I will admit it. I have read all three books in the Fifty Shades of Grey series.
I am not admitting this because I am ashamed of my sexual desires or even because I feel the need to rant and rave about the poor writing quality of these books. (And it is extremely poor. I set my Kindle to count how many times the word “gasp” is used in the third book and the total was more than 70). I am admitting this because I feel the need to share my opinions about what I consider to be the incredibly — and dangerously — abusive relationship portrayed in the books.
When I first heard about Fifty Shades of Grey and learned they began as Twilight fanfiction, I swore I would not read them. I have read all of the Twilight books and I did not enjoy them. I found the relationships between Edward and Bella and Bella and Jacob to be patronizing and emotionally abusive, and I also thought the writing was pedestrian at best and boring to read. Why would I devote the limited amount of time I have for reading for pleasure to a series like this?
But as the dialogue about Fifty Shades of Grey increased, both in the media and amongst my friends, my curiosity was piqued. I attended a talk titled “Fifty Shades of Grey - Bad for Women, Bad for Sex” and decided that I should see what all the fuss was about.
To quote the book, I gasped. I rolled my eyes. I even bit my lip a few times. But not for the reasons Anastasia, the protagonist, did. I did out of exasperation, boredom and disgust, but also out of fear. After reading this book series, I am deeply afraid that this type of relationship will be viewed as the romantic ideal for women. And I consider that to be extremely dangerous — much more so than anything that takes place between Christian and Anastasia in the Red Room of Pain.
Could the character of Anastasia Steele be any more of a stereotype? She is an introvert, has low self-esteem, has abandonment issues from her father, apparently has only one close friend who bullies her and even though she works in a hardware store, she doesn’t seem to possess any self-sufficiency aside from cooking for her roommate and herself. She seems to have no sexual identity until Christian Grey enters her life and requests that she become his Submissive in a sexual relationship.
In order to be Christian’s submissive, Anastasia is expected to sign a lengthy and detailed contract that, amongst other requirements, requires that she exercise four days a week with a trainer that Christian provides (and who will report to Christian on her progress), eat only from a list of foods Christian supplies her with, get eight hours of sleep a night and begin taking a form of birth control so Christian will not have to wear condoms. Anastasia negotiates a few terms of the contract with Christian (she only wants to work out three days a week, not four), but all of her negotiations are only within his framework — none of the terms are hers independently. Nothing in their relationship is hers as an independent.
The character of Christian Grey is a rich, superpowered businessman who was abused as a child. He is in therapy, and Anastasia frequently references his therapist, but based on how he treats Anastasia, he doesn’t seem to be making much progress. As Anastasia’s relationship with Christian progresses, his controlling tendencies affect her life more and more. When her friend takes portraits of her for his photography exhibit, Christian buys all of them, because he does not want anyone else looking at Anastasia. (They weren’t even in a relationship when he did this.) When she is hired as an assistant at a publishing company, he buys the company — to make sure she’s “safe” working there. When she goes out to a bar with her one friend, against his wishes, he flies from New York to Washington State that same night, just to express his anger — and exercise his control over her. When she does not immediately change her name at her office (in hopes of maintaining some professional autonomy, given that he bought the company she works at), he shows up, unannounced, at her office, in the middle of her workday, to pick a fight with her. When she asks why it is so important to him that she change her name, he says he wants everyone to know she is his.
Christian’s possession of Anastasia is the cause of much of my disgust and fear of the book’s influence on people and how they view romantic relationships. After they exchange their wedding vows, the first words he says to her are, “Finally, you’re mine.” The control he exercises over her does not reflect his love for her; it reflects his objectifying of her. Christian never views Anastasia as a person, let alone an independent woman. He wants her to obey him, and even though she refuses to include that in her wedding vows, it is exactly what she does. When her mother questions her choice to keep her wedding dress on rather than change before traveling for her honeymoon, she says, “Christian likes this dress, and I want to please him.” Her desire to try some of the “kinky fuckery” in his Red Room of Pain comes from wanting to demonstrate her love for him, not her own sexual desires.
Wanting to please Christian apparently includes subjecting herself to verbal and emotional abuse from him ‘til death do them part, because any time she tries to stand up to him — which isn’t often — he berates her, guilt trips her and beats her down verbally until she apologizes and submits to him. After she uses the “safe word” in the Red Room of Pain so he will stop, he bemoans his sad state of mind later, mentioning that his “wife fucking safe worded him.” He is not concerned with her well-being or why she felt the need to use the safe word. He only cares about how it affects him.
