Does Kinkphobia Color Criticism of “Fifty Shades of Grey"?

the two stars of 50 shades

After nearly three years of writing about kink, feminism, and pop culture, I’m so tired of talking about a certain novel that I now make a point of only referring to it as “that book.”

Criticizing Fifty Shades of Grey on either feminist or literary grounds is pretty much like shooting grey-eyed fish in a barrel. Having re-read it recently, I can certainly offer no defense of its style, characters, plotline, or its relationship with reality.

Where I am going to defend both the book, and the movie, however, is from the charge that the key relationship is bad for women. Many people believe that that this fairly vanilla story is a romanticized tale about an abuser named Christian Grey and a battered woman named Anatasia Steele. This week, for example, critic Erin Gloria Ryan wrote on Jezebel that 50 Shades of Grey “glorifies the sort of domineering masculine violence that lands women outside of [author E.L.] James’s jill off fantasyland in the hospital, in domestic violence shelters.” Emma Green at The Atlantic said the sex in the story feels abusive because “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.” Other people have argued that Fifty Shades’ popularity will lead to a spike in domestic violence.  

While it’s a not great book by any means, I feel like Fifty Shades has gotten an unfair amount of flack. As someone who has read a fair bit of kinky literature, I believe we need to be wary of cherry-picking decontextualized instances from one book, while ignoring all others. In the same breath that critics condemn Fifty Shades, some point to 2002 film Secretary as a positive alternative—but that film has its own lack of negotiation, lack of explicit consent, and dodgy power structure where a boss uses his position to dominate an emotionally vulnerable female subordinate. Where is the condemnation of Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, and Heathcliff—those heroes of romantic literature—for being emotionally and sometimes physically abusive sociopaths? I can’t help but feel that some of the outrage over Fifty Shades is both selective and elitist. Fifty Shades faces the same kind of criticism that’s lobbed at romance in general: “Oh, look at those uneducated women and their trashy reads! Bless them for not knowing that classier books exist!” I wonder if many critics care less about misrepresentations of kink in the book and more about saving the undiscerning masses from themselves.

Incidentally, I do love Secretary, but I recognize it’s a deeply imperfect representation of a BDSM relationship, and can be read in very troubling ways, especially for feminists.  I suspect that it doesn’t get taken to task because it was a below-radar indie film starring cool-as-fuck Maggie G, so it’s easier to reassure ourselves it’s alternative and not, horror of horrors, populist. Meanwhile, 50 Shades of Grey smashed box office records during its opening weekend and has sold over 100 million copies.  Are people mad that a story dismissed as “mommy porn” is actually something people want to see? Incidentally, the amount of critics who start their tirades with “I haven’t read it, but…” is astounding. 

Well, I read the book (twice). And I’ve now seen the film. Seen as erotic fantasy—not a guidebook for real-life relationships—I question whether Fifty Shades is as bad for women and consent as critics have argued.

Like the book, the film takes a good while (nearly an hour) before we get to anything sexy. Until then, it’s a pretty standard romance. I agree with other reviewers that Dakota Johnson plays Anastasia with spirit and attitude, giving what is a bland and often deeply unrealistic character some actual edge. As a result, it often feels like Ana is really the one in control, while Jamie Dornan struggles to inject much “domliness” into his role. Perhaps this is because dominance and submission are much more subtle and fluid concepts than those determined to see the movie as evidence of male coercion and female helplessness appreciate. This is an aspect of both the book and the movie that rarely gets mentioned: Christian Grey was not always a dominant, and was in fact a sub in another relationship.

ana tied up with a blindfold over her eyes in 50 shades

Ana Steele in one of the not-that-wild BDSM scenes in the film.

The actual BDSM in the film is pretty mild and brief. Experienced kink players may be disappointed to see that BDSM is never really portrayed as anything more than a quick prelude to intercourse. Notably, the movie includes plenty of obviously spelled-out consent. At one point Christian asks “Are you sure about this?” (Ana replies yes) at another “Do you trust me?” (Ana replies yes) and at another point says, “It’s important that you know you can leave at any time.” Not just this, but in the last spanking scene Ana is actively the instigator herself. Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon writes this scene is abusive because Christian “whales” on Ana with a belt after she “relents” to the exchange—but she is actually the one who firmly asks to do it (several times), and then agrees the terms. The fact she does not enjoy the belt spanking and is angry and upset afterwards does not automatically render the scene abusive; many subs will tell you that strong emotions are a natural result of painful impact play.

