By: Patricia Burchfield
So what’s wrong with the E.L James’ novel 50 Shades of Grey? Whenever I accidentally criticize the book in front of a fan it takes less than five seconds for them to say I’m some sort of prude who has a problem with women reading erotica, or that I think BDSM (bondage and discipline/ domination and submission/ sadism and masochism) is shameful. Neither one is the case. Women should feel free to explore their sexuality and if some good erotica helps them, then great! If people want to have kinky sex, explore BDSM because they enjoy it and both people involved willingly give enthusiastic consent wonderful! I’m not a prude and I don’t police people’s personal sexual choices because it’s none of my business, people should feel free to explore what they like. Women’s sexuality has a long history of being shamed and repressed, so I can understand why the book is so popular. For the first time women are reading erotica and they’re not keeping it a secret, they talk about with a glow of pride, happy to be a part of the group enjoying the book. I’ve even come in contact with women who felt the book opened a door for them to try more playful things with their partners, because exploring your sexuality and doing it shamelessly can be a powerful thing. This is where the problem comes in for me, not with women trying kinkier things in bed but with them using 50 Shades of Grey as their way to do it.
The problem is that the book depicts an abusive relationship, and it’s being glorified. Christian uses behaviors that are abusive, he’s controlling, and he’s coercive when it comes to their sexual conduct. He’s controlling because he only wants Anastasia to do things he would approve of and doesn’t seem very up for negotiation. He wished to control what she eats, what she wears, who she tells about their sex life and all of their sexual conduct. He even makes her start birth control because he doesn’t like condoms, as if pregnancy is all people should worry about if they’re having unprotected sex, if she can’t get pregnant she shouldn’t worry about contracting an STI? This is most evident by him attempting to have Ana sign a contract that would lay out the rules for their BDSM relationship (this contract also containing the rules of what she will eat and wear). The problem with having a contract about sexual conduct is that, you can’t. Each time a person engages in sexual activity with a partner they have to give informed and enthusiastic consent and consent can be revoked at any time. Contracts therefore make no sense for consent, this should be an open and continuing conversation with one’s sexual partner. You don’t sign a contract agreeing to your sexual conduct for each following sexual encounter and no one should try to coerce you into doing so. Christian doesn’t seem to understand this and he can be very coercive. In the book he’s constantly trying to push Ana’s boundaries and that’s a huge problem.
Sexual boundaries are to be respected not pushed, if someone does not wish to engage in a certain act the only acceptable response is to respect that boundary, no further discussion is needed, except for checking in and making sure your partner is okay. In the book Christian spanks Ana after she has negative response to spanking. When she informs him of how much she hates punishment spanking and tells him that she’s only been engaging in it for him he initially seems horrified and then kisses her and begs her never to leave. This is followed by her saying she will allow him to spank her after all to which he agrees as long as she can be clear about how much it hurts. This is not enthusiastic consent. This is “okay, just for you” the scene ends with Ana in tears. She does not enjoy it at all, he knows she hates it and instead of not participating in another spanking scene he does it anyway. The problem here is that Ana doesn’t enjoy the sexual act she just puts up with it and Christian knows this. Christian is also bad at one of the most important parts of BDSM which is aftercare. As a dominant, his job is to check in and make sure Ana is okay after each BDSM scene because they can be taxing in many ways, and he doesn’t do this. Another issue with the book is that it does not portray a completely consensual relationship, and this paints the BDSM community in a bad light. This is unfair because BDSM is supposed to be consensual and it’s a very important part of the BDSM community to respect the other person’s boundaries (like always respecting safe words) and doing aftercare with your partner.
Then there is Anastasia who has no identity, her character is simply how she feels about Christian, not much else to her. Even through her reactions we see the nature of an abusive relationship. She constantly worries about what he thinks and monitors her behavior to suit him. There are even moments where she appears fearful of Christian for example, “He’s probably like to beat seven shades of shit out of me”. The thought is depressing. Even with its portrayal of an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship, the series ends with Ana and Christian happily together with one child and another on the way. This sends the dangerous message that by sticking it out with an abusive partner you can end up with a good life. The thought of women reading this and thinking this behavior is normal is frightening because abuse is never okay. Many women are now praising a book that shamelessly depicts an abusive relationship as if it’s a good thing, and the author is making money off this. It is sad that so many people don’t realize the abusive nature of the relationship in the book, and even sadder to think that because of it they may accept these types of behaviors in their own relationships. Instead of giving ten dollars to a movie glorifying abuse why not give that money to an organization that helps victims of intimate partner violence? If you’re still wanting a BDSM erotica, you have so many options that depict non-abusive consensual relationships such as The Boss by Abagail Barnett. If 50 Shades of Grey made you interested in trying BDSM, I would encourage you to watch Getting Kinky (BDSM 101) by a Naked Notion on YouTube, it will give a much better idea of what a consensual BDSM relationship should be like.