This is the second post in my series on BDSM and feminism. My challenge to myself was to make a list of 50 reasons why the widespread appreciation of 50 Shades of Grey is not so ideal, despite the fact that I generally think women enjoying sexually explicit material is a good thing. I thought it would be difficult to think of all those things while pointing out new problems every time, not just giving examples. I was wrong. It was really easy.
Trigger warnings for discussions of BDSM, assault, child abuse, sexual abuse, rape, and stalking. Also, spoilers through 50 Shades of Grey and the sequels.
Part One: Problematic Treatment of Consent in the books
1. Ignoring consent
2. Reacting to the sentiment “no, I don’t want to have sex with you right now” by threatening to tie the speaker up, taking their clothes off, and… having sex with them.
3. Not treating safewords as important
4. Not treating contracts as important
5. Joking about the importance of safewords and contracts in a D/s relationship
6. Having a partner sign a D/s contract without telling them it isn’t legally binding
7. Not exploring and explaining limits
8. Forcibly preventing a partner from learning about their limits
9. Forcibly preventing a partner from learning about a sexual practice you are encouraging them to engage in
10. Making a romantic relationship dependent on indulging non-mutual kinks
11. Taking sexual advantage of someone who is intoxicated
12. Refusing to allow a partner to masturbate
13. Pushing someone who has never experienced any sexual interest, including maturbation, into a sexual relationship immediately after meeting them
14. Pushing someone who has never experienced any sexual interest, including masturbation, into a kinky sexual relationship immediately after meeting them despite the fact that they have no knowledge about kink
15. Refusing to allow that partner any trustworthy source of knowledge about those kinks other than yourself
16. Forcing a partner to make specific decisions about birth control based on your preferences
Let’s wrap up!
Consent is really, really important. Consent is important because it differentiates sex from rape, and consent is important because it differentiates BDSM from abuse. So in a relationship like the one depicted in this series, you would think clear consent would be the number one most important thing. You would be wrong.
The worst part of how consent is treated is that the first book actually addresses the importance of negotiated and informed consent in a D/s relationship, and then procedes to undermine it. Christian, the male love interest, 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.
All of bullet point number two actually happens. She was joking when she sent him an email saying she didn’t want to say him again, but he thought she was serious- and his response was to show up and tell her he was going to tie her up and then to have sex with her! He also has sexual contact with her after she drinks mulitple times, despite the fact that she has a low tolerance for alcohol (of course, she’s a helpless wilting flower) and they never, ever negotiate having sex is this context.
He refuses to let her get information about BDSM (if she could, perhaps she would realize what a deeply abusive relationship she’s trapped in). She is encouraged to look it up online, despite the fact that she’s absurdly computer-illiterate and the internet is not exactly full of super-reliable information about BDSM. She literally cannot even speak to her best friend about it.
There’s nothing wrong with having sex with an inexperienced partner, and there’s nothing wrong with controlling your partner’s orgasms in a negotiated D/s context. But you probably shouldn’t do both at the same time, since she basically doesn’t know what she’s giving up, and she isn’t given any opportunity to have anything like a normal learning curve about sexual activity. Instead, she’s pushed immediately into exactly the kind of sexual relationship her partner wants, which is clearly coercive without everything else bad that’s going on.
Part Two: Other Abusive Content in the books
17. Reading a partner’s email and phone messages without their knowledge or consent
18. Physically hurting a partner without their informed consent
19. Physically hurting a partner even though it causes them fear
20. Controlling who a partner can and cannot spend time with outside of the relationship
21. Showing up at someone’s house after they’ve literally just emailed you to say they don’t want to see you anymore
22. Routinely forcing a partner to eat when they don’t want to.
Let’s wrap up!
Okay, so Christian is exhibiting some classic signs of a controlling and abusive partner here. Normally, you could cut a guy some slack due to his extremely difficult childhood, but he is literally beating her.
It’s fine to hit your partner if your partner genuinely wants to get hit, but Ana in the books is ambivalent at best about any kind of S&M or painplay. There is one extremely telling scene where she is terrified that he’s going to spank her again.
Now, as someone who’s into this sort of thing, I can say that one of the more fun parts of the whole process is the anticipation. For me, at least, it’s arousing and enjoyable to not be sure whether pleasure or pain is coming next.
That is not the same thing as fear, which is how Ana describes her feelings. She says she’s afraid of him hurting her again. That isn’t something a submissive says, it’s something an abuse victim says.
