Fifty Shades: Kink or Abuse? By Lukas Konstantin Krupka

50shades

 

In 2009, after reading the Twilight saga, one British woman was so taken by it that she wrote her own version of it, titled ‘Master of the Universe’, and published it online under the pen name ‘Snowqueen’s Icedragon’. This body of text would later be known as Fifty Shades of Grey, and infamous for its portrayal of BDSM. The novel broke the record for fastest-selling paperback of all time in the UK, yet critics only rate it mediocre, at best. How did a poorly written text about a man hitting a woman become such an international success amongst women?

In her book, The Act of Reading the Romance: Escape and Instruction, Janice Radway writes about interviews she has conducted on why Romance novels are so popular with women. Her findings offer some insight about why women enjoy reading Fifty Shades of Grey. The women interviewed by Radway all agreed that ‘one of their principal goals in reading was their desire to do something different from their daily routine’. What is interesting is that this difference is needed in order for the readers to feel like they escape their daily life, suggesting that if the plot were too similar to the reader’s daily life, she would not achieve the desired effect from reading it. Furthermore, the women interviewed stress that the novels they read have to depict an idealised view of life, portraying it how they want it to be, not as it is. Thus, Radway’s interviews suggest that reading Fifty Shades of Grey allows a brief escape into a world of danger, excitement and sexual taboo, without the reader having to get stuck in with the actual experience of BDSM.

However, Fifty Shades of Grey’s way of approaching BDSM is harmful. Real life practitioners of BDSM always do it between consenting adults, and actually tend to have healthier sexual relationships than people do in a ‘vanilla’ relationship. However, in most countries having a preference for BDSM is classified as a mental disorder in the same group as paedophilia (Source: http://apps.who.int/classifications/icd10/browse/2015/en#/F65.5). The novel reinforces this by portraying Grey’s preference for BDSM as a result of his having been coerced into sex by an older woman while he was fifteen, and suggests that this preference needs to be cured through love. Furthermore, professionals argue that the relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele reflects one of intimate partner violence (source: http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/jwh.2013.4344). The novels portrayal of Grey’s and Steele’s relationship becomes worrying when one considers that its readers are more likely to show signs of being in an abusive relationship, and that the release of the novel has very likely changed the sexual habits of its readers (sources: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140821115922.htm, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/02/10/sex-toy-injuries-surged-after-fifty-shades-of-grey-was-published/ ).
There is nothing wrong with practising BDSM, but Fifty Shades of Grey does not depict the right way of doing it. Instead, it promotes a harmful attitude of women having to sacrifice themselves for male pleasure.

If you are interested, the first two minutes of this video gives an overview of the boundaries and precautions necessary to practice BDSM, and how the character of Christian Grey breaks them. Some viewers may find this offensive (Meg won’t be watching it) but feel free to view if you wish.

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10 responses to this post.

  1. I completely agree with Lukas. The novel does not portray BDSM in its proper light and instead presents a character who appears to have a violent nature using BDSM as an excuse, however, many of his behaviours do not correlate with general practice. I also agree with Radway that this was merely an escape for thousands of women reading it, although I am concerned at what the damage may be on women who think this is the norm.

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  2. The fact that a preference for BDSM puts you in the same category as a pedophile is astounding and Fifty Shades of Grey definitely hasn’t helped this image considering its adverse affect on the BDSM image. I really feel as though there are some very harmful images in these novels that go beyond what they do sexually, their relationship is extremely damaging in so many ways but Christian’s abusive personality is just treated as a unique quirk. There is no solid concepts of consent throughout the novels, sexual or otherwise, and everyone seems to need money, protection or career guidance, and the only person to offer help is Christian.

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  3. Posted by Eliza on February 8, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    I’m not remotely well informed about the BDSM approach to sex, and so can’t comment in any informed way about the success or failure of the novel to tackle it accurately. I suspect that E. L. James’s intention was not to enlighten the general public about BDSM culture, but rather to make money from the typical modern female – something which, despite having no discernible talent for writing, she’s clearly succeeded at. Perhaps, as Natasha Walter’s book seems to suggest, we actually are living in a society that is moving in a regressive direction as far as feminist ideas are concerned, and that the modern woman is generally ambivalent about her newly (somewhat) ‘liberated’ status. E. L. James has tapped into this ambivalence, and I think it’s likely that the reason she’s able to do so is that she’s just as ambivalent herself – after all, the novel clearly isn’t a satire (…is it??). The hackneyed descriptions of sex and the inaccurate portrayal of the BDSM culture just happens to reflect this confusion and ambivalence about sex and female sexuality perfectly, and the whole thing is, frankly, rather depressing.

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  4. Thank you (Also, excellent choice in video, wonderful YouTuber).

    I’ll admit before I start that I have never finished Fifty Shades, simply because of it’s penchant for abuse…
    I could write pages on this topic, if I’m totally honest, but I’ll try to keep this short.
    It’s no secret that Fifty Shades of Grey started off as fanfiction, and for that (and it’s success) I commend it – women are more open about their sexuality, and sexual desire, it’s less odd to see women perusing the ‘naughtier’ section of Ann Summers, fanfiction is now becoming less of a dirty little secret that people partake in on the internet… But the fact that people seem to be blind to how awful Christian Grey is…is kind of worrying. The fact that people will now associate abuse with BDSM, whether they call it abuse, is also worrying. How many people have partaken in a ‘BDSM’ relationship thanks to this book, not fully understanding what BDSM is? I’d hate to think.

