The Troubling Message in Fifty Shades of Grey
The Twilight-inspired fan fiction-turned-series Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James has captured the imagination of millions, helping it make its way to the top of the New York Times best-seller list largely through the power of word-of-mouth.
As someone who believes the world could do with a more open-minded approach to people's consensual sexual interests, I initially thought the book was doing bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism (BDSM) a service by bringing it into the national dialogue through fantasy.
Cover of E. L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey.
Before I could make any such statement, of course, I had to read it. I wasn't far into the story when I realized that Fifty Shades of Grey not only sets people who live a BDSM lifestyle back decades in terms of being understood by society, but that it eroticizes dangerous practices as well, especially for those who are new to this aspect of sexuality and looking to incorporate it into their lives. I'll start with the first and more general problem this book presents for the BDSM community and work myself back to how this series might inspire more danger than eroticism and sexual transcendence.
One of the biggest problems I see with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it treats the interest in BDSM as the result of trauma, trauma that in this case was suffered by Christian Grey, the love interest of the protagonist, when he was a child. As the protagonist, Anastasia Steele, tells us:
He doesn't even love himself. I recall his self-loathing, her love being the only form he found acceptable. Punished -- whipped, beaten, whatever their relationship entailed -- he feels underserving of love. Why does he feel like that? How can he feel like that?
I am concerned that this introduction to the lifestyle will lead many to suppose that all people who practice BDSM are, in E.L. James' words, "fifty shades of fucked up." This is not the case. There is no single or even prevalent reason that people turn to BDSM. Further, the practice of BDSM does not necessarily constitute a disordered sexual behavior.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which listed sadomasochism in 1952 as a sociopathic personality disorder, has since reclassified it, making a distinction between people who practice it as a lifestyle and those whose "fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning" and find it the only way to achieve sexual gratification for a period of six months or more -- or, in seeking gratification through their practice, violate someone else's consent. This definition refers to the paraphilic aspect of sadomasochism. Most people practicing BDSM do not fall into this classification.
Christian Grey for the most part is depicted as caring and gentlemanly -- opening doors, pulling chairs, rising when a woman enters the room, worrying that his sweet Anastasia will not be safe in her old car, dashing to her home immediately after Anastasia sends him a rather oblique e-mail about how he always leaves her after they're together, and so on. Indeed, James does a fine job of crafting the narrative to convince readers that Christian cannot do without a submissive's consent and that in exchange for her subjugation, he will give his submissive everything she needs and also protect her from the world, which again and again he points out as dangerous.
However, in truth, the world -- with all its old cars and commercial airlines -- is nowhere nearly as dangerous as Christian is himself, not because he practices BDSM but because he's a terrible dominant. This is where Fifty Shades of Grey started to make me nervous -- those with no other experience of the lifestyle have nothing to guide them in their journey into BDSM but the eroticization of reckless practices.
For starters, it's one thing to lead someone who has never experienced BDSM into new experiences but it's really quite another to so eagerly select a virgin with no sexual experience whatsoever. Can a person with no experience in the sexual realm from which to draw from convincingly consent? The scene where Christian tries to convince Anastasia that her being wet means she wants to be abused makes me physically ill. James should have done her homework: the body will do whatever it can to minimize injury during assault, and often, this means lubrication. Such physical response should never be decontextualized and held up as proof that someone is asking for something that they're clearly unsure about.