Plenty of ink has been spilled about E. L. James’s erotic BDSM romance trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey. I swore I wouldn’t do the same, but then the nice folks at Carleton University asked me to keynote their very cool Consent Is Sexy week on the topic of consent and Fifty Shades, and my book club, the Leather Bindings Society, had just finished reading the trilogy for one of our meetings, so it was fresh in my mind. As well, in the last few months I’ve gotten a ton of requests for my thoughts on the series. So I decided that as a pervy scholar and a critic of sexual culture, I should do my homework and say my piece so that we can then return to your regularly scheduled programming. As such, I’m posting the keynote I delivered tonight (with a few edits for clarity).
Three reasons people hate Fifty Shades
Anytime heterosexual representations of sadomasochism show up in the mainstream, perverts get up in arms, and with good reason. But even people who aren’t perverts hate Fifty Shades of Grey. Not everyone does, clearly, but the people who do hate it for three reasons: because it is bad writing; because it is writing about kink, which is bad; and because it is bad writing about kink. These viewpoints are taken by three sometimes-overlapping groups.
First, people who care about writing criticize Fifty Shades for its shitty writing. And yes, the writing is indeed terrible. But it’s kind of like going outside when it’s raining. You can spend the whole time complaining about the rain and getting soaked, or you can pick up your damned umbrella and soldier on while doing your best to let it roll off you. That’s what I chose to do when reading through the books, and yes, I did read all three of them, cover to cover. (The things I do for my community!) They’re no better and no worse, in terms of writing quality, than most other formulaic romance or genre fiction. Fifty Shades is not literary fiction. Don’t expect it to be, and you’ll be fine. Expect Shakespeare and you’ll be disappointed. We live in a world where consumer products are meant to be repetitive variations on a theme and are ultimately disposable, and the romance genre is no different. So I’m not going to spend any further time bitching about bad sentence structure and repetitive phrasing. I would like us to acknowledge, and move on.
Second, people who disapprove of SM are upset about Fifty Shades because it represents kink, period, and they think kink is bad. These people can be further split into two camps. One of those camps is arch-conservative; they think everything about sex is bad. These are the same right-wing nutbags who espouse abstinence-only sex education, anti-abortion measures, rank homophobia, the criminalization of HIV, and so forth. I don’t feel like spending much time analyzing them, frankly; suffice it to say they’re out there, and Fifty Shades is one of their latest targets.
The second camp is a bit more complicated, and I’m afraid I won’t do them justice here, but I’ll try. They fall along lines that are familiar to anyone who’s accustomed to seeing classic debates about porn, especially if you lived through or read about the Sex Wars—the period of time roughly stretching over the 1980s in which some feminists raged against porn and penetrative sex and SM, and other feminists raged back. They can be exemplified by a story I came across a couple of weeks ago. A domestic violence charity in the UK held a public book burning, inviting people to throw their copies of Fifty Shades into the flames. To them, Christian Grey—the male protagonist in Fifty Shades—is an abusive partner, a perpetrator of domestic violence, and he does all manner of horrible things to the female protagonist, Anastasia. By their logic, such representations must be stopped because they are harmful to women, and these people have positioned themselves as crusaders out to stem the tide of violence against women, thereby justifying a tactic that hearkens back to some of the most shameful periods in modern human history.
It’s possible that they read the books from a kink-aware viewpoint and that they have a nuanced critique of what Christian Grey does and how some of it does indeed fall into the category of abuse while still making room for the idea that BDSM is okay and not inherently abusive, and acknowledging that he’s actually a very safe BDSM player. But I kinda doubt it. I think their point of view is a lot more along the lines of throwing everything the character does into the “abuse” pot, and seeing the elements of his sexuality that are pervy as pieces of evidence proving that he’s abusive. In other words, some people—the UK book-burners among them—conflate SM with abuse, and some of those people think that justifies retaliation.
Speaking as a book lover, I find the chosen method of protest in this specific instance to be particularly horrifying. The merits of the literature aren’t the issue here; the destruction and suppression of literature are classic tactics for social control. Employed by a small charitable organization, I can’t say I find them especially threatening. But it wasn’t that long ago that Canada Customs was regularly seizing shipments of gay and lesbian books at the border—prominently including, but by no means limited to, books about SM—and destroying them. That was a state-sanctioned attack on alternative sexual cultures, and that is indeed very threatening, and the UK book-burning is a small-scale imitation of that approach. It is an approach that self-justifies abuse in the name of stopping abuse, and that self-justifies censorship in the dubious name of protection. In the 80s and 90s, that same attitude of anti-SM hatred made some feminists feel that it was fully justifiable to physically attack and verbally abuse women who practiced SM (see my 2009 post “The Mirror of Sadomasochism” for more on that). Perhaps the anti-SM rumblings I am seeing surrounding Fifty Shades are a pale shadow of past violence; or perhaps they are an early warning that worse is on the way. Either way, that Fifty Shades is inspiring anti-SM sentiments this strong in 2012 is worrisome. I admit I’m not feeling very afraid, given that we live in a different cultural context today than we did in the 1980s, but I am keeping a watchful eye on this sort of thing, because you never know what backlash will look like or how quickly it will manifest.