And compared to everything else he does: controlling her other relationships and her communications, stalking her, and even deciding what she can and can’t eat after she repeatedly tells him she isn’t comfortable turning that control over—it’s a clear pattern of control outside of the bounds of any kind of negotiated D/s. He is infiltrating every part of her life and abusing her emotionally and mentally… and then causing her physical pain that scares her and that she doesn’t enjoy sexually or emotionally.
That sounds like abuse to me.
Part Three: Problematic Treatment of Women and other minority groups, Feminist Fails
23. The perpetuation of the idea that a woman has no libido or sexual desire of her own until it is “awoken” by a desirable man
24. The man as aggressor and the woman as, essentially, prey
25. Refusal to utter the word “vagina,” instead referring to female genitalia as “down there,” despite the fact that male genitals are described frequently and in often-bizarrely-metaphorical detail
26. A female character who is just so skinny and naturally feminine that she forgets to eat all the time! That’s… that’s not what people do. If you regularly forget to eat, you might have an eating disorder. And you definitely need to get that looked into.
27. The good-girl cures bad-boy trope
28. Stating marriage, babies, heteronormative normalcy as the ultimate goal for a young woman and lots and lots of kinky sex with multiple partners as the ultiamte goal for a young man
29. Racial stereotyping of a young man of color (the only vaguely significant character of color) as a scary probable rapist who nice white girls must be protected from, despite the fact that his behavior (which I am totally not condoning) is much less sexually predatory than that of the white male love interest
30. Complete erasure of queer people of all types
31. Typing- that is, the idea that a man only likes women of one physical “type,” and thus that his only possible interest in these women is their physical appearance, not their personalities or anything else
32. Excusing the rape of a young boy by a woman. The one good thing the female main character does in the series is condemn the woman who raped her partner when he was 14 and question his continuing relationship with her. However, he completely laughs off her objections and the overall plot of the books somewhat normalizes his sexual abuse.
33. Presenting the only dominant female character as a rapist
34. Treating female sexual pleasure and orgasm as something bizarre
35. Treating female sexual pleasure and orgasm as something belonging exclusively to a male partner, to bestow or not as he chooses
36. Presenting a character who has never felt sexual attraction to anyone, ever, and has never masturbated, as obviously heterosexual and ignoring the asexual spectrum completely
37. Consistent devaluing of female friendships
38. Painting the normal state of relationships as a dominant man and a submissive woman
Let’s wrap up!
My biggest problem with this book is its overall treatment of minorities and serious issues. It is dismissive and gross toward female-on-male rape (the legal definition of sex between the fourteen-year-old Christian and adult Elena). Although Ana actually is horrified by it (good for her!) her partner dismisses her discomfort about it and continues a friendship with this woman afterwards.
There are a lot of nasty sexist tropes in the books, listed above.
There are no queer characters of any type, and the only character of color at all is a rapist because he is deemed an unworthy partner for the beautiful virtuous young white woman.
This is a really, really problematic book, even barring the way it treats kink and the horrifically abusive relationship between the main characters.
Part Four: Kink-Shaming
39. Treating a partner’s kinks as something unpleasant to be barely tolerated
40. Someone seeking out a partner they know will barely tolerate their kinks because of internalized kink-shaming
41. Creating the sense that a character’s kinks must stem from some “reason” and thus the idea that kinks cannot be natural
42. Associating kinks with extreme trauma from early childhood
43. Treating a kink as something very embarassing, to be kept secret under threat of legal action
Let’s wrap up!
It isn’t really Ana’s fault that she’s shocked by Christian’s kinkiness. After all, she’s completely unprepared for it. But the narrative attitude toward his kinks, and thus toward kinky people in general, is remarkably kink-shaming and sex-negative for something that’s explicitly a work of pornography.
The storyline sets up Christian’s kink as the direct result of early childhood abuse. Although kink can be influenced by trauma, and many people find it a helpful way to deal when with a consenting and enthusiastic partner, it’s hardly the only way anyone could end up a sadist.
Literally, Christian’s reason for wanting to engage in BDSM with a long string of dark-haired pretty young women is that they look like his neglectful and drug-addicted mother. The only other kinky characters who get much of a mention in the book are his ex-sub, who goes insane and chases them down with a gun, and Elena, who molested a young teenager.
This doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of individuals with an interest in BDSM. Admittedly, Ana has a normal background, but she also doesn’t have much of an interest in BDSM. She only does it to please Christian, at least at first.
