“Suddenly he grabs me, tipping me across his lap. With one smooth movement, he angles his body so my torso is resting on the bed beside him. He throws his right leg over both mine and plants his left forearm on the small of my back, holding me down so I cannot move… He places his hand on my naked behind, softly fondling me, stroking around and around with his flat palm. And then his hand is no longer there… and he hits me — hard.” (50 Shades of Grey – 273, 274)
It’s not a secret that I really like porn. Like, really, really like it. It’s a wonderful expression of human sexuality. Even more than pornographic photos, gifs, clips, movies, and the rest of the visual gambit — there’s no greater turn on than a great piece of erotic writing.
So of course I read the erotic epic 50 Shades of Grey back when it was still a piece of Twilight fanfiction. (The original manuscript still exists in PDF form.) Since those humble beginnings, 50 Shades has exploded into a cultural phenomenon, made its author a billionaire, and inspired the new genre of mommy porn. While I agree that its writing can be hot, I have serious beef with the book.
The book’s release in 2011 garnered the BDSM community a lot of publicity. According to Transcending Boundaries, “BDSM is a compound acronym for Bondage, Discipline, Dominance/submission, and Sadomasochism. Generally, it is used as an umbrella term for consenting adult relationships that have some inherent inequality. For example, in a Dominant/submissive relationship, the Dominant person holds authority over the consenting submissive person. Because of the inequality of these roles, it is important that both adults have discussed, negotiated, and consented to their respective roles.”
As the press has turned to both extremes—encouragingly positive to powerfully demonizing—the BDSM community has undoubtedly grown — but has it grown in the right way?
Far From Reality
According to authors Linda and Charlie Bloom, “One of the things that makes [the 50 Shades of Grey] series so compelling is that it affirms the classic fantasy that the handsome prince is going to ride into our lives on his noble white steed and sweep us off of our feet, take us away from our ordinary existence and bring us to a beautiful castle where we will spend the remainder of our lives living in luxury, leisure, and of course, pleasure!”
I understand all of that, and agree that 50 Shades of Grey and books like it can be entertaining and at times even inspiring. Where my problem lies is with those who think the book is an instruction manual for how to have rough sex in a safe manner.
“He holds out his hand, and in his palm are two shiny silver balls linked with a thick black thread … Inside me! I gasp, and all the muscles deep in my belly clench. My inner goddess is doing the dance of the seven veils … Oh my … It’s a curious feeling. Once they’re inside me, I can’t really feel them —but then again I know they’re there … Oh my … I may have to keep these. They make me needy, needy for sex.” (362, 364)
According to Lizzie Crocker, “E.L. James knows her S&M so well that Grey could read like a less sinister Story of O, if it weren’t punctuated by the narrator’s dithering inner monologue (every time Anastasia gets aroused, it seems, she announces it with a “Holy Crap!” or “Holy Shit!” or “Holy Moses!”)”
If you haven’t guessed already, I disagree with the statement that somehow, 50 Shades of Grey is less sinister. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’m openly opposed to it.
Rachel Pomerance Berl, author of “What’s Wrong With 50 Shades of Grey”, quotes Amy Bonomi, lead author of “Abuse and Harmed Identity in 50 Shades of Grey”, as saying “The book is a glaring glamorization of violence against women.” Pomerance Berl and Bomani explain that rather than adhering to the BDSM standards of communication and consent, Christian Grey “controls his young conquest, Anastasia Steele, through stalking, intimidation, isolation and humiliation.” In response, Steele “begins to manage her behavior to keep peace in the relationship, which is something we see in abused women,” Bonomi says. “Over time, she loses her identity” and “becomes disempowered and entrapped.”
Berl goes on to say, “The trilogy is known for its depiction of BDSM. Despite the power differential inherent in BDSM, practitioners take the rules of consent and negotiated boundaries seriously, according to those familiar with the practice. Yet Bonomi points out that ‘all those things are violated in the book.'” (Read more, here).
As a woman in a very healthy BDSM relationship, let me say that at no point has my partner ever stalked, intimidated, isolated, or humiliated me in a way that made me uncomfortable or upset. He’s never hurt me. While those actions and feelings are sometimes featured in D/s relationships, it’s important to stress that they’re first and foremost consensual and, despite outward appearances, they’re very much wanted. Pain, while a popular ingredient, is not the main ingredient. Rather, control—safe, consensual, control—between a dominant and a submissive and an exchange of power are the main ingredients and, further more, the main goal.
For me, personally, as someone in a very demanding career position, who herself is demanding and very dominate in my personal and professional life, the exchange of power and the ability to let go of my own need for control and give it to someone else, to become submissive in my sexual life, is both freeing and arousing.
However, that being said, it’s important to point out another contrast between fiction and reality…
No Limits & Safety
In the book, Anastasia is portrayed as helpless and having low self-esteem. Many have assumed, and continue to assume, that all submissives fall into the same personality category. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Speaking from personal experience, submissives most frequently relinquish control and power because they are strong enough to make the conscious choice to do so. They have enough self-esteem, and trust, not only in themselves, but also in their partners, to whom they are willingly, knowingly, giving complete control to.
In E L James’ portrayal, the submissive is not secure, let alone informed. No limits have been set, no safety precautions have been taken.
She completely glosses over, even flat-out ignores, facets of safe play that experienced members of the BDSM community, myself included, are both familiar with and respect as an fundamental necessity. Both RACK and SSC are left out of 50 Shades, and the characters never discuss or display their importance.
RACK stands for Risk Aware Consensual Kink, while SSC stands for Safe, Sane and Consensual. The word SAFE is repeated in each anagram for a reason — safety, both psychological and physical, is the most important concern of each player.