It does bear mentioning, though, that the people I know who were most upset about the book-burning idea were librarians, historians and archivists, independently of kink; and that a number of the perverts I’ve spoken with about this book-burning had a reaction along the lines of “Oh god, please burn them, they suck!” so not everyone’s as upset about this as I am!
Third, people who identify as perverts hate Fifty Shades because it features what they consider to be bad representations of kink. To an extent, I agree, and I’ll try to pick this apart a little bit shortly. What’s interesting to me, here, is that different perverts consider the kink representations to be bad for different reasons, and most of them aren’t the ones that I personally find most disturbing. I also find it noteworthy that, while a lot of real-life sadomasochists are righteously upset about the book, it is directly creating two phenomena that are changing the landscape of our communities. So let me digress into that for just a moment.
On coolness and community
The first phenomenon is a spike of newbies joining SM communities. I am not aware of anyone documenting this in a proper fashion, so I don’t know what kind of numbers we’re talking about, but I’ve heard murmurs about it from various corners—New York, San Francisco—and we’ve all started to see people pop up on, say, Fetlife with user handles like “InnocentAnastasia” or “MasterChristian.” How much of a spike this really is, and how we would be able to tell whether any surge in membership is due to Fifty Shades, I do not know. But it’s a thing.
I’m honestly not sure how people go from reading the books—which make very little mention of an SM-based community and do not show any of the characters partaking in SM community events or using SM community resources—to seeking out SM communities and resources in their towns. If they were simply imitating what the book shows them to do, they’d spend a lot of time arguing with their partners, using basic sex toys, and occasionally engaging in some spanking between long bouts of classic penis-in-vagina sex that magically always makes both of them come in a shower of hearts and flowers even though they never talk about what feels good to each of them. So I suspect there’s something else going on. It seems that, flawed though they may be, even the very mild representations of kink in the books are enough to spark people’s interest in BDSM, and a subset of those people—what do you know, they have minds of their own!—are realizing that they’d like to seek out community and knowledge based on that interest.
As always, I maintain that there is a huge difference between community and practice. The number of people in the world who engage in some kind of SM practice or another, whether they name it as such or not, is and always has been far bigger than the number of people who actually seek out a community as a result of their SM interests. So to me, it’s clear that if we’re starting to see new folks in SM communities as a direct result of Fifty Shades, that means there’s a corresponding swell of people playing around with SM whom we won’t ever see at a community event. Even a mild bump in community interest, by this logic, indicates a fairly significant one in the world at large. I can’t say what consequences this might have on, well, anything, but I’ll keep an eye out.
A lot of longtime perverts are seeing this spike in interest, both in the broader culture and within our communities, as a negative thing. And I can understand why, because sometimes, the mainstream representation of kink causes people to show up in our spaces with a really skewed idea of what to expect, and if we are to continue opening our spaces to new folks at all, that means those of us who’ve been around for a while have to engage in the repetitive and sometimes exhausting work of dismantling stereotypes and setting people straight about what this whole kink thing is really all about, and what it isn’t. Not everyone enjoys doing that work, but even for those of us who do, it is sometimes imposed upon us in circumstances we wouldn’t have chosen by people who aren’t doing their part to figure things out on their own. One manifestation of the legitimate irritation some SM practitioners feel about this fresh wave of cluelessness is to essentially roll our eyes (if not bite our lips) at the newbies who show up having clearly been influenced by Fifty Shades. More or less, SMers who’ve been around the block aren’t all being terribly nice to or about the Fiftiers who are showing up in our communities.
But before Fifty Shades of Grey, people figured out their kinks and joined SM communities thanks to any number of other sources of questionable quality. How many people figured out they were kinky from reading terrible Anne Rice novels like the Beauty Series or Exit to Eden, where the SM play is not only unrealistic but downright dangerous? (Kept in super-tight joint-bending bondage for days at a time! Forced to run while chained to five other people with your arms tied behind your back and blinders on! Gah!) How many people got turned on by superhero comics or Disney movies or pro wrestling or the film “9 ½ Weeks”? How many people found their kink as an offshoot of a Dungeons & Dragons role play scenario, or spent their first years as a kinkster trying on a range of shiny new identities in chat rooms before ever venturing out into the meat world?
