50 Shades of Grey has captured the imagination of Western women (or so we’re told) and opened up the world of BDSM to bedrooms all across Britain and America. But the ideals of love, romance and sex that EL James is promoting are highly troublesome. And not because it’s BDSM, but because she trashes the name of BDSM and encourages a dangerous sexual discourse, where safety words are ignored and one partner is scared rather than aroused during sexual interplay.
For those who have not read the book, let me briefly summarise the first book, which I will be focusing on. Virgin Ana meets Christian Grey, multi-millionaire and self-proclaimed sadist. They soon engage in a sexual affair, which quickly turns from vanilla to kinky BDSM. Ana feels uncomfortable about this but spurred on by several miraculous orgasms agrees to become Christian’s sub. Soon this relationship sours as Ana realises that she cannot be the sub Christian wants her to be, as several aspects of the BDSM lifestyle scare her, and she leaves him.
Let me stress here that my issue is not with BDSM. BDSM can be very fulfilling and perfectly healthy between two (or more) consenting partners. What EL James describes is not BDSM. It is abuse.
Any sexual relationship is built upon the consent. Consent must come first, before whips, before domination, or before vanilla sex. Without consent, what is being described is rape. Christian creates a contract with Ana that sets out their sexual relationship, to which she consents, but soon after he breaks the contract, treating it as unimportant, saying, “screw the contract!” He also makes Ana feel so scared that she can’t safe word in their final sexual exchange, which causes her to cry and run away from him, hiding in her room, and leaving him soon after. Despite this, in the second book, Christian asserts that “lovers don’t need safe words” – completely missing the mark: everyone needs a safe word, or a method of some kind to withdraw consent, to prevent rape and sexual trauma.
In one instance, she sends Christian an email saying that she doesn’t want to see him again, and in response to this he turns up (he stalks her, and therefore always knows where she is – and apparently this is romantic). He then says that he’s going to tie her up and have sex with her. If this doesn’t show little regard for consent, I don’t know what does!
A lot of the issues with Christian and Ana’s sexual relationship is that Christian pushes Ana too far, too soon, giving her little room to stand up for herself. Before Ana met Christian, she was a virgin, with absolutely no sexual experience, or even interest in masturbating. Yet soon after meeting her, he pushes her into having sex with him, and soon after losing her virginity, he turns her over and has sex with her for a second time, showing little regard for the fact that she’s sore – she can barely walk the next day! After losing her virginity, he pushes her into a BDSM relationship, showing little regard for the fact that she knows little about the lifestyle or kinks. The only knowledge she gains is through Google – one night’s research. He doesn’t try to explain fully the lifestyle, and she is still ignorant to many things even into the second book; this is shown in the scene where she re-enters the Red Room of Pain and looks through his collection of whips and toys, not knowing what they are, uncertain even what nipple clamps or butt plugs are for. Christian coerces her into the kind of sexual relationship he wants, giving Ana little time, opportunity or space to figure out what she wants. She is never allowed to learn about sex, whether vanilla or kinky, and Christian has little regard for her needs. She doesn’t want a BDSM relationship; she wants Christian and so tolerates what he wants. Some of the sexual encounters are consensual (barely) but essentially unwanted, and this is a very troubling message to put out to readers to be the epitome of romance and heightened sexuality.