[Trigger warnings: rape, emotional abuse, non-consent]
I’m going to say this: I am not a fan of Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ve read the first book as part of a humorous dramatic reading that got distinctly un-funny around chapter 12, and from there on turned into recapping accompanied by angry feminist ranting (and some angry writer ranting, and some angry I Am A Person Who Enjoys Sex ranting).
As it is always important to define one’s terms, rape culture does not mean a culture in which rape is wholly accepted or celebrated. Very few people think rape is acceptable – as long as the victim has an utterly perfect record of modest dress, proper sexual behaviour, is always in their house by sundown, didn’t know the rapist, and so on… Rape culture is a culture that makes women’s bodies public property and inherently sexual. Rape culture is “boys will be boys” and “if he’s mean to you, it means he likes you”. Rape culture is the concept of the friendzone, where you put in enough kindness then sex just falls out of the woman – and if she doesn’t have sex with you, then she’s a bitch. (No thought is given to the poor woman who invested time and emotional energy into this friendship, only to be told that her ‘friend’ merely sees her as a fuckable hole on legs.) Rape culture is a set of attitudes and social norms that mean that rape is totally wrong and rapists should be punished – but only as long as they are strange, scary monsters who jump out of bushes and only attack pure, innocent virgin women.
Fifty Shades of Grey is pretty much Rape Culture: The Novel, and also Abuse Apologism: The Novel. Christian Grey, extremely wealthy CEO, proposes naïve recent English graduate Anastasia ‘Ana’ Steele to become his new ‘submissive’ within a Total Power Exchange (TPE) relationship, complete with slave contract. Ana is, effectively, an Ingénue – young and virginal (at least until chapter eight), and knowing very little about sex, and to a certain extent, the real world.
One of the earliest warning signs is when Ana goes to a bar to celebrate the end of her university days in Chapter Four. Whilst there, she drunkenly calls Christian, and upon hearing that she is drunk at a bar, demands to know her location. When she hangs up on him, he phones her back, stating that he’s “coming to get [her]”. Please note that while Ana had drunk a lot, she was with her friend Kate, did not request Christian’s help or intervention, and by this point of the book Christian and Ana have only spent three hours maximum in each other’s’ company. Once Christian gets to the bar, he finds Ana resisting the drunken ‘affections’ of José, a Mexican stereotype who studies photography. Christian then rescues Ana from José, berates Ana for getting drunk, and when Ana says she wants to tell Kate she’s going home, Christian drags her onto the dance floor. The message is clear – Christian is in charge of Ana’s behaviour, and Ana must do as Christian bids. Such an arrangement would only be acceptable in Master/slave relationships, which are very unusual, and Ana has not consented to be Christian’s slave. In fact, throughout the entire book, even though she is presented with Christian’s slave contract and attempts to negotiate the terms, she does not sign it at all, and any of Christian’s actions described do not come under the banner of Risk-Aware Consensual Kink (RACK). This is vitally important to remember. Consent is important in all relationships – platonic, romantic, or sexual – but is especially important in kinky ones because of the potential mental and physical danger involved. Consent also marks the line between kink and abuse. If someone asks you to flog them, and you do so, that is kink. If you start flogging someone without their permission, even if they enjoy it, that is abuse. If someone asks you to flog them, and you do so, and they ask you to stop, and you continue, that is also abuse. This is important because vanilla people could easily dismiss the problematic stuff in Fifty Shades of Grey because it’s ‘BDSM’ – most vanilla people are not experts on kink. One must remember that the shit Christian Grey pulls is not acceptable in any relationship, even a kinky one.
In Chapter Five, after passing out on the dance floor, Ana wakes up in a strange room. This is quickly identified as Christian Grey’s suite at the Heathman Hotel in Portland. Her first reaction, after placing herself and remembering the previous night, is
I cringe inwardly. I don’t remember coming here. I’m wearing my t-shirt, bra, and panties. No socks. No jeans. Holy shit.
Whilst offering Ana his bed after she passes out is a potentially nice gesture, Christian quickly ruins it by stripping her whilst she is unconscious, and then (later) admitting to sleeping next to her. He barely knows her, she cannot fight him off, and he violates her boundaries. Even if we take his assurance that he did nothing to her, if one found oneself in a stranger’s hotel room stripped of most of one’s clothing, one would be worried. This does not put Ana at ease after her rough night out. He then moves on to victim blaming –
“Well, if you were mine, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week after the stunt you pulled yesterday. You didn’t eat, you got drunk, you put yourself at risk.”
After this he starts ranting about José. The implications here are that Ana should not have gotten so drunk (though I will concede that getting puke-and-pass-out drunk is not a good idea) because it made her an easy target for José, and she shouldn’t have done that (ignoring the fact that José has free will and made the decision to sexually assault her), and that Christian Grey views women as possessions who need to be disciplined.
BDSM is like live-action roleplaying (LARP) in many ways, but with sex. Just as you are not really, for example, a vampire draining the blood of a human, you don’t really own your partner. It’s an act. Christian Grey is not treating it as such. It’s as if E.L. James wrote a character that belongs in a complete fantasy world – one where there are no safewords and the slavery and beatings are not an act, but it is written and acknowledged as pure titillation – and put him in a world like the real one, where BDSM is merely a form of erotic role-playing. Somehow, no-one realises that Christian has somehow wandered into the wrong genre. He’s not Lord Grey, Master of Ana, because in this world such a status would not be allowed to exist. As a result, he comes off as an abusive, controlling arsehole.
