It took me a moment to register that I was smiling as I read chapter 26 of Fifty Shades of Grey. Yes, you read correctly, I was smiling. Christian and Ana were engaged in a playful game of cat and mouse around the kitchen – he with his dastardly boasting, she with her undaunted wiliness – and it was fun. Until suddenly it wasn’t a game.
The ending of Fifty Shades of Grey (both film and book) is undeniably one of the most irritating things that I’ve had to get my head round. Ana asks Christian to show her “the worst” in the film or “as bad as it can get” in the book. In the film he asks her if she’s sure, in the book he asks if she’s ready. She says yes. He says he’ll hit her six times. He then hits her six times. He then stops. Does this mean she actually was consenting to the whole relationship and he’s not actually abusive? Deep breath. Content note: I talk about abusive and violent behaviour in this post and the use of discipline in a BDSM context.
In order to help me unpack my thoughts about this scene, I’ve split this post up into several questions:
- What happened and what was the background?
- Was this wise?
- Was this consensual?
- Was this violent?
- Was this BDSM?
- Would Christian do worse?
What happened and what was the background?
Christian wants to punish Ana. The terms of when and how Christian gets to punish Ana are set out in in a BDSM contract (which Christian wrote and Ana never signed). Reasons for punishment include Ana defying or disobeying Christian; rolling her eyes at him counts as such an act, as does running from him. The extent of punishment is limited in that Christian will not draw blood or do anything that leaves a permanent mark. So far in the book, Christian has expressed that he “needs” to inflict pain and punishment on his submissives and, in her quest to help Christian be healed from this need, Ana has agreed to go along with it. But now she tells Christian straight-up that she doesn’t like it when he punishes her.
Christian reels in emotional shock in the realisation that her experience of him punishing her is as bad as his experience of being touched on his chest. This is something he’s not allowed Ana to do and he’s not explained why. On this occasion when she asks why, he tells Ana that if he explains his reason, she will “run screaming from this room” and “never want to return”. But he “can’t risk that”, so doesn’t tell her and, in his emotional “torture”, pleads with her to stay.
Ana then asks him to punish her to demonstrate “how bad it can get”. She asks for this because she hopes that in allowing him to do this to her, he will then allow her to touch him. And to top it all off, Christian agrees to hit her. Six times, with a belt, on her backside, hard.
She screams, cries and counts the blows as he hits her. Afterwards she’s in tears and wants to have nothing to do with Christian. Then, having told him that she loves him and the she can’t be what he needs her to be, she labels him depraved and, after sorting some practical details, leaves.
Was this wise?
No. Categorically, no.
Ana was bargaining badly. Ana was trying bargain for permission to touch Christian and she put in her side of the bargain without telling Christian she was after in return. That’s not how negotiation works. Rather, that’s how to allow yourself to be trampled on while your frustration grows that you’re not getting what you want. And when you’re giving something that you’re not entirely willing to give (as was the case here) then then it gets even worse.
Perhaps Ana thought she might have been able to retrospectively make Christian feel obliged to give her something; if so, again, this was an extremely unwise assumption. Moreover, this would have been manipulative. It’s not how to do negotiation.
What Ana asked for was unwise. You don’t ask your friends, “Say to me the most hurtful thing you can think of” unless you are looking for trouble. (And if you genuinely want your friends’ honest opinions of you with a view to improving your relationship with them, you ask a different question.) Ana knew she wouldn’t like what Christian would do, but instead of asking him to start with something and escalate it to the point where one of them reached their limit, she asked Christian to go to straight to his limit. And, surprise, surprise, it’s beyond hers. This is not how to do negotiation.
Ana’s beliefs were unwise. Ana believed that if she couldn’t take “the worst” of what Christian was prepared to inflict on her, then she couldn’t be in a relationship with him, because that would show that she couldn’t be what he wanted. In other words, if he wants to hit her then either she has to take it or leave the relationship. (And when she realised she couldn’t take it, she left the relationship believing that she was doing so for his sake.)
Why does she believe she has to take “the worst”? In any relationship you need to be prepared to take some rough with the smooth (everyone has idiosyncrasies), but that doesn’t mean you have to be willing to accept “the worst” behaviour that person is capable of exhibiting. Instead, you need to weigh up what behaviours are reasonably likely, whether or not you’re willing to take them, and how to mitigate the risk of something happening that you’re not willing to take. And allowing yourself to be the sole means by which that risk is mitigated, is extremely unwise.
