This Valentine’s Day
Forget the past
And slip into something
A shade darker
— Fifty Shades Darker – Official Trailer 1 (Universal Pictures)
I’m starting with a slightly different quote this time. Not because I’m in any way thrilled that Fifty Shades Darker will come out in February 2017, but because it’s relevant to what I want to explore in this post.
In a redemption story, the redeemer purposefully chooses to act. In my previous post I talked about how they have privilege; this means they aren’t forced into their choice. In this post, I want to talk about how they don’t “slip into” their actions either.
In other words, I want to talk about grooming – a process that makes it look like someone’s making free choices, when actually they’re not. I’ll be comparing Christian’s tactics with Beast’s. Grab a cup of tea or make a bookmark, this post is longer than usual.
CONTENT NOTE: This post makes general references to parts of the plot of Fifty Shades of Grey, including non-consent and BDSM.
The deals on the table
I gasp, and I’m Eve in the Garden of Eden, and he’s the serpent, and I cannot resist.
“Okay,” I whisper.
— Fifty Shades of Grey, p245
For this post, I’ll focus on the first fourteen chapters of Fifty Shades of Grey. During the course of these chapters, Christian suggests a BDSM relationship to Ana and she actively agrees to it. As Ana says to herself on the same page as the quote above:
Holy s***, I’ve just agreed to be his sub.
This isn’t the only deal making (and breaking) that happens between Ana and Christian, but when you step back and look at the overall plot, these first fourteen chapters are the ones in which Christian, for lack of a better word, hooks Ana. The rest of the trilogy is about how he keeps hold of her.
For Beauty and the Beast, the point of focus is the scene in the tower where Belle negotiates for her father’s freedom and agrees to stay with Beast ‘forever’.
The question I want to ask is whether Christian grooms Ana, and whether Beast grooms Belle.
So what is grooming?
I’m going to use a definition from an academic book in criminology called ‘Grooming’ and the Sexual Abuse of Children. In that book:
‘Grooming’ is defined as:
– the use of a variety of manipulative and controlling techniques
– with a vulnerable subject
– in a range of interpersonal and social settings
– in order to establish trust or normalise sexually harmful behaviour
– with the overall aim of facilitating exploitation and/or prohibiting exposure.
I acknowledge that this definition was offered in the context of the sexual exploitation of children, but I can think of no better definition for the process, inherent in sexual abuse between adults, of creating and manipulating vulnerability.
Grooming is a particularly pernicious activity because it is a pattern of behaviour, not a single incident, and it often disguises itself. This means hindsight can be a real stinger when you look back on a pattern of grooming. To recognise it in progress, before harm happens, is very difficult – even amongst those who work to catch sex-offenders.
This qualitative aspect of grooming is, I think, one of the reasons why there is so much controversy around whether abuse exists in Fifty Shades. Many people assert that Ana fully consented to her relationship with Christian, but I’m going to make the case that Ana was groomed.
So let’s take each of these bullets in turn.
Use of a variety of manipulative and controlling techniques
“I want to know about you. I think that’s only fair.” His eyes are alight with curiosity. Double crap. Where’s he going with this? He places his elbows on the arms of the chair and steeples his fingers in front of his mouth. His mouth is very . . . distracting. I swallow.
— Fifty Shades of Grey, p14
I lose count of how many times Christian manipulates Ana in the first few chapters of Fifty Shades of Grey.
He frequently behaves in a way that disregards her no, or turns her no into a yes. Whereas this isn’t always in the context of sex, it’s a way of normalising how he can interact with her – which then can be (and is) used in the context of sex. For example, he:
- turns the conversation towards Ana when she’s not comfortable;
- calls her Anastasia or Miss Steele, when she askes to be called Ana;
- invasively asks about her background and family.
He frequently behaves in a way that seriously disrespects Ana’s autonomy and consent, but he passes off his behaviour as acting for her best interests. Again, he doesn’t always do this in the context of sex, but it paves the way for him to:
- paint himself as the good guy (who knows what’s best for her);
- paint her as the unreliable witness (who doesn’t know what’s best for her); and
- normalise him disregarding her consent.