Some critics argue that the socioeconomic gap between the two characters lends itself to a power imbalance, but I believe that in both the book and the movie, Ana has more power than many critics give her credit for. (It’s also worth remembering that there was no uproar around the relationship between Carrie and Mr. Big in Sex and the City simply because he was rich and she was not, even though he was a right douche to her at times.) Grey’s lavish gifts (a first edition Thomas Hardy book, a Macbook, a car) and ridiculously grand gestures (helicopter rides, glider flights) don’t come across as threatening, but instead just a bit desperate. In the movie, when Christian and Ana sit across a boardroom table to negotiate their BDSM contract (set out in deeply unsexy detail), she makes an excellent opponent as they exchange barbs and dirty talk. Grey gets excited… and Ana cuts the meeting dead. The thought in my head at the end of that scene wasn’t “Oh no, she’s in trouble!” but the derisive laugh of Nelson from The Simpsons: “ha HA!”

To me, the notion that the relationship must be coercive just because of Grey’s wealth is patronizing. In assuming Ana has no real agency, critics are not only imposing their own preconceptions about kink upon a fictional character, but are also effectively labelling a woman who has a relationship with a man richer or older than her a brainless plaything. Yet Ana’s own desire and excitement are regularly detailed in the book and film. Relatively early on in the movie, when Grey says, “I’m incapable of leaving you alone,” Ana answers simply, “Then don’t.” When he tries to imply she is too inexperienced to enter his world, she disagrees, saying, “Enlighten me, then.” When he describes how arousing he finds her—“I’d like to bite that lip,”— she expresses her own arousal, saying, “I think I’d like that.” How many more explicitly spelled-out instances of consent and desire do viewers need before they’ll will stop disregarding the agency of the female submissive?

Concerned critics have highlighted Christian’s habit of following Ana as an example of dangerous and coercive behavior. Several of these scenes appear in the book and although some of them are still present in the film, most of the time they feel to me to be more puppyish than threatening.  As someone currently re-watching Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’d say the relationship between Spike and Buffy contains far more cause for concern (a sexual relationship between sworn enemies that regularly involves beating the crap out of each other) than Grey’s cow-eyed trailing of Ana. Yet therein is the point: both stories are ultimately meant to be enjoyable erotic fantasy fiction, not real-life relationships, and this needs remembering more often. Also, in the film, director Sam Taylor-Johnson works to deliberately remove some of the creepier undertones present in the book: When Christian shows up unnanounced in her room, Ana isn’t frightened or even that annoyed. Instead, she’s rather curious and aroused. Furthermore, in that scene—and, it’s worth mentioning, all other sex and kink scenes in the movie—the couple don’t do anything sexual without Grey asking, “Is this OK?” first and Ana answering clearly in the affirmative.

Another aspect of the movie that’s gone underdiscussed is its focus on safe sex. While most blockbuster films glaze over birth control in their sex scene, in Fifty Shades, we see Christian pause to put on a condom more than once. There’s also some very realistic awkward standing around while Ana waits for Christian to tie her up, showing that kink has its boring and practical bits. There’s a nod to aftercare—a very important concept in BDSM—when we see Grey tenderly carrying Anastasia away in his arms after their session, her wrapped in a fluffy robe. Like many pop culture portrayals of kink, the trailers only show the Deadly Serious, Heavy Panting aspects of the movie. They don’t show Ana dancing dorkily for Christian in his living room, or her laughing when she spanks him, or the first bondage scene being interrupted by the arrival of Christian’s mum (as someone who lived with their parents ‘til way too recently, I can really relate to this). The gloss regularly put over this franchise prevents people learning about an important facet of kink—that it can be very slapstick and very funny.  The red room of pain is less realistic; even most kink clubs don’t contain as much high-end bondage equipment as Christian Grey’s leather-lined chamber, but I guess that’s what you get when you’re a 27-year-old millionaire.

Grey carrying Ana in a fuzzy bathrobe

Just look at that enviable fuzzy bathrobe. 