Perverts sometimes have an odd attachment to some elusive idea of authenticity, as though we’re all supposed to be able either to track our kinks back to early childhood—the deeply flawed “I was born this way” idea—as though there were a genetic sequence to explain leather fetishism or a love of bondage—or to have come across a credible, acceptable, cool-enough trigger, such as reading the gritty queer pervert porn of Patrick Califia or being discovered in a San Franciscso back alley by a True Master who saw our potential and took us under his leathery wing. But I know plenty of proud, aware, competent, trustworthy BDSM players who started in each of the “uncool” ways I mentioned first, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that. And I’ll give you a shot of history to make my point: according to Rob Bienvenu’s 1998 PhD thesis, “The Development of Sadomasochism as a Cultural Style in Twentieth-Century United States,” the whole gay leather aesthetic took off in the early 1950s because of the Marlon Brando film “The Wild One.” Yes, that’s right, folks—all those classic leather daddies in the boots and biker jackets and aviator shades started wearing that stuff because they wanted to look like a movie star. Because, well, it was hot. So let’s get over ourselves a bit, eh? This idea that there’s a “right” way to discover your perversion is irritating, and shaming, and doesn’t do anyone any favours. Rather than making fun of Fifty Shades-inspired newbies, I think that we perverts need to stick to critiquing the book itself.
On kink and consumerism
The second phenomenon, on the flip side, is that of perverts jumping onto the Fifty Shades bandwagon. I’m not talking about loving the book, necessarily; in fact, much of the time it’s quite the opposite. But I’m seeing dozens of examples of BDSM educators and organizers picking up the “fifty shades” meme and running with it for fun and profit. “Fifty Shades of Kink” workshops are popping up all over the place, an anthology titled Fifty Authors on Fifty Shades is about to be published—it’s not just the mainstream media that’s keen to use Fifty Shades to sell papers. Hopeful new kink educators are using these keywords to increase their visibility to mainstreamers whose main reference point is the trilogy, and even seasoned educators and writers are grabbing hold of it for a signal boost. I’m personally in the very odd position of having said I wouldn’t do this myself—using the “fifty shades” meme to get more people interested in my work—but then being asked to prepare a talk for you here tonight that critiques the book, which is indeed a timely and worthwhile topic, but which is awfully hard to do without mentioning it. So at least on that count, I’m as guilty as anyone else.
But what’s interesting to me here is that this situation points up the complex and troubled relationship between alternative sexual practices and consumerism. For many people, a key element of the appeal in BDSM, kink and leather cultures is that of the forbidden, the underground, the dark and secret, the edgy and unusual. But producing that culture requires resources. The porn, the clothes, the events, the fetish items, the toys with which to practice your kinks—to varying degrees, and they do vary greatly, being kinky requires an engagement with the material world, which means economics must come into the equation. Given that there is a demand, some people must provide the supply. Now, everyone needs to make a living, so inevitably, some people make that living, in part or in whole, by catering to the needs of BDSM practitioners or other kinky folks.
So what happens when the underground becomes mainstream, or the mainstream spills over into the underground, or however else you’d like to construe what happens when mass appeal is applied to edgy, underground, forbidden, secret sexual practice? Well, some people are of course going to try to get a piece of the pie. And it’s not a bad thing, necessarily. For an educator or writer, hooking onto the “fifty shades” meme can help pay the rent and put food on the table. Very few of us working as BDSM or leather culture producers make a basic living at it, never mind anything more extravagant, especially if we don’t take our clothes off. And even for those who do take their clothes off, with the rise of amateur porn sites and the ease with which content can be accessed for free, it’s harder and harder to make a good living in porn. Cultural production is rarely a major money-maker. E. L. James has in fact inspired a lot of resentment and jealousy among SM writers—justifiably, to a great extent—because she’s raking in the dollars for a schlocky, poorly written book series when some SM fiction writers have been labouring for a lifetime to create high-quality masterpieces of erotic literature that speak to and about perverts, without ever seeing remotely the kind of financial success we’re seeing with Fifty Shades.
It isn’t surprising to me that when the mainstream creates an opportunity, some of the perverts who are eking out a living serving a marginal population might jump at the chance to boost their income and enjoy new opportunities to do what they do best. And who knows? Maybe they’ll change the world for the better by doing so. It is a challenging set of lines to walk – between cashing in and selling out, between legitimately thinking of number one and continuing to think about the impact of one’s work on one’s community, between adopting a representation that doesn’t fit us and subverting it so that it does.
It remains to be seen what kind of longer-term impact all of this will have on BDSM and kink cultures. They are changing before our very eyes.
So… why is it sexy?
But let’s get back to the idea that a lot of perverts hate Fifty Shades. This stands in contrast with the fact that a lot of people love it—if the sales numbers are any indication, E. L. James has definitely tapped into something pretty huge. I don’t quite get why lots of people love it, but as a responsible pervert and as a scholar and critic of sexual culture, I owe it to myself to ask the question. So far I have come across a couple of answers that might combine to help it make sense. Let me share those with you now.
