With all the recent hoopla about the Fifty Shades of Grey movies currently in the works, now is an important time to discuss some of the biggest problems with the E.L. James novels – specifically, their damaging misrepresentation of BDSM, (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism). Never mind the laughable prose; the inaccurate stereotypes and bad BDSM practices portrayed in Fifty Shades are not only offensive to the BDSM community, but also dangerous for readers who are being newly exposed to BDSM and getting the wrong idea of what it is all about.
One of the biggest problems with Fifty Shades is its perpetuation of the mistaken belief that people who participate in BDSM do so because they are psychologically damaged. Titular character Christian Grey, who assumes the role of dominant in his sexual relationship with protagonist Anastasia Steele, is self-described as “fifty shades of fucked up” from having been abused as a child. This rationalizes not only his sexual preferences, but also his abusive, controlling, and stalkerish behaviour toward Anastasia, who haplessly spends the entirety of the novel trying to fix him.
This is a stereotype that wrongfully demonizes practitioners of BDSM. A 2001-2002 study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Sexual Medicine concluded that “BDSM is simply a sexual interest or subculture attractive to a minority, and for most participants not a pathological symptom of past abuse or difficulty with ‘normal’ sex.” A 2013 study in the same journal found that BDSM practitioners were “less neurotic, more extroverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive,” and “had higher subjective well-being.”
The stereotype of the Christian-Grey-esque damaged BDSM practitioner is a hurtful and inaccurate one that should be put to rest – not to mention that pop culture is already far too saturated with stories that tell women they can fix their abusers, a misogynistic trope with dangerous real-life consequences.
The Fifty Shades series also wrongfully conflates BDSM with abuse. It cannot be overstated that BDSM is absolutely not about abuse; it is about power, and it necessitates a high level of trust, communication, and respect between partners. This respect for boundaries and personal preferences is entirely absent between Christian and Anastasia, as throughout the story he constantly pressures her into doing things she isn’t comfortable with and that she does not enjoy.
An example of this occurs when Christian presents Anastasia with a contract detailing his demands for their relationship. While contracts are a common feature of BDSM—their purpose being to formalize an agreement of rules, goals, duties, and boundaries between partners—the problem with Christian’s contract is twofold.
First, the contract is all about his demands and his preferences; Anastasia does not get any input, and although she tries to negotiate, Christian does not give an inch.
Second, Anastasia has never been in any kind of BDSM relationship before (she’s never even had sex before); therefore, she hasn’t gotten the chance to explore and discover what she likes or does not like. She does not even know what half the terminology in the contract means and has to look it up on Wikipedia. The fact that her immediate reaction to reading up on this stuff is physical illness and the fact that she does not sign the contract are big red flags that this dominant-submissive relationship is not going to be a healthy one.
Another example occurs when Christian spanks her; there is zero pleasure for Anastasia in this interaction. She describes the pain as “gruelling” and the incident as a “merciless assault.” She describes wanting to free herself or beg him to stop. She later tells him that she felt “demeaned, debased, and abused.” This is not sexy.
Now, importantly, BDSM can often be about making your partner feel demeaned or debased. If this is what you are into, and you have preceded this dom-sub dynamic with open discussion about preferences, boundaries, and consent, there is no problem. But in Fifty Shades, this open and honest discussion is absent, and when Anastasia tells Christian that she strongly disliked being hit, his response is to mock her, to make her question her own feelings by asking, “Do you really feel like this or do you think you ought to feel like this?” and then asking her to ignore her feelings by saying, “If that is how you feel, do you think you could just try to embrace these feelings, deal with them, for me? That’s what a submissive would do.”
Wrong, E.L. James. In a safe and consensual dominant-submissive relationship, nobody should ever be expected to do anything they do not want to. Again, BDSM is strongly predicated on respect and boundaries, as should be the case in every sexual relationship. In all varieties of sex, anything less than enthusiastic consent means no. Pressuring your partner into doing something they do not enjoy and disregarding their boundaries is abuse.
This lack of respect for boundaries goes both ways in Christian and Anastasia’s relationship. Even though Christian explicitly tells her from the get-go that he is only interested in a sexual relationship and does not want any kind of emotional commitment, Anastasia’s goal throughout the novel is to change that. She pressures him to stay the night with her numerous times even though he told her that this was one of his limits. The message of the novel is that it is okay to pressure someone into a monogamous relationship; it is not.
Another example of serious misrepresentation of BDSM in Fifty Shades is Christian’s complete failure to provide aftercare to Anastasia. Aftercare in an essential element of BDSM in which partners must immediately follow up with each other after any kind of play to find out how they are both doing—what they liked or did not like, how they are feeling—and to tend to each other’s emotional and physical needs by providing comfort, reassurance, and support. This is especially important in dom-sub relationships and for participants who are new to BDSM, like Anastasia. Christian’s immediate followup to play with Anastasia is abandonment or to otherwise act like an uncaring jerk. He even yells at her for yawning because she is understandably tired.
It is great that Fifty Shades has made both BDSM and erotica a little less taboo, but it is important to be aware that this series is not a good representation of a healthy BDSM relationship. Never mind BDSM; Christian and Anastasia do not demonstrate a healthy and respectful dynamic for any kind of sexual relationship.
Before engaging in any kind of BDSM play, do your research. Learn from folks who are actually involved in the BDSM community, not from Twilight fan fiction. Remember that BDSM may sometimes involve pain and debasement, but it should still be enjoyable; if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.