I think Fifty Shades has been singled out as a cultural crisis because of its poor writing and its popularity, but also because there is also still an undeniable thread of kinkphobia running through society—and sadly, some parts of the feminist community. Despite constant claims that “Oh, I don’t have a problem with BDSM, just the way it’s portrayed in that book!” some critics’ squeamishness at the idea that women can find submission erotic is clear. Mark Hughes at Forbes, for example, dismissed the film as “faux-feminism”: “The film seems to think that noting women can experience sexual gratification sometimes while playing typical subservient roles to male gratification is some kind of empowering message.” Many people are still deeply uncomfortable with seeing a woman choose to be submissive and can’t help but assume a misogynistic man must have bullied her into it, hence the scramble to find examples of how this fictional relationship fits the template for domestic abuse while ignoring instances where Ana gives consent and enjoys the situation. Even though feminism challenges the assumption that nature slots male and female into neat dom/sub roles, there still seems to be an unease amongst feminists who feel that there is a base instinct in men to dominate women, which if allowed free rein via kink, will be dangerous to women. Why else would people be expending so much energy on arguing that the clearly educated and spirited young woman at the center of Fifty Shades is a naïve idiot? It’s just so retrogressive, not to mention patronizing to real-life female subs. 

The current controversy over Fifty Shades brings to mind good quote from Stacey May Fowles, a fantastic writer who discusses female subs from a feminist perspective, and who said this to me when I interviewed her in 2012, shortly after the novel trilogy became so popular:

“It is ultimately the responsibility of every viewer to educate themselves, and to think critically about what is performative artifice, what is mere entertainment, and what is not—not the responsibility of a handful of sanctioned subs and doms to censor and police the allowable construction and enjoyment of visual expressions and depictions (although I am loathe to say it, that goes for the likes of 50 Shades of Grey as well).”

If you want to hate this movie because it’s unrealistic, go ahead. There are plenty of eye-rollingly bad moments (I mean, how many 21-year-old college students with internet access and very sexually active roommates really don’t know what a butt plug is?). If you want to hate it because it’s sappy and contains some terrible dialogue, be my guest. However, I think it’s seriously off-base to say that bit of spanking that’s been actively, repeatedly consented to is akin to the terrible violence perpetrated against genuine victims of domestic abuse every day.

Related Reading: Does Female Submission Mean Oppression? No. 

Catherine Scott is a British feminist writer who was so sick of people talking nonsense about BDSM and feminism that she wrote a whole blog series about it. However, even that wasn’t enough, so she will be publishing her book Thinking Kink: The Collision of Feminism, BDSM and Popular Culture with McFarland in Spring/Summer 2015. 

by Catherine Scott
View profile »

Catherine Scott is author of "Thinking Kink: The Collision of Feminism, BDSM, and Pop Culture," a book inspired by the kink-themed blog series she wrote for Bitch in 2012. She has also written for Ms, the Women's Media Center, the BBC, The Times Literary Supplement and The Daily Telegraph among many others. Her second book To Deprave and Corrupt is due in early 2018.

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22 Comments Have Been Posted

Smart Article

Thank you for the dissenting opinion on this series. I find that, despite my dislike of romances in general (I'm a
fantasy/sci-fi person, so no judgments, they're just not my cup of tea,) I am the one who has had to defend this book lately because no one else will. I think women are smart enough to decide what turns them on without needing to incorporate actual emotional and physical danger into their own lives. I mean, am I the only person on Earth who can read a book and not be completely changed by it? Obviously not. You're one, too. :)

Thank you for your insights

I'll start by saying I have not read the books or seen the movie, so I cannot offer my own perspective about the material itself. However, the overblown decrying of it, which I have been excessively exposed to, has started to ring to me of a somewhat anti-populist kink-phobic undertone. Initially, I took other people's word for it that the BSDM depicted in 50 Shades was presented in an abusive way. But especially having read your article, my sense of it as potentially being a strawman description of the text has gained traction. Having read the Twilight books, and seen people's overly simplistic feminist critiques of that series, it does not surprise me that this book/movie series is getting similar treatment.

While there certainly are aspects of Twilight that deserve feminist criticism, and I am sure there are aspects of 50 Shades that deserve it as well, there is something suspiciously self-congratulatory about the 50 Shades-hate extravaganza that has always left a funny taste in my mouth. Particularly your comment about "saving the undiscerning masses from themselves" has come to be my impression of a lot of this as well, and I can't help but wonder if all this hyperbolic denouncement of it isn't an ultimately infantilizing gesture that assumes young women en masse are too stupid to be able to distinguish a) between a fantasy and 'real life' and b) between BDSM and abuse. I think a lot of the 'DANGER' people warn of over 50 Shades assumes a certain amount of stupidity in young women, and an inability to approach the subject of BDSM with any level of nuance or intellectual sophistication, which I am dubious about.

