Content Warnings: discussion of abuse, racism, rape, rape-culture, domestic violence, sexism.
The recent release of the Fifty Shades of Grey has been met with enthusiasm, frustration and grave concern. Fans of the book-series turned film argue that Fifty Shades of Grey is just a bit of fun and feminists are simply over-reacting. There is a divide in the Bondage, Dominance, Sadism & Masochism (BDSM) community where some claim that the film inaccurately reflects the reality of BDSM. Others argue that boycotting such films runs the risk of shaming someone for their sexual interests/fetishes. Doing so is commonly known as ‘kink-shaming’. Large scores of feminists and community groups are overwhelmed with concern due to the antiquated and harmful attitudes about women and men that are entrenched in the film.
Advocates against domestic violence argue that the film eroticises Christian Grey’s abusive, controlling and manipulative behaviour or intimate partner violence (IPV). The film sells violence towards women as romantic and attractive and as a result, trivialising the experiences of women who have been the victims of IPV. Throughout the film, Grey employs strategies and behaviour that are often used by domestic violence perpetrators. For instance, he stalks her, watching her every move whilst reminding Anastasia that he has the upper hand in this relationship. He tracks her phone and breaks into her house. The use of technology to stalk and abuse women by intimate and ex-partners is an increasingly common tool in the repertoire of abusive, controlling and violent partners. Stalking forces the victim into a state of fear and is, not to mention, illegal. It is not healthy, it is not romantic; it is abusive. The normalisation of IPV, which affects around 25% of women in the U.S., and abuse in Fifty Shades of Grey creates a social context that promotes and supports violence against women and partners.
Furthermore, Grey tells Anastasia that if the pair were to pursue something sexual, she would be bound by an agreement not to discuss anything that happens between them. This is a typical isolating strategy employed by those wanting to possess and control their partners. It makes it very difficult to leave abusive environments and get support where it is needed. Grey demonstrates no concern for her emotional wellbeing when says to the sexually inexperienced Anastasia that he wishes to make her ‘sore’. He wishes to be Anastasia’s only partner as he consistently reminds her that she is his possession and property telling her that ‘you are mine. Only mine. Don’t forget it.’ The emotional abuse in the book is pervasive, with Grey humiliating Anastasia and using anger, threats of violence and manipulation to control her behaviour. ‘It’s taking all my self control not to fuck you… right now, just to show you that you are mine, and if I want to buy you a fucking car, I’ll buy you a fucking car.’
With more than 100 million copies being sold and the movie set to be a blockbuster hit, Fifty Shades of Grey has a very large audience. It is deeply concerning that the dangerous and harmful attitudes, particularly regarding the role of women in relationships, behaviour and sexual practices that are prevalent in the book will have an influence on readers and viewers.
A number of enthusiasts have already recreated some of the sex scenes in the book. Purchases of ropes and BDSM related sex toys have consequently dramatically increased. For instance, injuries caused by sex toys have substantially increased as a result of the release of the book series. Some attempts at recreation have led to serious injury and death, with women overwhelmingly the victims. In Sweden, a man is standing trial for murdering his girlfriend, whom he claims ‘willingly’ consented to being hit 123 times with a wooden blackboard pointer and gagged to the point of suffocation, brain damage and death. Unfortunately this is not an isolated situation with numerous women suffering similar abuse. The release of Fifty Shades of Grey has meant that abusive men are afforded greater opportunity to disguise their violent and abusive behaviour. This unacceptable behaviour has in instances been justified as ‘kinky BDSM’, thereby subjugating women to their every sexual desire and whim.
Fifty Shades of Grey conveys to audiences that BDSM is exciting, adventurous and subversive. In reality, BDSM fails to subvert patriarchal notions of gender roles, as it relegates women to a position of sexual submission and servitude. This is typical given the patriarchal history of women’s subjugation.
The book series endorses the idea that hierarchical sexual relations between men and women are acceptable and normal. It promotes the notion that womens’ subordination is something to be aroused by, and is crucial to men and their sex drive. If we really question the essence of sadomasochism, it becomes apparent that it is no more than individuals being aroused by the abuse that they’re inflicting upon others. As mentioned, women disproportionally occupy the submissive partner during this sort of activity. The very fact that Grey is evidently aroused by subjugating, controlling, debasing, humiliating, physically and emotionally abusing Anastasia, is extremely troubling in light of this. At numerous points throughout the book, Grey ensures that Anastasia is intoxicated and cannot give consent before taking advantage of her. Even if she were to give active, free, informed and willing consent to being controlled by Grey, it is still deeply concerning that Grey conflates violence towards women with arousal and sexual attraction.
In any other situation beyond the sexual dimension, this type of self-gratifying violence pursued by individuals would not be tolerated and would be regarded as assault. Why then are sexual interactions and encounters subject to a double standard when they involve abuse and violence?
Many women themselves are now convinced that being punished, humiliated and abused during sex is romantic and enjoyable. Consequently, there are numbers of women consensually engaging in this type of sex. Occupying a submissive, degrading and powerless position during sex is not in itself a tool of empowerment for anyone but the dominant partner. Women who wish to justify their enjoyment of these acts often describe the feeling of ‘empowerment’ during this sort of sex. I would argue that empowerment is not just a feeling, but also the state of autonomy and ability to control one’s own life in the context of society. Moreover, performing the dichotomous roles of women’s submissiveness and men’s dominance is not radical or subversive, it is patriarchal tradition. Even in the rare instance that women occupy the dominant role and the man the submissive role, it is concerning that anyone would want to dominate and control their partner during sex in a manner that can be considered abuse.
People who engage in BDSM typically reduce the conversation around it to being a matter of ‘choice’. Firstly, deconstructing what constitutes free, active and willing consent must be on the table for discussion. There is a considerable amount of ignorance and outright recklessness when it comes to consent, and what considerably amounts to it. Consent can be vitiated by a number of factors, as we do not live in a social, political, economic, cultural vacuum, and our choices are informed by a these factors. The Crimes Act (Victoria) recognises that consent is not present in instances where, ‘the person has sexual intercourse because of the abuse of a position of authority or trust’ [61HA(6)(c)]. Anastasia is a newly graduated college student who has caught the attention of her wealthy, influential and older male boss. These circumstances already create a power dynamic in this relationship, and it is clear that Christian Grey seeks to exploit it at every opportunity. Secondly, choice itself does not exist in a vacuum. When popular culture and society fuels these attitudes towards women and conditions men and women to behave in a certain way, can it really be unexpected that women will ‘choose’ to ‘consent’ to being submissive and dominated during sex?
Fifty Shades of Grey is a damaging and regressive depiction of ‘romance’ and ‘erotica’. Most disturbing is the wide scale evidence and subsequent acceptance that women have and continue to suffer as a direct result of partners imitating the behaviour in these books.