In other words, Christian’s “need” to punish Ana is a problem that Ana believes she has to adapt to. Forget Christian getting a grip on his past. Forget Christian recognising that punishing her isn’t an option. Forget Christian putting safeguards into the relationship that would actually limit his control over Ana. No, to be with the man she has irrevocably fallen in love with in the space of two weeks, to save herself from dying a lonely spinster mourned for only by her cats, she has to be able to take Christian’s limit when it comes to violence.
Ana is deeply misguided.
Was this consensual?
The kind of consent I think is warranted for a sexual relationship is:
- active, and
- informed, and
Generally speaking, when you have all these things, you have consent. When you don’t have all of them, there’s a risk of consent violation. I’m sure lots of people can give lots of “exceptions” about when their consent wasn’t one or two of the above and it didn’t result in a consent violation, but that’s not the point. The point is, these are the things to look for when judging whether consent has been given, and if one or more is absent there needs to be something significant about the context to justify an argument that says there wasn’t a consent violation.
There is no question about the enthusiasm or the activeness of Ana’s consent. Ana gave unenthusiastic, active consent.
But was her consent informed? She agrees to him giving her “the worst” without knowing what “the worst” is. Christian tells her what he’s going to do before he does it (I feel there is significance in this, but I can’t put my finger on it), but he only tells her once he’s determined that he actually will punish her.
Ana, being new to the whole concept of consensual violence, probably doesn’t know what she’s saying when she phrases her requests in terms of extremes. People in the BDSM scene write messages to new submissive-types to stop them from falling into this trap because this is common and dangerous, and if Christian had a modicum of real BDSM experience he would know this. The fact that Ana asked for “the worst” doesn’t mean she gave consent, it just explains how Christian didn’t get consent.
She might have assumed that Christian would abide by the BDSM contract, which prohibited drawing blood and leaving permanent marks. That does seriously limit the extent of what he could do. However, even so, and given that he has had so much disregard for the terms of the contract, this argument has limited value.
What about safewords? Ana didn’t use her safeword while Christian was hitting her and there’s a tendency for people to assume that because Ana didn’t use her safeword, she was consenting. Let’s get a few things straight to begin with: if a submissive-type uses a safeword and a dominant-type ignores it, there is categorically a consent violation after that point. But, up to that point there may or may not have been a consent violation. Context is everything.
There are circumstances when a submissive-type may well use their safeword when the dominant-type is not in any way at fault and no consent violation has occurred. However, it is also true that a consent violation may be happening even when someone hasn’t used their safeword.
For example, the person may have been rendered incapable of using their safeword (and this can happen even when someone isn’t somehow gagged). They may be afraid to use their safeword, or believe that the overall experience will be less unpleasant if they don’t use their safeword. They may mistakenly believe that safewords are only to be used when you think you might die and that if you’re not going to die (or something extreme along those lines) then you don’t have the right to withdraw consent. They might not have enough clarity of thought to use the safeword or to remember what it is. (This is why it’s good practice for the submissive-type to choose their own safewords, a practice Christian ignores in the contract.) And the whole argument about a safeword not being used is irrelevant when there wasn’t informed consent to begin with.
But let’s assume for a moment that Ana did give informed consent, there’s still a strong case that there was a consent violation, even though she didn’t use her safeword. There’s a good chance that she was afraid to withdraw consent (Christian is not renown for his ability to control his mood), and she may well have believed that she couldn’t withdraw consent. She could easily have rationalised “He’s only going to hit me six times” instead of thinking “I don’t have to put up with any of these.” She lacked the experience, the confidence in her own right to assert herself and the trust in her relationship with Christian to stop herself from going down that train of thought – and Christian certainly didn’t reaffirm her right to withdraw. There’s also a good chance she lacked the mental cogency to use her safeword because she was being taken to a level of pain she had not experienced before.
And besides all the above, consent is not everything. Consent is not the be all and end all as to whether or not an act is appropriate. (This is fact #7 in Seven Essential Facts about Consent.) Ana has asked Christian to put her through his limits, when they both know she doesn’t want him to, with the objective of getting something she’s not going to get. Christian, being the more experienced BDSM-er should know that it is not appropriate for him to do what she’s asking, regardless of whether she is consenting.
