Consent Isn’t Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades
Consent Isn’t Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades
What is a fantasy? From Freud to Ludacris, it's been an elusive idea, suggesting both an escape from reality and an expression of hidden desire. In culture, fantasy works like a mirror: It reflects who we are, but it also shapes what we become.
Love it or despise it, American culture's sexual fantasy of the moment is Fifty Shades of Grey. Since Random House bought the rights to the trilogy in 2012, the series has sold well over 100 million copies worldwide. Trailers for the movie adaptation of the first book have been viewed 250 million times, according to an ad aired in early February; it’s expected to gross at least $60 million at the box office in its opening weekend.
And that means the Fifty Shades fantasy is about to become all the more influential. Yes, the story will likely reach an even larger audience, but more importantly, it will be told in a new, visual form. When the movie comes out, the Fifty Shades version of hot, kinky sex will become explicit and precise, no longer dependent upon the imaginations of readers. Early reports say the movie shows at least 20 full minutes of sex, although it's only rated R.
The story is fairly simple. Anastasia Steele, a middle-class senior at Washington State University Vancouver, meets Christian Grey, an incredibly handsome, debonair 27-year-old multi-millionaire CEO. They fall in love, hard and fast. Theirs is a romance full of drama and passion, and they end up living the conventional American fantasy: love, marriage, and a kid.
What’s not so conventional is their sex. Early on in the first book, Ana discovers that Christian has a “dark secret”: He’s obsessed with BDSM—a condensed abbreviation for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. This is the central tension of the books: Ana loves Christian, but she doesn’t want to be his submissive; Christian loves Ana, but he’s turned on by violent sex.
As several experienced BDSM practitioners emphasized to me, there are healthy, ethical ways to consensually combine sex and pain. All of them require self-knowledge, communication skills, and emotional maturity in order to make the sex safe and mutually gratifying. The problem is that Fifty Shades casually associates hot sex with violence, but without any of this context. 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; she gives consent when he wants to inflict pain, yet that doesn’t prevent her from being harmed.
This is a troubling fantasy in American culture, where one in five women will be raped within their lifetime, according to the CDC; where nearly 40 percent of those rapes will happen to women aged 18 to 24; and where troubling evidence of casual attitudes toward rape—such as in 2010 when a number of Ivy League-educated men thought it was okay to chant “no means yes, yes means anal” on their campus—is not uncommon. As images of Ana being beaten by Christian become the new normal for what’s considered erotic, they raise questions about what it means to “consent” to sex. Clearly, consent is necessary; but is it sufficient?This is a lot to pin on one book, especially since it is neither the first nor the only romance novel to feature kink and BDSM. But it's a book 100 million people chose. It's a movie that has already flooded the Internet with sexy GIFs and endless trailers.
If anything has the power to shape sexual norms, this does.
The Fifty Shades trilogy is a fantasy born of the Internet age. In 2009, a London television executive named Erika Leonard began writing fan fiction on a website devoted to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. The stories soon became popular, so Leonard, who later took the pen name E.L. James, moved them to their own, now-defunct site, 50shades.com. In 2011, an Australian publisher called The Writer’s Coffee Shop Publishing House began producing the stories as novels, both as e-books and hard copies printed by request. By the time an imprint of Random House, Vintage Books, bought rights to the trilogy in 2012, word of mouth had spread: The week the first book in the series went on sale, it hit number one on The New York Times bestseller list.
In the nearly three years since Random House started publishing the books, they’ve sold well over 100 million copies worldwide and 45 million in the U.S.; a majority of those sold in America were e-books, according to data from Nielsen. It is difficult to overstate the massiveness of Fifty Shades. “The last phenomenon we had before Fifty Shades was Stieg Larsson’s Girl With a Dragon Tattoo—it took four years to sell 20 million copies,” said Russell Perreault, the vice president of communications at Random House. “Fifty Shades did that in four months. Two copies were sold every second during its peak. That is an unheard of number.”
