The Glorification of Abuse in 50 Shades

Recently, E.L. James gave an interview in which she brushed off concerns that 50 Shades of Grey glorifies abusive relationships, and implied that anyone who is concerned simply doesn’t understand BDSM. This part in particular has upset many readers:

James says she “freaks out” when she hears people say that her book encourages domestic violence. “Nothing freaks me out more than people who say this is about domestic abuse,” she says. “Bringing up my book in this context trivializes the issues, doing women who actually go through it a huge disservice. It also demonizes loads of women who enjoy this lifestyle, and ignores the many, many women who tell me they’ve found the books sexually empowering.”

You can read the whole thing here.

In addition, she’s been blocking people who raise abuse concerns on her twitter feed and referring to them as trolls. In response to this mess, @50ShadesAbuse has been recently created to raise awareness of E. L. James’ failure to realize that touting her book as a realistic manual to finding the perfect relationship is misleading and potentially dangerous. A lot of people could stomach the phenomenon of this book’s popularity better if it were treated as fiction instead of a realistic, safe, or healthy model.

Unfortunately, that feed’s creation has also unearthed many rabid and often contradictory defenses of 50 Shades. You should read Jenny Trout’s excellent and calm rebuttal of all of these arguments.

This brings me to the point of my own post. I’m often lightly snarking 50 Shades on Twitter and here, but haven’t fully laid out what bothers me so much about it. There’s a danger of sounding redundant with so many recent excellent blog posts out there, but since E. L. James uses her clout to silence people who voice their opinions, the more awareness raised, the better.

50 Shades of Abuse

50 Shades of Grey promotes and glorifies abuse. It spreads its abusive taint over every interaction between Christian and Ana, including but certainly not limited to sexual ones. As a side note, the BDSM angles are actually rather tame compared to run-of-the-mill erotica, and the parts that stand out are memorable for the wrong reasons: lack of even basic safety precautions, and absence of any clear communication about consent.

Supporters of E.L. James like to turn accusations of this sort into evidence that the complainer is sexually repressed, unenlightened, and is sadly disgusted by any non-conventional relationship. Nobody is arguing here that BDSM is abuse. (If you are in fact arguing that, the rest of this article is probably not for you.) People are arguing that someone buying your spouse’s company in order to spy on her emails, deciding what type of birth control she should be on without her consent because you “dislike condoms”, flying across the country to meet her when she specifically wanted to go on vacation to get distance from you, and bruising your spouse so she can’t expose skin during a beach vacation is abusive. Abuse is present in the BDSM-lite interactions, but that is because Christian Grey is a fundamentally flawed character whose abusive tendencies extend to all aspects of his life, not that BDSM is fundamentally harmful. They do incredibly boring stuff like go out to eat pancakes at IHOP, and he’s still abusive to her there.

“You simply don’t understand kink!”

While the whole steaming heap of arguments in defense of 50 Shades are problematic, I need to take some time to explain that the specific rebuttal “that’s not abuse, that’s BDSM” especially bothers me. If I had encountered this book 10 years ago, there would have been massive emotional trauma as a result. I had a lot of controlling adults in my life growing up. I’m torn about giving details–I feel exceptionally childish making serious statements without an explanation, but don’t want to focus the post too much on myself. I’ll just give one example:  I had this one piano teacher who enjoyed videotaping lessons, screaming at me off-camera, and getting me to cry. He convinced my parents I was playing poorly because I didn’t watch the videos enough. So I watched myself crying on tape and being told I only performed well when I was yelled at for four years.

Needless to say, trying to reconcile actual adults being controlling and manipulative with the idea that BDSM was something I was maybe interested in exploring was a minefield as a teenager. All my actual experiences pointed to the fact that adults only used control to hurt each other and the last thing I needed to deal with was thinking about control/power issues in any context–even unrelated. I had periods of self-loathing, and tried to block it all out of my head growing up so I could focus on getting away from my family and town.

So to others who have been exposed to controlling/abusive relationships, the abuse angles may stand out more vividly instead of the tame (honestly) sex toys. I also think of readers that may be younger and more impressionable, that haven’t been exposed to something so drastic, but still have fears. If I suddenly want to stop, will this person respect my wishes–since I won’t be able to physically defend myself if my verbal plea is ignored? I’m new to this and very self-conscious, will I be made fun of? I’m not sure exactly what I like–is someone going to take advantage and manipulate me? What if I want to try something new and it was too intense, and now I’m an emotional mess without support? All the above scenarios have negative endings in 50 Shades, and instead of being treated as a badly-written work of fiction, people are treating it as gospel.