    I have so many quotations listed where it’s quite frankly shockingly apparent that the relationship between Steele and Grey is abusive, and this is something that has been discussed multiple times, by multiple bloggers/journalists/etc. I cannot fathom in the slightest how so many people defend the books and movie stating that it isn’t abuse. They were clearly reading something I was not. What woman in a happy, healthy relationship ever thinks “He’d probably like to beat seven shades of shit out of me. The thought is depressing.” ( http://www.upworthy.com/6-real-quotes-from-fifty-shades-that-could-make-you-rethink-how-you-feel-about-it )

    There’s an interesting video on YouTube that discusses how the film (having not seen it, I am not sure how closely it resembles the books) portrays Christian basically as a cult leader who’s using indoctrination ( watch here: https://youtu.be/3VVyh_IM3Ik ); “…the audience saw this movie as romantic…romantic?!” and while he doesn’t touch on the topic of abuse, it’s still a thought provoking watch(/listen).

    I do think it’s interesting that people view the practise of BDSM as anti-feminist, because I’ve personally never thought of it like that. I have a friend who has the opposite of a vanilla sex life (who has given me permission to use her as a reference, I may add), and frankly she’s one of the most feminist women I have the pleasure of knowing…She is completely aware of what it is she likes, is comfortable with, who is anyone outside of herself to question that…”I think we run into issues when we start shaming consenting adults…”

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  5. Posted by Christie on February 9, 2016 at 6:25 pm

    I cannot say I have read the book; however, after reading the provided extracts, I can see that it is highly controversial:

    “How did you feel while I was hitting you and after?”
    “I didn’t like it. I’d rather you didn’t do it again.”
    “You weren’t meant to like it.”
    [….]
    “I like the control it gives me [….] I enjoy punishing you” (p. 286-7).

    I think the novel is a perfect example for Natasha Walter’s statement that female empowerment and liberation has been wrongly equated with sexual objectification. The above passage from James’ novel depicts how Christian and Anastasia’s relationship is not one of empowerment or liberation for Anastasia at all, but complete objectification. It seems that, in abusive scenes, Christian projects onto Anastasia (a blank/passive object) his childhood trauma and thus unloads and takes his troubles out physically on her. One might even argue that she herself, is actually of little importance in the act for him. (I think this passage offers an interesting relation with Slavoj Zizek’s ‘Courtly Love’ which we studied in Theory in Practice…) In this way, the relationship seems almost as an exaggeration of a patriarchal one, as Anastasia is expected to take on Christian’s problems (‘I just need it’ (p. 503)), regardless of herself (‘I’d rather you didn’t do it again’). This selflessness is confirmed as Anastasia states: ‘I do it for you, Christian, because you need it. I don’t.’ (p. 503).

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  6. Posted by Phoebe on February 9, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    I completely agree with Eliza’s comment that Fifty Shades of Grey is not a novel produced by James to ‘enlighten the general public about BDSM culture, but rather to make money’ – that much is clear from it originally being a fan-fiction adaptation of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. James has identified, as have many other writers, that sex sells. As demonstrated by Tim Parks in his review ‘Why So Popular’, James has put little thought into the sex scenes, as she is often seen to repeat herself and feels the need to assert their eroticism, knowing that she has failed to actually provide it.
    Having personally have read the book, I was at first shocked at its success. As a literature student, you cannot help but recognise the many mistakes and the fact that it is a poorly written book. However, having now read ‘The Acts of Reading and Romance’, I can sympathise that such reading allows an escape for women from their everyday (‘vanilla’) lives.

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  7. Posted by Eva on February 9, 2016 at 7:18 pm

    I have only read the selections of 50 Shades of Grey on StudySpace, but when Radway in ‘Reading the Romance’ states that women read romance novels to escape their own life and that “these women believe romance reading enables them to relieve tensions, to diffuse resentment, and to indulge in a fantasy that provides them with good feelings that seem to endure after they return to their roles as wives and mothers”, it makes me concerned for the women who have read it as a romance novel and defended the books by arguing that it is not about abuse. Don’t they see that this is a purely abusive relationship, or are we so confused about sex, liberation, female sexuality, empowerment and objectification in our culture that we become blind to it?

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  8. ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ is a novel that not only advocates domestic violence with its consistent theme of BDSM, but also presents a perverted perception of feminism. The author portrays the female protagonist as passive and submissive with the distorted belief that she is empowering herself. The content of this novel conforms to the patriarchal society that feminists have tried so hard to fight against. This brings us to the poignant question as to why a woman, such as E L James, would want to write a book so damaging to the feminist movement?

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  9. Posted by Salma AlTabari on February 10, 2016 at 2:05 am

    I agree with Lukas, Anastasia’s narrative in Fifty Shades does not come across as being 100% consensual, there certainly seem to be a promotion to the notion of “women having to sacrifice themselves for male pleasure.”
    I find it very ironic that the saga hiked BDSM toy sales very significantly, while as Lukas says, the novel itself seems to be portraying BDSM in Grey as a shameful thing he developed through a harsh experience and needs to be cured with love.
    I was very surprised while reading the extracts, I had heard a lot of about the novel but did not expect to find them slightly disturbing and so poorly written. The Radway essay helped place the Fifty Shades frenzy into perspective; the stay at home moms who obsessed over the books had a lot of “escape” rhetoric when expressing why they liked the novels.

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  10. Posted by Wafaa on February 10, 2016 at 4:44 pm

    Fifty shades of Grey is to me a very extreme book. I would personally never choose to read it because of the discomfort it brings. Saying that I think Walter points out that women’s sexuality and vulnerability is an advantage that is used to build the beauty industry and capitalist society. These insecurities are taken and used to distort people’s perceptions of life and their humanity, in the sense that it reduces women to objects of entertainment and pleasure rather than a person with an intelligent mind as well as emotions. Radway also points out a very key idea about escapism but I think this just reinforces the fact there is lack of space for women to turn to to lead fulfilling lives without having to compromise. Literature should be there to help us contemplate as well as enjoy.

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