A friend of mine, the Control Enthusiast, calls Fifty Shades “fix-it porn.” The way he explains it, Christian Grey is broken. It doesn’t really matter that his particular brand of brokenness is portrayed as centring on sadomasochism. It could be anything. Other romances feature broken, troubled male protagonists with dark pasts—this is nothing new, it’s the classic bad-boy appeal. Correspondingly, the books set up Anastasia as pure, good and kind—while also being feisty and strong, a twist we get in such books in 2012 as a nod to feminism. And Anastasia’s aim is to bring Christian “into the light,” to repair his dysfunction and make him into a whole, happy human being by sheer force of her love. And you know what? She succeeds! She gets him to swear off being kinky (though they still play with kink) and to marry her. That’s the come shot. She suffers his bullshit and in doing so, she gets the payoff, and that payoff includes searing hot sex, marriage, colossal amounts of money, and kids. It’s a very passive, martyr-like way of approaching relationships, and it is precisely this approach that women are taught to take in the world at large. It’s an approach that caricatures both players—the man who is pathetic and broken, but also heroic and rich and hot, and the woman who is true and good and healing and inspires his change of heart, and has no selfish motives at all, but of course comes away with all the material rewards that don’t really matter (except that they do). In real life, this is generally a recipe for mutual resentment—nobody likes to be seen as the pathetic broken one in need of a hero to come along and fix them, and the martyr role rarely works as a tool for real change in anyone but it sure does engender a lot of bitterness. So: classic narrative. Terribly flawed, but very seductive to people of a certain mindset—a mindset very much encouraged in mainstream North American culture. I can see why it might appeal to a large crowd.
Maura Kelly, a writer for the Atlantic, gives another analysis: in her view, women want pleasure, and the mainstream does not know where to look to find out how to get it. Fifty Shades comes along, and all of a sudden people can read about how. There’s this guy who always seems to know exactly how to make his girlfriend come, and she always seems to enjoy herself, and they describe all kinds of ways to do it. None of this “and he plunged his throbbing manhood into her love canal… cut to the fireplace!” No, here we have details. Oral sex, Ben Wa balls, butt plugs, nipple play, necktie bondage—it is all laid out in clear order. Some of the sex scenes practically read like a sex education manual.
Given the amount of sexual information available out there today, I personally find the idea that Fifty Shades is doing anything new or revolutionary to be quite a stretch. But I’m speaking as a queer poly pervert who’s been immersed in sex-positive feminist and queer cultures since my late teens, and it’s hard sometimes for me to remember that I live in a bubble. It’s an awfully big bubble, and it features everything from fellatio how-to guides to leather events that attract twenty thousand people to same-sex marriage to cooperatively run feminist sex shops to the sex worker rights movement to porn made by and for politicized trans people and queers. But there are still lots of people outside this bubble, and who don’t know where the bubble even begins, or how to even start to look for it. These same people often don’t know how to critically evaluate the sex information that comes their way. I mean, we live in a culture where Cosmo magazine, The Rules and pick-up artist guides sell millions of copies. Clearly not everyone already “gets it.” If Fifty Shades has reached into that writhing morass of mainstream sexual culture, rather than standing outside it and waiting for people to come join us in our bubble, and said “hey, doofus, here’s how to please your woman”—well, it is perhaps doing work that I and people like me cannot, and that many of us quite legitimately don’t really want to do. And this work perhaps, by its very nature as mainstream, appeals to a huge number of people.
Combine these two types of appeal, and perhaps we can understand the potency of the books.
But all right, for real this time, back to the perverts. Now, regardless of everything I’ve said so far about Fifty Shades, I think the series provides a very accurate picture of how the mainstream understands consent, and how that understanding tries, with mixed success, to incorporate the ethics of consent that’s often espoused by BDSM communities. I’ve asked around a fair bit to find out what it is that the perv contingent is most upset about. Once you get past the rants about writing quality, most of the complaints seem to hinge on the idea that Christian Grey is doing bad BDSM, and that it makes the rest of us look bad. People are especially about two areas: the contract he tries to get Ana to sign and the play they get up to. These complaints are going to form the foundation of the rest of this talk, because they’re both right on the money and also off base. And the ways in which they are both of those things are in keeping with the books’ understanding of sex and relationships in general. So let me lay out that understanding and talk about how it is emblematic of a broader social framework that’s very problematic.
Crazy and criminal: the kinky characters of Fifty Shades
The first, and most important, layer of all this is the idea of health versus pathology, normal versus abnormal. In the book, everybody who’s interested in BDSM—with the exception of Ana, and I’ll look at that in a moment—is described as being some version of mentally ill or criminal, and by the logic of the book, those two things are almost one and the same. They do, however, split down gender lines—the women are more sick and the men are more criminal.
