While Oprah’s ‘get’ of a sit-down with a certain bicyclist thrust OWN into the pop culture zeitgeist last week, the season premiere of Lisa Ling’s usually excellent doc series, “Our America with Lisa Ling” (Tues, 10p, OWN), proves to be as interesting and more eye opening.
Ling, whose work often has been the sole reason to tune in to OWN, begins her second season with a look inside the world of Bondage, Discipline, Dominance/submission, and Sadomasochism, or BDSM, the moniker applied to sexual practices fictionalized in the hit novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. With 60mln copies sold, the book has brought a lifestyle out into the open, Ling argues in the show’s opening moments.
Oh, how times have changed. Wasn’t it Oprah herself who told us two years ago that OWN’s content would be appropriate for families? She also promised that OWN would allow parents to safely leave the television on all day without fear that young children might see inappropriate content. Perhaps the operative words were “all day.” While Ling’s treatment of what is referred to in the episode as “kinky sex” is largely clinical (sorry, thrill seekers), it’s inappropriate for the entire family. Even adults will be disturbed viewing some of it, as Ling rightly warns beforehand.
While Ling hasn’t been completely dispassionate toward some of the topics she investigated in season one—she seemed critical of faith healers in an interesting opening episode last February—she keeps relatively cool here. Some will argue she’s too cool, presenting a titillating topic with great decorum. I suppose she could have had a lot of fun with BDSM, but while the episode is entertaining to a degree, it’s more educational. At times, it’s even dry. In addition, there’s little if any criticism of BDSM. Is there evidence that it hurts relationships? We see instances where it seems to be helping couples here, but not many examples of it hurting them as a couple. And until the very end of this ep, there’s no talk of physical damage resulting from BDSM.
‘Please, Ma’am, May I Have Another?’
We meet Scott, a 39-year-old salesman, who submits on all fours to a dominatrix’s whip and chains during a private session. "Thank you, Mistress," he says after each whack on his rump. There is no sex or exchange of bodily fluids during this session that Scott paid for, Ling assures us. But after watching Scott get paddled, Ling squirms. “I didn’t find it remotely sexual.”
Appropriately anticipating the reaction of her audience, Ling asks those flogged on camera about the fascination with receiving pain. Scott says it’s not so much the pain. He enjoys being dominated. It’s “the loss of control…the humiliation” that he likes. But why, Ling wants to know. Perhaps it was his childhood, when he was a rambunctious lad and wished he’d received more discipline, he tells Ling.
In another segment, Ling accompanies Kristen, a pretty, blonde, 20-something IT worker, to a BDSM class held in a local sex shop. Dubbed Kink 101, the students look to be a cross-section of America, racially diverse, men, women, married, single, young, old, slim, obese. Ling has her wrists tied with rope during the class, a beginning step in submitting to another’s control. She doesn’t like it.
The Pain Is Exquisite
After class, Kristen, now single because her ex-boyfriend wasn’t into BDSM, registers for a private kink tutorial, where she hopes to explore BDSM in more depth. In an effective close up, the camera shows Kristen’s tutor spanking her young student’s leather-clad posterior with a whip. And it’s far from a love tap. The tutor uses a whip similar to ones that “have been flying off the shelf” since 50 Shades of Grey hit, a sex shop proprietor tells Ling.
Again, Ling inquires about the pain. Unlike Scott, Kristen says she likes the pain. After a vicious-looking hit from her tutor, she giggles. It feels good, Kristen tells Ling. Indeed, a sales person at a sex shop tells Ling, the whips she sells look dangerous, “but they can feel good.”
Two more couples expand our and Ling’s knowledge of a world that is far more complicated than the fictional 50 Shades, a world that is “dark, even incomprehensible” to some. We meet a middle-class, married couple from New England in their 40s who proudly display their collection of ‘pervertables,’ common household implements like wooden spoons and spatulas that the budget-minded can use in their BDSM sessions.
A Training Chateau
So what’s the problem? Well, Keith is happy to submit to Monica, but she is uncomfortable when it’s his turn to be the dominator. They drive to spend a weekend at La Domaine, a BDSM B&B, which bills itself as “the world’s oldest BDSM training chateau.” Although Ling doesn’t judge her subjects during this episode, she jokes that the couple is headed to La Domaine to “work out the kinks in their kink.” After a few sessions with the proprietors, who double as BDSM gurus, Keith and Monica seem to be happy. The solutions to their problems involve augmenting the trust and communication in both their sexual life and their marriage.
Another couple, 20-something Kristen and Grey (yes, that’s his name) engage in BDSM, but they’re not dating. In BDSM lingo they’re play partners. He dominates, she submits, although Kristen admits to playing both roles with other partners. Sometimes they’re lovers. Their BDSM includes cigar play, which uses the heat, smoke and ashes from a cigar, Kristen says. Grey links BDSM back to his youth, where he endured physical beatings. His original BDSM play was as a submissive, replaying his childhood. Now as a dominant he enjoys BDSM because “after it’s over, there’s a ring of love put around,” in that people support one another in the roles and thank each other, he says. Kristen says her first sexual fantasies involved being tied up or tying up someone else. She also enjoys pain. “It feels good to me. It absolutely feels good.” Consent always is part of BDSM, Kristen says. “Each partner always has the option to say no.” Safety and consent “are big topics” in the BDSM world, Ling reports.
If documentaries are judged by their ability to bring the viewer into previously unexplored territory, then Ling and company have done their job well. Despite the popularity of 50 Shades, BDSM largely remains taboo in America.
For this reason, some will object to Ling’s method of storytelling, which sticks closely to the journalistic creed of not judging, but presenting. In the end, Ling is told variety is important to sexual relationships, and if BDSM is practiced consensually, it can strengthen a relationship. A psychologist Ling interviews approves of consensual BDSM, even praises it. An opposing view from a professional would have added to the show’s objectivity, as would more discussion of the physical dangers of BDSM. But Ling’s purpose is more to discover than to generate debate. She’s pointed the camera at what an estimated 15-20% of Americans are quietly engaging in and done it well. ###