The audience, of course, was women—mostly in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, Perreault said, although data from Nielsen suggests that about a third of the people who bought the books in the U.S. were actually 18 to 29 years old. Readers also span the ideological spectrum: According to 2013 data from an online survey of 1,075 adults by the Barna Group, a faith-focused polling firm, 9 percent of practicing Christian women in America have read at least the first book, which is roughly the same as the percentage of all women who have read Fifty Shades across the country.
It’s worth noting that the fantasy of Fifty Shades is targeted at a very mainstream set of women. It’s incredibly straight: Ana and Christian stick to maximally traditional versions of femininity and masculinity. If anything, the books embrace a light, bro-y homophobia, in which hugs between dudes and mild jokes about gay sex are used to diffuse tension. It’s also solidly middle- to upper-class: Christian owns an Audi R8 Spyder and wears Ray-Bans; Ana gets a Mac laptop and wears Louboutins. Not all the characters cast in the Fifty Shades movie are white, but the vast majority are; the main non-white character is José, Ana’s friend, who has a crush on her and ends up being a bit of a sexual predator.
“The people who responded best were mom-types,” said Perreault. “They would tell Erica at the events that they had read the books five, six, seven, times—one woman in San Francisco said she had read them 73 times.” Women would cry, telling James how the story had changed their lives and gotten them through bouts of cancer or other personal hardships.
The books have also fostered an online following—fan sites for the Fifty Shadesbooks and movie have proliferated. Crissy Maier, a single woman in her late 30s who lives on Long Island, started the website Laters, Baby! with a friend in April of 2012. The site name is a Fifty Shades inside joke—Christian often uses that phrase when he and Ana part, with only a slight hint of irony.
“We found ourselves constantly talking about [the books],” said Maier, who has plans to attend three showings of the movie. “A lot of conversations were around the sex in it, because I think for both of us, it was the first time we had really read a book with that much sex, and that much kinky sex in particular. It was one of the only ways to really start a conversation like that—you don’t just talk to your friend and go, ‘Hey, what do you think about BDSM?’ But when you have a book, it really opens that door.”
Fifty Shades is far from the first book series to include either explicit sex or BDSM. The late 18th-, early 19th-century novels of the Marquis de Sade (the namesake of the word "sadism") depicted explicit, violent sex scenes. In 1870, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (the namesake of "masochism") wrote about a dominant/submissive relationship in his novel, Venus in Furs. The Story of O, a French erotic novel published in 1954, depicts a young girl who enters into a submissive sexual relationship with a domineering film director; it was later made into a movie, just like Fifty Shades. And in the world of romance novels, the author Anne Rice wrote her three Sleeping Beauty books under a pseudonym in the early 1980s, about an imaginary medieval world where the main character, Beauty, is trained as a submissive sex slave. (A fourth book in the series is coming out in 2015.)
But no book on this topic has caught on like Fifty Shades, nor reached such a mass audience. “There was serendipity involved in the marketplace: When there’s something you hear a lot about, and you can’t get it at first—demand builds up,” said Kaplan. But it would be a mistake to brush the book off as an accident of e-book economics, he said. “I see in publisher’s catalogs tons of paranormal romance, explicit romance—this caught on because it was better, more well-described.”
Not all readers have felt this way; in fact, much of the initial backlash against Fifty Shades was aimed at its crappy writing. Take, for example, the last line of Katie Roiphe’s 2012 Newsweek cover story on Fifty Shades:
If I were a member of the Christian right, sitting on my front porch decrying the decadent morals of working American women, what would be most alarming about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomena … is that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level.
As other critics have pointed out, the narrative structure of the trilogy is actual
At least in Western culture, BDSM has long been considered a deviant and marginal kind of sex. When it has been portrayed in popular culture in the past, like in the 2002 film Secretary or the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, it’s been presented in a quirky, art-house kind of way: a subversive culture, presented as subversive art.
