Every now and then I get cc:d into a discussion with a Twitter account called @50shadesabuse, a campaign to “raise awareness that the 50 Shades of Grey series romanticises domestic abuse.” I wouldn’t write about it if it weren’t for the fact that they’re now planning to picket the film premiere, and I keep getting asked what I think. So here goes…
I’ve read book 1 of the 50 Shades trilogy. At the time my conclusion was: meh – it’s kinda hot in some places, but it’s not really for me. As a general rule, if there isn’t a sweaty, desperate fuck in which someone gets bent over and shagged up against a workbench in a garage, then it’s probably not something I can crack one off to.
Here’s the thing, though: it’s porn. It’s a book written for the very specific purposes of entertainment and tittilation, and so for whatever my feedback is worth, I think it’s done a pretty good job, as evidenced by all the people who have been tittilated and entertained by it.
Is Christian Grey an abusive fuckwad?
Yes. I mean, really obviously yes. He ignores Ana’s wishes, rides roughshod over her ‘no’s, and generally acts as if he is some kind of sexual deity, with controlling power over this fragile minion because she’s too weak to resist his dubious demands. He’s an arsehole. I probably would have found it easier to knock one out over the book if he’d focused on being smouldering, and kept his mouth shut for five minutes about his gold-plated helicopter and what Ana has for breakfast.
Is 50 Shades of Grey THE WORST?
I don’t think so. While books certainly can be abusive in certain contexts – a fictional story about two people engaged in a relationship, designed purely to tittilate an audience, is going to struggle to be anything more than that.
The issue I have with the frequent pronouncements about how the relationship in 50 Shades of Grey is abusive is less about whether they’re right (I think they are, and I’ve only read the first – apparently Christian gets even more restraining-order-worthy in the others) and more about the way this argument is presented: I often find it deeply patronising.
Sure, if you met Christian Grey in real life, you’d have a lot to worry about. He’s a stalker, he refuses to respect a ‘no’, he has a weird sex contract that is less horny than a kick in the crotch: he’s awful.
But much of the discussion around the nature of the relationship between Christian and Ana (NOT ALL OF IT OBVIOUSLY) seems to make the weird assumption that women aren’t capable of discerning the difference between fantasy and reality. Perhaps ‘women’ here is the wrong term. I think the way I’ve seen the argument presented a lot of the time is that there is a sub-category of women – other women – who might be damaged by 50 Shades. So, while I agree that Christian Grey is a colossal arsehole, I can’t help but ask who exactly are these other women? And why are they so much less perceptive than you, the one who is saving them?
Should we use 50 Shades of Grey as a model for relationships?
No. But then nor should we use Jane Eyre as a model for relationships, or Wuthering Heights, or a whole bunch of other fictional stuff. As Andrew Ellard pointed out on Twitter, there are plenty of other fictional stories with less-than-ideal characters.
I get that 50 Shades is unrepresentative, problematic. But so’s James Bond. Doesn’t this say “You women are not entitled to your fantasies”?
— Andrew Ellard (@ellardent) February 5, 2015
Sure, feel free to tell people that the relationship is an abusive one. Feel free to use it as a learning experience if you like, or as a means to teach people the difference between fictional BDSM and real-life BDSM (as long as you remember that ‘real-life’ BDSM comes in more flavours than a food fight at a Baskin Robbins parlour – check out this ace thread by Jillian Keenan for more on this).
But while fictional relationships might be a great way to learn and teach people about new stuff, it’s worth remembering that fans of the book are in all likelihood adults who are capable of telling the difference between fact and fiction. The problem I have isn’t with the assertion that the relationship is abusive, but the implication that those who enjoy the books are wrong and bad and awful. That their fantasies are illegitimate, and they’re doing a kind of terrible, twisted, desperate harm to themselves as they turn each page, the poor poor things.
Do we do this with men? I mean, sure, we repeatedly point out that real life sex isn’t always like the sex people see in porn and on TV, and that’s an important message to get across. But do we tell submissive guys that they shouldn’t fancy Supernanny, because any real-life girlfriend who made them sit on a ‘naughty step’ would likely be a bad choice of life partner? Do we tell them not to set up shop as a plumber and have vigorous sex with their clients in the genuine and heartfelt belief that they don’t realise porn is fiction?
Is 50 Shades of Grey worse than other erotic fiction?
Hell no: it’s just a fuck of a lot more popular.
I hate to say it, but there are plenty of erotic fiction books that include stories of unusual relationships and – yes – sometimes abusive ones. They’re fictional, they can do that. They can sexualise the dark, the taboo, the things you absolutely would never want to happen in real life. And they can mix it with the stuff that you might want to happen in real life. Fantasy and pornography is often a way of exploring those things that happen in your head in a way that is consensual, safe, and arousing.
I don’t think it’s a massive stretch to claim that 50 Shades readers understand this. 50 Shades readers are not a homogenous group with a blind spot about their own fantasies. Do we tell the woman who fantasises about being rescued from a burning building by a burly fireman that in reality that would be an abuse of his power and most likely a traumatic encounter as he takes advantage of someone in shock? Do we tell the person who roleplays naughty student/sexy teacher than in real life that would be fucked up? No – we assume that they know these things, because they’re grown adults. So what makes 50 Shades of Grey readers different?
Should we criticise 50 Shades of Grey?
Of course. It’s a book, and thoughtful critique is always useful.
I take massive and significant issue with mainstream media that writes about 50 Shades as if it’s the template for a happy sex life. Similarly, I’m not keen on commenters who explain that to do BDSM right you have to throw away the 50 Shades rule book and replace it with a rule book that they’ve written instead. How about you let people write their own rule books? Sure, give advice on safe play, but don’t dictate what other people’s boundaries should be. That’s a bit… well… a bit Christian Grey right?
But here’s the thing: I think these faults are mainly ones of interpretation and presentation. I don’t think they’re faults of the book itself. I don’t think the book presents Christian and Ana as a model for how to do relationships: it’s a work of erotic fiction. Ask any erotic fiction writer if they believe everyone should conduct their relationships the way their characters do, and I suspect he or she will laugh heartily at that nightmare scenario. If all imaginary characters were aspirational ideals for the perfect relationship, then erotic fiction would be terribly dull.
So sure, use it as a teaching point, as there may well be some useful things about relationship dynamics that you can highlight. But assuming that everyone who reads this work of erotic fiction needs you to hold their hand and tell them it’s not real? Taking one of the biggest breakthrough successes in female fantasy of the last ten years and telling all the women who’ve enjoyed it that they’re romanticising abuse?That makes me a bit uncomfortable.
I won’t come and stage a counter protest. I just won’t be standing beside you.