I probably will actually engage the texts directly to come to a more informed judgement about it at some point. But it was nice to see this piece offer an alternate perspective and speak to some of my own nagging suspicions that much of this decrying is more for 'show' than for substance.

Mommy Porn

Great article. Non-consent can be found everywhere in stories, from Disney to Oscar winning movies. If we are to examine 50 Shades we should also examine everything else. The problem seems to be with 50 Shades is that she does consent; she is willfully overpowered rather than against her will. The "mommy porn" scorn is especially troubling. As if adding an extra element of an older mother makes it especially disdainful. It seems like we're not so far from the old Victorian values that women should not enjoy sex.

I honestly don't know how you

I honestly don't know how you could possible NOT see the glorification of abuse that runs rampant in this book series. i feel like some "kink-positive" feminists are so desperate to defend anything that looks even remotely like BDSM that they refuse to look critically at a work that paints a woman's _rapist and stalker_ as an example of acceptable romance.

Anyway. You can be a feminist and think a kink has roots in problematic social structures like rape culture that women to find certain forms of sexualized violence erotic. You can think that without thinking women who like it are bad people.

It's not "an example of

It's not "an example of acceptable romance", it's sexual fantasy. Rape is also a very popular fantasy for women, and I'm sure I don't have to argue that this does not make rape "acceptable". Funny you mention rape culture, when a lot of the criticism at this book feels very victim blamey - if women enjoy this book, then they must enjoy abuse, right? Ugh, no. To me, this is the epitome of rape culture - women enjoying something sexualized (books, clothes etc.) that is used as an excuse when not asking for consent.

if you work from the

if you work from the assumption that certain kinks are problematic, then the assumption that follows is that enjoying that kink is also problematic. you can't have it both ways. and trying to only leads to condescension. as in: thanks ever so that you don't think i am a bad person for problematically indulging in my problematic kink that is problematically sexually fulfilling.

telling people that their fantasies are problematic is actually really the same as telling them that the sex they like is wrong. which is a thin line separating you from a slippery slope that falls out of control down a rabbit-hole of who exactly is the arbiter or acceptable sex again?

THANK YOU. I am so tired of

THANK YOU. I am so tired of seeing kinksters defending this piece of garbage.

This article is horrible

It doesn't require any cherry-picking to find examples of abuse in 50 Shades.

You seem to think that if a person consents to sexual interactions with someone on one occasion, it means that they must universally consent to sexual acts with that person. This is obviously not the case as perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence are often a person's romantic partner. You can consent to sex with someone 1000 times but it only takes one experience without consent to make that person a rapist. So all of your examples of her "consenting" are at best not proof of anything at all and at worst proof of your very wrong assumption that consenting once = consenting every time.

Another issue with this article is that you seem to completely ignore the clear manipulation tactics (such as gaslighting) used by Christian throughout the novels. Being coerced into saying "yes" is not consent.

Your defence of Christian's stalking because the novel is fiction is ridiculous. We do not exist in a vacuum where media and reality function independently of one another. Wartime propaganda posters exist. Mass murderers inspired by video games exist. On a less extreme/harmful level, "The Great Gatsby" makeup tutorials exist. The media influences peoples' decisions every day and denying that it could potentially have a negative impact is irresponsible and foolish.

I'm positive that you'll ignore this comment instead of apologizing since you've already poopooed online feminism but here's a review that actually addresses the issues in 50 Shades (kink shaming not being one of them):

"But above all, Anna is confused. Whenever she tries to reach out to Christian, she doesn’t know if he’s going to be receptive or ice-cold. He’s inconsistent, and, desperate to hang on to the few moments that he’s nice to her, that inconsistency keeps Anna under his control. She seems to think that if she stays, if she just keeps trying, she’ll figure out how to make him happy and he’ll stop treating her so badly.

Anna is smack-bang in the middle of an emotionally abusive relationship."

The reason "kink-shaming" isn't a legitimate issue is because kinky people are not oppressed. Nobody is telling you you can't tie someone up in the bedroom as long as they want and enjoy it. Kinky people don't and haven't faced refusal for basic human rights such as housing, food, access to education, etc due to their sexual preferences.