But the story of Fifty Shades is mundane, in the most straightforward sense of the word. There is no big idea or provocative subject matter or boundary-pushing craftsmanship. It’s just a conventional love story that happens to incorporate a lot of kinky sex—even if, in some ways, that’s a radical thing for a mass-market book to do. The couple’s sweet, “vanilla” sex outside of the Red Room of Pain is portrayed as their most emotionally intimate interaction, and the sex gets less and less kinky as the books progress.
When it is kinky, though, it tends to be unhealthy. The major question of Fifty Shades of Grey is whether Ana will or won’t sign a legal contract agreeing to be Christian’s submissive—eating certain foods, wearing certain clothes, and submitting to whatever kind of sex he wants, whenever he wants it. She’s torn—she wants to make him happy, but violent sex makes her uncomfortable.
This is clear at several points in the book. For example, Christian stays over after Ana’s college graduation, and before he leaves in the morning, she rolls her eyes at something he says.
“Oh, Anastasia Steele, did you just roll your eyes at me?”
“No,” I squeak.
“I think you did. What did I say I’d do to you if you rolled your eyes at me again?”
At this point, she hasn’t signed the contract—they’ve only been dating for a few weeks.
“I haven’t signed,” I whisper.
“I told you what I’d do. I’m a man of my word. I’m going to spank you, and then I’m going to fuck you very quick and very hard.”
Tentatively, I uncurl my legs. Should I run? This is it; our relationship hangs in the balance, right here, right now. Do I let him do this or do I say no, and then that’s it?
She does it. He spanks her—in a way that he feels is erotic, and that another partner might feel is erotic, but Ana clearly does not.
He hits me again … this is getting harder to take. My face hurts, it’s screwed up so tight. He strokes me gently and then the blow comes. I cry out again.
“No one to hear you, baby, just me.”
And he hits me again and again. From somewhere deep inside, I want to beg him to stop. But I don’t. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction.
This isn't spanking as a form of erotic play. It’s an emotional bargain—Ana tolerates it, barely, because she’s scared of what will happen if she doesn’t. She can't tell Christian she doesn’t want to be spanked—she's too shy, and her relationship with him is dependent on his power to both widen her sexual horizons and get whatever kind of sex he wants from her. But even though she ostensibly consented to this interaction, it seems like a thin kind of consent.
This evening, he actually hit me. I’ve never been hit in my life. What have I gotten myself into? Very slowly, my tears, halted by Kate’s arrival, began to slide down the side of my face and into my ears. I have fallen for someone who’s so emotionally shut down, I will only get hurt—deep down I know this—someone who by his own admission is completely fucked up.
Eventually, Ana agrees to some of the activities listed in the contract, giving explicit verbal consent.* Yet, even after she agrees, she and Christian have an encounter similar to this one: He touches her to the point of unwanted pain, she’s uncomfortable but doesn’t want to say so, he pushes her limits, and she ends up in tears.
This is not how experienced members of the kink community have sex. Because BDSM and other kinds of experimentation can be risky, and because it pushes people’s comfort limits, people who are interested in these kinds of activities have established communities that follow strict rules concerning safety and consent.
E., a sex educator and member of the kink community in the D.C. area, said different places have different rules for what is and isn’t okay in a public play space, where people gather to experiment with different kinds of kinky sex. It could be that “the standard is you don’t touch anyone you don’t know without their permission, and you don’t touch anyone’s belongings,” she said. But, for example, other places might “require that all people who identify as submissive address all people who identify as dominant as sir or ma’am.”
No matter what, these guidelines are always explicit. “Rules are usually posted online, and then frequently you can find a hard copy. Some parties you might go to might hand those to you as you go in. I’ve been to parties that make you read and sign standards of behavior as you walk in.”
In other words, E. says, if you’re playing with people who know what they’re doing, the mores of sexual interaction will be intentional, rigorous, non-negotiable, and completely understood by everyone involved. Communication is one of the most important parts of kink and BDSM sex, because that’s how partners establish trust. And trust is crucial: It’s why people let others tie them up naked, or prod them with an electric wand, or lash them with a 10-foot whip.
