Over the past few months the Fifty Shades book series has blown up, and being talked about in major news publications and is being labeled as something called ‘mommy porn.’ After the Patch ran the blog post “Is This Normal? 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Review” I was once again reminded of a trap that so-called liberated women fall into when we believe that our own version of sexuality is superior to others. I read the full Fifty Shades series beginning almost 2 years ago, back when it was a Twilight fan fiction called ‘Master of the Universe’ waiting for new chapter updates with numerous other people. I have watched as a book that I enjoyed but didn’t think much of at the time blow up into a huge success and am not really surprised since the original story had over 30,000 reviews by the time it was finished. The book has become increasingly controversial and has been since its time as a fan fic, creating a divide in the fandom.
Before I start breaking down the series more thoroughly let me clear the air about a few things. If you seriously read erotica because you hope one day that it’s going to turn into an Oscar worthy movie, please do yourself a favor and find another genre of books to read. The plot lines can be boring, tiresome, overused but that doesn’t mean that the sex in the series isn’t steamy or worthless because it isn’t going to get a Pulitzer for the best written novel in the history of writing. That doesn’t mean that there are no erotic novels that are worthy of getting a Pulitzer but having some grand illusion that this series should be the best written one you have ever read is ridiculous. It is smut. Dismissing the book because it is erotica or because the writing leaves a little to be desired is ridiculous. Clearly people are connecting with it or the book wouldn’t be everywhere right now.
The story itself is pretty simple. Ana meets Christian, finds out Christian is a dominant, has suffered abuse in his past, and spends the majority of the story having sex, trying to cure him of the trauma in his past while also dealing with him being a controlling asshole of a dominant. Both characters change drastically during the series, Ana begins as a college student who is about the graduate when they meet. We soon find out she is not only a virgin but that she is completely clueless when it comes to most things, like when she thought that Christian's playroom had an Xbox. She is constantly struggling to understand her own sexuality in the book, the desire she feels for Christian while also the (often misplaced or misguided) fear she has about BDSM. She is also trying to work against social narratives that tell her she must be her own woman, she shouldn’t accept the lavish gifts he gives her and hates it when he does spend money on her.
Christian on the other hand is controlling, wealthy, older but only 27 to her 22, runs his own company, and is into BDSM. From the very beginning when he meets Ana there is never a point he is not upfront with who he is and what he wants from her. Like Edward from Twilight, he has stalker like tendencies that get called out often during the series by Ana. Further into the series we learn more about his past, the trauma he faced as a child, his own food issues he is constantly demanding Ana to eat in his presence is due to the starvation he faced as a child. Throughout the first book he is sending food to Darfur, to further expand the understanding of his own character. His role as a dominant is confusing, his own past is often blamed for the reason he is into BDSM, Ana not only fears it but is also excited by it. While he is a conflicted character, with flaws (how human of him), throughout the series he is changing because he wants to be better for Ana.
The power struggle that has been commented on in reviews of the story are often ignoring the way Ana character plays in the relationship, acting as though it is one sided with Christian always taking a demanding or controlling position. Yes he is a giant jerk for much of the series, more so in the first book, but Ana pushes back against him. She holds power over him emotionally and sexually over the whole series. The more their relationship develops the more power she has over him. Christian does control much of the key to Ana’s sexuality in the beginning. He is literally the one who feeds or awakens her sexuality, which is a little boring to me, but that is one of the most powerful things about him. To me the power struggles between the two is a moot point, they both have different forms of power in the relationship using them in good and bad ways.
The way BDSM is framed in the story is one of the most troublesome issues I have with it. It is treated like a devious thrilling part of Christian when Ana wants it to be part of their sex life, but it is also treated like it is a manifestation of mental illness. Due to the trauma in his past, BDSM is framed to be a form of therapy Christian uses to deal with his emotions. This gives the readers an incorrect idea about what BDSM is and what kinds of people participate in the lifestyle. It makes it appear that the control issues, stalking and other bad behaviors Christian exhibits are due to the lifestyle not his own character. In the book Christian is a bad Dom. He is pursuing Ana to be his sub, while also having her sign a non-disclosure agreement when she knows nothing about the lifestyle and makes it so that she cannot talk to anyone about it. He also is trying to get her to agree to be his sub when she clearly is uncomfortable with the terms that go along with that. Most dom/sub relationships rely on the use of a contract that lets each party lay out the kind of lifestyle they are comfortable with. This includes the time they spend together, the sexual acts they are comfortable with and the ones they aren’t. From the get go Ana is uncomfortable with the terms of the agreement but Christian continues to pursue her because he wants her.
As their relationship progresses Christian becomes less reliant on BDSM and the series makes the reader believe that as he works through his own ‘issues’ he is becoming cured of his dark side. While BDSM is still part of the series all the way until the end, it becomes a thrilling part of their sex life and is used less as a tool to cause Ana fear. Even with that the framing of the lifestyle has led to reviews like the one above where it is demonized and feared when in reality the book doesn’t show a true BDSM relationship that isn’t a power struggle but one of mutual agreement.
True BDSM relationships are not like how the relationship in the series is depicted. They are not how the review that I linked to above spoke about them either. The review states some pretty harsh prejudice about BDSM lifestyles that I find to be abhorrent. BDSM relationships are not a form of abuse or are all about controlling and abusing the person who is the submissive. All submissive are not women and both parties have a mutual trust between each other. Assuming that reading this series is going to give you a full understanding of BDSM lifestyles is ridiculous.
Another thing that needs to be addressed is the labeling of the series as porn, it is porn but this is always done as a way to demonize all pornography as evil or demoralizing to women. As a sex positive feminist I am not anti porn, I am anti non-consensual sex, anti abstinence only education, and anti sexual oppression. I am for giving other outlets to show true sexual expression, that doesn’t demonize the sexual choices of others or rely on unrealistic essentialized depictions of sexuality to educate the masses. That is how unrealistic or harmful versions of sex are produced, through sexual oppression not through porn itself. If sex weren’t treated like such a dirty topic, the ability to educate others about consensual sex would be far more common.
Dismissing the series and then also labeling it as anti feminist or touting that you are superior to others because you haven’t read it, because it’s erotica or because there are problems with the relationship in the series it, is offensive. Believing that women cannot think critically about the material in the book is offensive and reminds me of a time when men feared that allowing women to be college educated would make them unable to reproduce. It brings us back to a time where women need to be protected against the bad things in the world for illogical reasons. A time when a woman choosing to have agency over her own sexuality is one of the worst crimes ever (like the present). Even when the way she begins to explore her own sexuality is with this book. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be sexy or feel sexy. There is nothing wrong with a woman wanting to explore her own sexuality separate from her partner.
So please if you are going to review the book, don’t demonize the lifestyles of others. Don’t set standards or believe that you know the type of relationships that all women like to be in. Don’t assume that love gives a more fulfilling life than sex alone. Don’t assume that what you believe is right for everyone. Don’t set up sexual binaries around what is a feminist version of sexuality. Let people figure it out for themselves.
I do agree with one line from the other review,
“Women are liberated when they make their own choices about their relationships, their sexuality, and their money.”
The only thing is that also means that women get to make choices for their own lives without needing the opinion of other women about what they think are the correct choices.