Throughout human history, sexual fetishism has been practiced on a scale that ranges from entire civilizations to single individuals. Some find themselves used as punch lines to oft-told jokes, while others are too taboo to be mentioned in polite company – whatever their nature, there is no doubt that sexual fetishism remains prevalent in the private lives of people around the world. In E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, an intense and extensive bondage, domination, and sadomasochism (BDSM) fetish is featured as an integral aspect of the love lives of Christian Grey and Anastasia (Ana) Steele. The immense popularity of the books and blockbuster box-office adaptation have catapulted this lifestyle into the public eye, bringing with it a strong debate – does the series empower women or merely glorify an abusive relationship?
Fifty Shades of Grey’s controversial content relies heavily on the continuous portrayal of a BDSM and potentially abusive relationship throughout the novel; however, by definition, the actions contained within the pages of this book are not abusive. Michelle Dempsey clearly defines an abusive relationship as one that features one member having total power over the other member, and she continues by defining power as “the ability to exercise control over another person” (Dempsey, 16). In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian is never given absolute control over Ana, as she is a willing participant in Christian’s sexual endeavors. Ana has maintained the ability to control the activities featured in the novel, which, by Dempsey’s definition, disproves any notion of the relationship containing domestic violence. Another crucial aspect of Ana and Christian’s relationship is the contract in which several sexual activities are listed. Throughout the book, Ana and Christian constantly debate which activities Ana would be comfortable performing, even going as far as to set up a mock business meeting to discuss the contract (E. L. James). Before many of the couple’s sexual encounters occur, Ana takes the contract as an opportunity to explicitly decide what will happen in the bedroom. Ana’s negotiations over the clauses of the contract provide further proof that the control Christian exercises over Ana during sex is only an act, in an effort to successfully satisfy Christian’s BDSM fetish. Ana’s ability to make decisions, and Christian’s adherence to these decisions ensure that the relationship is, in fact, not abusive.
Additionally, as found in many BDSM relationships, the sexual actions practiced in the novel lead to the sexual empowerment of Ana. Ana’s power within the relationship is often overlooked, but in actuality, she possesses more power than Christian on several occasions. This idea is also supported in Michelle Dempsey’s journal, as she mentions that, “power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group”, and, “when we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’, we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people” (Dempsey, 16). Based on this concept, Ana is more in power of what occurs in the relationship than Christian. Seeing as Christian adheres to the contract and does not ever attempt to force Ana into activities, Ana maintains the final say in what sexual occurrences happen in the relationship. Christian’s power is only bestowed upon him in a sexual context. Only by Ana agreeing to act as a submissive is Christian allowed to enact his fantasy of dominance. While many critics of the series are quick to regard the novel as featuring violence against a woman, a closer look can reveal that the BDSM portrayed in this novel actually empowers Ana and does not feature her being abused sexually. Many feel that Fifty Shades of Grey may impact young women in negative ways by promoting potentially harmful practices, but with both aspects of abuse in the book being disproven, it is difficult to state that the story promotes domestic violence and the degradation women.
Furthermore, when evaluating the extent to which Fifty Shades of Grey may promote the empowerment of women, it is crucial to consider the societal context in which the franchise has become so popular. In a society where women are often sexually objectified and oppressed, a story about a woman who controls and creates her own sexual identity holds a powerful message of individualism. The book series and the movie are marketed primarily to women, and a large population of this audience seems to be drawn to a strong female protagonist. The franchise has almost a cult following in this respect. In Fifty Shades of Grey, Ana is portrayed as an intelligent woman exploring her sexuality; she begins the series as a virgin, and willfully becomes involved in a consensual yet unconventional romance. Although her love interest is always a domineering presence during sex, it is important to note that Ana has consented to everything that is done.