In interviews, practitioners said they like kink and BDSM for lots of reasons: For some, pain releases the same kind of endorphins you might feel after running 10 miles, or after orgasm. Some enjoy the intense power dynamics involved in being completely dominant over or submissive to someone else. People might have fetishes for certain objects, like shoes or leather, which they feel the need to engage with in order to be sexually satisfied. If this is what people like to do, how they figure out who they are as a person, and they do it safely, intentionally, and with respect to the deliberate mores established in the kink community, that’s one thing.
But that is not how the kink is portrayed in Fifty Shades. For all the talk of nipple clamps and butt plugs, BDSM is actually presented as a pathology, not a path to pleasure. Toward the middle of the first book, when Christian hands Ana a list of possible activities they might partake in, she reacts with shock—and, to an extent, a disgust that she never gets over. As Ana takes her first tour through the Red Room of Pain, she thinks to herself: “He likes to hurt women. The thought depresses me.”
By the end of the third book, Christian gives up on being in a dominant/submissive relationship with Ana—his sexual preferences were a way of coping with childhood abuse, he realizes, and now that he has Ana, he doesn’t have to be that way any more. As Mitchell Kaplan, the bookseller in Florida, put it, it’s a story of redemption—meaning, of course, that Christian is redeemed from his deviant sexuality.
This is not how the American Psychiatric Association now frames BDSM play and fetishes. Although these kinds of desires can be related to other mental issues, the organization says in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, merely having these desires does not justify clinical intervention. But that's not acknowledged in Fifty Shades—Christian's sexuality is an issue he has to work through with his therapist.
But the most troubling thing about the sex in Fifty Shades isn’t the BDSM itself: It’s the characters’ terrible communication. Throughout the books, Ana isn’t expected to say what she wants from sex—Christian just knows. With but a few swift strokes, he can get her to orgasm—loudly, frequently, in any position and any location—by intuiting what her body wants. Sex itself is portrayed as a comprehensive proxy for the emotions involved in their relationship. Although they do talk about their relationship, Ana’s too afraid of losing Christian to express the depth of her fears about the kind of sex he’s asking her to have.
People usually don’t pick up romance novels because they’re itching to read multiple pages of mature, sophisticated dialogue about feelings of vulnerability and personal boundaries. But if BDSM is going to be the new standard for hot—which Fifty Shades is helping it become—then that’s just the hard truth: Bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sadism are “varsity-level” sex activities, as the sex columnist Dan Savage might say, and they require a great deal of self-knowledge, communication skill, and education. Fifty Shades eroticizes sexual violence, but without any of the emotional maturity and communication required to make it safe.
“There’s an interesting tension right now between the mainstreaming of S&M that Fifty Shades represents and also the mainstream horror at rape culture,” said Amy Adler, a law professor at New York University who focuses on obscenity law and feminist theory. “There’s an increasing vigilance against rape culture on the one hand and the easy acceptance of pornographic S&M [on the other].”
In the wake of numerous allegations of rape on college campuses—at Princeton, UNC Chapel Hill, the University of Michigan, and many more—school administrators, students, sexual-assault-prevention advocates, policymakers, and more have been having important conversations about what constitutes consent. The “legal contract that is signed in Fifty Shades of Grey—it’s kind of [the model of] what a lot of affirmative-consent people are looking for,” said Adler. “Maybe we should have written, contracted-for sexual exchanges on campus in order to avoid the messiness and possibility of error that could result in rape.”