One way he does these is through obsessing about her eating (FSOG, p217) – and this is a recurring theme throughout the trilogy. But perhaps the clearest example, is when he takes her back to his place in chapter 5. She’s drunk and unconscious, but he undresses her, sleeps in the same bed as her, and sends her clothes off to be cleaned. And he buys her new clothes (which she has to wear, because he sent her clothes off to be cleaned).
It’s important to appreciate that, at this stage of the book, Christian is still a virtual stranger. He has no right to treat her body the way he does and, importantly, no need to either. The honourable thing would be to alert Ana’s best friend and flatmate and help her take Ana home. But doing what he does normalises non-consent and paints him as a hero. It also paints Ana as unreliable; Christian chastises her the next morning:
“You need to eat. That’s why you were so ill. Honestly, it’s drinking rule number one.” He runs this hand through his hair, and I know it’s because he’s exasperated.
“Are you going to continue to scold me?”
“Is that what I’m doing?”
“I think so.”
“You’re lucky I’m just scolding you.”
— Fifty Shades of Grey, p67
Which brings us to how Christian makes threats towards Ana. In chapter 12, when she protests against Christian’s actions during foreplay (not that she ever gave active consent), he threatens to gag her if she isn’t quiet. He also says ominously that being in a public place ‘wouldn’t stop him’ (FSOG, p217).
I’m not disputing that some of Christian’s actions give Ana pleasure. But just because something is pleasurable, that doesn’t mean it isn’t coercive. In fact, it’s partly because she’s received something she wants that means Ana is reluctant to try and change the terms of BDSM contract (FSOG, p233).
Let’s move on to Beast.
It wasn’t Beast’s idea for Belle to stay in the tower. It was Belle’s idea. In other words, Beast does not use Maurice as leverage to get what he wants from Belle. You can call Beast opportunistic, but not manipulative.
With a vulnerable subject
Romantically, though, I’ve never put myself out there, ever. A lifetime of insecurity—I’m too pale, too skinny, too scruffy, unco-ordinated, my long list of faults goes on.
— Fifty Shades of Grey, p51
I’ve already touched on this in my previous post about Ana’s and Belle’s privilege – where I concluded that Ana doesn’t have privilege but Belle does.
What I’ll point out here is that, it’s not just that Ana lacks self-esteem. It’s also that she presents as someone who lacks self-esteem and is willing to acquiesce to other people. For example:
- she apologises for asking if Christian is gay;
- she says she “obviously” wouldn’t fit in at his organisation (because she’s scruffy);
- she accepts her boss’ inappropriate behaviour towards her – and Christian sees it;
- she’s nervous on the phone;
- she’s shy over coffee;
- she answers all of Christian’s intrusive questions about her background.
Now, I appreciate that in the UK, the word ‘vulnerable’ has a much stronger meaning when it’s used in a legal or safeguarding context. But I think the idea of vulnerability is helpful when considering sexual coercion of the kind that Ana experiences. A person doesn’t need to be ‘vulnerable’ in a legal sense before they can be said to have vulnerabilities – but it’s their vulnerabilities that allow abusers to identify them as a potential targets, and it’s their vulnerabilities that abusers exploit.
I would also say that naiveté is a form of vulnerability – and Ana is naïve too.
But compare with Belle, who is not vulnerable. She’s not naïve and she doesn’t offer to save her father because she feels she has to. She has plenty of nerves and initiative. When Beast puts ‘forever’ on the table, she emphasises the ‘if’ in her next question, making it clear that she hasn’t yet agreed. Unsurprisingly then, Beast doesn’t target Belle.
In a range of interpersonal and social settings
“There. Now can you join me for coffee?” Grey smiles as if it’s a done deal.
— Fifty Shades of Grey, p39
During the interview in Christian’s office. At the hardware store where Ana works. In a café over coffee. In his bedroom. In her bedroom. In his Red Room. At her graduation ceremony.