A knowing and consensual sexual relationship, regardless of how unorthodox, is difficult to classify as abusive; in Fifty Shades of Grey, this is the case between Ana and Christian. One trademark of a sexual abuser, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline website, is the following: “Forcing or manipulating [the victim] into having sex or performing sexual acts.” (“Abuse Defined”) Keeping this definition in mind, examining the character’s interactions provides a valuable insight into the level of control Ana actually possesses. Christian is careful not to cross or blur the line; the entire purpose of the aforementioned contract is to resolve Christian of responsibility for any behavior that could have possibly been deemed abusive by his sexual partner. When Ana agrees to sign such a contract, she not only is accepting Christian’s terms and negotiating her own, she is also acknowledging that the following sexual acts are not being forced upon her.
The power that Ana is able to wield in her relationship contributes to a plotline that appeals to women, as men conventionally are portrayed as the gender with complete sexual control. Ana is celebrating her sexuality in new ways, which is a rare theme for women in popular culture. Too often, a woman expressing her sexuality ends in ‘slut- shaming’ which SorayaChemaly, a writer for the Huffington Post, defined as the following:
Embarrassing, insulting or otherwise denigrating a girl or woman for her real or extrapolated sexual behavior, including for dressing in a sexual way, having sexual feelings and/or exploring and exhibiting them. (Chemaly)
In contrast, a man who is exploring or exhibiting his sexual feelings is not given the same labels a woman might. Fifty Shades of Grey introduces a female protagonist who is presented in a positive light for the sexual experiences she decides to embrace. Although there is a lack of abusive qualities exhibited by Christian Grey, it is undeniable that the franchise overall has a polarizing effect when it comes to consumer opinions. Viewers tend to feel strongly about Fifty Shades of Grey whether or not the viewer believes there to be elements of domestic abuse. It is interesting to consider, however, that sexual and domestic abuse may not be the most compelling reason for people to dislike the franchise; although this has been the most recognized topic for debate, domestic abuse is portrayed in a variety of novels and films geared towards young adults. Perhaps the magnitude of the controversy has more to do with society’s underlying uncomfortable feelings with the bold expression of female sexuality than the fictional display of what could be perceived as domestic abuse.
While domestic abuse may be portrayed in a variety of today’s media, the Fifty Shades of Grey series has blown it up to an entirely new level in a way that glorifies a violent and unhealthy relationship. In the midst of the series growing popularity, it is important to take a deeper look into the abusive essence of the novel and the disturbing cultural implications that it has. The graphic sex scenes of this mainstream erotica are entertaining, the absurdity is amusing, and the popularity is undeniable. However in reality, the series is an extravagant Hollywood glorification of an abusive and unhealthy relationship. As Roxane Gay words perfectly in her critical essay, “the trilogy represents the darkest kind of fairy tale, one where controlling, obsessive, and borderline abusive tendencies are made to seem intensely desirable by offering the reader big heaping spoonfuls of sweet, sweet sex sugar to make the medicine go down” (Gay).
In the book, Christian’s pattern of abuse cannot be dismissed simply because the book is entertaining and the sex is hot. Christian exhibits dominance over Ana both inside and outside the bedroom to an extreme degree. Christian’s need to control translates into possessiveness over all aspects of Ana’s life, from her behavior and whom she can allow in her life to her eating and drinking habits. Christian conducts a background check on Ana before they begin dating and draws up a strict contract with a nondisclosure agreement. He goes so far as to track her movements through her cell. “‘Alaska is very cold and no place to run. I would find you. I can track your cell phone- remember?’” (E.L. James). Christian’s eerie words remind Ana who is in control, another means of trapping her in.
When practice consensually with the use of safe words, BDSM can be a healthy expression of sexuality. The book Fifty Shades of Grey, however, does not depict a healthy practice of BDSM. Christian Grey ignores Ana’s safety words, taking BDSM to a level of non-consensual violence. “’No,’ I protest, trying to kick him off. He stops. ‘If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet, too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you’” (E.L. James). The aggressiveness in Grey’s voice and actions is shockingly brutal. By portraying and glorifying these violent scenes, Fifty Shades of Grey sexualizes abuse.
