Editor’s note: This editorial contains extensive discussion of abusive relationships. Please exercise caution before and while reading.
It may be a fantasy, but “Fifty Shades of Grey” is no fairy tale.
Within just a week of its Feb. 13 release, the film adaptation of the first installment of E.L. James’s 2011 erotic romance trilogy amassed over $300 million at the global box office, Forbes reported. The film’s corresponding book series, which has sold well over 100 million copies worldwide, also spent 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list as of February 2014, according to The Times.
The cause of all the intrigue? The trilogy’s title character, Christian Grey, has an affinity for sexual practices involving bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism — commonly abbreviated as simply “BDSM.” Sex sells, and apparently even more so when it’s presented in a way that makes us turn an extra fifty shades of red: Our society often views BDSM as “deviant” or “taboo” sexual behavior.
But the disturbing part of “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t BDSM itself, Emma Green writes in The Atlantic. It’s the series’ perverse representation of BDSM and its corresponding glamorization of an abusive relationship.
From the get-go, Grey excessively bestows his romantic interest, Anastasia, with compliments, gifts and favors. He surprises her with rides in his private helicopter and invites her to his opulent apartment. In short, he makes her feel special and thus seems to perfectly execute the stereotypical romantic dream.
But that’s not to mention the fact that he tells her she should find him intimidating or that he’s incapable of leaving her alone. Between the film and novel, Grey installs a tracking device in Anastasia’s cell phone, breaks into her house and follows her across the country in a jealous rage.
As public health researcher Amy Bonomi says in Business Insider, the bulk of the pair’s interaction involves stalking, verbal intimidation and social isolation. Indeed, when Anastasia tells Grey she feels demeaned, debased and abused, he tells her to embrace such feelings and deal with them “the way a real submissive would,” Bonomi writes.
“He minimizes her concerns, and he uses alcohol and sexual violence to impair (her) consent,” Bonomi says. “He begins a lot of sexual interactions when he is genuinely angry with her. Those are two big red flags.”
Such forms of intimate partner violence are disturbingly prevalent within our culture. According to a 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one in three women and more than one in four men in the U.S. have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner. Furthermore, nearly half of all women and men in the U.S. have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner. And these crimes hardly elude college campuses: A 2007 report by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence showed that 21 percent of college students reported having experienced dating violence by a current partner. Over 13 percent of college women reported being stalked, and 60 percent of acquaintance rapes on college campuses occurred in casual or steady dating relationships.
As writer and professional dominatrix Margret Corvid says in The Guardian, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is designed to excite rather than educate and, in doing so, leaves out the things that differentiate BDSM from abuse. Such things include informed consent, direct communication and allusions to the positive side of BDSM, according to Corvid. Indeed, Grey’s character is revealed to have been abused as a child and uses his sexual practices as an apparent coping mechanism. “Christian Grey is given a sordid back-story for his kinks, but in the real world, we (partake) because it makes us happy,” Corvid says.
Because BDSM and other kinds of sexual experimentation are often risky, those interested in such activities have established communities that follow strict rules concerning safety and consent, Green writes. “The mores of sexual interaction will be intentional, rigorous, non-negotiable and completely understood by everyone involved,” Green says. “Making sexual interactions both safe and mutually gratifying requires self-knowledge, communication skills and emotional maturity…the problem is that ‘Fifty Shades’ casually associates…sex with violence, but without any of this context.”
There’s certainly truth in the fact that “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a fictional story and must therefore be taken with a grain of salt. But the abusive tendencies depicted in the film are all too real, and the narrative, however imaginary, does not make abuse of any kind tolerable.
The hope to bring conversations regarding BDSM, and simply more general conversation about sexuality, into the public sphere is no doubt positive. But it cannot truly be a healthy discussion if we’re basing it on a harmful representation of the subject at hand.
There’s a fine line between sexual violence and certain types of sexual preference. But perpetuating casual attitudes toward physical and emotional abuse?
There’s nothing remotely romantic about that.