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fifty shades of romanticised abuse

I was recently asked to speak in a podcast about the book Fifty Shades of Grey and, more generally, porn for women. The specific podcast can be found here:

The main things to keep in mind about the book and the brouhaha surrounding it:

1. Take the sexual activity and ‘BDSM contracts’ out of the equation and Christian Grey is a controlling boyfriend showing signs of being abusive.

Here are some warning signs of abuse shown in the books:

• Do you feel nervous around your partner? (Ana constantly reports feeling nervous around Christian. She is often scared of how he will react to her)
• Do you have to be careful to control your behaviour to avoid your partner’s anger? (See above)
• Do you feel pressured by your partner when it comes to sex? (‘Sign the BDSM contract or we can’t be together. Oh, and we’re keeping anal in there!’)
• Are you scared of disagreeing with your partner? (Twitching palms?)
• Is your partner always checking up on you or questioning you about what you do without your partner? (Christian stalks Ana via the GPS on her phone and make international flights back from business trips if she ‘disobeys’ him about not going out with her best friend.)
• Does your partner repeatedly and wrongly accuse you of seeing or flirting with other people? (Jose, Paul, Ethan, Jack)
• Does your partner tell you that if you changed, he or she wouldn’t treat you like this? (Christian often blames Ana’s ‘stubborn’ behaviour for his ‘twitching palms’)
• Has your partner ever scared you with violence or threatening behaviour? (‘I like to beat little girls’??????? Ana, at that point you RUN!)
• Does your partner say, ‘I will kill myself if you break up with me’ or ‘I will hurt/kill you if you break up with me’? (Christian’s constant harping on about how broken he was when she left him – he throws that around in a manipulative and threatening manner often enough.)
• Does your partner make excuses for the abusive behaviour? For example saying, ‘It’s because of alcohol or drugs,’ or ‘I can’t control my temper,’ or ‘I was just joking’? (Christian Grey’s childhood is often his excuse for his behaviour)

(For more information, check out the Stanford University webpage about Controlling and abusive relationships here.)

2. The sex depicted in the book is fantastical!

Ana might be able to orgasm ON COMMAND, but the practical realities of sex for a large proportion of the female population are a little different.

If you don’t have mind blowing orgasms from having your nipples tweaked, from vaginal penetration only, without clitoral stimulation, from having a man wiggle his finger around in your vagina… THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU! YOU ARE NORMAL! A large number of women have never experienced an orgasm from vaginal penetration alone. For most women, clitoral stimulation is the most effective method of reaching orgasm, and even that can be difficult.

3. This book hopefully shows the media and the sex industry that female sexual desire is a real thing. There is a market for porn, erotica, and sex toys for women. We are big consumers and it is time for that fact to receive mainstream recognition. Hopefully this book starts a conversation about real women wanting real sex, regularly and of a satisfying quality.

This article first appeared on Sara’s blog

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16 thoughts on “fifty shades of romanticised abuse

    • Thanks Jennifer. Good point. I think also men might feel a little hard done by, having Christian Grey – multibazillionaire, perfectly chisled, sex machine – to live up to ‘romantically’.

      It’s ok guys, he’s a psychopath. Please do not emulate.

  1. Unpopular opinion, perhaps, but I feel like this book borrows quite heavily from its source material in the ‘abusive relationship’ aspect.

    Being, as it is, Twilight fanfiction – just heavily sexualised and poorly written/disguised Twilight fanfiction – the relationship itself is more obviously abusive, but the same signs are there in the Edward/Bella relationship in the original novel. First teenage girls were taught that it’s okay for a cute guy to watch you while you’re sleeping (!!) and push you around, and now adult women are being taught that as long as the sex is enjoyable, your partner can control your behaviour/terrify you, but as long as you looooooove them the relationship is the best!!1!

    It’s terrifying to think that there’s a substantial percentage of the population (possibly of both genders!) who now have this disturbingly skewed perspective of what is and isn’t acceptable within a romantic/sexual relationship.