As for Beast, it’s in one of the towers of his castle. And that’s it.
In order to establish trust or normalise sexually harmful behaviour
“I could hold you to some impossibly high ideal like Angel Clare or debase you completely like Alec d’Urberville,” he murmurs, and his eyes flash dark and dangerous.
“If there are only two choices, I’ll take the debasement.” I whisper, gazing at him.
— Fifty Shades of Grey, p95
I recognise that some people hold the opinion that BDSM is sexually harmful behaviour, regardless of context. Whereas I’m not here to promote BDSM, I think it’s more important to look at the consent and safety issues that Fifty Shades raises. (You’ll find some of my reasons for saying this here.)
So, in case you missed it before when I was talking about turning Ana’s ‘No’ into a ‘Yes’:
Christian normalises non-consent.
What’s particularly dangerous though is that he normalises BDSM that is not risk-aware. For example, he brushes aside Ana’s concerns as to how she might use a safeword if she’s gagged. He also implies that safewords keep a person safe (they don’t) and makes no discussion of why Ana may not feel able to use it.
He also normalises poor negotiation. For example, he negotiates with her when she’s drunk. He also requires her to make decisions on different aspects of BDSM when she hasn’t given much thought to the idea of them, and cannot know what thy might begin to feel like in practice.
In terms of trust, Christian first presents himself as mysterious in an enticing way, like he’s forbidden fruit. Then, once he’s revealed to Ana that he wants to do BDSM with her, he presents himself as an expert in safe, consensual and risk-aware kink. Even in the scene quoted above where Ana says she’d choose debasement (and – I ask you – why should there be only two choices?) he presents himself as an expert by saying she ‘doesn’t know’ what she’s asking for.
Contrary to how it might look on the surface, Christian isn’t raising awareness of Ana’s naiveté or empowering her. What Christian means in this scene is that Ana doesn’t know about his Red Room. What would have been empowering is if Christian had started to talk about active, informed, enthusiastic consent. Or that the idea of a certain sex act may be not be so appealing once you put it into practice. Or that it’s problematic to explore your sexuality with the sole aim of becoming compatible with another person’s very different and uncompromising wish-list.
These concepts don’t just apply to BDSM, but they do become more important in a BDSM context because, if there is a deliberate or accidental consent violation, the risk of physical and emotional harm is often greater.
And this is why what Christian does is dangerous. Anyone can call themselves an expert in BDSM, but that doesn’t make a person trustworthy or risk-aware. When people – especially dominants – present themselves as experts, it can encourage inexperienced people to leave aside their own common sense. This is a point made in another post you can find on this blog, written for submissives by a woman in the scene. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it’s titled A message to S-Types – What you REALLY need to know.
OK, let’s compare with Beast.
When Beast negotiates for Belle to stay with him forever, he does not try to win her trust.
You could say he tries to normalise his treatment of Maurice because he says it was Maurice’s fault for trespassing. But it’s a weak and petty argument – one that even children can see through.
With the overall aim of facilitating exploitation…
2 The fundamental purpose of this contract is to allow the Submissive to explore her sensuality and her limits safely, with due respect and regard for her needs, her limits, and her well-being.
— Fifty Shades of Grey, p165
Make no mistake: in the first 14 chapters of Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian’s aim in pursuing Ana is to get sex from her and control her in a dominant-submissive dynamic. We know this because in Fifty Shades Darker he admits to habitually pursuing women who remind him of his mother (FSD, p329).
We can debate whether this is the case at the end of Fifty Shades of Grey. By that time, Christian has agreed in principle that he will try and give ‘more’ to Ana – which means trying to give her what she wants from the relationship. Of course, he could have just been saying this (and I have a lot of time for the argument that says he was just saying so as a means of keeping hold of Ana). However, the point remains that in the first 14 chapters of the book, Christian pays only lip service to Ana’s side of the relationship.
