Mainstreaming or Demonizing Kink
Fifty Shades of Grey and BDSM
Fifty Shades of Grey has become famous for its mainstreaming of 'softcore sadomasochism'. From Newsweek to The Sun we read stories of how the book has conquered mainstream publishing markets with its scenes of overtly kinky sex and bondage.
"There will be nothing so good for flogging books as books about flogging". Vanessa Thorpe in The Observer 1 July 2012
The 'idea' of BDSM looms large in the promise and image of the book. Yet in over 1,500 pages of text, actual BDSM play rarely figures. Instead there is lots and lots of vanilla sex played out in front of a titillating backcloth of sadomasochistic shadows. There's a lot of bait and switch. Striptease without the 'reveal'. So what role does BDSM really play in the books? Does it signal a new popular vogue for kink? Do the books open doors for kink and sexual adventure? Or is this ultimately just another exercise in demonizing and pathologizing unconventional erotic styles?
The storyline is simple. Anastasia Steele is an innocent: a 23-year old university student who is a virgin, has never masturbated, has never got drunk, never stayed out overnight, never had a boyfriend and only kissed twice in her life (I kid you not!). She goes to interview mega-millionaire Christian Grey for a student newspaper. Not only is he richer than Mark Zuckerberg, he is also, in Ana's words, "the epitome of male beauty". Desire sweeps over her like a rash. His body is like a magnet, awakening her nascent desires. She staggers around in a romantic swoon. He is "a white knight in shining, dazzling armour". Christian is intrigued by her and basically stalks her till she agrees to go on a date with him. But Christian has secrets. It seems he does not sleep with women and does not date. He identifies as a BDSM Dominant (apparently because of some mysterious childhood trauma) and is only interested in finding sexual submissives who will agree to sadomasochistic sexual relations on the terms that he sets down. He wants Ana to become such a submissive, but to his own consternation, he begins to fall for Ana and to bend and break his own rules in order to keep her.
The first volume of the Fifty Shades trilogy tells how Christian tries to bend Ana to his will, while Ana struggles to get him to modify his disconcerting demands for domination. They tumble into a rapturous vanilla sex relationship and Christian slowly backs off (despite his continuing passion for command and control) and finally agrees to abandon his contracts and rules rather than lose Ana. In volumes two and three, various figures from Christian's past return to haunt the couple, but sixteen days after meeting him she accepts his proposal of marriage and after surviving the test of some stalking, kidnapping and blackmail, they marry, have children, design and build a palatial mansion in Seattle, and live rich and happy ever after. Ana finds that she likes a bit of kink to spice up their sex life, while Christian gives up being Master in the Red Room Of Pain, tears up his contracts, and settles down to fatherhood, breadwinning and mild kink on Ana's terms. But his soul is healed. A flawed man has been saved by the love of a good woman and her extraordinary tolerance for his overprotective, disrespectful and invasive efforts to control her behaviour (which still continue).
So what is the role of BDSM within this boy-meets-girl romantic fairy tale? In terms of narrative and story, BDSM is the dog that barks but does not bite. The book scares everybody with a big bad BDSM wolf who turns out to be a reluctant Prince Charming. It tantalises with the dark frissons of his Red Room of Pain when all that Christian and Ana ever do is some mild Ann Summers-style 'kinky fuckery'.
The Red Room of Pain goes to waste: Christian and Ana stick to the Ann Summers' route for their BDSM romps
Christian's deluxe equipped Red Room of Pain totally goes to waste. But in terms of the staging, the language, and the discussions that run through the book, BDSM is omnipresent. Christian and Ana may not actually do much BDSM, but they endlessly discuss and negotiate the terms of their relationship in terms of it. BDSM is supposed to be the outcome of Christian's childhood traumas and the driver of his adult dysfunctionality which needs to be cured. And BDSM is the fault-line through which the past keeps resurfacing to disrupt Christian and Ana's passage to happy conventional coupledom. Let's have a closer look.
Christian's BDSM contract is the issue that completely dominates the first volume of the trilogy (even though it is fairly unceremoniously discarded at the end). This is a six page document defining the terms of the relationship and its rules that is printed in full twice in the text (the original plus a slightly amended later version!).
