With the launch of Fifty Shades Darker in cinemas, this guest post is just as relevant as it was when it was originally written two years ago. Ruthie Hird looks back on her experience of a toxic boyfriend (whom she met on a church retreat) and draws striking parallels with Christian Grey. I found it compelling when I first read it and she kindly agreed for me to re-blog it here.
So, there’s this book/movie that has come out recently: it’s called Fifty Shades of Grey, perhaps you’ve heard of it? Well, I sure have, and I’ve seen the throngs of mommy (and non-mommy) squee-ing over the very idea of a dark, mysterious man sweeping girls off of their feet and having incredible sex with them. Oh, if only Mr Grey really existed! I hear women sigh longingly.
Well, ladies, guess what: he does exist.
I should know: I dated him.
And so have about 4 million women in North America in one year alone.
Here’s the thing: Mr Grey in my world was not a high powered businessman, in fact he wasn’t rich at all. He was actually a twenty-six year old, blonde haired, blue eyed, church-going construction worker. He wore a cowboy hat, drove a pick up truck, and I had no idea what I was in for when he asked me out.
CONTENT NOTE: References to rape, coercive control and non-consensual BDSM perpetrated against the author – as well as similar behaviours in Fifty Shades.
I realize my simply saying this really isn’t enough. But I recently lost at least one facebook friend, simply for posting a blog article detailing fifty examples of abuse in the first half of the trilogy. I read the article out loud to my husband of almost four years, (not Mr Grey) and all I could think was, This sounds almost exactly like my ex.
So, if you are still reading at this point, and have slammed your laptop screens in disgust, or turned off your monitors, I ask your indulgence as I attempt to make a point-by-point comparison to Mr Grey, and my ex.
Rushing things, right from the start
I met Mr X (yes, we are going with that alias) at a church retreat. He asked me to go on a walk with him, along with several other girls, who all declined. (A rain shower had just let up, so it wasn’t exactly ideal hiking weather. It was also late January in Greater Vancouver: you do the math.) At any rate, he was tall, good looking, and I was extremely vulnerable. I was a molestation victim who was in the middle of pressing charges against my childhood abuser, and my parents were currently in Africa doing missions work. They had also made it clear that they would not be attending my court case, should I carry it forward. I was not technically a virgin (though not by choice) but I was entirely new to the dating scene. The only guy I had ever really pursued a relationship with was an on-again-off-again I-like-you-but-I’m-scared-to-do-anything-about-it guy friend from my youth group days, and that was hardly the same thing. (Please note, this was not the guy who raped me before. On-again-off-again and I did not ever really get past groping.)
Ultimately, while on the walk, I opened up to him, and he eventually admitted that his intention was to get just me on the walk with him. He admitted to noticing me and wanting to get to know me. I was twenty, and he actually thought I was younger(!) He was six years my senior (which, incidentally, is the same age gap between Mr Grey and Ana, though I actually didn’t know that until now, thanks to the internet).
Within a week of the retreat, Mr X and I had exchanged numbers, and he had procured information about my workplace and hours from some well-intentioned girlfriends of mine. He first showed up at my workplace, and asked me out…to dinner and a movie. On Valentine’s Day. To the Keg, on a first date. (Interestingly, my older brother had warned me that guys who take girls out to the Keg on a first date only want one thing, but I dismissed that. He was a good Christian boy, after all!)
Compare this with Mr Grey: He shows up at Anastasia’s workplace, three hours out of his vicinity, and admits in the second book that he discovered this by stalking her. This is made to look romantic and cute, but really, it’s not. It’s an invasion of space and privacy, not to mention a way to break down her defenses. He later tells her that “Even if she moved to Alaska, he would find her.” He also repeatedly shows up places, even after she tells him no. He follows her to her mother’s house, in Georgia, after she specifically asks him to give her time to think about the relationship. When she second guesses signing a sexual “contract,” he warns her that he is “not a patient man.” This is not ok, people!!!
Saying he can’t live without me
Back to Mr X: After I broke up with him, he turned on the stalking behavior again. When I stopped responding to texts, he dropped off flowers and a card to my workplace. At one point, he actually broke into my sister’s house (whom I had just moved in with) and started telling me how much he had changed. Uhh, right. He had just broken into my place of resident, ie. barged right into the house without knocking and certainly without an invitation, and would not leave after repeatedly being told to do so. Yup, he had changed, alright! (Sarcasm.) He only left after I pushed the door shut on him after he stepped onto the porch, and I had the phone in my hand, dialling 9-1-1.