Additionally, Christian’s intense shame about his kink, to the extent of making Ana keep it a secret under threat of legal action (a provision of the contract that he neglects to tell her isn’t legally binding!) adds another level of shame for the reader to associate with BDSM. Finally, the plot tends to favor Ana’s desire to marry and settle down into a vanilla, heteronormative marriage, setting BDSM as an abnormal sexual fetish which doesn’t belong in a committed and loving relationship. A large part of Christian’s discussions with his therapist revolve around trying to “cure” his kink (something his therapist rightly says he shouldn’t do), showing once again how kink is treated as abnormal in the narrative of the series.
Part Five: General Shittiness
44. The phrase “laters, baby,” which is just obnoxious. And the whole “inner goddess” thing, which deserves a special nod for its sheer terribleness
45. Generally terrible writing.
46. Lack of aftercare. The whole second book’s plot could have been avoided if Christian weren’t genuinely a terrible Dom.
47. This one part where a female character puts her hair in pigtails to make herself look like a child to protect herself from the sexual aggression of her partner. And then he totally gets that that’s why she’s doing it, and says something along the lines of “that won’t protect you.” I actually cannot.
48. Plagiarism. Since when is it totes okay to make money off someone else’s copyrighted idea?
49. Coopting fanfiction and fanworks, by and large a feminist, queer-positive practice, to make money off an unfeminist, queer-erasing work
50. People are entering into D/s relationship based off the precepts the learned in this book, which is dangerous and frightening.
Criticizing the writing has little to do with my point here, but I couldn’t resist.
Perhaps 46 would have fit in better somewhere else, but I shoved it in here. That’s right, for somebody who structures all his relationships around D/s, Christian sucks at being a Dom. Maybe it’s because he learned it all from his rapist, but he’s fairly clueless. Except for rubbing some lotion on Ana’s butt one time, he’s not very sensitive about aftercare. He leaves her alone after a scene when she’s clearly traumatized, and lets her run out without even mentioning that maybe he’s sorry or something after he beats her until she safewords. There’s also the issue of his ex-sub, who clearly is still deeply under his influence. If he’d ended the relationship in a normal way, maybe she wouldn’t be under such an extended case of subdrop related crazy.
47. It happens. I actually can’t. Like really.
I’m so in favor of fandom. I’ve been a writer of fanfiction for years and years, and was in fact in the Twilight fandom for a little while. I’ve written more D/s porn than most people have read total words in their lives. I’m even in favor of writers finding ways to make money off the fic they love so much. Selling drabbles or auctioning off prompt fills, even changing stories to be original work… I had a friend once who did it in another fandom and was published. But she changed the character’s personalities and replaced the plot entirely, just keeping some of the sexy bits that were so thoroughly celebrated. I saw a comparison that shows that something like 93% of the text of 50 Shades is word-for-word identical to the original fic, and that just rings of plagiarism… she even kept Edward and Bella’s physical appearances.
49 is probably a whole nother post, about the value of fandom, so I’ll just save it.
And I left the worst for last.
D/s is awesome. D/s is fun. Go for it if you really want to.
But don’t fucking use Fifty Shades as a guide.
Read the books if you must- obviously, I did. But read other things too. Talk to people who’ve been in the lifestyle for years. Talk to me, if you can’t find anyone more, like, knowledgeable. Use a safeword. Don’t do anything that you don’t, really, truly, deep-down want to do.
There’s nothing wrong with reading problematic porn- I’ve done it, definitely. But don’t base your lifestyle around it, and try seeking out some other things. I could recommend you some really, really good fic.
Thank you for writing this and thank you to Dailymurf for guiding me to it. I actually bought the book last week with the aim to do something similar. It’s hard to criticize something without actually having read it afterall, haha. The problem with 50 Shades that I’ve had so far in my abstract knowledge of it is that when people crit it, people use the “immoralistic” sex as a reason for it being a bad and harmful book. (Yes, a “feminist” on the radio actually said that. Immoral. Right.) What you wrote about the BDSM-shaming within the book itself was really fascinating. How can you put something forwards as a “sexy” book and then shame the sex at the same time? Mind-boggling.
And as for the erasure of non-het people and near erasure and demonising of people of colour… seeing as it’s based on Twilight (100% het, can’t call a poc character apart from Laurent, was he described that way in the book or am I just recalling the film here, but anyway he whooo was also a viscious murderer). Can’t wait to get started now.