Christian Grey was born to a mother he refers to as “the crack whore” (and let’s not even get into the blithely normalized hatred of sex workers inherent in that), who died when he was four and whom he both hates and wants to please. As a result of her, he is damaged and can’t experience normal intimacy, so he substitutes for that by engaging in BDSM. He eventually discloses that he is exclusively interested in brunettes who look like his mother, and whom he then dominates as a form of revenge against his mother. Except that he’s also a consummate lover, and all of his skill is focused on pleasing his submissives, to the point where he includes nothing about his own pleasure in his BDSM contracts. In any case, he suffers from an extreme degree of self-hatred, and he’s also a pathologically jealous and controlling guy who throws around his wealth and goes to stalker-like extremes to possess Ana. He buys her a car she doesn’t want. He decides whether or not she gets to go to work, and buys the company she works for in order to have that say. He assigns security guards to her to report on her every move. He decides, on her behalf, what kind of birth control she’s going to use—Depo-Provera—because he doesn’t like wearing condoms. But he backs down on the contract question when Ana insists she’s not submissive, and he gets rid of half his SM toys because she’s not interested in them. To say he’s a mixed bag is an understatement. The book’s verdict: he’s sick, but not criminal, and so redeemable.
Christian is introduced to BDSM by a character known for most of the book as Mrs. Robinson, or sometimes “the child molester”—a woman who turns him kinky by having a relationship with him, with him as the submissive, starting when he’s a fifteen-year-old boy. She, too, is portrayed as a mixed bag. Christian considers her his best friend, even many years after they split up, but eventually Ana convinces him that she’s evil, and lo and behold she starts acting like it, mainly by propositioning Christian. But it takes her until the middle of the last book to actually do anything beyond trigger Ana’s jealousy by existing, and having had a consensual sexual relationship with someone who was fully physically mature but under 18 at the time. Now, don’t get me wrong—it is definitely not always okay for an adult to have a relationship with a teenager, and when you bring BDSM and power play into the mix you up the risk considerably. But according to all the current research, most people have sex well before they turn 18, so a fifteen-year-old having sex is hardly big news. And some of those people are kinky and want to play—I certainly was one of those. And some of those people will engage in play with people who are over 18—again, I was one such teenager. But here we see age deployed, right in line with the very problematic age-of-consent laws on the books today in both Canada and the States that are disproportionately enforced in racist, classist and homophobic ways, as an indicator of abuse regardless of all other factors. The book’s verdict on Mrs. Robinson: she’s sick and criminal, but she’s also a woman, so we’ll let her get away with it, mostly; we’ll just shame her in front of her friends.
When Christian turns dominant, he gets involved with a series of submissive women. One of his ex-submissives, Leila, appears in the book; she has gone off the deep end, bought a gun, and started stalking him and trying to kill Ana, because she’s jealous that Ana has what she always wanted: Christian’s heart. After a showdown at Ana’s apartment, she is shipped off to a mental hospital—on whose authority we are not told, though Christian seems to have a relationship with his therapist that features a distinct lack of professional boundaries, and the therapist is involved in this situation. And then when she gets out, Christian pays her tuition at an art school. The book’s verdict on Leila: she’s batshit crazy, and criminal, but money can make that go away; and she’s more sick and pathetic than criminal anyway, again presumably because she’s a woman, or maybe because she’s submissive.
Lastly, Jack Hyde, Ana’s employer, has a history of sexually assaulting his assistants, and filming or photographing the assaults. The book describes him as keeping this evidence as a way to silence his victims because—and this is not made especially clear—the assaults look like kinky sex and the victims wouldn’t want that to be made public. I think? At no point does the book explain how sexual assault looks like SM in a photograph, or how these photographs would be used as anything other than evidence of exactly what they are—rape—or why it is that a picture of actual kinky sex would have been so shameful in the first place. Anyway, Jack assaults Ana, tries to kill Christian several times, and eventually gets caught. The book’s verdict: Jack Hyde is criminal slime, and probably also some kind of crazy, but he deserves to go to jail (as well as get shot in the leg by Ana).
As for Ana—well, she’s completely innocent. She’s a 21-year-old virgin when she meets Christian, and she has sex only with him, and they get married. Ana is also pathologically jealous. She’s jealous of Mrs. Robinson, of Leila, of all Christian’s ex-submissives, of Christian’s female assistant (until Ana realizes the assistant is a lesbian, and so is nothing to worry about), of the architect they hire to build their new home, and of various random waitresses and so forth. And she attacks various women in the books using everything from glares to righteous diatribes about “keeping your hands off my man.” For Ana, any desire for kink is in the realm of exploration and play. She’s not submissive, she doesn’t want to sign a BDSM contract with Christian, and she likes a fairly limited range of kinky activities, nothing “too extreme.” By the book’s logic, she’s not really kinky at all, and therefore isn’t sick or criminal—but she sure does have a lot of fun playing at kink occasionally. In fact I’d say at least a third of the trilogy is devoted to describing just how much fun she has.
