How 50 Shades of Grey Screws Real Conversations about Sexual Politics

by Kohleun

This blog post is about exactly what you think it’s about. If you don’t want to read my take on 50 Shades of Grey and relationships and sexuality, you should navigate away. If you want me to give you steamy excerpts from the book, you can navigate away again, because I don’t think male-controled relationships are desirable, or even healthy expressions of kink. So, please, if you choose to leave, grab a cookie on your way out, and don’t say I didn’t warn you if you stay.

I have a confession: I have never read E.L. James’s popular 2011 erotica novel. But this is what I’ve heard and seen, and I could be wrong on the details, but bear with me. This will at least be entertaining. The plot is centered on a young woman named Anastasia Steele, who goes to interview a wealthy magnate named Christian Grey for a story. Now, Anastasia is a mousy naive journalism student, I gather, as writers are. Apparently. And, can you believe that a wealthy, enigmatic man whose veneer no one else has been able to penetrate just can’t get enough of Anastasia. Then, like his fanfic inspiration, Edward of Twilight, Christian warns Anastasia that he’s attracted to her, but she doesn’t want to get mixed up with his peculiar sexual preferences and his lack of desire for an emotionally involved relationship. When Anastasia says to “enlighten” her anyway, thus begins her sexual education and introduction to kinky sex and Christian’s inner battle, since he doesn’t want commitment, yet he doesn’t want anyone else to have Anastasia and beats other people up who are interested in her.

Wow. Let’s unpack just that super speedy rundown. If that is true of the novel 50 Shades of Grey, I have serious issues with it. Here’s my list of reasons why.

1) The extreme contrast between Anastasia’s naiveté and Christian’s supposed sexual prowess portrays a man as responsible for and more knowledgable about sex and his female partner’s sexuality than she is.

This is problematic for many reasons. Okay, so some women know less about sexuality than some men, but the same is true if you reverse the gendered pronouns. Some people don’t know a lot about sexuality or sex, and some people know a lot. Regardless of gender. And yes, I admit, those folks in the latter group can be intimidating and enigmatic, but that doesn’t mean they should get to take charge in all the decision making. Which brings us to the reason I really truly despise this portrayal of gender difference. I think a difference in knowledge and experience can be a non-issue for a relationship, but if one person is more “in the know,” it’s still not okay for that person to call the shots or to feel responsible for their partner’s sexuality. That can lead to the less experienced person feeling intimidated and silenced and not willing to try new things, and it could lead the more experienced partner to manipulate their partner into doing things they aren’t comfortable with.

When a woman says “go ahead” when a man vaguely warns her he’s unconventional, it appears to give him a free pass, rather than clearly communicating specific preferences and activities and letting a woman veto or green-light things before she’s blindfolded and whipped. And I think that warnings like those of Christian Grey and Edward Vampire are cop-outs. They violate the other persons’ boundaries and ability to say yes as well as no, and these cop-outs get people in the habit of not making their own decisions or trusting their own instincts. Not okay. MAKING YOUR OWN DECISIONS IS GOOD. BEING IN CONTROL OF YOUR OWN BODY IS A RIGHT AND PRIVILEGE. Sure, Anastasia might like the way Christian makes her body feel, but she can get laid after the appropriate lines of communication have been laid.

2) The novel features characters expressing BDSM and kink in the context of a relationship that already has some serious control and knowledge/power issues, which is not a healthy origin for experimenting with extreme power dynamics.

I’m not gonna knock unconventional expressions of sexuality in general, like BDSM, fetishes, or kinks. I am totally calling out–right here, right now–James’s blatant misunderstanding of what makes healthy relationships (or even casual encounters) work, and what can actually be abuse. Christian Grey is possessive. That’s gross, people. Oh, yeah, I’ve heard some women say they just want someone to want them that much, you know. Like, all the time, and without letting anyone else spend time with them or be interested in them. LISTEN SISTER, YOU DON’T WANT THAT. That kind of person doesn’t want you. They want to be in control. They want power. They may even want whatever you can contribute to helping them gain power and control in other areas of their life. Or, you could be their compensation for feeling like they have no other power. YOU’RE BETTER THAN THAT, SERIOUSLY. If you feel like you don’t deserve someone who wants you to be a whole, independent human, please reach out to someone who can help you.

When you start with a relationship that has a controlling partner and a passive partner or unresolved aggressions, BDSM should wait until another time. Kink can be a good way to work out tensions and issues that do not originate in anger or general possessiveness towards or of one’s partner. It can be a healthy way to experiment with boundaries and power dynamics. But, E.L. James has done humanity a great disservice by trying to convince us that controlling is a desirable quality, and that dominance/submission sex within an already unbalanced relationship is unequivocally okay. Maybe it is, right? Maybe in some possible universe this controlling guy, who has not yet proven himself to be otherwise not domineering, will not use sex as an outlet for his own unresolved power and control issues. Maybe he won’t continue to be possessive and emotionally abusive. That possible universe might also have pancakes that never get soggy, but I find both of those propositions implausible.

3) The portrayal of Christian Grey perpetuates the cultural expectations that men have insatiable appetites for rough sex and find emotional attachment, commitment, and intimacy confounding.

This is a lie. A stereotype that has, over the course of history, evolved into an ugly monster. And I don’t think the kinky sex part is the ugly part. Men are not animals. Search and destroy or consume might be the goal of many because we’re taught that men must be Men, capital M in bold. And that to be a Man, one must be able to do the following: 1) provide for and control his environment, 2) be physically intimidating or strong, 3) be emotionally unreachable and tough (real men don’t cry), 4) fear or be bad at commitment, and 5) be awesome at sex with women (or a woman, for the traditionalists amongst us). But the fact that real human men and their cultural archetypes often struggle with their emotions is a sign that men actually have emotions and feelings and they have not been adequately equipped or allowed to process and express them in a healthy manner.

If the Casanova you’re dating lets his feelings show, that doesn’t mean you’ve fixed him. Sorry. It’s not you, it’s him, actually. They’re his feelings and always have been. And, get ready, a newly discovered emotional center can open a whole can of worms that romanticized ideals can’t deal with. Rather than repeatedly romanticizing conflicted male characters who don’t know how to have emotions, let’s try taking steps towards broadening our understanding of manhood and masculinities. And intimacy and commitment for that matter. If commitment means one person is solely responsible for the material upkeep of a relationship and the other person is solely responsible for the emotional upkeep, count me out. I’m not committing to that.

 I have a slew of ideological reasons not to be over the moon for this book or its sequel, but at the end of the day, I especially don’t want to further the existence of  poorly written detrimental representations of sex and relationships. The fact that “50 Shades” was published despite its flawed prose is a sad sign to me, and a very curious one. Is it true, as mentioned above, that women are simply looking for that all-consuming relationship in which they are hungered for, or is our society ready to start talking about sexual politics around the water cooler? If this is how that conversation is going to pick up tread, I fear for us. But I’m hopeful for the open door.

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