    TL:DR; both Fifty Shades and Twilight are really terrible books not just in terms of writing skill but also content why do they sell so much WHY WHY

    • I agree Laura. I had these moments when reading Fifty Shades when I imagined a woman who has a controlling boyfriend reading the book and thinking, oh it’s romantic and I can change him just like Ana. Broke my heart. Don’t even get me started on Twilight… *Shakes fist at Twilight*

  2. And speaking as a sexually Dominant non-abusive man we have to hide and feel ashamed of our sexuality again. Abuse is not the same as dominance and people using BDSM as a cover for abuse is a big enough problem in scene.

  3. Absolutely Andrew. And I think that is an important point. BDSM really doesn’t get represented accurately, if at all in the books. However, it sets up a premise where Christian has the space to be abusive. I think that is unfair and untrue.

  4. Laura: OMG if we could answer the question as to WHY this poorly written series is so popular, we could all be independently wealthy! As an author, I’m extremely frustrated that such amateur writing is making soooo much money. As an editor, it’s disappointing to see how little people care about the finished product. I couldn’t even finish the darn book. On the first page, I was whipping out my red pen.

    From a story standpoint, many of the elements are contrived. The opening of the story is a case in point: If the interview where Ana and Christian meet was soooo important for her roommate Kate–taking 9 months to secure and would take 6 months to reschedule–and there was so much riding on her final grade and graduation, why would she have sent Ana? Since they’re best friends and roommates, wouldn’t Kate know Ana and her shortcomings well enough to send someone more reliable? Ana admits that not only is she unqualified to conduct the interview and is no where near the sharp, intelligent and totally-together-and-successful Kate, Kate did nothing to prepare Ana for the all-important event of her career. It has me seriously question how sharp Kate really is. Why would Kate do this?

    However, none of the above has anything to do with the characters, but instead illustrates the level of skill at which the author writes. Kate allows her unqualified roommate to do such an important task because the author is trying to force Ana into this meeting with Christian, otherwise they never would have met. It’s her excuse to put simple and withdrawn Ana in a position to meet the rich and powerful Christian. By the way…what’s with all the blondes???

    This is ANOTHER example of how authors will make their characters do things that are contrary to logic, human nature and reason…just so they can make the story go in the direction they want it to go.

    I could go on, but I won’t.

    Sara: Holy bananas, woman, you nailed a very disturbing topic smack on the head! Contrived as the story is, the fact that so many women out there see this abusive relationship as dreamy and romantic is extremely disconcerting to say the least. So many women see this controlling man as hunky and swoon! Why? Either they’re willing to do anything to get a rich guy or they misunderstand his actions as true love and desire. This is because they come from a place of massive insecurity.

    An insecure woman will see a man’s jealousy and stalker-like attitude as obsessive feelings for the woman. It makes her feel good. “He desires me so much, he’s obsessed with me.” What they don’t realize is his “affection” has nothing to do with how much he wants her and everything to do with how he gets off on controlling her. Which is a BIG red flag for a man with his own insecurities. He doesn’t feel important or respected enough on his own merit and has to dominate someone to fulfill that need.

    A woman who is secure with herself, who feels good about who she is and knows what she wants will see such attempts for what they are: control. “Who the hell are you to tell me who to see, how to behave or where I should spend my time. Get lost, creep!”

    Since I haven’t read the rest of the book or the series, I’m not sure how redeemable it can be…but wouldn’t it be nice if E.L. James wrote a final installment where Ana learns to respect herself enough to see Christian as the controlling monster he is, and her desire goes away because it originated from insecurity now lost? Fifty Shades of Divorce. Perhaps there is still hope.

    That’s my two pence…
    Arial 😉

    • Arial, thank you for you two pence. You raise a really interesting point about insecure vs secure about men. I know personally, some of my earlier dating choices were made out of insecurity. I’m sure a lot of people would say the same thing. However, we grow out of those insecurities and the relationship as a result. The problem with the Christian Grey relationship model is that his ‘romantic’ abuse and need for control locks Ana into the relationship. His reaction to the idea of her ever leaving has a kind of threatening self-harm tone to it and he (spoiler alert) marries her, locking her in legally. When she eventually grows out of her insecurities (if she has space to, under his watchful eye) it will be hard for her to leave.

