By Lisabet Sarai

Earlier this month
Remittance Girl challenged the frequently articulated claim that
exposure to porn encourages violence against women. The UK is about
to ban eroticized fictional depictions of rape because (the argument
goes) such fiction exposes people to the juxtaposition of rape and
arousal, makes rape appear more attractive and socially acceptable,
and hence increases its frequency.

RG’s characteristically subtle
refutation of this view relies at least partially on the assumption
that readers make distinctions between what they like to read about
and what they do. After all (as I’m sure you’ve heard erotic writers
argue), murder mysteries are not banned out of fear that they’ll
encourage readers to go out and poison their neighbors or hack them
to pieces. “Admittedly, we do suspend disbelief when we read or
view fiction,” RG comments, “but we don’t mistake it for

Until recently I would have agreed
wholeheartedly with this position. Then I read about this case:

If you haven’t heard about this, and
don’t feel like following the link (and putting up with all the ads),
I’ll summarize the situation. A man who’d been separated from his
ex-wife for several years bought a new phone, with a number
unfamiliar to her, and began texting her, pretending to be a 20 year
old stranger. Before long their interactions became highly
sexualized. They agreed to have a physical encounter at her home. Not
wishing to reveal who he was, he arrived masked and refused to speak,
giving her instructions through hand signs. Apparently he played the
role of the dominant, tying her to the bed, fucking her, and leaving
her there, still bound. This happened twice, and then (it’s not
entirely clear how), the woman guessed the true identity of her
lover/assailant and charged him with rape.

The relevance of this case to erotic
writing lies in the fact that both the man and the woman had
apparently read Fifty Shades of Grey. The woman kept a copy of
the book, as well as other titles related to BDSM, by the side of her
bed. If the media are to be believed (and I suspect that there’s at
least some truth to this interpretation), the protagonists in this
saga were acting out scenarios they’d encountered in erotic fiction.

Is this bad? I don’t give much credence
to the claim of rape (and apparently the judge didn’t either). The
motivations are murky but clearly the encounters were consensual.
What bothers me is the fact that these two people apparently engaged
in potentially dangerous BDSM practices without much of a clue as to
what they were doing. Any serious dominant will tell you that you
should not leave someone tied up, alone, with no means of escape. The
risks range from circulatory problems to death in the event of a fire
or other disaster.

These individuals had read about BDSM
in a novel and used the behavior in that novel as a model for their
own. Real world practitioners of dominance and submission have panned
FSOG as dangerously inaccurate, with respect to both the physical and
psychological nature of a BDSM relationship,
But how was this couple to know?

Clearly these people didn’t appreciate
the difference between fantasy and reality. One might guess that this
was simply due to ignorance. After all, if FSOG is your first
exposure to dominance and submission – and it now is, for millions
of readers around the world – how are you going to know that BDSM is
not about instant surrender, endless beatings and innumerable
orgasms? Who’s going to tell you to study up on the physical risks
before taking the plunge? While preparing this blog, I tried without
success to find reputable statistics on injuries or emergency visits
attributable to BDSM scenarios gone wrong, but during my search I
encountered plenty of chilling (as well as ridiculous) anecdotes.

It’s easy to criticize FSOG. Sour
grapes make such grumbling all the more tempting – even though ever
mention of the book just pumps up the sales. However, even those of
us who try to portray BDSM more realistically are sometimes guilty of
twisting the truth in the service of arousal. How often do we write
about negotiation? About limp or dry cunts? About the
exhaustion that sets in when you’ve been whipped and spanked for
hours, until, despite your devotion to your dominant, you really just
want to take a shower or a nap?

I’ve written about BDSM activities I’ve
never tried – knife play, fire play, branding, heavy caning.
Because let’s face it, for many of us, extreme or taboo sexual
scenarios are more exciting than more familiar acts. I’ve tried to do my research, but I
don’t focus too much on the risks because I know that too much
emphasis on those aspects can break the erotic spell. I’ve always
believed that readers have responsibility for their own actions, and
that most can distinguish the line between fantasy and reality.

After reading about this couple in New
Zealand, though, I have begun to wonder. Perhaps some sort of formal
license should be required before people are allowed to read porn.
Maybe they should have to take something like a driving test, to make
sure they know the sexual rules of the road. Minus five for slamming
your penis into her vagina immediately after you’ve fucked her butt.
Minus ten for using a plastic bag over your sub’s head to muffle her
screams. Minus fifteen for looping the rope around her neck because
you like the way it looks…

I’m being facetious, of course. I’m not sure how to deal with this evidence that people do, in
fact, conflate sexual fiction and sexual fact. We’re not educators.
Our books are not how-to manuals. We’re writing to challenge, engage,
and arouse our readers, not teach them about sex. Yet clearly our
readers do learn from our books – sometimes not what we intend.

Should this bother us? Or should we just
shrug off the people who take us literally, even when they might come to
physical or emotional harm? Is it really their problem? Or is it

At this point, I honestly don’t know.