What is the relationship between the Fifty Shades of Grey series, leathermen, and misogyny? A new study attempts to answer this question. Here’s what you need to know.
What was the study?
Two sociologists posit that while the Fifty Shades franchise popularized BDSM, it also exacerbated misogyny in the leather community. This study assessed straight and gay leathermen’s attitudes toward women. The results were published on May 12, 2020, in the journal Deviant Behavior.
Who did the study focus on?
The study relied on data collected via the 2018 LGBTQ and Hetero-cis Population Study, an online survey conducted by one of the study authors, Meredith Worthen. Over 1,400 men aged 18–64 participated in the survey, but the 65 men who self-identified as “leatherman/leather” were the focus of this study. Of those men, 58 percent were straight, and 42 percent were “non-hetero,” which encompasses gay, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual men. The survey did not ask about sexual roles, so it’s unknown whether the leathermen identified as dominants, submissives, switches, and so on.
How was the study conducted?
The people who took the 2018 survey were asked a variety of questions, subsets of which aimed to suss out attitudes toward women generally and LBTQ women specifically. These items asked respondents
- Whether they supported laws and policies meant to help women;
- Whether they identified as feminists;
- Whether they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements related to patriarchal gender norms (e.g., “It is more important for a wife to help her husband’s career than to have one herself”); and
- Whether they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements related to LBTQ stigma (e.g., “Lesbians should not be allowed to join the military”).
The study authors combined all the responses to questions about women generally into a “Summed Women Negativity Scale.” Likewise, they combined answers to questions about LBTQ women into a “Summed LBTQ Women Negativity Scale.” Then, they added the items from both of those scales to create the “Total Summed Women Negativity Scale.”
It’s worth noting that the results of the 2018 survey were primarily used to inform a 2020 book by Worthen called Queers, Bis, and Straight Lies: An Intersectional Examination of LGBTQ Stigma. The book is not about BDSM and discusses leather culture only in terms of LGBTQ stigma.
Further, there were no questions on the survey related to Fifty Shades of Grey even though the study attempts to connect negative portrayals of BDSM in the books and movies to misogyny in the leather community.
What were the results?
The study authors hypothesized that leathermen would view women more negatively than non-leathermen. They also postulated that straight leathermen would be more misogynistic than non-hetero leathermen. In large part, the study results showed that both of these hypotheses were correct. Leathermen scored significantly higher on all of the Women Negativity Scales than non-leather-identified men, indicating that they are more misogynistic. And, as expected, straight leathermen were significantly more misogynistic than non-hetero leathermen. The study authors suggest that this is because, as a marginalized group, non-hetero leathermen are more likely to empathize with other marginalized groups, such as women, particularly LBTQ women.
Interestingly, despite these findings about misogyny, most leathermen identified as feminists in the survey. It’s unclear why this was the case.
What were the study’s shortcomings?
The study authors note that “those who identify as leathermen may do so based on their desire for and actual use of leather gear in erotic experiences and/or their connections to a leather community.” However, they also conflate the leather community with BDSM generally, particularly in their discussion of Fifty Shades. For instance, in the introduction to the study, they state that the series “shed light on a sexual and leather-clad subculture . . . BDSM” and that the series “was accompanied by popular media interest in what is colloquially known as ‘leather culture. . . .’”
This connection between leather culture and Fifty Shades is confusing, to say the least. While it’s true that the books and movies focus on BDSM, this is not synonymous with leather. Leather culture is a specific subset of the BDSM community that is characterized by leather apparel and BDSM practices. Although people who identify as “leather” almost certainly practice BDSM, the reverse is frequently not true. Beyond some leather BDSM toys, Fifty Shades has nothing to do with leather culture. And it’s not at all clear how or if self-identified leathermen have been influenced by the franchise since there were no questions related to it on the survey the study is based on. Ultimately, it seems as if the study authors shoehorned Fifty Shades in because they were desperate to tie their findings to a pop culture reference that could garner media attention.
Beyond these issues, the fact that the study focuses on such a narrow segment of the BDSM community—leathermen—and such a small sample size is also problematic. The survey itself is not publicly available, but it seems like it did not include other BDSM-related identities aside from “leather” for respondents to choose from. Similarly, it’s unfortunate that the survey did not explore the sexual roles of the leathermen respondents (dom, sub, etc.).
Perhaps most egregious is the fact that the authors almost certainly had the survey data in hand when they developed the hypotheses for this study, as the survey results had been used to develop Worthen’s book. This suggests that they looked at the scant data available from the survey about leathermen and used it to “prove” a point they wanted to make about BDSM and misogyny.
What’s the main takeaway?
Given the study’s lack of scientific rigor, especially the use of a survey barely relevant to the topic, it’s premature to assume leathermen are more misogynistic than other men. Even if the study held water, what does this really mean for the BDSM community at large? Anyone who’s spent time in their local BDSM scene will agree that leather is a small subset of the community that may not represent widespread attitudes. Had the study focused on a broader cross-section of BDSM practitioners, it’s likely that the results would have been quite different. For instance, a 2016 study comparing attitudes about consent among members of the BDSM community and vanilla people found that “BDSM practitioners reported significantly lower levels of benevolent sexism, rape myth acceptance, and victim blaming.”
The topic of sexism in BDSM is important to us, and part of our mission at Bound Together is to talk about the accessible and feminist type of BSDM that we practice. We certainly agree with the study authors that Fifty Shades is a sexist fairy tale fantasy full of terrible BDSM stereotypes. That said, we have never interacted with a kinky person, especially not community leaders, who considered any piece of pop culture influential or realistic. To learn more about ourselves, our community, and how we can change for the better, we’re looking forward to reading more serious studies about BDSM and feminism that are backed by relevant and transparent data.