Trigger Warning: This post discusses rape, sex and abuse.
The year is 2014.
I just finished reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E. L. James. I am marking this juncture as the moment I completed possibly one of the worst novels ever written. With the film release a few months away and the Internet still reeling from the trailer, I decided it was time to join the bandwagon and read “Fifty Shades.”
Sure, I’m about a year or two late to the scene, but I spent that time in the dark, blissfully ignorant of the amateur, seemingly-unedited and under-researched novel. Of course I heard about it on TV and watched as my mother bought the novel, but I had no idea of the extent of ridiculousness in this book.
“Fifty Shades” centers on virginal and (at times unbelievably) naïve Anastasia Steele and her relationship with BDSM-inclined billionaire Christian Grey. Christian invites Anastasia to be the Submissive to his Dominant in a totally illegal contractually regulated relationship.
Anastasia, desperate to be with Christian in any way possible (as opposed to the sole alternative of being #foreveralone with her cats) embarks on a novel-long conflict involving romance, sex, manipulation, riding crops, sex and abuse.
Disregarding the overuse of entry-level English major literary references and a fifth grade level writing style, “Fifty Shades” is chock full of tension between the lovers, which is amplified by Christian’s manipulation and abuse.
In BDSM activities, communication and trust are key to safe, consensual, and enjoyable sex, according to numerous online forums. James completely misrepresents BDSM through Christian’s behavior and instead exemplifies an abusive relationship characterized by distrust, emotional manipulation and sexual assault.
Christian introduces Anastasia to a contract detailing the Rules and Limits of their potential sexual ventures. The signing of the contract will ensure Anastasia’s consent and commitment to the role of Subordination.
Ok, consent is great! Consent is absolutely necessary! In fact, the SCC code, which stands for Safe, Sane, and Consensual is uniformly accepted and practiced by the BDSM community. Yay consensual sex!
When they reach the section of the contract dealing with the participants’ personal limits, the pair come to what Christian describes as a “situation.” Anastasia is a virgin – record scratch. This is the point when the novel really takes its turn to notoriously problematic.
To remedy the “situation,” Christian beds Anastasia in some good old vanilla (traditional) sex. He then expects Anastasia to suddenly understand all her own physical and sexual needs and limitations. How can Anastasia be “risk aware” when she has had one sexual experience in her life, and even admits to herself that she has never experienced a high amount of pain? How can she know her limits? (Imagine me shaking E. L. James)
Anastasia even acknowledges her fear of the unknown. Her subconscious – which over the course of the novel is more outspoken than the cartoon voice of reason on Lizzie McGuire – is apparently running screaming to hide behind a couch. That is not the subconscious of someone eager to consent.
Fast forward a few days and Anastasia is in her apartment with the contract still unsigned. After researching a little about BDSM, Anastasia decides to send a little joke e-mail to Christian telling him that it was “nice knowing” him. Christian, who gets offended by sarcasm, takes the joke seriously.
The novel should have ended here.
Christian should have respected what he believed were her wishes to never see him again. But no, instead we get full blown stalking followed by an extremely jarring and horrific rape scene.
Christian appears in Anastasia’s bedroom unbidden and unannounced. In the moments that follow, Anastasia literally looks around her room “plotting an escape route.” James could have also put up a giant flashing billboard in the middle of the page saying “SHE DOES NOT WANT HIM HERE,” but I guess that would have suggested that Christian was – gasp – undesirable.
Christian proceeds to “remind” Anastasia why it was “nice” knowing him. Anastasia, conflicted by her physical attraction to Christian and her desire to sort out her thoughts, moves in what is described as a “preemptive attack” and is suddenly forced onto her bed by Christian, who begins to kiss her. When Anastasia tells him “no” as he tries to take off her shoes, Christian tells her:
“If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you. Keep quiet. Katherine is probably outside listening right now.”
At this point in the novel my jaw hit the floor and I was frozen in place. To spare the details, Christian and Anastasia have sex, and upon Christian’s departure Anastasia cries. What happens in this scene is not romantic. It is not consensual. It is stalking. It is manipulation. It is rape.