While many may read this book as purely entertainment, the social repercussions that it has cannot be dismissed. Readers are supposed to believe that Christian’s possessiveness of Ana is fine because he has a troubled past and because he loves her. These reasons do not make his actions permissible, and this degrading relationship should not be one exemplified to women on a national scale. Ana’s violent beatings may be fiction, but domestic and sexual abuse is a reality for many women. Christian’s actions in the novel meet the Centers for Disease Control’s standards of emotional abuse and sexual violence, according the American Family Association (Jones). What does it say about our society if our mainstream culture idolizes this relationship and mocks the harsh reality of abuse on real women?
Clearly, Fifty Shades of Grey has undeniable repercussions in the real world. Manyperceive it as a trashy novel at best and an unhealthy work of literature that promotes abusive relationships at worst, inevitably causing controversies to stir up in the successful work’s wake. According to a study done by Michigan State University, “adult women who read Fifty Shades of Grey are more likely than non readers to exhibit signs of eating disorders and have a verbally abusive partner.” Causation, however, does not necessarily equal correlation – it could simply be that those women who are in abusive relationships and have self-esteem issues are also more attracted to the characters and content of Fifty Shades. However, the study’s lead investigator notes that logically “if women experienced adverse health behaviors first, reading Fifty Shades might reaffirm those experiences, or influence the onset of those behaviors.” It is a matter of concern that in the case of women who read all three books in the series, they were 65% more likely than non readers to binge drink. Although not everyone is sold on the idea that Fifty Shades causes troubling behavior, it’s clear that some correlation proved by science between the two exists, and the degradation of women is potentially related.
A professional dominatrix pulls on ethos, writing in to The Hollywood Reporter early this year to explain her view of how Fifty Shades practically libels S&M, creating a warped perspective of the practice in the public eye. Her self-assured claim that when it “comes to the world of S&M, Fifty Shades gets it almost all wrong” is substantiated by the fact that “Christian Grey isn’t a dominant. […] He’s a stalker. […] He is constantly crossing boundaries. And S&M is all about respecting boundaries.” The fact that S&M is so badly portrayed in the book means that those who practice sadomasochism find themselves misrepresented in a negative light – Christian is eventually ‘saved’ by Ana, who convinces him to give up the “darkness” which is their version of S&M. It could be argued that the author is no more culpable for the accuracy of S&M than she is for the accuracy of her world or characters’ exploits, but it shows a distinct lack of research and understanding that will inevitably alter the way actual people think and behave.
Some, however, believe that the book is fiction and thus remains solidly in the world of fiction, having little to no effect on reality. Laurie Penny of New Statesman shrugs it off as “easy to mock” and mere “porn”, claiming that since “pornography made for men is rarely judged on its artistic merits”, neither should Fifty Shades be. She has a valid point, but rarely is pornography elevated to the status of Fifty Shades, with its millions of readers and box office success. As such, a more critical eye can be turned towards it. The argument that a work of art is “merely” fiction or porn loses its effectiveness when one considers that many fictional works in the past have been deemed important. As for well-known, controversial pornography, one only has to consider Deep Throat to see real effects on the real world. If Fifty Shades has not had an effect on the degrading or promotion of women, at the very least it has spawned fervent discussions.
While the controversy that arose from the novels and film adaptation is full of vehemence on all sides, it seems that Fifty Shades of Grey has, at the very least, accomplished what few works of its ilk manage to do; it’s roused journalists and laypeople alike into action over perceived or contrived subtleties. Some believe that the series encourages women’s rights, others that it degrades them, and all are convinced of their correctness. The series is varyingly described as light erotica, a glamorization of an abusive relationship, and a celebration of women’s sexuality, the latter two coming into direct conflict. Regardless of opinion, a book that started out as fan fiction erotica has transformed into a multibillion dollar series with repercussions that have altered the public’s perspective, with the unexpected side effect of drawing the issue of women’s empowerment back into the spotlight.