How 50 Shades reflects real-life abuse in BDSM (part 1)

One of the biggest myths spoken about 50 Shades of Grey is “It’s not abuse, it’s BDSM.” I recently read a rant from a guy in the BDSM scene calling out abusive behaviour from a big-shot d-type who was using his reputation to silence his critics and the people he was abusing. Unlike 50 Shades, the rant is not fictional, which is why the strong parallels it has with 50 Shades are so serious. You can read the rant (in all its anger and uncut strong language) here. In the meantime, this post is the first of three that lists some of ways the big-shot dominant the ranter described reminded me of Christian Grey.

If phrases like “BDSM,” “s-type” and “d-type” are unfamiliar for you, you might want to check out my Dictionary page. I’ve also written separately about why I write about BDSM and why I write about 50 Shades.

Content note: This post talks about abusive behaviour. I try not to be graphic but it’s generally not nice to read about and I do repeat some of the creepy things Christian says and does to Ana in the 50 Shades books.

Lesson 1: Abuse can happen – even in a BDSM setting

“It’s BDSM” is never enough. There should always be a discussion about consent, risk and appropriateness: that’s what distinguishes abuse from what gets called “safe, sane and consensual BDSM” and “risk-aware consensual kink”.

There are debates even within the scene as to how useful these labels are (e.g. How do you define “sane”? Is “risk-aware” enough when a person wants to be seriously physically injured?), but what they’re trying to acknowledge is that the context of BDSM activities is extremely important. This is what is so very wrong with 50 Shades.

In fact, it was hard-core BDSM erotica that gave E.L. James the idea for 50 Shades! The thing is, the plot of the short story in question was non-consensual and, somehow, E.L. James failed to spot this in her “research”. Das Sporking has written more about this; before I give you the link to the webpage, I’ll put in a content note that the plot of this short story is really unpleasant (even in its summarised form on the Das Sporking post); you HAVE BEEN WARNED. OK, here’s the link. (Edit: Search for the word “ducklings” – it’s the bit above that.)

So, “It’s BDSM” – without discussion of context – is no defence for Christian’s behaviour in 50 Shades.

We also need to bear in mind that this rant I read was from someone in the BDSM scene and it was about real life abuse committed within the scene. I’ve got a lot of time for the consent-activists out there who know about BDSM, because they’ve thought about consent and care about consent a lot more than most people. But there are abusers in the BDSM scene (just as there are abusers pretty much anywhere) and so we need to be clear: sexualised bondage, domination and sadism etc. do not magically become OK  when they’re practiced in an environment where other people are (or seem to be) doing the same thing. Jenny Trout has written about abuse in the scene. Yes Means Yes has also written about it. I’m not trying to be anti-BDSM here, but we shouldn’t be under any illusions. Christian’s self-description that he’s a “Dominant” (FSOG p100) does not make him special and safe and part of a consent-culture.

Lesson 2: Consent obtained through use of power is not consent

The rant has an interesting definition:

Command Rape – When perceived or actual power or position is used to coerce the victim into activities which they otherwise would not participate in through intimidation.

This one is very applicable in BDSM. Especially when we consider the inexperienced, the young and impressionable, or simply those with personality types that want to “impress”, “please” or “prove worth to” a more experienced Dom or Master (D/M). Their lack of understanding of the reality and absolute necessity of limits puts these individuals at risk of being victimized.

Now let’s think about Ana in the context of 50 Shades:

Inexperienced: Ana’s sexual experience when she meets Christian is: zero. She’s a virgin (FSOG p108) who’s never masturbated (FSOG p114).

Types that want to “impress”, “please” or “prove worth to”: There are lots of examples from the opening chapters of FSOG that Ana is over-awed by Christian’s aesthetic perfection and smouldering, enigmatic broodiness. But we only need one (FOSG p100) to show that Ana completely falls into this category of “wanting to please”:

Please him! He wants me to please him! I think my mouth drops open. Please Christian Grey. And I realize in that moment, that yes, that’s exactly what I want to do. I want him to be damned delighted with me.

In other words, according to this rant, Ana meets the definition of someone at risk of being victimised because she lacks understanding of her need for boundaries.

But does Christian “command rape” Ana according to that definition above? Yes, yes he does.

For example, FSOG p273, Christian says:

I’m going to spank you, and then I’m going to f*** you very quick and very hard.

There’s a paragraph of Ana debating whether she should try to run away, followed by a further intimidation from Christian. And then this is what Ana’s “consent” looks like:

I’m panting, afraid, turned on. Blood pounding through my body, my legs like jelly. Slowly, I crawl over to him until I am beside him.

I really, really don’t care if E.L. James thinks it’s possible for a person in Ana’s situation to experience it as both “scary and hot”. Ana did not give free consent. (Oh, and genital response does not always correspond with arousal. For women the overlap averages at 10%. This is called non-concordance. It’s all in a book called “Come As You Are” by Emily Nagoski, for anyone who’s curious to find out more.)

Oh, and there’s another time in chapter 20 when Ana consents to sex so that Christian doesn’t hit her again. That’s not consent either; it’s command rape.

Lesson 3: Manipulation and coercion is a slippery slope

The rant describes this as follows:

Example…. Someone says, “I will never do anal, that is a hard limit for me” and the Dominant/Master consistently makes statements like, “Your ass will be mine”, “I will do what I want with your body” or just a simple, passing “Imma put it in your butt”, these statements can be manipulative and coercive in nature. They make the s-type feel as though they aren’t living up to expectations and aren’t good enough. If that activity is a “requirement” of yours… move the f*** along.

Does Christian do this? You betcha.

Ana doesn’t want Christian to hit her. This is one of the central themes of (what is trying to be) the plot of the 50 Shades series. FSOG p204, Ana writes to Christian:

“This whole discipline clause. I’m not sure I want to be whipped, flogged, or corporally punished.”

Then after Christian has hit Ana, she says to him on p286:

“I didn’t like it. I’d rather you didn’t do it again.”

Also, on p345, Ana says:

“Please don’t hit me,” I whisper, pleading.

So, the book is pretty clear that spanking and being hit is something Ana does not want. And yet, despite hearing this very loud and clear from Ana, Christian is continually talking about his “twitchy palm”. Like on p298, he emails “My palm is twitching” and then on p341 he says he’s “palm-twitchingly mad.” The real proof is on p474 when Ana pre-empts him and says “You may stow your twitchy palm for now.”

This is exactly the “slippery slope” described in the rant I read: Ana tries to set a limit but Christian erodes away at that limit with his language. At the end of the book, he totally violates it (and she leaves).

In Fifty Shades Darker p329 Christian confesses why he hits Ana:

“I’m a sadist, Ana. I like to whip little brown-haired girls like you because you all look like the crack whore – my birth mother.”

Let’s leave aside for a moment the deeply problematic way in which E.L. James depicts Christian’s birth mother and the dubious rationale that Christian’s treatment of Ana is somehow therapy for him. If Christian was serious about consensual BDSM, he’d have followed this advice:

If that activity is a “requirement” of yours… move the f*** along.


Part 2 coming soon is here, with:

Lesson 4: Pre-negotiation must be neutral and pressure-free

Lesson 5: Mistakes require intentional aftercare (and are they mistakes?)

Lesson 6: A threat is not aftercare

Lesson 7: Mistakes should be prevented (and not blamed on the victim)

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