Yet, as Fifty Shades shows, even explicit consent isn’t always enough to encourage emotionally healthy sexual encounters. Particularly in booze-soaked college environments, full of relatively sexually inexperienced young people, what constitutes consent? If both people are drunk, who’s accountable for an unwanted sexual encounter? If a young woman or man is too shy to say no out loud, but doesn’t really want to hook up with someone, does that constitute sexual assault? Obviously, there are many clear-cut cases of sexual assault on campuses, and the people who commit those crimes deserve to be punishedIt's important to set up processes for preventing and punishing non-consensual sexual assault. But the law is clearly limited in its ability to determine what healthy sexual norms are, much less establish them—especially in environments like colleges campuses, where most people are sexually and emotionally inexperienced. Mores are difficult to analyze and shape specifically because they’re a product of culture, which is amorphous, and not controlled through any one mechanism.
To a large extent, they’re a product of books and movies like Fifty Shades of Grey.
In some ways, it’s remarkable that a phenomenon like Fifty Shades has even been possible. “Oral sex, anal sex—those are all things that were at one time illegal,” said Paul Wolpe, the director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University. Sodomy, for example, was considered a felony in every state until 1962, and until the Supreme Court ruled against sodomy bans in its 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, it was still illegal in 14 states.
Today, “there are lots of differences in the moral composition,” he said. “There’s no unified moral view, so … the argument then becomes: My morality is different than yours—what right do you have to oppose me?”
Even within many traditional religious groups, there’s a growing pressure to accept a wider range of sexual identity and expression. In October, David Gushee, an evangelical Christian and professor of ethics at Mercer University, came out in support of homosexuality, saying he was “truly sorry that it took me so long to come into full solidarity with the Church’s own most oppressed group.” In an interview, Gushee emphasized that his own ethic was still “marital and covenantal.” But his statement that “gay people should be invited into that” was a moderately big deal; Gushee is a visible figure within the evangelical community.
Gushee also acknowledged the popularity of the Fifty Shades books within his community. “I’ve had many of my female students tell me that this is like pornography that good Christian women feel comfortable having on their desk at work. It somehow crossed the line to socially acceptable.”
In general, said Justin Garcia, a sex researcher with the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, there’s been “this historical shift from valuing chastity to valuing sexual agency.” But just because people value sexual agency doesn’t mean they know why they want what they want. According to several recent studies, what a lot of people want is to be dominated. A 2008 paper found that 31 to 57 percent of women report fantasies of being overpowered or raped, and of those, between 9 and 17 percent say it’s a “frequent” or “favorite” fantasy. A 2009 study of 470 predominantly heterosexual, college-aged men and women found that both sexes preferred fantasies of being dominated by the opposite sex, rather than dominating others themselves. A 2012 review of sex-research literature found that men and women are both “capable of being physically aroused by hard-core sex scenes,” although “female sexual fantasies exhibit a greater emphasis on context, emotions, and intimacy, while male sexual fantasies are more frequent, visual, specifically sexual, and promiscuous.”
That last point is especially significant, given that a sexually explicit story about BDSM-ish sex is now making the transition from book to movie. In general, men watch porn and women read erotica, said Catherine Salmon, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Redlands who studies pornography. “Erotica is about the characters and their relationship,” she said. “[Pornography] is about seeing the so-called pink bits. In romance you don’t show that stuff. They can do that stuff—but you’re not going to have what I call the ‘ball cam’—somebody lying underneath them, watching him thrusting.”
These kinds of images are much more familiar now—for both women and men. “Mainstream culture has come to look more and more like pornography,” said Adler, the NYU law professor. “It’s not just that with the click of a button you can see the most hardcore, extreme sex imaginable. It’s also what you see every day: It’s the way people on TV look like porn stars. It’s the way women go to work in shoes that 20 years ago would have been considered like what porn stars would wear.”
The ultimate sign of this “mainstream penetration,” as Adler called it with a chuckle, is the way people project their sexuality on social media, imitating gestures and facial expressions from porn. “If you look at somebody’s Facebook page, or selfie culture—the way people are presenting themselves for cameras is much more sexualized than it once was,” she said.
Feminists have long been divided on the question of whether this is good for women. In the 1980s, sex-positive feminists defended pornography as form of free sexual expression, while others, like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, argued that pornography inevitably represents and propagates violence against women—largely because it dehumanizes them.