The Contract is all about obedience and control. Ana's body is to be fully available to him for sex and punishment every weekend from Friday evening to Monday morning. At all other times the care of her body, diet, exercise and lifestyle are closely specified. Christian and Ana will have no wider emotional or sexual relationship outside the specified periods. The submissive will accept whatever corporal punishment the Dominant sees fit (subject to health and safety!), and accept restraints, monogamy, and safewords. She will only look in his eyes if given permission and always call him 'Sir' or 'Mr. Grey'. In other words it defines Ana's surrender and submission. Christian defines himself as a 'Dominant' (though he explicitly does not call himself a sadist). "This is the only sort of relationship I am interested in", he tells her. This is the way he lives. He has had 15 previous such submissives and is looking for another. He cannot handle any sexual contact in which he does not have absolute control to use his partner as he sees fit. "It's the way I am."
As Ana herself recognises when she hears all this, it is bad news. The guy is a control freak. An obsessive compulsive. A nutter! There is no relationship to be had here. Run away!! The only satisfaction to be had on these terms would be for a willing and experienced hardcore submissive who will be turned on by exactly this combination of lifestyle and disciplinary sexual submission. And if this is truly and exclusively Christian's sexual 'thing' a man of his resources would surely have no difficulty in lining up a constant supply of (more or less) willing submissives to play his games in return for his 'generosity'. Kings, princes and millionaires around the world have pimps organising such things for them all the time (think Uday Hussein in Saddam's Iraq!). They have contractual or coerced submissives because they do not want relationships NOT because they want to regulate relationships.
But in relation to star-struck virgin Ana, the contract makes no sense at all. It resembles Sacher-Masoch 's notorious contract in Venus In Furs - but Sacher-Masoch was a submissive offering to bind himself to his mistress. A Sub signing a Dom's contract (at least in a free society) is meaningless. If the sub cannot fulfil the requirements or chooses to no longer do so, they can simply leave! The contract is unenforceable. It could be a nice fantasy symbol between two willing players, perhaps. But in relation to Ana it is all absurd and it makes Christian look like an idiot. He wants to agree the contract line by line and clause by clause. He will even negotiate on individual words. (Negotiate!?!) But he wants her to agree rules before she even knows what the rules mean! There is a long laughable scene where they go through the list point by point and Ana shows her utter ignorance of BDSM: spreader bars? anal toys? gags? genital clamps? She does not even know what these things are!!! She has to go look them up on the internet. The whole idea and process is laughable and clod-hopping. 'More like a job offer than a relationship" according to Ana.
Christian wants the contract because he does not want a relationship. So what does he do when Ana is confused, intimidated and unwilling to sign? He takes her to bed for a night of passionate love-making - which is exactly the thing that he is supposed not to be prepared to do(!) and which he has no experience of!! He "has never had vanilla sex before". But it turns out he is a super-duper conventional lover!! Holy cow!! And Ana, the 23-year old virgin who has never even masturbated, is on Cloud 9 throughout. No fears about first sex, no issues of discomfort or strangeness. And two gloriously fulfilling orgasms.... her feelings memorably described as "like the spin cycle of a washing machine, wow!...."The pleasure was indescribable." You said it!! In short, it's the perfect romantic night of lovemaking with the perfect lover with the magic penis. Ana sums it up: "Honestly, fancy falling for a man who's beyond beautiful, richer than Croesus and has a Red Room of Pain waiting for me."
And every time Ana fails to sign the contract, Christian just shrugs his shoulders and takes her to bed for another night of great vanilla sex. The only problem that inhibits their romantic lovemaking is that Christian still cannot bear to let Ana touch his body with her hands (!!) because of "issues in his past" that he will not talk about.
After lots of luxurious and expensive dating and plenty of rapturous fucking, Ana eventually lets Christian give her a light spanking...... on page 274! She quite likes it. On page 320 he takes her into the Red Room of Pain at last, puts her in cuffs , and gives her 'small biting licks of the crop all over her body". She comes 'gloriously and loudly'.... 'my legs turn to jelly'. They celebrate with more joyous fucking. Christian is getting confused. His passion for Ana is becoming powerful, but she will not sign his contract. "No-one has ever said No to me before", he whinges. ..... and just keeps fucking her, in the bed, in the bath, on the office desk.
Ana tries to coax his back-story out of him without success, and battles between her hopeless romantic love for him and her angst over his 'emotional flaws'. Meanwhile they meet his (adoptive) Mum..... they meet her Mum (yawn....), he flies her in his glider and his helicopter, gives her expensive presents, and they keep making love (with a few kinky embellishments - vaginal balls inside her, blindfold, stroked with fur. (All very Nine-and-a-Half Weeks!) Finally on page 491 Ana has a go with a suede flogger and likes that too. Christian decides he's not going to bother with the Contract!! (page 498).