The claims of change in Mr Ex had also been evident before culminating to the break in. At one point, he called me, crying over the phone about how he “needed me,” and promising he would become a better person. He threatened suicide, because he “couldn’t live without me.”
Here again, we see “shades” (pun intended) of Mr Grey. In book two of the series, Mr Grey dramatically falls to his knees and refuses to speak, terrified that Ana is going to leave him. He magically recovers, only after she promises to never leave him, states she isn’t good enough for him and that she can’t stand the thought of anyone else being with him. That is exactly what he wants to hear. There isn’t any real remorse there. Just as Mr X used a suicide threat to try and manipulate me, Mr Grey uses the silent treatment as a means to an end. Also, once she sees herself as lower in her own eyes, Mr X is again free to do whatever he wants. He has power over her, that she unwittingly gave him.
Mr X was insanely jealous. If a guy friend texted me, Mr X demand that I read the texts out loud, or sometimes he would grab my phone and read them for himself. (He didn’t do this as often, being dyslexic, and therefore finding it hard to read them on his own.) If he heard my phone go off more than twice in any given hour, he would get angry and threaten to take my phone away. He warned me that the only time he would “ever hurt me” is if I cheated on him. He also threatened that if I ever got pregnant by another man, even if it was rape, he would put a morning after pill in my orange juice, thereby forcing me to not conceive/have a child. He also “casually mentioned” a story about how his best friend said he would push his girlfriend down the stairs if she ever got pregnant. He then laughed about it.
Mr Grey is also jealous. He gets angry with her for receiving phone calls from her friend Jose, then just assumes that she is going to call him, when in actuality, she wants to call her female friend, Kate. He speaks to her in what is described as a calm and deadly voice. On one occasion, he says he “Doesn’t like to share,” and in another case, while having sex with her, he says he wants her to “Remember that I’ve been here. Only me. You are mine.”
Claiming my body is his
Mr X was obsessed with making sure I knew that he was in control. He couldn’t get aroused unless he was physically pinning me down during sex. He would insist on using controlling language, saying he was going to “take me.” On one occasion, when I was in serious pain from a back injury that required me staying home from work, he said I should “Just let him get off, then.” I could just “Lie still, and I’ll do all the work.”
In the book, Mr Grey tells Ana “If you struggle, I will tie your feet, too. If you cry out, Anastasia, I will gag you.” In another section of the book, when she begs him not to have sex with her (!) (seriously, how can this even be argued to be a consensual situation?) he claims that this sex isn’t for her, it’s for him, and that he wants her to be frustrated. “That’s what you do when you don’t talk to me, by denying me what’s mine.”
Newsflash! Even when you are married, your spouse isn’t YOURS! Any true, caring spouse / partner / boyfriend / girlfriend knows that sex is something mutually agreed on by both parties. If at ANY TIME, someone says no, you had better get the heck out/off. I didn’t realize this going into my relationship with Mr X. I thought that once I “gave my gift of sex away,” by agreeing to it once, that gave him a free pass to do anything he wanted. Had you asked me at the time, I might have said that no means no, but I didn’t truly understand that.
Mr X coerced me into talking to a doctor about birth control pills (even though I wasn’t sure at the time that was the method I was comfortable using) and took my prescription and had it filled without my knowledge…then blamed me when the pharmacist was suspicious and grilled him about why he was getting the pills and not me. His reason for doing so? He doesn’t like condoms.
Mr Grey does essentially the same thing, He has a doctor come to see her, about birth control, and he says it’s because he doesn’t like condoms. When she objects, saying, “It’s my body,” he says, “It’s mine, too.” I’m all for protected sex, but your partner does not own your body, and they don’t get to have a say in the method you choose.
Putting his ego into sex
Which leads me into my next point: Mr X used a twisted form of lower level BDSM with me, without bothering to explain to me what that entailed. He knew I had been molested in the past, and that it wasn’t even something I was comfortable with, on any level. He pouted, insisting it was what he wanted for his birthday, and revisited the topic any chance he got, until I gave in, hoping that I could get away with only doing it once.
It was traumatic on every level. Not once did I feel cared for, or romanced in any way. He was upset with me because I couldn’t get aroused. I went physically limp, numb, felt completely humiliated and degraded. He was upset because I couldn’t get aroused. (Not upset for how I was feeling, however: upset because it somehow destroyed his ego to not be able to manipulate my biological responses.) Some women *might* find this scenario empowering, but I definitely didn’t. Remember, I was an abuse victim, and I had to tune out in order not to relive my trauma.
