Consensual BDSM is not abuse. Fifty Shades IS.

Posted by Emma and Natalie on April 27, 2014 at 12:50 AM

I have a few reservations about writing on the subject of BDSM.  I openly admit that I've never personally been involved in the scene and am therefore what many would term "vanilla."  Discussing an aspect of life that I'm largely unfamiliar with is difficult and I'm conscious of the need to be as respectful and as accurate as possible.  With all of that in mind, I'd like to talk frankly about why BDSM is an inappropriate label for much of what happens in Fifty Shades.

When we speak out against EL James' best-selling trilogy, highlighting that the story is one of abuse rather than romance, we quickly receive criticism from the books' fans, telling us that we don't understand kink.  I suppose you could argue that, due to my inexperience, there are aspects of truth to that claim.  But I do understand abuse.  And I understand that there is a massive difference between consensual BDSM - where partners take account of safety, respect one another's limits and enjoy mutually pleasing one another, either through dominance or submission - and the "BDSM" portrayed in Fifty Shades; much of which is unsafe, not entirely consensual and obviously written with little knowledge of the lifestyle.

If two people wish to engage in a D/s relationship, it is nobody's place to stop them (providing they are of legal age and are not harming anyone/anything that has not consented or is unable to consent).  Here at 50 Shades Is Abuse, we are not about to start judging anyone for the lifestyle they have chosen and we know that many people are happily involved in BDSM relationships that bring them an enormous amount of pleasure.  That is great.  But in a BDSM relationship, there is - as with any "vanilla" relationship - the risk that one partner may become abusive.  Unfortunately, in Fifty Shades, BDSM is little more than a very convenient cover for Christian's abuse of Ana; she knows nothing of the lifestyle and is embarrassed even to research it.  This allows Christian to behave however he wants to, under the guise of being her Dominant.  

It's my firm belief that EL James did next to no research before writing her Twilight fan-fiction.  This might have been something that she could easily have gotten away with, had the piece on not become so famous.  Once those words were out in the wider world, EL James should have tightened them up and done some homework.  She should have done a lot more than simply change the name "Bella" to "Anastasia" and "Edward" to "Christian."  Why?  Because not doing so gives a false impression of BDSM.  And that - when you're talking about a world where physical punishment can be meted out - is dangerous.  Again, consensual BDSM is fine.  But with Ana's naivety and Christian's unwillingness to teach her properly (because keeping her blind to her rights enables him to abuse her), we are not given a portrait of a consensual BDSM relationship.  Instead, we're looking at an attempt at Total Power Exchange by manipulative, coercive consent at best.  An imbalance of power that Ana - the so-called "sub" - makes very clear that she is unhappy with from the start.  And with this portrayal being the only one some fans of Fifty shades have seen of the BDSM lifestyle, it leaves women searching for their own Christian Grey open to abuse at the hands of those only too happy to use BDSM as their cover, too.  Recently, we received word from a worried member of the BDSM community, who has witnessed the fallout from women becoming involved with abusive Dominants, thanks to Fifty Shades giving them a completely warped perspective of what the lifestyle entails.  Indeed, a quick search on a few BDSM forums this afternoon led me to find a number of "personal ads" from females identifying themselves as "newbie subs" - most of these posts had dozens of replies from Doms very willing to show them the literal ropes.

Now, I am not saying that all new submissives will be abused by Doms, or that all Doms who take interest in a sub new to the lifestyle are looking to abuse them.  To suggest as much would be offensive and disrespectful.  But there is a risk that if Fifty Shades is all fans know of BDSM, that they cannot be said to have a real handle on what they're getting involved in.  Those "newbie subs" may never have read the books, but I found several posts on forums from women who had.  Luckily, there were replies from members of the community telling them to find out more and not base their knowledge on just those books, but the other replies left me concerned for fans who seriously think that what they've read in Fifty Shades is an accurate depiction of what BDSM is.  The simply truth is, it's not.  The books are not a manual.  They are poorly researched fiction.  Please, if you've gotten this far through this post and you're a fan of the books, looking to take a newfound interest further, don't simply rely on what's contained within those pages for information.  My advice to anyone considering getting into BDSM is to research; go to meet-ups, visit clubs, speak to those already in the lifestyle, join forums, read books...  Find out what is acceptable and what isn't.  Know what your limits are and be very firm with anyone who sets about trying to break them.

Fans of Fifty Shades are quick to point out that Ana enjoys Christian's "kinky fuckery."  I'll agree that some of the sex scenes make it appear as though Ana is very much a willing participant in events.  But crucially, this does not apply to all sex scenes.  Also, Christian does not want the BDSM aspect of their relationship to remain confined to the bedroom.  He wants to dominate Ana in all areas of her life.  This is something that she does not consent to, but which he continues to push for.  Fans tell us that Christian can't help this; he needs to control.  He is a grown man, responsible for his behaviour.  If he needs to control someone 24/7, then he needs to look for someone who wants that too.  Ana does not.  Pushing her, manipulating her to change her mind, makes him an abuser, not a Dom.

I visited the blog BDSM For Dummies today and quickly found a list of abusive behaviours, which have no place in the world of BDSM.  Read them and ask yourself:  How many of these does Christian tick?!

 Ana is often depicted as being afraid of Christian.  Ana has also been hit and even bruised (book three) by Christian when he was angry, rather than sexually aroused.  She often tiptoes around him, hoping to avoid his temper, fearful of upsetting him.  Christian prevents Ana from seeing Kate - he claims this is for her own protection, but his actions up to this point do not match up with a caring partner.  He also becomes angry when she receives a call from Jose.  When Ana says she doesn't want to try anal, Christian says they'll do it anyway.  He ignores her desire not to be controlled all of the time.  Kate expresses her concern about Christian's behaviour towards Ana...  The warning signs are all there in the text.

A second website, features their own list of warning signs:

Christian tells Ana that unless she submits to him, there will be no relationship, saying "this is the only kind of relationship I'm interested in" (book 1).  He threatens to spank her when she doesn't immediately do as he tells her.  He buys her expensive gifts - a Blackberry, a laptop, a car - most of which can be traced back to his needs, rather than Ana's.  Christian uses the utterly ludicrous line: "Lovers don't need safewords" and becomes angry and upset when Ana uses hers.

Christian Grey is not a Dom.  He is an abuser.  I am tired of fans making the connection between what they read in these books and actual, consensual BDSM.  The two are worlds apart.  Confusing the two could have potentially disastrous consequences and I am not prepapred to shut up and wait for those consequences to happen.

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