The thing that really gets me upset, and that I’m not hearing anyone else complain about at all, is the portrayal of a specific character who is not kinky. His name is José Rodriguez, and he’s a close friend of Ana’s. Early in the book series, he gets Ana very drunk and sexually assaults her—he brings her out into the parking lot of a bar and makes out with her despite her repeated protests. Christian shows up and saves Ana from him, brings her home and puts her to bed safely. After the assault, however, Ana remains friends with José and defends his behaviour to Christian, saying it was all just a misunderstanding and Christian’s just being unreasonable and jealous. Their friendship is still going strong at the end of the series. Without even beginning to address the fact that José is a sexual assault perpetrator and also happens to be the only person of colour who shows up in the books for more than a bit part, to me this whole sub-plot is one of the most disturbing parts of the series.
In short, the book portrays sexual assault, stalking, extreme possessiveness and control by people in non-kinky contexts as being no big deal; and it portrays kink as being an indicator of both mental illness and criminality in all circumstances other than heterosexual relationship heading toward marriage and reproduction. This, to me, is one of the places where Fifty Shades accurately, and very problematically, reflects mainstream understandings of consent and acceptable sexual conduct. The message is twofold: if you’re kinky and you’re not partnered in a heterosexual, monogamous fashion, you are mentally ill and criminally dangerous; and if you’re heterosexual and monogamous, then jealousy, stalking and control are indications of love, and playing with kink a little bit is hot as long as you don’t do it too much and you keep it in the bedroom.
I could spend a long time analyzing each of the characters, and each of the book’s many very messed-up scenarios, but I think this pretty much sums it up. The book tells us that being kinky means you are sick and dangerous, but that playing kinky, within a very limited realm, means you’re having awesome sex. Now, you could argue that this is one better than a lot of material out there—that making it acceptable and hot to enjoy kinky play because of the great orgasms is a step forward for perverts everywhere. To a limited extent, I buy that, and I think that very thing is what’s producing the surge of interest in SM and sex toys that the market is currently enjoying. But in truth, that little equation is not terribly new at all, and it comes at a very high cost.
The charmed circle
In her famous 1984 essay “Thinking Sex,” Gayle Rubin discusses the value system that social groups apply to sexuality, which defines some sexual behaviours as good and natural and others as bad and unnatural. In this essay she introduces the idea of the “charmed circle” of sexuality, saying that sexuality that is privileged by society falls inside of it, while all other sexuality lies outside of it. The binaries of this “charmed circle” include paired sex versus sex done solo or in groups; monogamous sex versus promiscuous sex (and yes, the value judgement of the term “promiscuous” applies here); same-generation sex versus cross-generational sex; and sex that uses bodies only versus sex that includes the use of manufactured objects.
One of her key points is that sometimes the charmed circle changes. Things that were once outside it can be incorporated into it. Masturbation, or solo sex, is one of those things—a hundred years ago it was seen as sinful and medically dangerous; today in all but the most super-conservative contexts it’s seen as fairly banal. Same-sex relationships are also one of those things. Certain types of same-sex relationships—white, monogamous, non-kinky, middle-class, reproductive, married—are now incorporated within the charmed circle in many parts of the world, while other types are not.
The plot, characters and message of Fifty Shades line up directly with this charmed circle and contribute to extending the reach of that circle just far enough to include soft-core kinky play. But in order to do so, the books have to carefully describe the types of kink that should remain shut out of the charmed circle—kink that is full-time rather than occasional, that takes place in the context of a cross-generational relationship, that is outside the context of marriage or monogamy or love, or that is “too extreme” in terms of pain levels or technical complexity.
For this reason, if I had to say whether I’m for or against Fifty Shades, I’d say I’m against.
Not because the kinky play it portrays is done poorly, because it’s actually not—E. L. James did her research, and it shows. Just about every kinky act she describes in glorious detail could have been taken straight out of a workshop I might teach. Christian’s technique is beyond reproach. He really knows the rules, and when he breaks them, he even does that carefully. In one scene, he apologizes for having only handcuffs available as bondage toys, because they are known to cut into the wrists and leave marks; so he asks Ana if it’s okay to use them despite this, and she says yes. He’s definitely taken his BDSM 101.
Nor do I hate the books because the contract Christian Grey writes up is evil. In fact it’s really straightforward and includes plenty of very clear, easy outs for Ana should she dislike anything that’s going on. I happen to think, like many perverts who’ve read these books, that trying to get someone to sign a BDSM contract when they’ve never even had sex before, let alone experienced any BDSM, is a bad idea, but the contents of the contract itself aren’t scary or inherently oppressive and the conditions under which she’s being asked to sign it aren’t, either. The timing, in regard to her experience level and the short time they’ve known each other, is poorly chosen, and Christian admits this himself; and then Ana negotiates with him to change some elements of the contract to suit her better, to which he agrees; and then she decides she doesn’t want to sign the contract at all, and he says that’s okay; and so they continue their relationship sans contract, and there is no penalty exacted against her for refusing. So while the contract isn’t a great idea, it’s hardly an example of Christian exerting any kind of abusive power over Ana. And we don’t need to focus our critiques there anyway—there are plenty of other examples in which he does exert abusive power over her. (Remember the Depo-Provera? And the whole “buying the company she works for” thing? And the stalking? Yeah.)