Whoops! It seems the story has run out of steam. But Ana wants to understand his fierce desire for rules and control. It mystifies her .... plus she's getting a bit kinky frisky herself! So she invites Christian to do his thing in the Red Room of Pain. "Show me how much it can hurt..... I want to know how bad it can get." If she takes his punishment, perhaps in return he will allow her to touch his body. She gets six hard strokes of the belt.... and it hurts, and it shocks her. "Is this really what you want to do to me?" Is this how he gets his kicks? Shock horror. What a wake-up call. "He has needs I cannot fulfil..... I don't want him to hit me like that ever again." She has glimpsed the extent of his depravity and has to leave him. "He's no good for me, and I'm no good for him.".... "I love him, but we can never get past this. ..... "Shit, I've left him." At the end of Volume One, Ana, in tears, leaves him. Twenty-five pages into Volume Two they are back together. They are both thoroughly miserable. Christian agrees to drop all his demands and enter a purely vanilla relationship and Ana accepts.
After this, the second and third volumes no longer have the organizing concept of the struggle over the contract and the narrative loses its thread. Instead, the focus shifts to several parallel themes. First there is Ana's quest to find out and understand the secrets of Christian's past. Second there is the problem of Christian's obsessive and controlling personality which goes much beyond his BDSM predilections. Thirdly, there is the emergence of external threats to the protagonists arising from Christian's past history. And fourthly there is the emergence of Ana's own 'kinky' desires. But more and more the books are swamped by endless scenes of softcore sex that seem to be written by reshuffling a set of pre-programmed cliches and that add nothing to the story. The narrative plods along: repetitive, dawdling, unedited. They do X. He says "A........", She says "B......". There are tedious blow by blow accounts of ordering meals, driving cars, having breakfast, verbatim reports of banal texts and e-mails, salacious pages of expensive shopping trips. Every time they go anywhere there are two pages describing the journey and one page of "Hello, how are you, come on in", when they arrive!!! The book gawps at luxury lifestyles, brand names and wealth, yet the gifts and shopping are surprisingly unexpensive, as if the author can't quite make the leap to imagine being seriously rich. It's a pastiche of old-fashioned rich, not 21st century Mega-Midas-Rich.
The quest for the secrets of Christian's past and an explanation of his sexual pathology is the central element of the second and third books. What drives him? We find out a few points in outline. His mother was a crack-whore who died of an overdose, and as a four year old boy he spent four days alone with the body waiting for discovery. His Dad was violent and uncaring. A friend of his adoptive family ("Mrs. Robinson") seduced him and made him into a sexual submissive for six years from the age of 15. The girls he likes to dominate all need to look like his mother (including Ana). But none of this background is filled out with any substance. What did Mrs. Robinson do to him? - bad things, it seems, but we are not told what. How did his birth parents abuse him? - not told. What did he do with his previous fifteen submissives? - not told. Why has he been so allergic to girlfriends in the past but so instantly swept away into lovey-dovey romance with Anastasia? Who can tell? You'd think Ana would really want to find out more. But her quest is perfunctory and lacklustre. She asks him. He prefers not to tell. Most of the information that emerges comes when people occasionally tell her things about his past almost incidentally.
Much of this information comes out in response to the threats arising from Christian's past. Ex-Submissive Leila turns up, crazy and threatening with a gun. (What made her mad? We are not told.) Ana's boss at the publishing house (Jack) turns out to be a sadistic psycho rapist. When Ana rejects his advances, he tries to kill Christian, blackmails Ana, and tries to rape her. It turns out that he and Christian briefly shared foster parents on the mean streets of Detroit before Christian went to his loving adoptive parents while Jack was sent to a home - creating a grudge he had borne ever since, until he was fortuitously able to wreak his revenge when Christian's new girlfriend just happened to turn up as a new hire in his publishing company. The threats create some action to keep the book ticking, but they reveal little about the principal characters.