Was this violent?
Compared to many other portrayals of violence, no. It lasted a matter of minutes, didn’t draw blood and didn’t do permanent physical damage. It is very tempting to compare to other portrayals of violence and other factual occurrences of domestic violence because, after all, this is meant to be “the worst” that Christian will do. However, in many respects, that’s not the point. We need to consider this act in its own right, in the context of Ana and Christian’s relationship.
So, is it violent? Yes. He’s hitting her, hard, when she doesn’t want him to. The experience is violating her and that’s why she’s so upset afterwards.
We also need to bear in mind that there are violating acts that do not cause physical pain, and that not all of these violating acts are indeed physical. When people argue that the relationship between Christian and Ana is abusive (as I have in another post) they’re saying that Christian makes a habit of doing violating acts towards Ana, of which this is but one. This is not the point in the relationship where it suddenly becomes abusive. It already was abusive. It’s just that this is the point in the relationship where the abuse is of a certain form and to a certain degree where it is more closely aligned to behaviours that are generally accepted to be abusive.
Was this BDSM?
The D in BDSM stands for Discipline as well as Domination, so this is an important question and you’re going to get divided opinion, even within the BDSM scene.
Was this play? Some people in the BDSM scene will say there’s a place for discipline as part of play. The infliction of punishment, which may or may not involve physical pain, is performed for a clearly unreal reason. In other words, the dominant-type is requiring the impossible or the submissive-type is being deliberately “bratty”. The discipline is enjoyed by the submissive-type. The punishment Christian gave was not in any way playful. So, no, it does not qualify as BDSM on grounds of being play.
Was this a “scene”? Some will argue that there’s a place for discipline within a BDSM “scene”. A scene is a specific, pre-negotiated time and place, in which the interaction may not necessarily be playful, but involves a level of unreality. In other words, the discipline may be serious in its tone and look real, but it does not reflect the wider relationship between the two people involved. The punishment Christian gave Ana was not as part of a pre-negotiated scene, and it was reflective of the power imbalance in their relationship. So, no, it does not qualify as BDSM on the grounds of being a “scene”.
Was this a legitimate expression of a total-power-exchange (TPE) relationship? A TPE relationship is what it says on the tin – a relationship where one person gives complete control over their life to another person, though even in these contexts it is frequently said that the submissive type should not be a “doormat”. There are plenty of people in the BDSM scene who wouldn’t want to be in a TPE relationship and there is plenty of divided opinion on what the rights, responsibilities and behaviours of the dominant-type in such a relationship ought to be. There are also those who would question the concept or how “total” the power exchange can legitimately be in a healthy and safe relationship, not least because there is huge scope for the power to be abused.
Let’s assume a TPE relationship can be OK. Any discipline that is not play and not a scene, would be a reflection of the wider dynamic of the relationship. There are plenty of people who would say that discipline of the kind that Christian gave, for the kinds of reasons Christian gave, would therefore be indicative of an abusive relationship. There are those who would disagree and say this is legitimate inside a TPE relationship, but even if you accept that argument, Ana has not known Christian long enough or well enough to be able to consent to such a relationship.
So, I’m going to put my stake in the ground and say, no, this is not BDSM.
Would Christian do worse?
Because, this is meant to be “the worst”. To answer this question we first need to think about what ways in which him hitting Ana six times is meant to be “the worst”. Is it the worst kind of punishment? Or the worst extent of punishment?
if the worst kind, would he inflict a worse extent? Medieval warlords might raze a town to the ground to demonstrate the worst kind of thing that they could do, but this was on the understanding that they could do more of it if their terms were not met. If Christian was giving Ana a demonstration of the “worst”, there is nothing to prevent him from doing more of the same kind – not even following the terms of the BDSM contract would prevent him from doing more.
If the worst extent, would he inflict worse in kind? Arguably, yes. Because there are different ways you can violate a person and Christian employs a lots of them.
Would he inflict worse in both kind and extent? I think there’s a reasonable chance of that given that, on this occasion, he hit Ana without losing his temper.
Does he inflict worse? In terms of physical pain, no. In terms of other physical and emotional experiences, there are things Christian does which personally creep me out a lot more. So… yes.