In the second part of that “session,” Mr X had me hogtied on the bed in a lacy skirt, and mimed taking pictures of me, crooning about “what he would do next time.” I was shaking, visibly, from head to toe. There was no way he couldn’t have noticed that, or me trying to bury my face in the sheets to avoid looking at him. He found it sexy. There was no safe word: I didn’t even know those existed!
Now, let’s examine Mr Grey. Ana is a virgin. She has had no experience with sex, consensual or otherwise. He draws up a contract, which he pushes her to sign, again and again, in which she will agree to be exclusively submissive, and plainly states that she is only allowed to leave if he fails to meet his end of the contract. But, because no one else knows about the contract and because Christian is so good at arguing Ana down, this really means that Ana is only allowed to leave if he decides to let her! This flies right in the face of empowerment, of any form whatsoever of choice and mutual participation. When performing BDSM on her at one particularly graphic part of the book, Ana is crying out in pain. Later, when she tries to tell him it wasn’t ok, he chides her for not using the “safe word.” It’s all her fault she was upset. Right, just like the girl who wears a short skirt is to blame for being raped. (Sarcasm.)
Using trauma as his excuse
Then of course, there’s the traumatic back story. I am by no means saying that trauma can’t lead to behavior issues, but it is not an excuse. Mr X had a traumatic story about growing up dyslexic, being made fun of by both teachers and kids at school, and threatening to perform a school shooting. All of those may have been valid traumas, but they were not excuses to treat me the way that he did. Mr Grey, of course, also had a traumatic childhood, and claims this is the reason for his sexual “tastes.” He needs therapy, not a toxic, abuse-enabling relationship.
I thought at first that Mr X was simply protective of me, but later I saw all his actions as controlling and manipulative. When Ana and Mr Grey’s lives are threatened by a crazy ex of Mr Grey’s, rather than calling the police, he hoists her over his shoulder and literally SPANKS her, in public, while carrying her off screaming. This isn’t protective, or romantic. It’s humiliating and degrading.
Treating me like I’m his doll
Mr X insisted on changing my wardrobe. When he met me, I typically wore a kind of punk/emo style. I liked my striped purple and black shirts and tights, my jeans with holes and arm warmers, my beat up pink converse. When we met, I was wearing a baggy hoodie and jeans with an old pair of boots. He was under no illusion that I was a “girlie girl” who liked to dress up. He pushed me to wear dresses and heels, and to do my hair. He would get upset if I dressed casually at a family dinner, even if everyone else was in everyday clothes. He dictated what I ate, when, and how much. I was given limits on how long I could talk to a friend or relative if he was around (and even sometimes when he wasn’t).
Mr Grey, as part of the contract, tells Ana that she is not allowed to eat snacks, can only eat what is on a list that he dictates, can only wear clothes pre approved by him, and only with a budget which he controls. She must wear anything he asks of her, for any reason. She must have regular haircuts/waxes etc, and may only have these done at a pre approved (by him, of course) beauty salon. She also has to regularly see a personal trainer, who has to report to Mr Grey regularly on her progress. Essentially, he runs her world.
People have told me I am being too sensitive. They have told me that it is “just a book,” that we are overreacting. Worse still, they say that in this day and age, women make a choice. That if they are abused, it is their own fault. No one should have to live in fear of their partner. All throughout the book, Ana is clearly afraid, clearly second guessing herself. She describes him as dangerous. These are not the words used to describe a loving partner.
The problem is, so many women are seeing Mr Grey as the prefect man. The book is a bestseller, it is described as “mommy porn”. It isn’t ok to encourage abuse, or to strive for a relationship like this. It just isn’t ok. And it isn’t so easy just to “walk away.” There are so many reasons, just look at #WhyIStayed for evidence of that. These books are cold, hard slap in the face for abuse victims.
People have judged my objections, saying that I am simply a prude, or that I object to the “kink.” Honestly, if this was just another one of those Harlequin romance novels you can pick up at the grocery store or your local thrift store, I wouldn’t care. I would just shrug and say, “To each his own.” But the fact is, it’s a bestseller. I can’t count the number of “Ooo, Christian Grey, SWOON!” posts I’ve seen all over the web.
I for one, will not be watching Fifty Shades on Valentine’s Day. I will be having a nice dinner with my husband, and laughing and talking about life. Without being afraid.
Yes, I dated Christian Grey…and I’m NEVER going back.
Ruthie lives in the Vancouver area with her husband (currently a Stay At Home Dad) and two kids. She is passionate about using her story to help others, and challenging the patriarchy. You can visit her blog here.