Okay, I’m actually kind of nervous about writing a discussion post on what I want to talk about today. Especially since this is a mostly-YA blog, I want to warn you guys that if talking about stuff like sex, erotica, sexual harassment, fetishes, etc. bothers you, that maybe you should click away from this post, because I don’t want anybody to get upset or triggered.
But, this is a bookish topic that I’ve always wanted to write a discussion post about, even though it’s definitely not a YA issue.
Today I want to talk about…Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. In particular, the behavior of Christian in this series and BDSM relationships in general.
Although I’ve always kind of wanted to share my opinion about this controversial topic, Bo-ok Nerd’s recent post on sexual harassment spurred me to do it sooner rather than later. Her post is very interesting and I highly recommend reading it! But, just to be clear, nothing I say in this post should at all be considered as an attack against her or her post. I absolutely adore Giselle and her blog…it’s more just that her post gave me a springboard to add some of my own opinions to the discussion, and it helped motivate me to finally write about something a little taboo.
First of all, I just want to say that I completely agree with the basis of Giselle’s post and the whole #YesAllWomen thing: that sexual harassment against women is way too common and that it’s completely inappropriate and wrong. Women should not have to live in fear of men.
But mostly I want to talk about how sexual harassment/stalking is portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey, and (my personal opinion of) how it’s both okay and not okay in that particular circumstance.
I think Giselle used the specific example of Fifty Shades of Grey in her post because it’s a very well-known book that a lot of people have read, have an opinion about, and can easily see how the content relates to what she was saying about sexual harassment. But I actually think that it’s not that great of an example. There are a lot of books out there that glorify this sexual harassment/stalking-type behavior by men and try to make it seem “sexy,” but I’m of the opinion that Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t one of those books…although I admit that it had a huge hand in fueling the creation of many of the ones that are.
One major difference between Fifty Shades of Grey and some other books that include stalker-y men is that Anna and Christian have signed a contract and are in a BDSM relationship.
I think that a lot of Christian’s behavior in the book would be totally inexcusable…if it weren’t for the fact that they are in mutually-consenting BDSM relationship. A huge part of understanding his behavior in this series is having a good understanding of the ins and outs of BDSM in general.
I think that there’s a big misconception out there that BDSM is just about sex. While the physical side of it is very important, there’s also a huge emotional/behaviors/mannerisms part of it as well. Christian is dominant in his BDSM relationship with Ana, and a lot of times that dominance exerts itself outside of the bedroom.
Submissives like to be controlled…and not always just during sex. So, there’s also an aspect of living in a BDSM relationship in which the dominant person is controlling (and the submissive person lets them control) in regular parts of life as well.
BDSM vs. Bad Behavior
But, let’s be clear…not everything Christian does is okay, even within the confines of that BDSM relationship. I’ll be honest, it’s been a while since I’ve read this series, so I can’t give you page numbers or refer to super specific instances, but I know that he does venture outside the appropriateness of that BDSM relationship at times, and the things he does (like, for example, being very controlling in the relationships Anna has with other people, specifically men) are not always nice.
But it’s tough to see the line sometimes, for two reasons. One being that I think not everybody is clear on when and how it’s okay/not okay to act a certain way in a BDSM relationship. The whole point is that he’s supposed to be dominant and controlling. But when does it go overboard?
The other reason is that I think that are instances in which Ana acts like she doesn’t want something, even when she really does. Since she’s new to this lifestyle, she has a lot of predisposed ideas of what sex is supposed to be like. She’s very…innocent. And, because of that, sometimes I feel like she tries to talk herself out of what she really wants. It’s not always clear which times Ana likes Christian’s dominance and which times she’s actually really upset about something he’s done.
But it’s obvious that, at times, Christian doesn’t always do what he should be doing. And this is where it gets tricky. I personally believe that E.L. James wrote him doing these bad things on purpose. As readers, we’re always saying that we want more flawed, “not perfect” characters. Well here you go! Christian is pretty flawed. But, as the series continues, he really does improve on himself. Just like a real person might. He goes to therapy, works on his problems, fights his demons, and ultimately ends up being a way better version of himself than he was in the first book.
But, unfortunately, the way that E.L. James wrote the books did cause some backlash. What I think is happening here are two main things that need to be addressed (not saying that all people think this way, but…):
- People read the first book, hated it and didn’t continue with the series, and now see Christian as the devil because of all the “bad” things he did.
- Some people didn’t realize that Christian’s inappropriate behavior was supposed to be a character flaw. They had trouble judging the line of what’s “sexy” dominance and what’s just plain creepy and wrong, and now are fans of books in which guys really are stalkers and sexual harassment is hailed as erotica, which fueled an entire slew of books in which authors write these characters actually on purpose.
These are some big problems.
I think it’s completely understandable that some people might just not like this book. Especially if they have had bad experiences with guys in the past and/or don’t know a ton about BDSM, a relationship like Christian’s and Anastasia’s might come across as really horrific, and I totally get that. Sometimes a woman seeing (or reading about) another women giving a man power over herself in a BDSM relationship is upsetting to watch, based on that women’s own experiences with sexual harassment/sexual assault/stalking in the past. But it doesn’t necessarily make that relationship, or all/any BDSM relationships, inherently bad.
And maybe some people didn’t give the books enough of a chance. Maybe they didn’t realize that Christian’s bad behaviors were supposed to just be realistic flaws of somebody with a dominant person. His ultimate transformation of himself is actually quite commendable, if you’ve read the whole series. I’m not saying that Fifty Shades of Grey is some kind of masterpiece or anything, but I do think that it deserves more credit than people give it.
The Good That Came Out of It
James created a character, Christian, with deeply rooted issues who slowly overcomes them, as well as Ana, who goes through a sexual awakening and is actually a really good metaphor for the audience of this book.
Before Fifty Shades of Grey, I never would’ve even considered writing a post about such a taboo subject like BDSM. Of course BDSM existed way before the series did, but I think that James actually did us a huge favor in creaking open those extremely heavy doors to a subject that, previously, was pretty much only talked about in the most private of conversations. Fifty Shades of Grey has helped the public come to a more accepting place about “weird” sexual fetishes. And I bet a lot of women even realized that they themselves have been denying themselves from the type of sexual satisfaction that they truly craved!
Lots of good things came about from this series, and I think that’s an important thing to take into consideration when discussing it.
The Bad That Came Out of It
But not everything that came out of this series was good. Even if E.L. James never intended it…since this series has been published, there’s been a significant increase in glorification of sexual harassment/stalking, particularly in books. Because of the second problem I was talking about, in which some people read Christian’s bad behavior as actually being sexy, more and more authors have written books geared towards those women, in which men are doing bad dominant things without either (a) having a BDSM contract, or at least clear mutual consent and a discussion about boundaries, or (b) having these behaviors seen as flaws that need to be overcome.
I very much dislike those books that don’t follow these rules, because they’re helping to create this increasing growth of a sexual culture in which women are being taught to see bad dominant actions in a positive, even sexy, light.
Basically, my point is that, while the Fifty Shades of Grey series might have contributed to or even started this “genre,” it doesn’t actually commit those atrocities itself. So readers should be careful in their labeling of the series as bad or seeing it as being a glorification of sexual harassment, because personally I disagree with the assertion that it’s both or either of those things.
But I’m very interested to hear what you think about this! How do you view Fifty Shades of Grey? What are your thoughts on the good and bad things that came out of this series? Is it or isn’t it a glorification of negative sexual behaviors?