Fifty Shades of Sexual Abuse
Originally published in Synthesis Weekly: February 2015
Can we talk for a minute about the new Fifty Shades of Grey movie? Let me first get this bit of embarrassment out of the way: I’ve read the first book. And it’s awful. It’s depressingly bad. I say “depressing” because it’s a real bummer to me that this drivel would make it on the bestsellers list. When there’s such strong buzz surrounding a book, I’ll almost always read at least the first few chapters. This weird curiosity I have for popular books carries over to horror movies as well. No other genre. Just horror. I’m not sure why, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that like someone with Asperger’s studying pictures of people’s faces in an attempt to understand human emotion, I watch popular horror movies trying to understand the appeal. (I also sometimes study those “How Do I Feel Right Now” charts in my free time, for very important and grownup research). This detrimental curiosity has driven me to read The Hunger Games, The Da Vinci Code, Divergent, Fifty Shades of Grey, and watch The Conjuring no less than three times. THREE times, people. I’m really banking on the old adage that if curiosity killed that ol’ cat, that maybe I’ll get lucky and it’ll strike me down too.
Aside from the really, really poor writing, and the uninspired lead female character, my main issue with Fifty Shades is that author E.L. James did nothing to assuage the negative views and false perceptions about the BDSM community. References from pop culture have taught us that BDSM is all about whips and chains, deviants with sexual trauma in their past, and is nothing more than a fringe culture of “freaks” and miscreants with damaged sexual appetites. E.L. James frames the male lead (Christian Grey) as someone who was abused as a child, hence his interest in BDSM. Grey chooses for the subject of his “affections” Anastasia (the aforementioned uninspired female lead), despite the fact that she’s not only a virgin to BDSM, she hasn’t had sex at all, a partner who would be most undesirable to someone actually in the community. Throughout Fifty Shades, the storyline eroticizes dangerous practices that are much less BDSM and much more simply straight up physical and sexual abuse. Even the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) which in 1952 listed sadomasochism as a sociopathic personality disorder has since come around and reclassified it. In reality, before sexual interaction occurs between a dominant and submissive, there’s a lengthy negotiation up front. Their boundaries are clearly defined and discussed, and it’s up to the dominant to fulfill the submissive’s needs, which is what brings the dominant pleasure. It’s is not primarily about pain, but rather a power exchange between a dominant and submissive.
The good news about Fifty Shades is that in many ways it’s shining a light on BDSM so that conversations can be had about what being a part of that community actually entails. However, I don’t think any amount of accurate information about BDSM will bring down the number of sexual mishaps that most certainly will occur once the movie is released.