The question that I kept asking myself as I read the books was why Anastasia stayed with Christian, and the answer I found was that she has absolutely no sense of self worth. She only feels sexy when he says she is, and when he insults or patronizes her, she accepts what he says as the truth. One of the passages that disgusted me the most was when Anastasia was at a club with Christian, dancing and thinking to herself that she never felt sexy before she met him and that he had given her confidence in her body. Yes, being with a partner who frequently compliments you can increase your confidence, but Anastasia went from zero to one hundred thanks to Christian. None of that came from within herself. Because of his influence on her, nothing in her life came from herself — her job, her home, her way of life, or even her self-esteem.
The co-dependency between Anastasia and Christian is alarming to read and even more to contemplate. When she breaks up with him at the end of the first book, the second book finds her starving herself and wasting away to nothing until he contacts her again. When she thinks his helicopter has crashed in the second book, she thinks to herself that she can’t live without him. Their marriage only comes about because he is scared she will leave him, and when she asks what she can do to prove to him she isn’t going anywhere, he says she can marry him. Yes, origins of insecurity and desperation are a great start to a healthy marriage.
When Anastasia finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and shares the news with Christian, he rages at her, asking if she did it on purpose and storming out of the house, disappearing for hours. Even though Anastasia thinks to herself that the pregnancy happened too soon in their marriage, she never considers terminating it.
The themes of the novel — that love alone can make someone change, that abuse from a spouse is acceptable as long as he’s great in bed, that pregnancies should always be carried to term even if the parents are not ready to be parents, and the ridiculously antiquated, Victorian idea that the love of a pure virgin can save a wayward man from himself — are irrational, unbelievable and dangerous.
Our culture has seen a radical shift of ideals moving towards traditional gender roles and Fifty Shades of Grey is a shining example of that. Early marriage to one’s first sexual partner, having a baby even when saying neither of the partners is ready to be a parent, and submission to one’s husband as the head of the household are all aspects of life that feminists and progressive thinkers have worked to move beyond. Anastasia and Christian’s relationship is not romantic. It is abusive. The ways he tries to “keep her safe” are not masculine or sexy. They are stalking. Fearing one’s husband’s reaction to an unexpected pregnancy is not normal, because “boys will be boys.” It is sad and dangerous and should not happen in a healthy relationship.
Fifty Shades of Grey was one of the best-selling books of the year. Sex toy classes have been inspired by it, as have new types of cocktails. The film adaptation is already in the works. I sincerely hope that honest discussion will be had about the book and that the Christian Grey ideal of romance is not one that will be perpetuated throughout our culture. The best way that can happen is through open, honest dialogue that leads to healthy relationships of two equal partners. That, in my opinion, is sexier than anything that can happen in the Red Room of Pain.
Spread this like wildfire on all media!
***This is a copy and pasted version of a reply I gave to an ask sent to me today. The person who asked the question has received abuse for asking so WTF. Anyway, here is my text, this time by itself***
Right, so I’m taking this as an opportunity to clear things up about my very controversial…
Here’s a few more thoughts, about BDSM and abuse, posted on the bi tumblr facebook group:
[I fully agree that BDSM can be used as a tool for abuse, and that this needs to be acknowledged and problematized by BDSM communities. When BDSM communities and sex positive feminists silence survivors and speak over their heads that is completely unacceptable, and an expression of rape culture]. I can identify [with this experience of abuse] only partially, but still [TW: general description of BDSM-based sexual violence] - my first ever BDSM interaction was very negative and put me off BDSM for years. It was with my first boyfriend (also bi). I was 16 at the time, and he was 19, and far more sexually experienced than me. For my 16th birthday, I’d received handcuffs from my friends, and we decided to use them together, but without any prior negotiation or attempt to talk about what we want to do and how. I remember the experience as non-consensual. It very much harmed my feeling of safety in the relationship, and even though I technically ‘consented’ to it, afterwards I felt violated. It only happened once, because I didn’t like it, but I can definitely envision an alternate reality in which it would have taken a different, more destructive route. [End of TW]
In terms of sexual politics, I call myself a sex radical. I agree with sex negative feminists in thinking that we need to constantly examine our sexual relationships and desires, and that in current heteropatriarchal, misogynist reality, sex and violence are deeply interlinked such that violence - or the potential for it - is present in every sexual interaction between any partners. Hell, even within oneself. And that this violence is predicated in misogyny, racism, LGBT-phobia, and other types of oppression.
