February 11, 2015

Joely Mitchell

** Content warning: this article refers to sexual practices and relationships surrounding the book Fifty Shades of Grey and is for older readers **

With over 100 million worldwide book sales and the imminent release of its feature film, chances are you’ve heard about EL James’s trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey. If you haven’t, I do recommend that you read the book or see the film, and not necessarily because of its quality, but because it so happens to be a moral minefield that will leave you thinking for days. I am eagerly awaiting the release of the film this Thursday, but couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed and full of mixed emotions after finishing the book.

I must admit, I was completely under the wrong impression about what Fifty Shades was about before I read it. I thought that the couple just engaged in really kinky sex. It turns out that there is a lot more to the story than this. Ever heard of BDSM? Let me enlighten you.
BDSM stands for bondage/discipline/sadism/masochism. It is a variety of sexual practices that involve roleplaying, restraint, dominance, submission and more. Bondage is tying, binding or restraining your partner with rope, tape, cuffs or more for erotic pleasure. Discipline is pretty self-explanatory, although in the BDSM context it is used for the Dominant to demonstrate their control of the Submissive (also for sexual pleasure). A sadist is somebody who derives sexual gratification from physically hurting their partner, whereas a masochist is somebody who enjoys being on the receiving end of that pain.

So how accurately does Fifty Shades depict a BDSM relationship? Heartthrob billionaire, Christian Grey, sweeps college graduate, Anastasia Steele, off her feet (excuse the clichés) before revealing that he is, in fact a sadist. Christian deems himself incapable of love and pleads that Ana engage in a submissive/dominant relationship with him, where he controls almost every aspect of her life (including her diet, exercise routine, sexual activity, birth control and even masturbation habits).

This is where Fifty Shades evoked most of its criticism. Not only are critics claiming that Christian pressured Ana into this relationship (note that she was a virgin before they met), but Christian aspires to control the majority of Ana’s lifestyle, which supposedly is not the case in most Dom/Sub relationships. In most Dom/Sub relationships, this sort of roleplaying occurs only in the bedroom. His controlling tendencies have actually been labeled by critics as abusive, and in some way I agree. He stalks her, is possessive of her, manipulates her, dismisses some of her feelings and some of the sex is borderline rape (c’mon Christian, sometimes she’d just prefer to talk!). BUT it was obvious that Christian cared deeply about Ana, he made it clear to her that her consent was vital and through the use of “safe words”, he would stop at any time. Ana was admittedly sexually aroused by some of what occurred in the “Red Room of Pain” but deep down struggled to understand why Christian wanted to hurt her.

Whilst I found that Ana was a relatable character, I struggled to come to terms with her willing submission. I do not judge those that wish to engage in BDSM, each to their own, but I think it was made very clear that Ana only participated for Christian’s enjoyment, despite her own apprehension. I think this is what made Fifty Shades so conflicting to read. Ana’s agreement to engage in a submissive relationship to please a man in some way reflects on how a lot of women’s sexual pleasure comes second to men’s pleasure these days.

It’s a moral minefield.

There’s even a campaign called 50 Dollars Not Fifty Shades that encourages people to donate money to domestic violence shelters or agencies instead of seeing the movie or buying the book. You can check out their Facebook page here.

The film, Fifty Shades of Grey is out this Thursday and its director, Sam Taylor-Johnson has recently confirmed that the book’s two sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed will also make it to the big screen.

– Joely Mitchell

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  1. Rose Says:

    He SAYS he loves her and he SAYS her consent is vital but where in the book do we actually see that? You said it yourself, he disregards her emotions and requests, manipulates her, tells her that he OWNS her, stalks her and actually threatens her, etc etc (this article basically lists all the reasons he obviously doesn’t give a shit about Ana as a person

    he pressures her into signing to the “contract” and manipulates her into “consenting” – then readers turn around and say ‘well it’s complicated because she hated it but she CONSENTED and didn’t use her safe word and she got an orgasm out of it’ …no. that’s called victim blaming.

    I agree it is definitely a reflection of how men’s pleasure is prioritised over women’s pleasure (and safety.. and privacy.. and consent). It’s a promotion of abuse and rape culture. After all, we’re taught this narrative from when we’re very young – 50 shades is just the adult version of “he’s probably bullying you at school because he has a crush on you,” “If that guy won’t stop asking you out even though you’ve said no, maybe you should give him a chance, he obviously loves you,” and “he can’t control himself if you do/wear the wrong thing, so if he hurts you it’s your fault.”

    Basically what I’m disagreeing with here is that it’s a complicated moral issue. This book depicts textbook abuse. To me it’s clear that the marketing of this franchise is immoral. It’s triggering for survivors of abuse and it’s grooming millions of young women (who want their own Christian Greys) for abusive relationships.

