The mass appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey has caused some to question whether our culture is becoming more sexually liberated or more sexually oppressive. Since its release in 2012, the book series has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and has now been turned into a major motion picture. There are those who consider the series a harmless fantasy, whereas others—especially those who advocate for survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual violence—argue that there is more to the story.
In many ways Fifty Shades of Grey is a typical, clichéd romance full of drama and passion. Anastasia Steele, a middle-class college senior, meets and falls in love with Christian Grey, a handsome, charming 27-year-old multi-millionaire CEO. The twist is that Christian has a “dark secret”: his sexual preference is BDSM, which is a condensed abbreviation for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. The main tension throughout their relationship is that Ana wants to be with Christian, but doesn’t want to be his submissive; Christian wants to be with Ana, but he is aroused by violent sex.
Now, let me pause for a moment to state that critiquing Fifty Shades of Grey in no way means that we do not embrace sex as a positive experience. Sexual relationships can contribute positively to people’s lives, and sexual pleasure is an important aspect of healthy sexual relationships. Mutual positivity and pleasure can be achieved as long as sex takes place in a context of open and honest communication, in which partners establish and respect each other’s sexual boundaries and values. What we take issue with here are the blurred lines of consent that exist throughout Ana and Christian’s sexual encounters, and the overarching abusive nature of the relationship. Sometimes, Ana says yes to sex she’s uncomfortable with because she’s too shy to speak her mind, or because she’s afraid of losing Christian.
In the excerpt from Ana below, you might feel triggered. It’s a scene all too common for those of us who work with survivors, and for those who have lived through abusive relationships:
“But now I feel like a receptacle – an empty vessel to be filled at his whim. […] I have an overwhelming urge to cry, a sad and lonely melancholy grips and tightens round my heart. Dashing back to my bedroom, I close the door and lean against it trying to rationalize my feelings. I can’t. Sliding to the floor, I put my head in my hands as my tears begin to flow.”
This is not romantic; it’s not how someone should ever feel in an intimate relationship. You could argue (as many have) that Ana could leave any time she wants, yet this is a commonly believed myth about survivors in abusive relationships. Ana and Christian’s relationship plays out similar to an abusive relationship script that we are all too familiar with. When she says she wants to leave, he threatens her: “I would find you. I can track your cell phone, remember?”
The Fifty Shades series has gained popularity during the same time that the mass outcry against domestic violence and sexual assault are at an all-time high. With cases like Ray Rice’s abuse of his wife and numerous rape allegations against Bill Cosby saturating the media, and major institutions like the NFL and The White House taking strides to change the culture of violence against women, it seems to be a paradox. Yet what this truly speaks to is that most individuals in our society continue to be uninformed about the realities of sexual and intimate partner violence. Also, there are few popular representations of sexual or intimate relationships that exemplify the tenets of healthy sexuality, and so people have no option other than to consume harmful and abusive representations of sex in order to explore their sexuality and sexual fantasies through media.
Another issue with the Fifty Shades series, as Jackson Katz describes in his article Fifty Shades of Grey and the Sexual (Mis)Education of Boys, is the impact this book and film have on our collective understanding of “male sexual access rights,” especially among youth.
“Consider the cultural landscape in which Fifty Shades has emerged. With rare exceptions, young people are not getting any sort of comprehensive sex education in schools; outside of caring adults who take the time to talk with them, the primary sources of their ideas about sex and relationships come from their peers, pornography, and other forms of media.”
Fifty Shades of Grey depicts a sexual relationship that flourishes on painful and violent sex, but fails to illustrate the necessary conversation where both parties feel comfortable communicating their desires, personal boundaries and comfort level prior to engaging in sex, and additionally fails to illustrate respect for consent and sexual boundaries as discussed. Furthermore, when we as a society support stories that do not model healthy, supportive and explicitly consensual relationships, we are sending a clear message to youth in our communities: sexual violence is normal and acceptable.
Sexual violence survivors often struggle with developing healthy intimacy and engaging in healthy sexual relationships after experiences of violence and abuse. Educating about healthy sexuality is key, both to preventing sexual and intimate partner violence from occurring in the first place and to supporting survivors in their recovery. We write and publish this statement with countless survivors’ voices resonating inside of us.
What sparked us to launch this #50ShadesofGreen campaign was a donation we received from a generous supporter who told us, “My mom issued a challenge called ‘50 Shades of Green.’ Instead of seeing the movie and buying ‘50 Shades of Grey’, we are donating $50 to go towards the victims of rape and abusive relationships. Hopefully this will help in some small way. Thanks for all you do!”
As part of a way to continue to pay it forward, we are asking you to help flip the script and contribute to our #50ShadesofGreen campaign to support our prevention work, which includes educating youth and adults about healthy relationships and contributing to a culture that supports survivors and holds offenders accountable. Donate $50 now and show your support.
You can also help us promote healthy sexuality by attending our upcoming benefit performance of Eve Ensler’s The Good Body.