Why do people say 50 Shades is (or isn’t) abusive?

I’m getting various search hits with people asking why 50 Shades is abusive, so I thought I would try and summarise the main points in one place. Please bear in mind these points come from the books not the film. If you want a view on the film, I recommend Jenny Trout’s review.

There’s a lot more that can be said on these points and I’ve probably not covered everything that’s worth covering, but I figured I’d keep it to a list of 10 to make it more readable. Here goes:

  1. The gift-giving. People who defend the books (defenders) will point out all the lovely things Christian does for Ana, like buying her a laptop, car, clothes etc. People who criticise the books (critics) say that Christian undermines Ana’s agency through the sheer extent of his gift-giving and the fact that it is largely uninvited; they also say that Christian gives them to her because it serves his purposes (e.g. so Ana has access to email) and they involve no real sacrifice on his part because he has so much money.
  2. Other nice gestures. Defenders say that Christian does really fun things with Ana (like go gliding) that she enjoys. Critics say Christian’s actions need to be taken as a whole, that coercive people are not incapable of doing nice things, and that there is heavy bias towards Christian choosing to do things he wants and very little inquiry or exploration is made about what Ana would like.
  3. Ana’s character strength. Defenders hold that Ana is a strong character who makes her own choices (like spontaneously going down on Christian in the bath, using his toothbrush, and wearing his boxer briefs) and she is therefore capable of giving proper consent. Critics say that Ana has an extremely low self-image (as seen in her repeated unflattering comparisons with Kate and every blonde in the book), and habitually says yes to things she doesn’t want to do (like the interview). They therefore argue that Ana is vulnerable to being manipulated into giving consent – which isn’t what consent should look like.
  4. Ana’s sexual development. Defenders say that Christian enables Ana to cast off her up-tight sexual identity (characterised in her subconscious) and explore one that she wants (her inner goddess) which happens to be more subversive. Critics say that Christian rushes Ana to lose her virginity and enter into a Dominant/submissive relationship without really giving her the time to contemplate what she wants for herself and on what terms.
  5. The D/s contract. Defenders say that the existence of the contract shows that Christian is looking for Ana’s active and informed consent; plus they say that Christian respects Ana the one time she uses her safeword (in FSF). Critics say Ana is plied with alcohol when she discusses the contract with Christian, that he tells her not to “over think” it, and that that’s not what informed consent looks like. They also say that it is irresponsible for Christian to put the onus on Ana to use her safewords (he blames her when she doesn’t use them) because, as a dominant and especially as the person with more BDSM experience, he should be actively observing Ana and exercising his own judgment about how much she’s able to handle, and stopping if he has any doubt.
  6. The pleasure of sex. Defenders say Ana enjoys a lot of the sex. Critics say she enjoys some of the sex and just because Christian makes her orgasm, that doesn’t mean he’s a good boyfriend; they say the relationship as a whole should be considered (including the numerous times she’s nervous of him and upset on account of him).
  7. The escape routes. Defenders say that Christian repeatedly gives Ana the option of leaving – such as in the D/s contract and when he says his helicopter will take her home if she wants. Critics say that these offers are entirely consistent with grooming behaviour and that Christian later changes his tune saying he’ll track her down wherever she goes.
  8. Ana would leave. Defenders say that Ana would leave if Christian was being abusive and that she therefore consented to everything that happened while dating Christian. Critics say Christian made it hard for Ana to leave through his threat of tracking her down and through his “if you leave, we’re through” ultimatum when he knows that she’s fallen for him; they say this is characteristic of abusive behaviour and Ana therefore did not consent to everything that happened while dating Christian.
  9. Ana did leave. Defenders say that Ana did leave Christian at the end of FSOG and that this is proof she can exercise her own choices. Critics say Ana made a martyr’s decision on the grounds that she couldn’t be what Christian needed and that her own self-interest was far down on her priority list; they also point out that the separation was short-lived.
  10. The ever after. Defenders say that the trajectory of the book is like a rags-to-riches with a happy-ever-after ending. Critics say that Christian’s wealth creates a power imbalance that is never overcome and that Ana’s social status is little different to a paid employee at the end; they point out that there is no mention of Ana’s “dearest, dearest friend” Kate or her “good friend” José in the epilogue – only Taylor (a paid employee).

Plus, as some bonus material to those 10 points above, the critics will also cite the following patterns in Christian’s behaviour:

  • Christian is very controlling towards Ana. For example, in FSOG when Ana calls him from a bar drunk, he rocks up uninvited and pulls the boundary-pushing José off her. Defenders say Christian did her a favour; critics say Ana deliberately didn’t tell Christian where she was, and he shouldn’t have tracked her cell phone to find her.
  • Christian gets testy when there’s potential male competition. For example, in FSOG with José at the photo shoot. Defenders say Christian is lovingly jealous of Ana; critics say Christian should (a) respect Ana’s previously established relationships when he gets to know her, and (b) trust her when they start dating.
  • Christian plays with double-talk. For example, in FSOG during the interview and when they go for coffee, he has this secret, knowing smile on his face. Defenders say Christian is being coy and playful; critics say he’s deliberately holding control of the conversation and keeping Ana on her back foot — like he’s more interested in a power game than genuine affection towards Ana.
  • Christian breaks his promises. For example, he tells Ana in FSOG over breakfast in his hotel room that he won’t touch her again without her explicit consent. He then says, “F*** the paperwork” in the lift and kisses her aggressively. Defenders say this was loving, sexy passion; critics say if he can’t be trusted not to kiss her without consent, how can he be trusted not to have sex without her consent?
  • Christian seems only to be interested in what Ana wants if it serves his purposes. In FSOG, the BDSM contract is a perfect example of this – and Ana even turns round and tells him this. Defenders say that Christian is traumatised from his past and is healed through his relationship with Ana; critics say Christian’s self-centredness lasts until the end of FSF, even after he’s had his epiphany moment about his mother. Critics also say that in a healthy relationship you should seek out and explore the other person’s desires and needs; Ana expresses her desires primarily as responses to what Christian offers to her or demands from her.
  • Christian takes actions that isolate Ana. Such as the non disclosure agreement. Defenders say this is a reasonable precaution for a wealthy, public-facing, businessman to take. Critics say that isolation is characteristic of abuse because it makes it harder for the abused person to leave the relationship.
  • Christian is 50 Shades of f***ed-upIn case you weren’t aware, it’s this line that gives the series its title. Defenders say that Christian acknowledges his problems when he tells Ana he’s not good for her, and that this very confession shows self-awareness and a desire to heal. Critics say he uses his past trauma as a tool to keep Ana close and that if he was genuinely concerned for her wellbeing, he would:
    • put some boundaries in place to protect Ana from being at the butt-end of his issues,
    • get professional help (with someone who understands ethical boundaries, not Dr Flynn!) so that he can properly come to terms with his issues,
    • set up a network of support so that he’s accountable to more than one person and so that no single person has to shoulder the burden of his mental health alone,
    • get more intimately involved with Ana on her terms when he’s substantially less at risk of harming her.

And there is more, I just don’t have time to trawl through them. Even so, the above should give you an idea as to why people say the relationship is abusive.

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