As if portraying the male protagonist as a rapist isn’t concerning enough, Anastasia and James never acknowledge that scene as a rape.
By not addressing the issue and continuing to glorify Christian’s behavior for the remainder of the novel, James sends the totally incorrect message that Christian and Anastasia’s sexual encounter was acceptable.
Christian also isolates Anastasia from her friends and from her family. He requests that she sign a nondisclosure agreement, so she cannot talk to her friends about Christian’s behaviors if she wanted to. This is especially dangerous since she has no other romantic or sexual relationships to use as references. Anastasia must rely on Christian for answers or internalize her emotions.
In addition to his isolationist tendencies, Christian is a stalker.
He tracks Anastasia’s cell phone, he gets angry when she doesn’t inform him of practically every move she makes, and – wait for it – he even follows her across the continent to Georgia where she traveled specifically to visit her mother and escape him.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Anastasia explicitly tells Christian that she is going to use her visit with her mother to escape from him and think clearly about their relationship. So naturally he waits a few days and follows her.
The popularity of this novel would be great publicity for the BDSM community, except for the fact that James ties Christian’s flair for bondage with his abusive behavior and suggests that it is an affect of being raped as a teenager.
Anastasia is constantly trying to find out why Christian is “like that” – why he enjoys BDSM. It is inconceivable to her that he – or anyone – could enjoy BDSM just as a kink. She attempts to attribute his taste to his previous childhood traumas.
Here I pose a question to E. L. James: is BDSM supposed to be an enjoyable erotic experience in the book or is it just another step in a cycle of abuse?
I can’t decipher the answer.
The material in this book is offensive and misrepresentative, which is why I’m so shocked at its success. Online vendors such as Etsy have pages on pages of “Fifty Shades” merchandise ranging from magnets to handcuffs. All hailing Christian Grey as the perfect fictional character.
This erasure only adds to the already controversial issue of consent and non-consent currently playing out, especially across college campuses. The other day, Total Sorority Move posted an article discussing situations in which women enter into sexual conduct because it’s easier than saying no.
It discusses the grey (pun not intended) area in college-age relationships where women feel obligated to engage in sexual acts to avoid confrontation. The women aren’t saying no to their partners, but they aren’t fully willing to consent. Women have been conditioned to enter into sexual situations because it will please their partner, even if it will not please themselves.
In “Fifty Shades,” Christian tells Anastasia that she will submit to him because it will make her happy. He tells her it will make her feel pleased. He knows her for approximately two weeks and thinks he will understand how she will feel about being punished.
Christian insists that punishing Anastasia makes him feel good, but after the first time he spanks her, there is no indication that she enjoyed it on an emotional level. In fact, she feels humiliated and cries for the second time in the novel – the first time being after she was raped.
Many of the sexual activities Anastasia partakes in are to satisfy Christian’s wants. She wants him to love her in a romantic sense, and believes that by submitting to his desires, she can access his emotions. Anastasia is not actively exploring BDSM for her own benefit, it is solely to please Christian.
Anastasia plays into the mold that 21st century women are trying so hard to break out of.
She buries her own needs in order to please a man. While she does physically enjoy sex with Christian, she does not enjoy obeying Christian’s rules.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” is the poster child for female degradation.
After everything I’ve discussed above, with the abuse, rape and stalking, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a mega bestseller, selling 100 million copies worldwide. If the overwhelmingly problematic elements of the book are removed, I can understand the appeal.
I’d actually be pretty excited to see women unashamedly reading erotica on the metro. Through “Fifty Shades,” the entire genre of fan fiction and female erotica has skyrocketed to the general populace’s attention. Suddenly, teens aren’t alone in their hunger for media related to their favorite stories. Grown women are writing and reading fan fiction, sometimes erotic, sometimes not.
Even though almost every chapter of “Fifty Shades” had something disturbing, I have to acknowledge its significance in popular culture.
Women are taking control of the media they consume! (Throws confetti)
However, it is important to hold James accountable for her words. While I’m thrilled that we are taking control of our own sexuality, it should not be perpetuating the same constructs that have held us back for centuries.
Hanna Greenblott is a sophomore English language and literature major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.