school. Caren is currently dominant in her BDSM lifestyle and plays with several submissive men. Like Jack, she does not engage in actual intercourse with her play partners.

“For me, it is a control thing… and an endorphin rush. Intercourse is not necessary,” she told JNS.org.

Regarding the intersection of BDSM with her Jewish faith, Caren said she believes that “as Jews, we are used to putting up with a measure of skepticism from the non-Jewish world and will not look to make ourselves stand out anymore than we do.” She said she has a few friends who know about her lifestyle but that over the years, she has encountered Orthodox Jewish men who want to practice BDSM but “would never come out to the community about it.” 

Blockman said it “makes a lot of sense” that within the setting of an Orthodox lifestyle, which can be “kind of restricting and repressing,” urges such as BDSM will emerge.

Rather than being an accurate representation of the BDSM community, according to Blockman, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is more an iteration of the literary romance genre.

“It’s always a young, somewhat sophisticated, very soft, and gentle young woman being swept away by a strong, [but] kind of gentle man,” Blockman said of romance books. BDSM is an aspect of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” plot, but with the exception of a few scenes, the male protagonist falls in love with the female protagonist and begins to gradually amend aspects of his dominant behavior.

“Someone who is really practicing BDSM and who is dominant would never avoid that, because that’s their joie de vivre (joy of living),” Blockman said. 

Blockman believes that in the future, BDSM practitioners will be able to be more open about their lifestyle.

“I believe that [with] any practice, as the world becomes more aware and more accepting, it will be possible [to be open about it]. It just depends on where you live, of course,” she said.

At the same time, a concern for BDSM practitioners is that popular-culture depictions of the lifestyle such as “Fifty Shades of Grey” might spur those unfamiliar with the practice to act it out in a dangerous manner.

“You can literally kill somebody by hitting him in the wrong place,” Blockman said, adding that she hopes people interested in BDSM will make an effort to educate themselves about the practice through seminars and other educational opportunities.

Summer stressed that she likes “having control,” but does not seek to inflict or receive pain. Some BDSM practitioners do like incorporating pain into their play, and if that is where they find excitement, it is okay as long as the activities are “safe, sane, and consensual,” Summer said.

A play scene in a dungeon, explained Summer, “never happens until two people sit down” and discuss their likes, dislikes, limits, and any health issues. Bondage and discipline, meanwhile, do not necessarily mean “being tied” or “gagged,” she said. 

“If you’re playing that kind of scene and it’s something you’ve negotiated, then fine, it can be. But it can [also be] erotic and sensual,” Summer said.

For instance, Summer described a scenario in which two partners are sitting and having a date at home with a couple of glasses of wine. One person takes the glasses, puts them in the partner’s hands, and says, “Will you play along with me for five minutes?” and “Don’t spill a drop.” Then the person who initiated the play begins kissing the partner holding the glasses on his or her neck, or begins rubbing his arms.

“That’s bondage. That person is giving consent and he is bound by having promised not to spill that wine,” said Summer.

“Human beings are multifaceted, and we have the good fortune of enjoying a whole bunch of different things on a whole bunch of different levels,” she added. “My belief in the God of my understanding… is that as long as I am being good to me and not harming others, I can’t do wrong.”

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Posted on March 17, 2015 and filed under Features, U.S., Health.