The way the book treats BDSM, already difficult for some people to openly admit to liking, discourages unsure or fearful readers from wanting to explore it further. And certainly fans smugly justifying things as “that’s not abuse, that’s the way things should be” is not going to make someone who has dealt with very real issues of powerlessness and abuse feel at ease. A lot of fans like to say that their sex life was better after reading this book, but if we’re going to play strictly by personal experiences, a large group of people also feel sick after reading this book. So let’s dispel the notion at the outset that all criticism of this book somehow arises from intolerance of non-vanilla relationships.

50 Shades in the Media

E. L. James vacillates between describing her book as a how-to sexual manual, when explaining its popularity, to touting her book as an imaginative work of fiction, when the accusations of abuse glorification pile up.

There are some other darker reasons why it’s popular. 50 Shades is a safe book for the media to use when describing female sexuality. It’s another way to belittle us. Women are meant to be voracious and undiscering consumers of culture, and this book poses no threat to the status quo. We need to buy clothing and makeup to find our hidden selves that we’ve lost. We need the right products to attract men we haven’t been able to lure otherwise. We’ve too stupid to understand math or science, but aren’t discerning or talented enough to make it in creative industries. We get mocked with shopaholic and fashion victim jokes all the time, except when it’s a wedding or birth, because those are Special Days that instead should get milked for their full and absurd monetary value. And now, instead of wondering if the Victoria’s Secret bra highlighted in [Generic Magazine] makes you look sexy or stupid, you’re staring in front of the cheesy 50 Shades-themed sex toy display.

It fits perfectly within this narrative that women are turning out in droves to buy a poorly-written book featuring a doormat for a heroine, whose one contribution to the landscape of popular culture is that it makes them work harder in the bedroom. Add to that a dash of class privilege–the origination of the “mommy porn” label from wealthy New York housewives apparently reading it during the day–and it’s a media darling. Everyone is comfortable with the interpretation that women have bad taste, want to spice up their sex lives, and enjoy being abused. There’s even a chapter where Christian decides that Ana should be on a birth control pill and justifies it as that he knows her body better than she does! (Her response is along the lines of “Yes…and oh god, he’s hot.”)

I also really can’t take reviews seriously that say this is groundbreaking erotica, when this series frequently uses the term “down there” to mean one of a dozen different body parts.

Glorifying 50 Shades

Attempting to view 50 Shades as both fact and fiction, as the author would like us to–depending on her mood–lead to amusing results. I got stuck on how Anastasia, the apparently inspirational heroine, was introduced to her alternate-reality version of BDSM. It’s quite the opposite of how a reader seeking insights would hopefully embark on a process of discovery. As a person who hasn’t even kissed someone before the book started, let alone masturbated, she’s plunged into an intense relationship that she’s not comfortable with any aspect of and is forbidden to talk about with her friends. She gets laughed at when she doesn’t understand the wording of the contract defining their relationship (yet another nonsensical idea presented without question in this book–not really standard practice for learning and exploring). She complains about the contract and her limits get overruled. He pushes her too far in their first intense exploration, and then guilts her into apologizing when she has an emotional breakdown instead of saying the safeword.

Somehow this is glorified. Christian buys Ana a diamond bracelet to hide the bruises he gave her through poorly restraining her (which itself was a misguided punishment for dressing too revealingly on the beach). While he makes her too nervous to eat, all of their expensive meals are described in loving food-porn detail. The book can sell any and all of this behavior as romantic because Christian is a wealthy and attractive male, something society drills into women to aspire to obtain as a life goal. Consumer culture wants your partner to spend lots of money on you, and Christian certainly fulfills that fantasy.  Five-course meals! First edition books! Computers and cars as gifts! Personal shoppers from Neiman Marcus! Honeymoons in Monaco! Olympians as personal trainers! As Roxane Gay put it in her brilliant article The Trouble With Prince Charming Or He Who Trespassed Against Us: “A prison is still a prison when the sheets are 1200 thread count.” It’s no surprise that spending money is viewed as the sign as a successful relationship. Would this relationship be just as exciting if Christian kept all of his stalkerish behaviors, but didn’t follow up each instance with an expensive gift?To the people saying that 50 Shades is just fiction, or that we’re colossally misinterpreting it, or are giant prudes: you are discrediting the observations of people that have experienced serious abuse, and furthering the cycle by trying to silence them. If you enjoy it as fiction, I may personally disagree with your literary tastes, but that in itself is not an issue. The problem arises when readers do not respect that many people who have suffered trauma found 50 Shades to be a textbook for abusive behavior. Supporters seem to feel that the book is an introduction to novel sexual practices, and to enjoy thinking that some people aren’t cool or edgy enough to accept it. Unfortunately, people with even the vaguest understanding of BDSM practices tend to be among the most horrified at the sorts of behavior that this book presents as acceptable.