Grey Areas: “50 Shades” Includes Abuse, But Not the Kind You Think

by Kinkly
Published: FEBRUARY 25, 2015
"50 Shades of Grey" isn't about an abusive sexual relationship. In fact, the sex is probably the only sane part of the book.
People can be incurious; it's easier to assume something is true than it is to ask about it. This is what got us into 50 shades of a mess. The faintly ridiculous "housewife porn" is now a household phenomenon. It's an unlikely bestseller that began as a bit of a joke to the public until suddenly things got serious. The franchise now has its own sex toy range, a brand-new, box-office topping movie, and has earned its author, E.L. James, an estimated $6.5 million.

Now, many people detest the series and some even want it banned. Why? Maybe they've heard the book's about an abusive relationship ... or something ... or that there's stalking involved, or so they've heard ... The problem is that for the most part, people skim-listen and then they make assumptions. So what's all the fuss about? Well, let's take a look.

A Quick Overview of BDSM

A big part of the book - and its popularity - hinges on its portrayal of BDSM. So, let's take a look at what that actually means.
  • It stands for bondage/discipline, domination/submission, and sadism/masochism.
  • It does not have to be taken to extremes.
  • It forms a part of many healthy sex lives.
  • The major rule is SSC. This stands for Safe, Sane, and Consensual.
  • Safe: examples of safe actions include no rope around necks, placing scissors nearby in case restraints need quick removal, and using condoms.
  • Sane: no drugs/minimal alcohol. In short, no ingesting substances that could alter someone's ability to make a rational decision.
  • Consensual: permission must be explicitly given. If a safeword is used, stop immediately.
  • A safeword is a word you use (e.g. “red”, “Gemini”,”Alfred Lord Tennyson”) to indicate you wish to stop. It is used to withdraw consent.
  • A scene is an encounter involving aspects of BDSM.
  • Vanilla is used to describe a person or sexual encounter that is not BDSM-related.

So, What's All the Fuss About?

The main argument against the "50 Shades" trilogy is that it portrays an abusive relationship under the guise of calling it BDSM. I expected to be horrified when I began reading. I was surprised to find that the sexual encounters were not, in my opinion, the abusive part. I think the two issues need to be separated.

The sex scenes in the book themselves are, for the most part, perfectly acceptable in BDSM. Unfortunately, they're often taken and quoted out of context. For example, the line “If you struggle, I'll tie your feet too. If you make a noise, I will gag you,” is often quoted as "proof" of abuse. Yet, this is a perfectly normal part of many consensual BDSM scenes that have been negotiated in advance. The problem isn't the action. It is the context.

That said, Anastasia, the main character in the book, begins the story as a very sexually inexperienced young woman. Bringing a virgin (in every sense of the word) into the BDSM lifestyle takes time, communication and understanding - not to mention a genuine interest from the less experienced person. The events in "50 Shades" unfold over a mere four weeks or so. In my opinion, that isn't much time. Plus, the communication between Anastasia and her much older lover, Christian, is almost always stopped by sex. This doesn't show understanding or patience. Even so, there are times when Christian seems to be looking out for Ana.

A good example of this can be found in the series. People often bring up Christian's anger that Ana forgets to safeword. Again, context! Remember, Ana is inexperienced. It would probably not immediately occur to her to use her safeword if she is in real distress. It is only mentioned once in conversation before that scene. As the more experienced person, it is Christian's responsibility to check that Ana is OK; he could even ask her if she remembers the safeword. He does check during their next scene, which leads me to believe that this was not, in my opinion, an issue of abuse. It may, however, have been an issue of carelessness in the context of BDSM.

50 Shades of Fantasy

Of course, we can split hairs about every scene in the book, but it won't help clarify the issues. That's because "50 Shades of Grey" is a book of sexual fantasy. In your fantasies, does your partner accidentally mis-aim and pour burning candle wax over your sensitive bits? No! Does she hit you too hard with a riding crop? No! Your fantasy partners are perfect. So, Ana is instantly able to deepthroat Christian to orgasm. Of course! He is able to make her orgasm on command. Of course! Her virginity loss leaves “a passing pleasant soreness” rather than a sensation of being plunged as vigorously as a blocked toilet! Finally, of course, Christian instinctively knows when Ana really wants sex despite what she verbally tells him. Clearly, this isn't how things typically unfold in real life. And why should they? "50 Shades" is just a book of fiction, one woman's fantasy. Remember, this series started out as Twilight fan fiction. That's part of what makes this book so popular.

So, Where's the Abuse?

The most serious claims against "50 Shades of Grey" involve allegations that the relationship between the two main characters is an abusive one. So, is there really abuse here? Take away the sex for a moment. Take away the spanking, the bondage, and the “Red Room of Pain.” Separate the “too much, too soon” BDSM storyline from the rest of the story and now look for the abuse. Here it is:

The abuse is Jose Rodriguez, Anastasia's friend and other potential love interest in the story. He's the one who tries to force himself on Ana despite her protests. In Jose's (we assume) vanilla world, there should be no need for a safeword because “no” means “no.” Yet Ana just forgives his rapey behavior and moves on. Really, E. L. James?

When it comes to the relationship between Ana and Christian, I'm more concerned with what happens away from the bedroom, or "playroom." Christian tracks Ana's phone, stalks her at work, lavishes gifts on her that she doesn't want, and is angry when she protests. She asks for space and yet he turns up wherever she goes to try to escape him. To me, this behavior is far more disturbing than any of the bondage, spankings and dirty talk that happen in the book. These seemingly more benign events are the moments in which consent is ignored. These encounters may not be physical or sexual, but that doesn't make them any less serious in terms of abuse.

Of course, most sane people (whether BDSM fans or vanilla) understand that none of this is normal. In fact, due to the painfully repetitive writing, Ana refers to Christian as a stalker and a control freak multiple times. Again, it was Twilight fan fiction. Twilight: the series during which a man creeps into a girl's bedroom and watches her sleep for hours on end. The same books in which a werewolf falls in love with a baby. If readers can't be convinced of the idiocy and creepiness there, what hope do we have against a gazillionaire with a helicopter who hasn't been dead for several decades?

Don't Forget the Dose of Realism

One thing I was pleasantly surprised at in "50 Shades" is the regular condom and contraception references, the discussion of full medical check-ups, and the mention that there are scissors on hand in case of emergency. I expected Christian to ignore Ana's screamed safewords, slam things inside of her without permission or lubrication, and follow her obsessively. Of all those things, only the last was true.

What Is 50 Shades Really About?

People often assume that BDSM is abusive by nature and look for evidence of this in the sex scenes. In my opinion, the "50 Shades" trilogy isn't an abusive relationship disguised as BDSM. It is a story in which almost every element is abusive - every element, that is, except the sexual violence. (Read more in 50 Shades of Abuse?)

I'm not in favor of banning the trilogy. There's no faster way to make something more popular than to forbid it. I am in favor of trust. Just as in the BDSM scene, one must place trust in their partner(s). I place my trust in the readers. This is a ridiculous, terribly written tale about a far-fetched sexual fantasy. I'd like to trust that most people fully understand that, and aren't looking for a creepy stalker millionaire for a boyfriend.

After all, the books have been out since 2009 and although some stores ordered extra rope, tape, and cable ties in anticipation of the film's release, there haven't been any stories about hospitals swamped with 50-Shades-inspired domestic abuse cases and injuries, despite topping the international box office. Perhaps we can be trusted to distinguish fact from fiction after all.

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