With all the recent hoopla about the Fifty Shades of Grey movies currently in the works, now is an important time to discuss some of the biggest problems with the E.L. James novels – specifically, their damaging misrepresentation of BDSM, (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism). Never mind the laughable prose; the inaccurate stereotypes and bad BDSM practices portrayed in Fifty Shades are not only offensive to the BDSM community, but also dangerous for readers who are being newly exposed to BDSM and getting the wrong idea of what it is all about.
One of the biggest problems with Fifty Shades is its perpetuation of the mistaken belief that people who participate in BDSM do so because they are psychologically damaged. Titular character Christian Grey, who assumes the role of dominant in his sexual relationship with protagonist Anastasia Steele, is self-described as “fifty shades of fucked up” from having been abused as a child. This rationalizes not only his sexual preferences, but also his abusive, controlling, and stalkerish behaviour toward Anastasia, who haplessly spends the entirety of the novel trying to fix him.
This is a stereotype that wrongfully demonizes practitioners of BDSM. A 2001-2002 study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Sexual Medicine concluded that “BDSM is simply a sexual interest or subculture attractive to a minority, and for most participants not a pathological symptom of past abuse or difficulty with ‘normal’ sex.” A 2013 study in the same journal found that BDSM practitioners were “less neurotic, more extroverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive,” and “had higher subjective well-being.”
The stereotype of the Christian-Grey-esque damaged BDSM practitioner is a hurtful and inaccurate one that should be put to rest – not to mention that pop culture is already far too saturated with stories that tell women they can fix their abusers, a misogynistic trope with dangerous real-life consequences.
The Fifty Shades series also wrongfully conflates BDSM with abuse. It cannot be overstated that BDSM is absolutely not about abuse; it is about power, and it necessitates a high level of trust, communication, and respect between partners. This respect for boundaries and personal preferences is entirely absent between Christian and Anastasia, as throughout the story he constantly pressures her into doing things she isn’t comfortable with and that she does not enjoy.
An example of this occurs when Christian presents Anastasia with a contract detailing his demands for their relationship. While contracts are a common feature of BDSM—their purpose being to formalize an agreement of rules, goals, duties, and boundaries between partners—the problem with Christian’s contract is twofold.
First, the contract is all about his demands and his preferences; Anastasia does not get any input, and although she tries to negotiate, Christian does not give an inch.
Second, Anastasia has never been in any kind of BDSM relationship before (she’s never even had sex before); therefore, she hasn’t gotten the chance to explore and discover what she likes or does not like. She does not even know what half the terminology in the contract means and has to look it up on Wikipedia. The fact that her immediate reaction to reading up on this stuff is physical illness and the fact that she does not sign the contract are big red flags that this dominant-submissive relationship is not going to be a healthy one. ...