On contracts and punishments
I will digress, for a brief moment, into the question of contracts. The books spend a lot of time on the will-she-or-won’t-she question about Ana signing Christian’s BDSM play contract, and a significant portion of the books’ pervy detractors focus on the contract as being the big problem. In another move that, perhaps surprisingly given where the critique is coming from, is thoroughly in keeping with mainstream sexual politics, all this focus on a play contract obscures what seems to be the unquestioned end goal of the books: a whole other type of contract, and one that is far more serious. Ana and Christian get married. The mainstream glorifies, idealizes and I might say even fetishizes marriage, so isn’t very interested in questioning or problematizing the nature and scope of the marriage contract; and the broad BDSM community doesn’t tend to spend a lot of time critiquing marriage, preferring to leave that to radical queers and (some) feminists. But I find it deeply disturbing that Ana enters into a marriage contract with Christian, the contents of which, unlike their BDSM contract, we don’t ever get to read—and how many of us even know the nitty-gritty of what a marriage contract entails, even those who are married?—but which assuredly cover far more ground, bind them to each other in far deeper material and social ways, and are far more legally enforceable than any BDSM play contract could ever hope to be. The hullaballoo around Ana and Christian’s unsigned BDSM contract stands in stark contrast to the silence around the colossal power of the state-sanctioned contractual agreement that is their marriage—and anyone else’s real-life marriage. But, y’know, critiquing the institution of marriage just isn’t that sexy or provocative. And marriage is normal. But BDSM isn’t. So clearly we need to focus our attention on the BDSM, right?
I will further detour, for another moment, into the question of punishment. This is the one area where I think the book gets the BDSM itself badly wrong, but again, that is in keeping with the way a lot of people get the BDSM wrong. Punishment is one of the first concepts people tend to associate with BDSM, but the erotics of punishment are complex at best, and punishment is one of the most frequently misunderstood and poorly executed types of play—which is exactly what happens in the book. So a few words of advice for those who are interested in punishment: if you want to do this, here is some stuff to think about.
For starters, there is a major distinction between punishment and what’s known as “funishment.” Punishment, in the context of an agreed-upon and desired dominant/submissive relationship, isn’t inherently sexy, even if the dynamic itself is. Two people come to an agreement about one of them having a particular range of authority over the other, and agree upon certain behaviours that are out of bounds; if the submissive behaves in a way that’s out of bounds, the dominant enacts the agreed-upon consequences which, ideally, motivate the submissive to change the problematic behaviour. It’s a behaviour modification method, and it’s not for everyone—even as a full-time D/s person myself, I find little appeal in a punishment-based approach, and I’ll say more about that in a second. Funishment, on the other hand, is more like, “You bad boy. (wink) You’ve gone and misbehaved again. (finger wag) Now come here and let me do sexy things to you, and you can pretend you’re being forced to endure them, and this little charade will turn us both on.”
Actual punishment is not an excuse to have sexy times. And funishment is not an activity to engage in when you’re truly upset about something or feel like a boundary has been crossed. They’re two quite different things, and in my many years of observing and playing within the BDSM community, I’d say that a not-insignificant portion of scenes that go wrong do so because the two people involved miscommunicate about what exactly they are trying to do in playing with punishment. Some key questions to ask if you do want to play with punishment are things such as, what is each of you hoping to get out of this? What is the realm of authority in which the dominant has license to act? Do your expectations match up? How will you know if it’s having the desired effect? What will you do if it isn’t?
For punishment to work well, there needs to be a high degree of consistency and predictability in the dynamic, so that the submissive knows and agrees to what’s expected of them. In most cases, real punishment is not a desired outcome at all—the submissive wants to follow the rules (otherwise, why get into a relationship where you negotiate rules and ask someone to hold you to them in the first place?), and the dominant wants to help the submissive follow the rules, and if punishment occurs at all it’s an indication that one or both of them are off track in holding up their end of the dynamic, which is far from the goal. Or, if you want to do things without any predictability and with inconsistency, that specific dynamic needs to be desired and agreed upon—for instance, if two people find it sexy that the rules keep changing so they’re never sure what’s okay and what’s not okay, that’s great, but they have to both like things that way, perhaps for the element of surprise or the pleasure of having one’s head messed with for no purpose but fun. Not surprisingly the latter model fits much better with funishment than with punishment, and comes with its own complexities (such as, how will you both handle things if the headfuckery actually goes to a place that makes one of the participants genuinely uncomfortable?).
