Fifty Shades normalises abuse, not BDSM

The Fifty Shades franchise could have been part of progress towards destroying stigmas around BDSM and kink – had a healthy, accurate BDSM relationship been portrayed. Instead, these supposed ‘erotic romance’ novels perpetuate the myths that BDSM is inherently abusive and ‘abnormal’, and contribute to the ongoing upholding of rape culture by posing Christian Grey’s controlling behaviour and stalking as somehow ‘romantic’. The recent film only adds to this, and, by popularising the damaging dynamic between Grey and Anastasia Steele, serves only to normalise abuse rather than BDSM.

There are three key principles BDSM practitioners uphold: their activities should be “safe, sane and consensual” for all parties involved. Fifty Shades categorically does not show this. To start with, the play which Grey and Steele engage in is not safe. Although safe words, which are vital in BDSM for ensuring that any participant can exit a scene without question if they are uncomfortable, at risk of harm, or not enjoying it, are discussed as part of the ‘contract’, at no point are they used when they should be. Moreover, their play is not consensual. Steele does not actually sign Grey’s ‘contract’; she is pressured by Grey to participate, and while at some points she could arguably be enjoying it, she does not seem to understand BDSM and is forcing herself to be a part of a world which is not inherently appealing to her. Finally, their play is not sane; for instance, the sex scene where Grey takes his anger out on Steele about some unexplained business difficulty is completely inappropriate. BDSM is about mutual pleasure and exploration, not about the dominant taking their anger out on the submissive – that is abuse, and BDSM is not a method of anger management.

Communication is also a huge problem throughout the film. The ‘contract’ alone is not enough; though Steele does have some say in what can be done, she admits that she has no idea what her boundaries and desires are, and this is something Grey takes advantage of. Grey’s failure to inform Steele about what he is going to do next is not healthy. Indeed, it is irresponsible and unrealistic that Grey and Steele start engaging in BDSM so quickly after he decides to take her virginity (what he calls a ‘situation’ which he has to ‘rectify’, a notion which speaks volumes about the rape culture and patriarchal, heteronormative values the franchise upholds, as well as the fact that Grey is unapologetically possessive of Steele).

The abuse in the film goes beyond the sex, however. Throughout, Grey is more than dominating; he attempts to control who Steele can spend time with, what she can talk about with her loved ones, and what she can eat and drink. He stalks her, turning up at her workplace even though they live in different cities on the pretence of running errands and even breaking into her home before assaulting her.

Fifty Shades is rife with very serious problems surrounding consent, rape culture and abusive relationships, and it does nothing to destigmatise kink and BDSM. Emotional and sexual abuse are passed off as ‘romance’ and ‘entertainment’, and the film is partially marketed as a guidebook for couples to have ‘more exciting’ sex (as if anyone apart from you and your sexual partners gets to decide what that means). We can only hope that viewers who are curious about BDSM do their research to find out what it actually entails, because it’s not the abuse which Grey puts Steele through, and it’s unacceptable that the franchise is so widely endorsed and defended for all its issues.

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