by: Alyssa Adamovich
Fifty Shades of Grey has surpassed the Twilight series in amount of books sold. With its scandalous sex scenes and BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism), the erotica series delve into curiosity and a rather kinky sexual experience. Positively, it is a fantastic stepping stone for social acceptance of women’s sexuality; erotica is targeted to women, and the series wide acceptance within general society (soaring book and box office sales) is also an acceptance of women’s sexuality. Justine Elyot of the British news source the Independent explains that “for many women, this represents the relaxation of an ancient societal pressure regarding their sexuality.” Generally, a man’s sexuality does not receive the societal taboo that a woman’s sexuality does. The acceptance of kink is another positive of the series and film.
Everyone has a guilty (or not so guilty) pleasure, and this article is not condemning that pleasure. However, there is another perspective that needs to be discussed: the books depict rape culture and mental, physical, and sexual abuse. The general acceptance and thrill of the series within our society and culture allows some aspects of the novel to be overlooked.
The depiction of rape culture is highly prevalent throughout the series. In fact, the series is rape culture. The creative activist collaboration FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture gives a fantastic definition of rape culture:
In a rape culture, people are surrounded with images, language, laws, and other everyday phenomena that validate and perpetuate, rape. Rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as “just the way things are.” This is what it means when people say that sexism and violence against women are “naturalized.” It means that people in our current society believe these attitudes and actions always have been, and always will be.
Examples of rape culture include: Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke (the blurred lines of consent); supporting athletes who are rapists; companies that advertise women being bound and gagged to promote business; the idea that girls allow themselves to be raped; sale and use of anti-rape devices like hairy leg leggings and drug detecting nail polish, and the idea that if a woman does not have these items she is inviting men to rape her; slut-shaming; sexualizing and outlawing young girls wearing yoga pants to school because it is based on the principles that women are the tempters of men, men cannot help themselves, and demean both by this concept; only 3% of rapists ever serve jail time; women feeling less safe walking at night; and assuming the false reporting of sexual assault is the norm, when in reality the false report of sexual assault is 2-8%, which is the same as grand theft auto (Ridgway). The list can, and does, go on.
The example of rape culture in the Fifty Shades of Grey series is that the sexual and mental violence that Christian Grey uses on Anastasia Steele is depicted as a normal aspect of their dominant and submissive relationship. The book is not an acceptable depiction of BDSM. For example, Christian Grey ignores Anastasia Steele’s protests and subverts her sexual authority as a submissive by threatening to tie her feet and gag her if she struggles. In context, she is protesting the scene and thus saying no to the scene. This is the number one rule of BDSM scene work. If the submissive is uncomfortable, the scene ends. Instead, Christian ignores her protests with threats. Being dominate in no way entails that he is allowed to deny her the right to end a scene; in fact, it is commonly recognized that the submissive has the true power within the dynamic (a sub puts complete and total trust into a dom). He continues his abuse when Ana acknowledges a boundary she does not want to cross by questioning her own sanity and role in the relationship: “So you felt demeaned, debased, abused, and assaulted…if that is how you feel, do you think you could just try and embrace these feelings, deal with them, for me? That’s what a submissive would do” (Aker). No, Christian that is NOT what a submissive would do. A proper dominant would acknowledge this, and work with the submissive and create a new contract. Another example of terrible BDSM play is how they begin a scene. Ana has not signed the contract before they start a scene. The contract is essential, because it shows that both partners are in full agreement and understand, without any communication inhibitions, what the scene will exactly entail. Ana does not understand what the scene will entail when she begins, and Christian does not fully explain. Finally, the end scene of the first book (spoilers!) entails Christian punishing Ana even though she has not violated the rules of the contract. It is not simply another scene they are enacting; he is punishing her simply to abuse her. (Of course this is acknowledged when he says he is screwed up mentally and sexually, but her continued attraction and the audience’s continued tolerance of him is an example of rape culture.)
The depiction of BDSM within the series is not BDSM; it is sexual abuse. Emma Green’s article in The Atlantic, “Consent Isn’t Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades” discusses that “this is not how experienced members of the kink community have sex. Because BDSM and other kinds of experimentation can be risky, and because it pushes people’s comfort limits, people who are interested in these kinds of activities have established communities that follow strict rules concerning safety and consent” (Green).
The problem does not only lie with the books, but the approach and level of enthusiasm of the books that allow readers to overlook this passage as sexual abuse. I have heard many people say that they want a Christian Grey in bed, to which I say, no you don’t, what you want is a spicy sex life free of abuse. The study “Fiction or Not? Fifty Shades is Associated with Health Risks in Adolescent and Young Adult Females” published in the Journal of Women’s Health and discussed in the International Business Times links the likelihood of abusive relationships and the series and/or film: “out of 655 women ages 18 to 24 polled, 25 percent of those who admitted to reading James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” were found more likely to have engaged in an abusive relationship” (Schumann). Professor Amy Bonomi says that Anastasia “begins to manage her behavior to keep peace in the relationship, which is something we see in abused women…over time, she loses her identity [and] becomes disempowered and entrapped” (Schumann). This is rape culture, and the series acceptance within society is an example of rape culture. There is better erotica to read than Fifty Shades of Grey; erotica that is free of sexual and mental abuse, that has correct and fantastic BDSM play, and BDSM that is not depicted as a pathological sexual deviance but sexual pleasure.
If you are interested in learning more about rape culture and/or the BDSM lifestyle, follow the links below!
- Angie Aker: “6 real quotes from ‘Fifty Shades’ that could make you rethink how you feel about it.”
- Justine Elyot: “When most porn is packaged for men, is it any wonder women get their sexual kicks from erotica?”
- Rebecka Schumann: “Fifty Shades Of Abuse: Study Says ‘50 Shades Of Grey’ Readers More Likely To Have Abusive Partners.”
- Shannon Ridgway: “25 Everyday Examples of Rape Culture.”
- Force: Upsetting Rape Culture: “What is Rape Culture?”
- Emma Green: Consent Isn’t Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades
Other sources for readers:
- “Your Friends Are Not Your Audience,” by Linda Holmes
- Walking Home, and experimental video by Nuala Cabral
- “Teaching Good Sex,” New York Times article by Laurie Abram
- The Line, a campaign organized around the film by Nancy Shwartzmen
- Slutwalk, an international effort to end slut-shaming and victim blaming, which began in Toront