With "Fifty Shades of Grey," BDSM goes mainstream

Even for the most fully evolved human being, sex can be difficult to discuss openly, especially when it comes to disclosing fantasies and desires regardless of how odd or taboo they may feel.

But since the publication of "Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L. James, and now the release of the blockbuster film, a range of kinky sexual practices have gone mainstream. The "Fifty Shades" franchise has encouraged a growing interest in BDSM -- which stands for bondage, discipline (or dominance), sadism (or submission) and masochism. More and more couples have been inspired to bring blindfolds, flogs, restraints and other toys into the bedroom. But is BDSM for everyone?

"I think these desires are actually really common," Bianca Jarvis, MPH, a sexual health educator, told CBS News. "I've met people who are just totally normal people, who enjoy doing it after hours or on the weekends."

People who engage in BDSM explore sexual fantasy by playing with elements of power exchange. For the most part, BDSM-related sexual activity involves three different types of play -- bondage, impact and sensation -- though there's plenty of overlap.

In bondage play, a person may restrain their partner using handcuffs or ties. Impact play refers to spanking a partner with the hand, flog or riding crop. Sensation play sometimes involves giving or receiving pain, but it's also about heightening one's senses by using objects that are cold, hot, soft or sharp to the touch.

Not everyone enjoys all of the same activities, and there are those who favor just one fantasy. For example, "some people get really nerdy about Japanese rope bondage," said Jarvis.

Many people view BDSM as weird or violent and even disturbing. Some are staging protests against the movie's depiction of sexually-charged violence. However, sex experts say BDSM can enrich a long-term relationship if both partners are open to it. Couples who have been together "forever" claim these activities help breathe new life into the bedroom.

"It's a way to connect with your partner and spice up your sex life," explains Jarvis. "It helps you get better at communication. It helps you understand your partner's desires and it can be so exciting and pleasurable to help your partner explore that fantasy."

In the fictional story of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, BDSM is the catalyst for their deepening relationship. When Christian opens the doors to his red room, he opens the floodgates of Anastasia's desires that she otherwise wouldn't have known existed. Like Anastasia, some fans of "Fifty Shades" come away saying "spanking looks fun. I'm going too have my partner do it to me,'" said Jarvis.

The fictional couple's peccadilloes have certainly been a boon to the sex toy industry. "CBS This Morning" reports that following the trilogy's publication, sales of BDSM-related toys, CDs and books spiked 7.5 percent. Rachel Venning, co-founder of Babeland, a popular sex toy company based in New York City, says she's seen a nearly 40 percent increase in sales of BDSM products.

In particular, Venning says sales of Luna Beads, a type of Kegel ball, have increased by more than 600 percent. Customers have frequently wandered into her shops and requested them, hoping to emulate the infamous scene when Christian presents Anastasia with a set, helps her put them in and then spanks her.

"I think it's great in the sense that it's kind of giving people permission to explore desires they may have repressed," Venning told CBS News.

However, many people in the BDSM community believe the fictional story is not a fair portrayal of what actually goes on. In the story, Christian reveals his fetishes to Anastasia and she has little say in what happens. In other words, the two of them are fulfilling only his fantasies -- at least in the beginning.

Anastasia also learns Christian's interest in BDSM stems from childhood abuse. But Jarvis says the desire to bring a blindfold and flog into the bedroom usually isn't compelled by early trauma.

In fact, research on human sexuality finds an interest in BDSM is a strong indicator of good emotional and psychological health.

A paper published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2013, found people involved in BDSM tend to be more well-adjusted. For the study, researchers surveyed 902 people who practiced BDSM and 434 who said they preferred more "vanilla" sex. They found those who took part in BDSM were overall less neurotic, more sensitive to the feelings and needs of others and were more secure and satisfied with their relationships and life.

But some who have chosen to dive into the world of BDSM don't always do so safely. Data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission found injuries requiring foreign-body removal have nearly doubled since 2007, with the most notable surge in 2012 and 2013 coinciding with when the books were first published, the Washington Post reported earlier this week.

"In the real world of kink, things are carefully negotiated and safety is negotiated," said Jarvis. Often with BDSM the couple selects a "safe" word to use if the activity becomes too overwhelming, painful or uncomfortable, so either person can instantly call it off. Some couples may even choose to commit their desires and a bedroom plan to paper before putting them into action.

But the reason for this planning isn't purely psychological. Sex, in general, causes the body to release a flood of endorphins, which creates a natural high. With BDSM, many say one's senses become even more heightened and their judgment may be skewed in what is referred to as a physiological "subspace," said Jarvis.

Venning said sexual arousal alters feeling of physical pain. One study published in 2009 in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior found consensual bondage sessions actually decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

"When arousal comes in, the pain threshold goes up too. In a physiological way that's not about pain per se, because when a person is aroused it truly feels different," said Venning. "People have a right to pleasure. We all have different maps of desire and eroticism."

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    Jessica Firger covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com