“Women in pornography are turned on by being put down and feel pain as pleasure. We want it; we beg for it; we get it,” MacKinnon wrote in her 1988 book, Feminism Unmodified. But this comes at the cost of seeing women as real people, she said: "Only when self-respect is accepted as human does debasement become sexy and female; only when avoidance of pain is accepted as human does torture become sexy and female."
This is one way of looking at the sexual dynamic in Fifty Shades: It’s supposed to be hot when Christian has Anastasia in her most compromising positions; he finds intense pleasure in her pain.
But even this doesn’t explain why millions of women have read the books and will see the movie—why they’re at least curious about this kind of sex, even if they don’t want to incorporate it into their own lives. “In the wake of the feminist revolution, and the invention of this supposedly egalitarian model or expectation we have of relationships, what does sexuality look like?” said Adler. “Sexuality, which has historically been rooted in power dynamics, and perhaps sexist power dynamics—have those instincts or preferences been eradicated by our new understanding of equality? And if not, what is to be done with them?”
This is not an easy question, but the answer offered by Fifty Shades is insufficient. It's one thing to explore power dynamics; it's another to use power to manipulate and control your partner. At several points in the story, it's unclear what Ana really wants from sex. But perhaps that's the most complicated aspect of all: How do people know what they want, really?
By and large, the conversation about sexuality in the liberal public sphere has become a conversation about individual rights and freedoms: the right not to be compelled to have sex without giving consent, the freedom to have sex in whatever way and with whichever partner you choose. There are many benefits to a rights-and-freedoms approach to sexuality, but there are also drawbacks.
In a 2000 paper, the legal scholar Robin West wrote that “the ethic of consent, applied evenhandedly, may indeed increase the amount of happiness in the world, but women will not be the beneficiaries.”
The rather inescapable fact is that much of the misery women endure is fully "consensual.” … Put affirmatively, the conditions which create our misery—unwanted pregnancies, violent and abusive marriages, sexual harassment on the job—are often traceable to acts of consent. Women—somewhat uniquely—consent to their misery. An ethical standard which ties value to the act of consent by presumptively assuming that people consent to their circumstances so as to bring about their own happiness—and by so doing thereby create value—leaves these miserable consensual relationships beyond criticism.
West seems to be questioning the idea of consent in a slightly different way than Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon did in the 1980s—it might be an important basic standard, she says, but it doesn’t provide much insight into whether a relationship might make someone happy.
For people in the BDSM community, consent is the ironclad starting point—but that’s not the end goal of their sexual activities. Because it’s a community that people choose, one with strong norms and mores, it can embrace a set of sexual values, like exploration, play, and experimentation.
But for most everyone else—the average Fifty Shades reader and moviegoer included—this isn’t the case. On college campuses and elsewhere, not everyone fully understands and embraces the importance of consent—or gets the basics of sex. And even when people have a sophisticated understanding of sex, American culture offers little to model healthy sexual encounters beyond the threshold of consent. Because the U.S. is such a pluralistic place, with so many conflicting viewpoints about how people should live their lives, American culture inevitably sends lots of mixed messages about what having a good sex life actually means—or looks like.
It’s one thing to ensure that all sex is legal, and that everyone is free to have sex based on their rights as individuals. It’s another to have a culture that encourages people, and particularly young adults, to seek out sexual encounters that are emotionally constructive and based on affirmative values of mutual respect, dignity, and care. As Catharine MacKinnon wrote in 1988, “It is not that life and art imitate each other; in sexuality, they are each other.”
In an interview, Esther Perel, a sex therapist and the author of Mating in Captivity, said, “I find it amazing that this country at this point is going to spill quantities of ink talking about Fifty Shades, when it doesn’t even have a basic education on sex. It’s like you’re introducing alcohol to people who haven’t had any water in years.”
But that's exactly why it's so important to pay attention to the Fifty Shades fantasy.