    • Arial, thank you for you two pence. You raise a really interesting point about being insecure vs secure about men. I know personally, some of my earlier dating choices were made out of insecurity. I’m sure a lot of people would say the same thing. However, we grow out of those insecurities and the relationship as a result. The problem with the Christian Grey relationship model is that his ‘romantic’ abuse and need for control locks Ana into the relationship. His reaction to the idea of her ever leaving has a kind of threatening self-harm tone to it and he (spoiler alert) marries her, locking her in legally. When she eventually grows out of her insecurities (if she has space to, under his watchful eye) it will be hard for her to leave.

  5. The biggest issue I see stemming from this is the world as a whole going back to old colonial times. Women with no rights and no say in anything. Do we really want this as a society?

    • *Looks at the sales figures*
      Clearly women do.
      Which is a shame as I’d rather be the icing on the cake of someone’s life than their entire life.

  6. Well of course he’ll just seem like an ass if you take out the BDSM aspects.

    BDSM relationships involve an understanding between those participating, and for someone unfamiliar with the situation it might seem odd or cruel.

    Thank you Sherlock.

    • As someone familiar with the situation it does seem wrong and cruel. There shouldn’t ever be genuine fear, breaches of trust or an inability to say no (well use a safeword and or walk away).

    • Thank you, Bob Ross. I wonder if you have read the book. Despite BDSM being referred to a lot by the characters, the sexual activity they engage in is predominately quite vanilla – with the occasional light spanking or use of restraints. That is why I talk about taking the BDSM contract and sex out of it. I think it gives an inaccurate picture of BDSM, whilst romanticising controlling and abuse. Check out the books and let me know what you think.

  7. And, in further news, air has oxygen in it. A woman wrote this, and women are reading it. Why? The only answer I can give is that they have no idea that exists, have never read The Story of O, have never read any good BSDM erotica, never took Women’s Studies in college, and make crappy choices in choosing romantic partners, and think their abusive partners love them or they wouldn’t show so much emotion in dealing with them.

  8. BDSM is protrayed so very very wrongly in this that is makes me see that CSI did it ‘right’ when they went to visit “Lady Heather” in some of their episodes. Why do I say that? Because bondage is NOT ABOUT SEX. Yes sex can be involved in it, but most of the time it is about being controlled/or being in control. Something both Alpha and Beta personalities have. Beta men/women have fantasies of taking control of people, and BDSM in a HEALTHY way allows that, just as Alpha personalities will often like being controlled because they are always in control. It is almost a relief to not be in control.
    E.L. James seems to think bondage is about sex, and with very poor knowledge about this that seems to stem from either pornography, smutty fan fiction, or just light research into this. ((Yes, I’ve looked at BDSM, we all got out fetishes.)) This woman knows next to nothing about ‘safe words’ or reasons why a person would be drawn to BDSM. She seems to think that it is ‘just a kink’ in the brain that ‘can be fixed’ no. Once a fetish it is almost always a fetish. ((Unless something bad happens.)) Here is a quote from Wikipedia that the author likely never even seen.

    “BDSM is a preference and sometimes form of personal relationship centering around activities that are erotic but may not be sexual, and which may include the consensual use of restraint, intense sensory stimulation, and fantasy power role play. ”

    For a relationship to work around BDSM, one must have mutual trust in the most crucial part of the relationship. “Without trust there is no love.” so to speak, if you do not trust your partner to stop when you want them to stop, what is to say they won’t just outright tie you to a chair, blindfold you and torture you? Sure you may be kinked up that way, but if you don’t want it to continue then you should trust your mate to STOP when you want it to stop. Otherwise you can not trust them, and anything they do to you when you don’t trust them is outright rape.

    With all the ‘no I don’t want to do this right now’ “YES YOU ARE, going to do this, you are MINE to do with as I please” this just speaks of a utterly abusive relationship were the woman is too afraid of loosing Money/hawt guy/partner that she can not leave him. Do you really think that if… the guy.. Christian? Was not rich and was just a poor guy that Ana would love him? Or if Chris was not ‘Adonis in the flesh’ she would stay with him? Nope. These writers think they are ‘cleaver’ in writing about OMG hawt guy wants to pork me! Books which is just so untrue for the people that read this book. ((unless it is a man/woman reading these things and realizing they can have their fantasy realization of utter control and just get one of these obsessed fangirls.))

    I am not a fan of this book, but I think the Author E.L. James needs some sex therapy. Because obviously she doesn’t know ANYTHING about it.

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