Grey’s concern for Anastasia Steel’s psychological safety, or lack thereof, is most apparent not while they’re engaged in sexual activity, but afterwards — when it’s most important for those in a dominant position to check in and care for their partners.
For those unfamiliar with BDSM, aftercare, as described by avflox in her Blogher post, “The Troubling Message in Fifty Shades of Grey”, is “the essential and immediate follow-up that occurs after play of any sort (“play” is the consensual session during which any previously agreed-upon aspect of BDSM may be acted on). Play can be incredibly draining, especially in the case of people who have only just started their journey into BDSM. Most people who practice BDSM, regardless of their level of experience, require some level of aftercare. Leaving someone who is only experimenting, someone who is not only new to the lifestyle but to sexual experience in general, alone after play is unconscionable.”
The fact that James doesn’t even mention this is a major red flag. Grey repeats this behavior of abandonment after entering into another, much more involved and exhausting scene with Anastasia. After she finally has a go in Christian’s “Red Room of Pain,” a Rococo dungeon Christian keeps in his massive Seattle apartment, she falters, and nearly faints from exhaustion and her inability to suppress a yawn causes Christian to bark at her, demanding to know whether he’s boring her.
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what makes this novel far from a how-to-guide.
The obvious, blatant neglect for Steel’s physical safety is the most alarming aspect of this book. Christian goes beyond basic neglect, becoming at times, textbook abusive.
I wish I could say consent is merely ignored in 50 Shades, however, it’s not…
First and foremost, he fails to educate, inform and explain almost anything about his sexual lifestyle, which is necessary for her consent.
As pointed out in Blame It On The Patriarchy’s “Fifty Things Wrong with Fifty Shades of Grey“, “The first book actually addresses the importance of negotiated and informed consent in a D/s relationship, and then proceeds to undermine it! Christian tells the inexperienced (with everything about sex and her body, and clueless about the existence of kink, much less its practice) Anastasia that he’s not going to do anything without a contract and a safeword in place. Approximately five seconds later, he says “Screw the contract” and initiates sexual contact in an elevator!”
The S&M parts of BDSM refer to the more physical aspects of BDSM, where Christian also ignores consent almost completely. As described in “50 Shades of Rough Sex“, “Masochism describes the sexual pleasure one gets from receiving humiliation and pain by means such as whipping and flogging, while sadism describes the pleasure one gets from giving pain. Pain in these contexts is discussed and predetermined, as the person in power never intends to inflict any sensation that a submissive cannot handle or doesn’t want.” Because pain is often an element of play, safewords are important to protect submissives from actual, unwanted harm and pain.
Grey, on countless occasions, ignores Steel’s lack of consent and goes even further, actually harming her—beating her without her consent—the catalyst for the second volume, 50 Shades Darker.
Not Real Life
Most alarming to me though, is not the physical violence in the books, but the harm that may be caused because of acts that aren’t described as violent of painful. The characters engage in acts and portray them as painless and completely ignore basic anatomy, and physiology. For instance, Grey pulls Anastasia by her wrists on more than one occasion. Had she been flesh and blood, rather than a fictional character, he would have seriously risked dislocating them.
The infamous tie he uses to restrain her hands and blindfold her, while erotic in theory, is something I’d never let my partner use on me for fear of permanent marking or deep bruising. While they may not appear safe, restraints used by experienced players are designed for their intended purpose, to reduce injury and prevent lasting physical marks.
While not explicitly explained in the novels, the manner in which Grey strikes the submissive Steel is cringe-worthy. Before you hit someone, or let someone hit you, with even their bare hands, both you and your partner should be aware of where not to strike, such as the stomach, which contains soft organs. You should only hit, or be hit, in places that have a reduced risk of internal injury, such as those that store fat… Spanking is popular for a reason, everyone.
Ladies, I’m all for you getting your kink on. But, please, do it safely. Talk to your partner, understand where your boundaries are, and for the love of God, if you say the word no (or pineapple, or whatever your safe word is) and he doesn’t stop, show him why sluts aren’t to be fucked with.
Amy E. Bonomi, Lauren E. Altenburger, and Nicole L. Walton. “Double Crap!” Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey” Journal of Women’s Health. September 2013, 22(9): 733-744. doi:10.1089/jwh.2013.4344.
Authors, Unknown. “BDSM 101.” Transcending Boundaries. Transcending Boundaries, 2011. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.
Berl, Rachel Pomerance. “What’s Wrong With ’50 Shades of Grey’: The Difference between BDSM and What’s Portrayed in ‘50 Shades of Grey’.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.
Bloom, Linda, and Charlie Bloom. “What’s So Special about Fifty Shades of Gray?” Psychologytoday.com. Psychology Today, 31 Dec. 2012. Web. 23 Jan. 2014.
Crocker, Lizzie. “‘50 Shades of Grey’ Speed Read: 14 Naughtiest Bits.” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.
Fuller, Bonnie. “E.L. James: How ‘Twilight’ Inspired Me To Write ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’.” Hollywood Life. Hollywood Life, 17 Sept. 2012. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.
James, E. L. (2012). Fifty Shades of Grey. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.
Landau, Emily. “Mommy Porn Goes Global: With 50 Shades of Grey and Gabriel’s Inferno, BDSM-tinged Bodice-rippers Are Changing the Way We Read.” Toronto Life. Toronto Life, 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.
Thank you SO much for writing this. 50 Shades gives me intense panic attacks as it was so close to parts of my past relationship with my abuser. Even seeing the trailers makes me uncomfortable. I just really enjoyed reading this article and it made me feel validated in a world where everyone is lusting over Christian Grey and I’m being reminded of a very difficult time in my life. This is so necessary, thank you.