OK, I confess.
I was all up for writing a piece about consent and victim blaming and the difference between allowing an action and accepting an action, and I was going to do an analysis comparing the recent Oscars encounter between John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson with Ana and Christian in chapter 12.
And then Scarlett Johansson turns round and says John Travolta wasn’t being creepy.
Fine. I’m not going to pretend I have a case that says she’s been bullied into defending him.
But let’s think for a moment about chapter 12.
Content note: this post describes some of the stuff Christian does in chapter 12. I wouldn’t describe it as really violent, but some of the behaviours would be consistent with a rape. And if the idea of mouth-to-mouth creeps you out, don’t read on.
Ana has sent a message trying to end things with Christian. He rocks up uninvited. He asks her if she wants to be reminded of how nice it was knowing him. Meanwhile her inner monologue has been thinking about escape routes and describing herself in “rabbit/headlights” terminology.
Then she lunges at him. We know that this is out of desire, but there is nothing external to indicate whether or not she’s initiating sex or doing a fight/flight response.
He asks if she’s willing to trust him and she nods. But from an external point of view she’s pinned under his body on the bed at the time – so could just as easily be nodding out of fear.
He ties her hands and then takes her shoes off and she protests “No.” We know it’s because she’s embarrassed about her feet. Does he? It would be a fair guess to say that she’s referring to her feet, but given that they’re still starting out on their sex life, it’s good etiquette to check. (Assuming of course he can be sure that her consent is genuine and not out of fear – and it’s doubtful here that he can be sure.)
Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that, in my book, it’s bad etiquette to completely ignore someone’s “No” (he takes off the shoes anyway), wrong to insist on a person’s silence during sex, and dangerous to threaten to take away that person’s primarily ability to communicate without considered discussion beforehand on what other methods of communication will be used (he says, “If you make a noise Anastasia, I will gag you”).
Leaving that aside, let’s look at what happens next: he undresses himself, blindfolds her, gets the champagne, gives her two mouth-to-mouth mouthfuls of the stuff … and then she smiles – the first external indication that she might be accepting what he’s doing rather than just allowing what he’s doing.
As an external viewer, I would have good grounds to believe – at least up until this point – that this was a rape in progress.
But could I be getting it all wrong? I mean, when I read about the Oscars encounter, I perceived an example of poor consent negotiation. But it’s possible I was going of a slanted, incomplete version of the account – which Scarlett Johansson says is what happened.
What we need to weigh here is the established dynamic between the people involved.
Scarlett Johansson is a limelight professional who was in the public eye; she received a kiss on the cheek and a hand on her stomach; John Travolta has worked with her before and they’ve known each other for years. Her words are that it’s “always a pleasure” to be greeted by him and other analysts have speculated that it was an attempted photo-bomb moment that didn’t go as planned. (I recognise others still hold that John Travolta is creepy, but if we confine our observations to this one incident, I believe there’s a plausible case for saying that, on this occasion, he was being far more light-hearted than creepy-boundary-pushing.)
Ana, on the other hand, is inexperienced – both at romantic relationships and at erotic encounters. She’s alone with Christian. Christian’s actions are very physically intimate – of a kind that cause immense damage and hurt if you get them wrong. Christian and Ana’s relationship is still getting started, so they still have a lot to learn about each other. Ana is at a point of confusion around whether or not she really wants to go somewhere with Christian. And gentle light-heartedness is no way to describe his manner of descending into her bedroom uninvited with a “guarded and unreadable” expression.
This scene is an extremely poor example of consent negotiation that, at best, could only be justified by an established, understood and mutually happy dynamic where this kind of behaviour and level of spontaneity was known to be enjoyed by both. And there’s none of that here.
So, no, I don’t care if Ana turns round afterwards and says what he did was nice. Christian is still creepy.