    For those who like the porn and don’t want to judge anyone’s sexual fantasy, well, newsflash: there is a LOT of better BDSM erotica out there, printed and online. It’s no surprise to me that the books that went mainstream are the ones that portray abuse against a woman.



    • Truth 4 Youth Says:

      Hi Rose,
      Thanks for getting into contact with us. It’s always good to get feedback from readers.

      Whilst I agree with you on many levels, I still believe that it is a complicated moral issue, FOR ME. Obviously we are all entitled to our own opinions, but what I was trying to say is that I personally felt morally conflicted by the book (based on my own personal beliefs). It’s fine that you felt differently.

      What I love about books is that a lot of it is open for interpretation. I’m not sure whether or not you’ve read the book/s Rose, but I believe that Christian was in fact falling in love with Ana and that he did care about her.

      And no, I’m not “victim blaming”, I do not believe AT ALL that Ana “deserved” to be hurt, but in some way I think she wanted to be (obviously in a sexual context). Would I let a man do that to me? No. Would you? I highly doubt it. Ana KNEW that she was entitled to say no, to tell Christian to stop at any time, and she didn’t.

      Why? Yes, it could be because she wanted to please Christian, because she thought that if she participated, he would change his ways, or because he intimidated her, etc etc. BUT one thing Christian was sure of was that he would stop if she wanted him to. And for some reason, I genuinely believe that he would have.

      Again, as I’ve already said, I agree with the majority of what you’ve said. But I still believe in what I’ve just said, that’s why it’s a complicated moral issue for me. It doesn’t have to be for everyone, but for me it is.

      Thanks again for taking the time to write to us smile emoticon



  2. Rose Says:

    Hey Joely 😉

    Abusers can ‘love’ their victims. Doesn’t excuse their behaviour (people may even blame their behavior ON that love for their victims, eg. “i’m creepily possessive and jealous because i just love you so much/you make me crazy”).

    And I know the book doesn’t /say/ he’s a good person,but it’s kind of implied when the main character feels like she’s helping him get better and he’s only abusive because he’s a survivor of abuse, deep down he’s a good person, etc etc

    When it’s marketed as a romance, and if nobody criticises it (luckily they are), how are people supposed to know his behaviour is abusive? I wouldn’t know how to identify emotionally abusive behaviour unless I’d read about it.

    Here’s an article on how the relationship fulfills all the criteria of and emotionally abusive relationship.

    Plus, in our culture, people don’t have a very good understanding of consent and this book doesn’t help. This article has a pretty simple explanation of why the ‘consent’ in 50 shades is not good enough

    the sex i don’t have any problems with apart from the fact that she obviously didn’t have a good understanding of what was going to happen (ie. not proper consent) and yeah basically everything in the above article ^^ the fact that she gets a few good orgasms out of it doesn’t mean his coercion and manipulation is okay (that’s what i meant in the other comment, i don’t think it came across like that though)…

    and i’m going to read it cover-to-cover one day, so i can say this with conviction, but according to this when she says no in the first book he somehow interprets that as ‘convince me’ and essentially rapes her (this is before signing the contract that people seem to take as blanket consent for everything). so i don’t see why everyone is so convinced that he would stop if she wanted him to (i guess the defence is “but she enjoyed the sex,” which doesn’t change the fact that he ignored her saying no… ie, rape…)

    also, she could (arguably) stop the sex any time, but she couldn’t say no to him doing stuff like buying the company she works at (effectively controlling her income), stalking her, harrassing her when she specifically asks for space, threatening her (in a way that’s not even related to sex)… and again this crap is passed off as ‘classic Dom behaviour’ when that is absolutely not true.

    I think there’s a lot of weird stuff going on in EL James’s brain which is understandable considering the culture we live in. The appeal of Grey is that he knows what he wants and knows how to actually pleasure HER, so hey, hot sex scenes. My first guess would be that the appeal of the abusive behaviour (and it has to have APPEAL because neither the author or the director of the movie have admitted it’s abusive as far as i know??) is that Ana can remain, in the eyes of society, ‘innocent/virginal’ because she was ‘corrupted’ by this man, rather than owning her sexuality.

    The first thing we learn as feminists is that the media we consume affects our worldview. Millions of women globally are consuming this media, which is marketed to them as a romance, we live in a world where men violating women’s boundaries is seen as a sign of their love for us, we live in a country where one woman per WEEK dies at the hands of their abusive partner (who knows how many endure stalking, threats, coercion into sex, and other typical Christian Grey behaviours)… how can we then turn around and support this franchise? eg. spending money to see the movie.

    I don’t even know how to conclude this and i think the middle probably doesn’t make sense, but anyway it just confuses me that people can still be like ‘it’s just fiction’ and/or sit on the fence about it :/


  3. Rose Says:

    holy god someone needs to confiscate my laptop that comment is so long



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