For example, he doesn’t ask her want she wants, he asks her to give him what he wants. He says it’s for her benefit – and even Ana, in a rare moment of insight, scoffs at this and tells Christian that this premise is untrue. Christian’s response? He emails her the definition of the word ‘submissive’ (FSOG, p208).
I’ll also point out here that telling someone “this is what you want” or “this is what you will want” is a form of non-consent. And Christian does that too (FSOG, p155).
Is it exploitative for a person to pursue someone else for purely their own gratification? In a world with apps like Tindr, this is a relevant question. I have two answers:
- Probably yes if the person being pursued is inexperienced like Ana– they are more likely to agree to something they don’t want or that won’t be beneficial to them.
- Definitely yes if, like Christian, the pursuer normalises non-consent to get what they’re after.
It is irrelevant if Christian’s intentions are benign by his definition of violence and abuse. Abuse is not judged by the morality of intentions. For all of his talk about being an experienced dominant who wants to help Ana explore her sensuality with due regard to her needs and limits, Christian doesn’t educate her about consent. If she had been educated, then she wouldn’t have allowed later scenes to happen (like the boathouse scene or the six slaps). Or at the very least, Ana wouldn’t have blamed herself for Christian’s actions.
OK, let’s look at Beast. Beast wants to imprison Belle. It’s irrelevant if this is in the lap of luxury, his actions are abusive. They could be worse, but that’s not the point either.
One thing I will say for Beast is that he is motivated by a desire for his freedom, not his gratification. Moreover, because of the terms of his enchantment, he has an objective reason as to why imprisoning Belle may directly lead to his freedom. This is one of the plot points of Beauty and the Beast, that is tolerable only because it is in a fairy-tale setting.
Christian of course, has no such excuse.
…and/or prohibiting exposure
“Fine speech you gave, Mr. Grey.”
“Thank you, sir. I understand that you’re a keen fisherman.”
Ray raises his eyebrows and smiles—a rare, genuine, bona fide Ray Steele smile—and off they go, talking fish. In fact, I soon feel surplus to requirements. He’s charming the pants of my dad. . . like he did you, my subconscious snaps at me.
— Fifty Shades of Grey, p243
The most obvious way Christian tries to prevent Ana from exposing his actions is by getting her to sign a non-disclosure agreement. He says this is to protect his reputation but this is an empty argument. As I’ve already said in my post on privilege, if Ana accused him of anything, he’s far more likely to be believed. Moreover, as many real-life celebrity cases have shown, even if her accusations were proven, that probably wouldn’t hurt his reputation.
Another thing to appreciate is that Christian doesn’t frame the BDSM and his sex with Ana as something he does to her. He frames the relationship as something they are doing together. This, in and of itself, is a manipulative technique that makes it less likely for a groomed person to disclose what’s happening.
Also – and this is the reason why I quoted the scene where Christian meets Ana’s dad – grooming is not something that only happens to a victim. Christian’s charming attitude is just as much a part of the grooming process, because it means Ana is less likely to be believed if she ever discloses Christian’s behaviour.
As for Beast, he doesn’t hide what he’s doing at all. True to his word, he releases Maurice and gives him safe passage back to the village.
Christian’s actions in the first 14 chapters of Fifty Shades of Grey easily fit the criminology definition of ‘grooming’ which I cited at the beginning of this post.
It is hard very hard therefore to see Ana’s choices as being part of the purposeful choice that is to be expected in a redemption narrative.
Beast’s actions, though hardly pleasant towards Belle, definitely don’t fit the definition of grooming and leave room open for Belle to make a free choice.
However, there is one respect in which Beauty and the Beast poignantly captures what it’s often like to disclose a concern of grooming and abuse. When Maurice gets back to the village, he rushes into the tavern and tells all the villagers about what’s happening to Belle. They collectively disbelieve him, ridicule him and throw him out.
In this, the fairy-tale is uncomfortably real.
CRONY 1: Crazy old Maurice. He’s always good for a laugh!
— Beauty and the Beast (1991)
This is the seventh post in a series on redemption, comparing Beauty and the Beast with Fifty Shades. You can find an index of all the posts here.