I didn’t come here to do a snarky bit about why the Fifty Shades series by E. L. James sucks. Because I don’t think it’s funny. This series fills me with rage on so many fronts. There’s a lot of discussion about how this “love” story promotes abuse and sexual violence, but it also shits on the BDSM community with its sloppy and inaccurate representation of BDSM relationships. But what do you expect from Twilight fan fiction?
Let’s clarify a few terms. BDSM encompasses the practices of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. Those who practice BDSM usually do so under a dominant/submissive relationship. A “dominant” is a person who enjoys controlling, punishing their partner, oftentimes by using pain (b ut not always). They can also be called “tops,” “doms,” “sadists,” and a myriad of other slang terms as well. A dominant practices with a “submissive,” or someone who enjoys being controlled, punished, dominated, etc. Submissives can also be called “bottoms,” “subs,” or “masochists” if they enjoy pain. You can be just a dom or sub, or you dabble in doing both, which is called being a “switch.” And let’s get one more thing clear here: the point of causing or being in pain is to actually give pleasure to your partner. By doing the things that turn you on, you’re also turning your partner on. The pain is a means to that pleasure for a lot of people.
Healthy BDSM relationships incorporate discussions of both partners’ limits, or the sexual activities they are willing to do or not willing to do. Participants usually set both “hard” and “soft” limits. “Hard” limits are things that you absolutely will not do under any circumstances. “Soft” limits are things that you are uncomfortable with but might allow if the situation was right. Every relationship has its own limits, and not giving partners a choice in what they participate is dangerous and traumatizing. Sure, going outside of your comfort zone can be fun and sexy, but it must be done with these limits in mind, and it also must be communicated on every level between partners. Another important element of communication is the establishment of a safe word. A safe word is a retraction of consent. It’s an agreement that if the word is said, what is being done stops, without questions or the need to justify why the word was even used. Enthusiastic consent and clear communication are absolutely 100% mandatory when it comes to BDSM play. Without both parties’ consent, it’s not BDSM. It’s straight-up abuse.
Story time. When my lovely fiancé and I were getting into this type of sexual practice, we looked at BDSM books and websites that contained lists of different kinky activities, and we began to build our own limits. One of my “soft” limits was getting slapped in the face (yes, it was a soft limit, not a hard one). Because I’ve been with my partner for almost 8 years and we’ve had a ton of “practice” (wink wink), I trusted him to take precaution if he ever wanted to try it. I didn’t really believe this situation would actually come up, but sure enough, one night he (lightly) tapped my cheek with the end of a riding crop. In the end, this experience made me more comfortable with the idea of being slapped. I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t been willing to trust my partner, and if he hadn’t known to take care. However, had I not communicated these feelings to him, the situation might have been much more terrifying or traumatizing if he had decided to do it himself.
Fifty Shades ignores how crucial it is to have healthy communication and most importantly, consent by both parties. In the beginning of the series, Anastasia Steele gets swept off her feet by Christian Grey, a millionaire entrepreneur, who practices BDSM--at least as the book defines it. Grey’s need for control over Ana goes beyond what is healthy or acceptable in a dominant/submissive relationship, blurring the line between kink and abuse, most importantly because Ana is not into it. At no point in the series does she begin to share his interest for kink, but Grey tries his damn hardest to coerce her into it through bullying, manipulation, stalking, and punishment. It’s also important to note that Ana is a virgin at the beginning of this series (because why would you expect a woman to be able to explore her sexuality on her own without a man there to do it for her?), and Grey repeatedly uses that inexperience, as well as her physical attraction to him, to manipulate her into believing that her fear is an overreaction and that she should just let him do whatever the fuck he pleases. Ana’s interest is not in BDSM, but in Grey himself. She is not interested in the sexual practices he pressures her to partake in, but James expects us to swallow that shit up because in the end Ana enjoys it. If a dominant punishes, controls, dominates, or inflicts pain on a partner, who doesn’t want any of it, it’s not BDSM. It’s abuse.
In the series, Grey doesn’t just refuse to accept Ana’s limits--he never even asks her about them in the first place. He approaches her with a contract that he has already drawn up and which he says is negotiable, but repeatedly manipulates, threatens, and coerces her into signing it, at one point even showing up uninvited at her house and using sex to convince her to sign. When she tells him no or tries to negotiate elements of the contract with him, he throws a goddamn temper tantrum, making Ana feel guilty about her own preferences. Her lack of written consent doesn’t stop him from pressuring her into different sexual activities that she isn’t comfortable with. Grey’s “contract” is also 100% illegal. His contract states that, once Ana signs, she can no longer withdraw consent to sex until their relationship has ended. A person’s sexual consent is not something you can ever sign away. It is protected by the law. Any dominant or submissive would be horrified to read a contract like Grey’s. How is it fun to play with someone who doesn’t want to being doing any of it?
Additionally, Fifty Shades leaves out one of the most important aspects of communication and bond-building in a BDSM relationship: aftercare. Aftercare is the process of comforting and caring for a partner (usually a sub but doms may feel vulnerable and need to be cared for too!) after the activities end. Aftercare practices are unique to each couple or group, but can include cuddling, caring for bruises or marks, cleaning and putting away toys, and working through the events that took place to make sure no limits were violated. Aftercare validates more than just a person’s sexual needs, and it ensures that there aren’t any negative or traumatizing effects of the experience. It is absolutely crucial to a healthy BDSM relationship, and it is one of the best ways to grow with your partner and strengthen the bond you have together as a couple. In Fifty Shades, aftercare is nonexistent. Grey leaves immediately after sex many times throughout the book and is actually surprised like the monumental fucking douche that he is when Ana ends up crying. Ana never gets the aftercare that she clearly needs because Grey is too busy waving his enormous dick in her face or trying to shove a butt plug in her ass.
Finally, Grey’s backstory enforces a widespread stereotype that anyone who practices BDSM is really just “working through” their own trauma by inflicting violence or pain on their partners. In Fifty Shades, Grey’s violent tendencies and dominant behaviors are often tied to the deep emotional trauma that he suffered as a child at the hands of his “crack whore mother” and then again as a young teen at the hands of an older woman who introduced him to BDSM, or at least what James thinks is BDSM. Suddenly, because he had a bad mom and a messed up partner, that means he’s no longer accountable for his behavior, and that it’s okay for him to be possessive and frightening. Fifty Shades not only sends the message that you have to be “fucked up” to like BDSM in the first place, but also paints anyone who has lived through trauma as unable to recover from these experiences in a way that’s actually healthy for them.
Lots of people have trashed these movies, calling them toxic and harmful and exactly what I’m calling them: straight up garbage. So my real question is: why the actual fuck is no one listening? The book series has sold over 20 million copies in the United States according to one CNN article, and the final movie adaptation has already grossed $300 million worldwide, according to Forbes magazine. People continue to flock to this series, and, in turn, it continues to influence our perceptions of female sexuality and the BDSM community. E. L. James is smiling atop a mountain of money while 1 in 5 women are assaulted during their lives. We need healthy BDSM literature that represents consent, communication, and care. We cannot actually call ourselves progressive or feminist or any other fucking name that indicates that we are making strides toward empowering women and their sexuality, or preventing domestic violence, rape, and sexual coercion, without actively and vehemently opposing media that continue to perpetuate violent and disgusting ideas about BDSM sex. Are you listening yet?