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50 Shades and the Responsibility to Educate

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November 14, 2012

This post is part of a series about reproductive justice and the media done in partnership with Women, Action, & the Media.

Unless you’ve been hiding in your bunker in fear of the end of the world or as a result of the recent election, you’ve probably heard of the latest bestselling trilogy 50 Shades by E.L. James. Earlier this year I had happened to be investigating the world of BDSM when I stumbled across a blog post deploring the premiere novel 50 Shades of Grey. I took to the BDSM section of reddit.com to which I was subscribed to for obvious “research” purposes as we all like to say.

My first impression? I liked the novels. At this time I knew of no one else who had read the books, as they weren’t even fully  in print yet. Within the past few months there has been uproar in disgust for the book coming from multiple sides — as a poor representative of the BDSM lifestyle and as a domestically abusive relationship disguised as a fairytale.

With the limited knowledge and experience that I have with the “lifestyle” I would agree that the book is not an exact representation of what others practice in real life. There is the dominant role (Christian Grey) and the “submissive” (Anastasia Steele), I disagree that Ana was any type of submissive. Ana disagreed consistently with Grey and maintained a conscious for her personal self throughout the novel. This is drastically different from a submissive type in the scene, in which the sub is eager to please their dom and gives the control to the dom. The sex scenes described in the book I would describe as “extra-mild” in reference to the community that I am familiar with in my area.

On the question of a possible domestic abuse, I am hesitant to make a definitive statement. In terms of a physically abusive relationship. I do not believe that this was present. I believe that Ana had the ability to say no, and most times she didn’t. Coerced you say? Mmmm… not so much, did she want to please her lover? Sure who doesn’t? Did Grey use physical threats to force her to have sex with him? No. I felt he was always very conscious of her desires and undesirables.

The part where I hesitate on this is on the topic of emotional abuse. As a survivor of mental and verbal abuse, the second and third books triggered my stored memories of a dark time that I packed neatly away in my mind, hoping to never be controlled like that again. There is a scene where Ana becomes accidentally pregnant and Grey goes on a hiatus, this for some reason was the most difficult part of the story for me to get past. Reading through my tears I trudged my way through the end of the series left with a pit in my stomach.

Nobody deserves to be part of a coercive relationship. No person should feel like they have to change their looks to fit another person’s ideal (Ana waxing, changing her hair, clothes and losing weight).  No person should ever violate another’s right to privacy (Grey checking her financials, meddling with her career). No one should ever feel like they have to sacrifice their well-being to serve another. With experience, I can tell you that this will ruin a person.

Alright, so how is this important in relation to women and the media? Even though obvious, let me make the point that this story is fiction. These circumstances that surround their relationship are unique to them and that’s why I think it’s necessary to think critically before criticizing another’s way of life. People against the lifestyle have no right to judge others who find sexual satisfaction in a pain inducing manner. No one has the right to label a couple’s relationship as abusive without first understanding each participant’s feelings about it.

As this is a work of fiction that has proliferated to the masses, it’s important to have an understanding of BDSM before becoming a participant. It’s much more than spanking, caning, and inflicting pain. It’s about creating a pleasurable experience for all parties involved. My fear is that reading this book will inspire uneducated (in BDSM) people to participate in acts described in the book and cause serious harm to another. My greater fear is that young girls the same age of my three sisters will read these books and begin to think that this is a typical relationship. I do think it’s normal, but not typical for people to participate in such a lifestyle. I wish there were more novels with a sexual nature that demonstrated an average healthy relationship. Of course, that will never happen because it won’t be over-sensationalized like these novels were due to their shocking graphic nature to the lay reader. With our current system of sex education, the proliferation of novels such as these is problematic to adolescents. Most will gain the majority of their sexual normalcy through the media, and this is a poor representation at best.

As a community with knowledge of domestic abuse and sexuality, it is our duty as educators to teach others about the misinformation presented in the media. We cannot expect our daughters (and grandmothers?) to read into the book with a frame of women’s rights, reproductive justice, and warning signs of domestic abuse. We must create these conversations so that there is a dialogue about safe and healthy relationships.

Laters, baby. 

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