I agree with sex positive feminists that when done right, sexuality can be great, and it can be deeply feminist and anti-oppression - both in cultural and in personal terms. But in a way, that’s kinda like believing in the revolution, or in sustainable communities - it takes constant work and constant vigilance, and even with the best of intentions and the best practices, everyone is prone to mess up.
I try to acknowledge the complexity in this entire topic - acknowledging people’s (especially women’s) agency, but at the same time acknowledging hurt, oppression and abuse. I think BDSM can be used as a tool for abuse and oppression because anything that *can* be used in that way *is* used that way. And it’s our responsibility to do the work making sure both that this doesn’t happen, and that what does happen is beneficial to everyone.
When researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of Washington observed young people’s behavior in bars, they found that the man’s aggressiveness didn’t match his level of intoxication. There was no relationship.
Instead, men targeted women who were intoxicated.
Don’t use alcohol to excuse men of violence
TW DOMESTIC ABUSE ——
When [an abusive man] tells me that he became abusive because he lost control of himself, I ask him why he didn’t do something even worse. For example, I might say, “You called her a fucking whore, you grabbed the phone out of her hand and whipped it across the room, and then you gave her a shove and she fell down. There she was at your feet where it would have been easy to kick her in the head. Now, you have just finished telling me that you were ‘totally out of control’ at that time, but you didn’t kick her. What stopped you?” And the client can always give me a reason. Here are some common explanations:
"I wouldn’t want to cause her a serious injury."
“I realized one of the children was watching.”
“I was afraid someone would call the police.”
“I could kill her if I did that.”
“The fight was getting loud, and I was afraid the neighbors would hear.”
And the most frequent response of all:
"Jesus, I wouldn’t do that. I would never do something like that to her.”
The response that I almost never heard — I remember hearing it twice in the fifteen years — was: “I don’t know.”
These ready answers strip the cover off of my clients’ loss of control excuse. While a man is on an abusive rampage, verbally or physically, his mind maintains awareness of a number of questions: “Am I doing something that other people could find out about, so it could make me look bad? Am I doing anything that could get me in legal trouble? Could I get hurt myself? Am I doing anything that I myself consider too cruel, gross, or violent?”
A critical insight seeped into me from working with my first few dozen clients: An abuser almost never does anything that he himself considers morally unacceptable. He may hide what he does because he thinks other people would disagree with it, but he feels justified inside. I can’t remember a client ever having said to me: “There’s no way I can defend what I did. It was just totally wrong.” He invariably has a reason that he considers good enough. In short, an abuser’s core problem is that he has a distorted sense of right and wrong.
I sometimes ask my clients the following question: “How many of you have ever felt angry enough at youer mother to get the urge to call her a bitch?” Typically half or more of the group members raise their hands. Then I ask, “How many of you have ever acted on that urge?” All the hands fly down, and the men cast appalled gazes on me, as if I had just asked whether they sell drugs outside elementary schools. So then I ask, “Well, why haven’t you?” The same answer shoots out from the men each time I do this exercise: “But you can’t treat your mother like that, no matter how angry you are! You just don’t do that!”
The unspoken remainder of this statement, which we can fill in for my clients, is: “But you can treat your wife or girlfriend like that, as long as you have a good enough reason. That’s different.” In other words, the abuser’s problem lies above all in his belief that controlling or abusing his female partner is justifiable….
[TW: sapphobic abuse, intimate violence, direct biphobia]
biphobia is coming out to my boyfriend (i’m a girl) at age 16, and being slammed into a wall and told i’m no longer allowed to hang out with my female friends. biphobia is then subsequently being told by gay and lesbian monosexuals that i’m lucky to be able to be in a relationship that won’t get me abused.
[Chart from White & Kowalsky article in Psychology of Women Quarterly, 1994, showing that most women who kill their spouses do so out of self-defense and receive a 15-20 year sentence, whereas most men who kill their spouse do so for reasons of sexual jealousy and receive a 2-6 year sentence. Text above chart reads “Stereotype of gender differences in aggression…sustains male power.”]
The culture me live in
You know, I believe that I have never been treated more disrespectfully as a woman than by the black men that I’ve dated.
(I guess she doesn’t consider Sean Penn brutally assaulting her in ‘87 disrespect.)
Exactly. Let’s never forget that Madonna suggested that Black men are inherently violent based on knowing like 3 Black people total in her life and has nothing to say about white men….
Steal from our culture and then vilify the people you thieved from for existing. Sit down
*flips Madonna off*
Being hospitalized from Sean Penn but Black men are worse?
People will choose white supremacy over literal survival.