Until you apologize to survivors I'll no longer be reading bitchmagazine and I strongly encourage anyone who cares about abuse victims to do the same.

Absolutely. Well said. I was

Absolutely. Well said. I was a Bitch magazine subscriber and B-Hive member for quite some time. Never again. At least not until they stop publishing articles like this.

"Kinkphobia." Good grief.

what a let down

Agreed. The abusive aspects of their relationship are far more obvious than the handful of examples marking her consent. And I'm starting to wonder how many times her consent was only given after being manipulated or bullied. I hate to say it but I was disappointed with this article.

Thank you so fucking much for

Thank you so fucking much for saying this. I don't think it's kink-shaming to say a movie that romanticizes abuse is problematic. If anything, the idea that BDSM is a result of abuse and the idea that "the right girl can cure it" is downright kink shaming. As a person that has experienced abuse, I feel pretty upset that more people are willing to defend this movie than the lived experiences of others just because they find it hot.

In the theater my partner expressed that a scene was upsetting (Christian letting himself into Ana's house without permission.) The dude sitting in front of us yelled "She didn't say no!"

I know I'm not going to agree with everything in Bitch but this is really disappointing.

holy crap thank you someone

holy crap thank you someone finally said it

Is the stalking part not abusive?

First, I would like to say that I am not into BDSM and I have neither read the book nor seen the movie, so I may not have considered all sides of the argument yet, but as it happens I just read <a href="">this article</a> by "Dr. Nerdlove", before I read yours. So I wonder, how do you view this aspect of power and control? The 'big brother' aspect so to speak? And also, the way Grey is taking advantage of the fact that she is drunk?

In defense of Christian

Thank you for writing this very thoughtful article. I have read the books but not yet watched the movie, and I am tempted to re-read them now just to verify that I am not losing my mind. Everyone around me is horrified that I don't abhor the story. I keep thinking, "Did I read the same book as everyone else?"
For the genre it was written for, I think it is a fun, but not particularly sophisticated read. I wouldn't want the relationship that Christian and Ana have, but I wasn't reading it for that. Like you, I read Christian as being very aware of consent and boundaries. I saw negotiation and agency in their relationship. Ana had the right to try BDSM out and to like some aspects and not others. Likewise, Christian had the right to ask her for a contract. I've heard claims that this was manipulation on his part and undermined her ability to give consent, and I simply have to disagree. I see no issues with open discussions of sex acts and expectations between a couple, even when it might seem cold or to minimize commitment. If everything is on the table, both parties (like in the movie) are welcome to participate or walk away. I could understand how in some circumstances such conditions/contracts might be coercive, but as it was written in the movie, I saw no manipulation. I understand that some people view Christian following Ana across the country as stalking behavior. I didn't read it that way, but I can see how some would so I will concede that it was troublesome. I won't engage the discussion that BDSM is in itself deviant, dysfunctional, or abusive beyond saying that it is a slippery slope to impose external boundaries and definitions on consensual behaviors. Something as simple as a hickey might be a sign of abuse or a fun time. Lastly, I find it interesting that everyone is focused on Christian as an abuser and his relationship with Ana as dysfunctional when the relationship that actually involves questions of consent and power imbalance occurs between Christian and his first lover, with Christian being the victim. I was more troubled with this aspect of the book and the correlation the author makes to his perceived deviance than anything else.
What I took away from the books was a young couple negotiating their way through dating and the early stages of intimacy and into a lasting relationship. I saw compromise. I understand why lots of people might not like the book or the movie, and they are free to do so. I dislike lots of movies and books, many of them very popular romances, but I feel that targeting this movie as the downfall of American society or an epitome of American rape culture is troublesome. Thank you for putting your thoughts out there for those of us who were starting to wonder if we'd fallen down the rabbit hole.

creative works are rarely

creative works are rarely 100% good or bad (after all, they are made by human and fallible individuals), but it is important to discuss what we find troubling and what we find commendable. i have yet to watch the movie, but i did read the book. in the book, ana never actually signs the contract, and your article makes it seem like she skips this in the movie too. i haven't read otherwise, so i believe you that consent is explicitly given for each sex scene in the movie, and that is something commendable. (however, i don't think ana gave an enthusiastic yes for all scenes in the book, and her internal commentary often made it seem that she was not 100% on board.)