Ana then takes a shower and comes out to find Christian replaced her puke-splattered clothing with new ones. Again, a nice gesture, totally ruined by the fact that they include bra and knickers that ‘fit perfectly’. It is possible to estimate someone’s clothing size by looking. You may be able to get into vaguely the right area with bra size by looking, but you won’t be able to make them fit perfectly. This implies that, whilst Ana was unconscious, Christian (or one of his assistants) measured her bra size. This could be just terrible writing, but I’m not going to let it slide. If you’re writing a romantic interest, please keep checking to make sure you did not make him creepy. As they have breakfast and arrange a date for that evening, Christian Grey orders her to eat, as he has ‘issues with wasted food’.
“Eat what’s on your plate. If you’d eaten properly yesterday, you wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t be declaring my hand so soon.” His mouth sets in a grim line. He looks angry.
He then uses this as another opportunity to order her around, basically giving her no control over what she puts in her body. Ana is too excited to eat, and she spent most of the previous night throwing up. Her stomach must still be a bit tender. In such a situation, it would be prudent to allow her to choose how much she wishes to eat. This pattern continues throughout the books, with Christian often ordering lots of food on Ana’s behalf without checking whether she is hungry, likes the food he orders, or even if she has food allergies or intolerances. People should be allowed to make their own food choices. In a relationship, sometimes this involves compromise – for example, going to your partner’s favourite restaurant even if it’s not got a lot of food you’re fond of – but ultimately your partner should not control your diet. Unless you consent to them doing so, which, as I have stated before, Ana does not at any point during the first book.
Then, in the elevator, Christian basically does to Ana what José did to Ana the previous night.
“He lunges at me, pushing me against the wall of the elevator. Before I know it, he’s got both of my hands in one of his in a vice-like grip above my head, and he’s pinning me to the wall using his hips. Holy shit. His other hand grabs my ponytail and yanks down, bringing my face up, and his lips are on mine. It’s only just not painful. I moan into his mouth, giving his tongue an opening. He takes full advantage, his tongue expertly exploring my mouth.”
Ana may want Christian to kiss her, but Christian is mostly going off inference here. And certainly, even if I wanted to be kissed by someone, I would not want to be pounced upon by them and trapped into kissing them. See what I was saying about Rape Culture earlier? This is it. Christian Grey guesses that Ana would like to be kissed, traps her into the kiss, so she can’t get away if she doesn’t want to be kissed, and then this is portrayed as his enthusiasm and passion as opposed to being terrifying. It’s very fortunate that Ana wanted to be kissed by him, because if she didn’t, she would have no way of signalling this – she cannot speak, she cannot tap him or use hand gestures, she cannot wriggle out. At best, maybe she can knee him in the groin. What precedes this attack is Ana biting her lip, a fairly common unconscious action. Throughout the book, he tells her off for biting her lip because he finds it ‘distracting’ and makes him unable to control himself. In Chapter Ten, he outright states this:
“Stop biting your lip, or I will fuck you in the elevator, and I don’t care who gets in with us.”
“There’s a pernicious myth out there that the male sex drive is unstoppable and irresistible–that once a man is aroused, he literally cannot control his actions. […]We have a cultural narrative in which sexual arousal makes a man into a goddamn werewolf.
And we expect women to tiptoe around this uncontrollable male sexuality. We tell them to watch how they dress, lest they wake the beast. We tell them “some guys can’t control themselves”–not won’t, but can’t. We tell them to be careful what they start, because they’ll be expected to finish it.”
This is precisely what Christian Grey uses to justify his actions. I don’t believe that he has no control over his sexual activity – someone who sexually assaults brunette women who bite their lip every time he sees them would be declared a public menace and locked up – but it gives him a convenient justification to people as to why he uses sexual intimidation.
And Christian does use sexual intimidation. In Chapter Twelve, Ana fires off a joking email to Christian about how, having read the slave contract, she does not want to partake of a relationship with him. His response is not to respect her wishes, like he said he would, but to come around to her house, tie her to the bed with his tie, and then initiate sexual acts. Ana does not give any consent to sex until she has been tied, stripped, and fingered. (Yes, the text says she wants it, but Christian is not a mind reader – consent is not given until both parties are aware that each other want sex.) Christian’s words, and the narration, make it clear that this was to intimidate Ana out of rejecting or leaving him. He is described as ‘menacing’, his penetration a ‘sudden assault’, and he calls his actions ‘punishment’ for her rejection of him. (And don’t give me that ‘but it’s BDSM!’ crap. If someone says no, you respect their no.)
What makes these books particularly contributory to Rape Culture and Abuse Apologism isn’t these events. It’s how Ana constantly goes back to him, even when she’s terrified. It’s how Christian’s behaviour is excused by his ‘childhood trauma’ – he was neglected by his ‘crack whore’ mother until he was four, when she died and he was adopted. He barely remembers any of this. It’s how the blurb on the book calls it “Romantic, liberating and totally addictive, Fifty Shades of Grey is a novel that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you for ever.” Christian Grey is held up as a romantic ideal, the kind of man that women should aspire to want. This is how it makes abuse and sexual assault acceptable behaviours. I’ve overheard women talking about how Christian is their ideal man (except for that nasty sex stuff he’s into, but they’ll put up with that). Individually these books aren’t dangerous, but they’re entertainment – people don’t tend to critically analyse entertainment – and they’re both caused by and contributing to a culture that normalises some pretty terrible attitudes towards relationships.
The Pervocracy – I originally came here for the Cosmo snarkings, and then found that their other posts were pretty interesting and sense-making. They’re very good at explaining feminist concepts, especially ones concerning sexual justice and interpersonal relationships.
Ket Makura and Gehayi’s Sporking of Fifty Shades of Grey – a more in-depth version of what I have done here. They basically go through every chapter of these books and rip them apart. Very good, but the same trigger warnings apply there as they do here.