There is also the question of extrinsic versus intrinsic reward as an approach to behaviour modification. Some people really enjoy extrinsic motivators. For instance, if you finish writing half your essay tonight, you’ll treat yourself to a chocolate bar; if you don’t finish half your essay tonight, you don’t get the chocolate bar. For some people, extrinsic motivators don’t work at all. I’m one such person. I hate rewards and resent punishments. If I’m going to put effort into something, it has to have inherent reward for me—in this example, I have to want to write the essay because I am interested in the topic or see the value in doing the work or at the very outside because I want to pass the class because it is of some value to me. And if I want the chocolate bar, I just want the damn chocolate bar, I don’t want to have to jump through hoops to get it, and I certainly don’t want to be deprived of it because I did or didn’t do some unrelated thing. You can learn this sort of thing about yourself by seeing what works for you entirely on your own—you don’t even need to try it out with a partner to figure out how you’re wired in this respect. So if you pair up someone who’s wired for intrinsic motivation with someone who’s wired for extrinsic motivation, there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding, even if you’ve successfully dealt with the questions of punishment/funishment, realms of authority, and consistency/inconsistency.
This is just a brief aside about the complexities of playing with punishment—honestly, the topic is worth an entire book, and because it’s not really my thing, I won’t be the person writing it. The psychology of punishment goes well beyond the kind of thing you’re likely to learn in an SM 101 workshop, and it’s not easy to negotiate as many of us don’t have the language to figure this stuff out about ourselves, let alone set it up with someone else. But it’s high on the list of ideas we immediately associate with SM. In short, if you are going to play with punishment, you need to do it carefully and consciously.
Fifty Shades portrays exactly the opposite of that, even if all the physical techniques are perfect and all of the T’s are crossed and I’s dotted on the (unsigned) contracts. The scope of Christian’s authority is constantly in flux, and he often tries to exert it in ways that Ana does not consent to or desire; Ana sometimes asks for punishment, and sometimes manipulates Christian into punishing her; Christian sometimes threatens to punish her, sometimes seduces her into it; it’s never clear if the punishment is real or staged for pleasure; sometimes it upsets her, sometimes it turns her on; he sometimes does it to please her, sometimes to vent his rage. Their punishment play, in short, is a complete mess, and predictably it’s the site where a range of their relationship tensions and arguments play out. If you wanted to, you could use the physical techniques described in Fifty Shades to get up to some pretty safe sexy fun. But please, please do not ever use Fifty Shades as a relationship model. On that front it is outright dangerous.
Oppression: not so sexy
In part, I dislike the books because the charmed circle they aim to extend is deadly. I don’t want to be inside that charmed circle because I don’t think it should exist, and I don’t want to see its borders extend such that people inside it think they know what’s okay and not okay about kink. That will leave far too many SM practitioners both more exposed than ever and facing judgement that pathologizes and criminalizes them, all while other people get to have their sexy fun and feel all transgressive-like. It’s an equation I don’t buy and a form of acceptability I can do without.
I’m not against the idea that people might relax about the possibility that their neighbours engage in some spanking or bondage—really, the entire world could stand to relax some about this stuff. But if that acceptance comes at the cost of that same mainstream world understanding full-time, high-intensity or outside-the-bedroom kink as by definition being the product of abusive childhoods and mental illness, or as being likely to lead to criminal behaviour up to and including assault and attempted murder, or as being inherently abusive, then all it will do is reinforce a set of existing social prejudices that already harm BDSM practitioners plenty. I’m not talking about simply being misunderstood or having our feelings hurt. I’m talking about the outright criminalization of BDSM as exemplified, for instance, in the Spanner case in the UK, where men were jailed for their consensual play; about kinksters being labeled as mentally ill and dangerous according to the DSM-IV; about leatherfolk being excluded, verbally attacked and physically assaulted within the broader community; and about perverts losing their jobs, their safety, and custody of their kids. I’m not making any of these things up. They are not theories, they are real-life consequences to the skewed public perceptions of any kind of BDSM that’s not just a bit of spicing up a heterosexual marriage. The last thing we need is to strengthen the prejudices that are already a thorn in our collective side—and no, we don’t get off on that kind of pain.
But mostly I dislike Fifty Shades because it normalizes assault, stalking, the use of money as a form of coercion, jealousy, rage, “winning” arguments, men’s control of women’s reproductive choices, game-playing, manipulation, marriage as the end goal and as the great legitimizer of relationships, lack of honest communication, and the healing power of innocent virgins’ inherent goodness. None of this is the least bit kinky—it’s just plain old hetero-patriarchal power relationships, and sexing those up in a best-selling “edgy” romance trilogy does nothing more than perpetuate an entire culture where “consent” takes a backseat to “normal.” This isn’t kinky or sexy or cool. So no matter how well-researched the BDSM technique, the relationships and politics that forms the core of this story are deeply unhealthy, and I fervently hope that they’re not going to become erotic templates for a generation of people who think they’re being sexy and oh-so-wickedly perverted.