some of the things that bother me the most about 50shades are actually 1) grey's behavior and treatment of ana outside of the sex scenes and 2) e.l. james' responses to survivors of domestic abuse. grey does many things that should not be waved-off as puppy-like desperation: stalking her (to her workplace and when she is out drinking with friends), policing what she eats, discouraging time with her friends and away from him, and following her across the country when she specifically wanted some alone time. people have told james that grey reminds them of abusive partners they have had, and she flatly refuses to believe there is anything wrong with the relationship she has written. see this tweet, which i honestly cannot believe she hasn't taken down yet:

okay, The Spanking. the first time my partner and i included impact play in our sex life, it was because i asked to be spanked. i quickly realized that i enjoy the sensation caused by spanking, but i really do not enjoy spanking framed as a punishment, and i communicated that with my partner immediately. we adjusted. sure "The fact she does not enjoy the belt spanking and is angry and upset afterwards does not automatically render the scene abusive," but ana's initial request and consent also does not absolve grey of all blame. she has the agency to ask for it, and he has the agency to stop too. i prefer a partner who pays attention to how i am feeling and stops to check in if i am not obviously loving it 100%. and that ties in to grey vs spike: spike and buffy were on the same page at the beginning. i don't think grey and ana are ever on the same page (literally, when you think about her not signing his contract). after spike regrets attempting to rape buffy. i don't remember grey showing remorse over any of his actions, toward ana or anyone else.

Not sure I generally agree...

I think the stalking is creepy... he tracks her by her cell phone, shows up at her work, etc. Though I'm not really here to comment on 50 Shades, as I haven't read the book or seen the film, only read about it.

But I will say I REALLY appreciate the point you make about Secretary. I have zero idea why people keep bringing up that film as some kind of healthy alternative. There is nothing remotely healthy about it. People like it because it's a critically acclaimed indy film with two compelling leads, but the power dynamics are fucked up to say the least, especially given the emotionally fragile state Maggie G's character is in. I definitely think the difference re: criticism of the content between 50 Shades and Secretary is that the former is viewed by the world as crap and the latter as smart.

That said, I'm a little iffy on treating "kinkphobia" like a serious thing. We live in a pretty bad culture when it comes to sexual violence and we shouldn't treat people like uncultured bigots for being uncomfortable with BDSM. When one in four women has been sexually assaulted, acting high and mighty and tossing around a word like "kinkphobia" feels callous.


"When one in four women has been sexually assaulted, acting high and mighty and tossing around a word like "kinkphobia" feels callous."

Not quite sure why several people on this thread seem to believe that saying kinkphobia exists, while also being a feminist and standing strong against rape culture, are two mutually exclusive things. I don't see why acknowledging the problem of sexual violence against women and girls in our society is seen as incompatible with acknowledging that there remains prejudice against, and misunderstandings about, BDSM. Unless you think that BDSM *is* sexual violence - which I think some feminists still do, and are hiding behind *that book* to propagate such a belief.

People have been jailed, pulled through the courts, lost jobs, lost their children and seen their lives torn apart simply because they had been found out to be practising consensual kink. I have written more about examples of this in my upcoming book. Furthermore, as I've regularly written, kinky women who also identify as feminist find themselves doubly ostracised - by a vanilla community suspicious of kink, and by feminists who accuse them of colluding with the patriarchy. Some of the comments on this thread illustrate to me perfectly just how intolerant some people remain of BDSM. I fail to believe that a fictitious relationship is all that really bothers them - as I've pointed out in my article, why, then, do they not take to task 100s of other fictional relationships which have imperfect power structures? To me, there is still a discomfort in seeing women submit to men in a sexual context. And I understand that, and I've even felt it myself (I've had to walk away from scenes I found distressing in BDSM clubs, and they were always between dominant men and submissive females), but we need to be clear here. That itself is no reason for me to condemn BDSM, or pop culture depictions of it. That is no reason for me to hijack a (admittedly often badly executed) fictional depiction of a mildly kinky relationship in order to grind my axe about sexual violence against women. I can do that without attacking other people's reading or watching material.

More thoughts on the subject:

From a Teaching Standpoint

This critically-engaging article has shed some well-needed light on the recent bandwagon of bloggers, film critics, and the like who repeat the trite, oft-repeated issues within this work (film and book). Coming from someone who teaches women's studies, I try to engage my students to think about porn culture (broadly) from multiple perspectives -- can sex work be empowering to women? Do we inherently view female submission as indicative of patriarchal dominance? Where does female autonomy lie in sex work? What are our subconscious assumptions about women who engage in sex work?

What you've done here, and what others in the comment section have shown, is that the age-old debate between sex-positive and anti-pornography feminists is still going on. The assumptions of anti-pornography feminists is made clear in the backlash we've seen from feminist critics who argue that Christian Grey has sole power over Ana, whose wealth and influence makes him immutable to outside forces, and whose desires are wrapped up in rape culture's assumptions of female subordination. However, what is often overlooked, as you point out, is our own biases towards the consumers of this medium and the subjects within it. If we are so naive to believe that Fifty Shades of Grey could lead to greater amounts of domestic violence, then I think we should re-evaluate how individuals consume media rather than critiquing it as it stands. Certainly, assuming that women are more likely to be submissive to their significant others as a result of this book/film removes their autonomy as independent women. Moreover, we tend to critique films/books that are express hyperbolic aspects of sex, kink, and romance, but downplay the subtleties of other forms of media that could be even more detrimental to others because they are often too hidden to be taken as seriously.

As an educator, I will certainly use this perspective later in the semester when we discuss sex work to queer the concept of choice and autonomy, so thank you again for this well-written (and much needed) article.

Considering all the kinky

Considering all the kinky people who criticize it? No. I enjoy kink myself. My criticism is coloured by the fact that my younger sister was in an abusive relationship with a man who used the exact same tactics as Christian Grey, INCLUDING using BDSM as a cover.

"Well, I read the book (twice). And I’ve now seen the film. Seen as erotic fantasy—not a guidebook for real-life relationships[...]"

I've read all three and seen the film*. I've also read what EL James has had to say about them, and also how they've been marketed. It is NOT marketed as a just an erotic "fantasy". It is marketed as a how-to on how to save your marriage and to start a BDSM relationship. It is marketed as romance. Women are encouraged to "find their own Christian Grey". This is part of a larger culture that romanticizes abuse and is exactly the kind of thing that lead my sister to being in an abusive relationship for a year and a half, which is longer than the span of all three books in the Fifty Shades series.

My sister moved into an apartment with her then-boyfriend, and was raped, starved, isolated from family and friends, controlled utterly from working, talking to men, wearing clothes that were revealing, was even afraid to visit our mother because he disapproved of her going out! She was blamed for a sexual assault by someone else, as proof of why she needed his "protection". Sound familiar?

Once again, I AM a sexual submissive. So, no, I do not have a problem with women enjoying sexual submission and would <i>love</i> to read a story about that. I DO have a problem with <i>this</i> shit since Ana RESISTS being a submissive throughout the whole first book, and then only gives in the latter books because Christian gaslights her and then she feels she has to "compromise". That's not consent! I cannot believe this shit is being defended here. What the hell has happened to Bitch Magazine?

*Honestly, the film wasn't that bad. The sex was actually hot because the awkwardness of it was removed, plus the rape scenes from the books were either edited into sex scenes (instead of Ana saying "no", she willingly offers her wrists to be tied up), or removed entirely (the boathouse). The chemistry was contrived, and overall the film was boring. Christian is still manipulative, and doesn't give much aftercare, which is incredibly problematic, but he does ask if she's okay, which he does not do in the books, so there's that. Plus Ana actually has a backbone in the movie. The film is pretty much how I would expect Hollywood to represent BDSM. The books can go fuck themselves because they are textbook abuse.

Great critique

Hey Catherine! I really enjoyed reading your article - very thoughtful, critical, and you argue your stance really well.
Looking forward to reading more of your work. :D

I don't think it's

I don't think it's kink-shaming to say a movie that romanticizes abuse is problematic. If anything, the idea that BDSM is a result of abuse and the idea that "the right girl can cure it" is downright kink shaming. As a person that has experienced abuse, I feel pretty upset that more people are willing to defend this movie than the lived experiences of others just because they find it hot.

In the theater my partner expressed that a scene was upsetting (Christian letting himself into Ana's house without permission.) The dude sitting in front of us yelled "She didn't say no!"

I know I'm not going to agree with everything in Bitch but this is really disappointing.

the part where he kind of

the part where he kind of forced her to go on birth control though was actually pretty problematic

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