Christian's super-controlling personality shifts its focus from his BDSM to his obsessive interference and protectiveness. When Ana gets a job he buys the company. He keeps giving her lavish gifts she does not want to accept. He has her followed and electronically monitored. He manipulates her office to stop her going on a business trip to New York. He throws a tantrum when she does not change her name after they marry. He gives her love bites on her breasts to stop her sunbathing topless. In short, he is controlling, jealous, over-protective and wants to 'own' her. His wealth and power and achievements just keep getting bigger. As well as being the most beautiful man on the planet as well as one of the richest, he is also wine expert, piano virtuoso, philanthropist, and business genius. Along with this comes palatial homes; helicopters and private jets; the finest tables in the finest places; and all-you-could-ever-desire consumption. The BDSM beast fades from sight but the petulant child remains. Ana's job of reforming her flawed prince continues.
But the most interesting development is probably in Ana's sexuality. Ana starts out as virgin ingenue
with a subconscious that 'does a happy dance in a bright red hula skirt' when nice things happen. At first she is drawn to a sort of all-powerful father figure who makes her feel stupid and tongue-tied, shame-faced and apologetic, and who 'protects' her from rival suitors (like a Dad). Her attraction to Christian is a classic romantic love at first sight, driven by physical desire and a mysterious chemistry (that looks to all the world that it might be the 'Lynx effect' of his fragrant bodywash since it is mentioned nine times in her glowing descriptions of him in volume one!)
But Ana does change as the story develops. She becomes more, not less feisty. She is not into 'submission'. She is into romantic love and she also finds out that she is a highly sexually driven woman.......... who eventually begins to explore her own 'kinky' desires (arguably ending up with her using Christian for these ends rather than him using her. Ho-ho!!). In fact, Ana is a romantic who wants her own "Romance Contact"..... and gets it! She wants marriage, kids, hot sex, career, luxury and riches. And that is what she ends up with. She also learns to manage, if not eliminate, Christian's flaws.
Perhaps because many of these developments are buried in the dross of volumes two and three, most commentators seem to assume that Ana eventually 'submits' to Christian's perverted desires. But that is not the case. Once the whole matter of the Contract is sidelined, Ana gradually becomes more aware of own kinky desires. On page 153 of Volume Two (yes, stick with me!) she induces Christian to give her a second spanking (12 smacks) which makes her come. On pages 243-6 she provokes him into giving her a spanking with a plastic ruler while they are playing pool. Later, Ana explores the Red Room of Pain out of curiosity. It becomes an opportunity for kinky show and tell as she goes through the toys (nipple clamps, Wartenberg wheel, clothespins, anal beads, genital clamps etc) and when Christian finds her there she is well up for a bit of kink and they have sex using a spreader bar on her legs. Mmm, what fun they have! Significantly, it is only after they are engaged to be married that they play fully in the Red Room (page 484 of Vol. 2!!! - are you paying attention?). There is some bondage, blindfolds, nipple clamps, a vaginal plug and one finger up the ass. Ana experiences the soaring giddiness of novice explorations of BDSM and the sweet-painful feelings and shattered super-pleasured aftermath even brings back some enthusiasm to E. L. James's tired writing. Nice soft sensuous BDSM (mild bondage, butt-plug, vibrator) becomes part of their marital repertoire and is nicely told and quite hot (pages 30-40 and 114-118 of volume 3 if you are interested) alongside copious straight sex (which seems to have been written by an automatic sex text generator). By the end, Ana is quite into moderate BDSM sex games and takes the initiative. In the Epilogue set in 2014, Christian and Ana are happily married, having their second child, and continue to mix in some happy kinky sex and Dom/Sub play. Truly Happy Ever After.
Does this mainstream or pathologize kink? Many people complain that it is an inaccurate representation of BDSM. And certainly you won't find a Christian/Ana relationship every day! On the other hand, it's just fiction: why complain that it isn't accurate. Is police fiction an accurate account of the way the police work? Do Scrubs, or General Hospital or Holby City give an accurate view of how hospitals work? Do mega-millionaires ever work the way Christian does (occasionally giving orders on the phone while flirting with Ana). Don't worry about it. Sit back and enjoy the show!
It's not BDSM as I (or you) know it! And it never will be, because what people do in BDSM is as varied and crazy and mixed up as what they do in every other aspect of their personal and sex-lives. What people want will vary enormously. And the boundaries surrounding S&M are all basically false and confusing. Not all joggers want to be competitive runners! You can enjoy playing with toys and being spanked without being a 'sadomasochist'. It's fun. It's hot. Or you can enjoy playing with toys and being spanked ....... and ALSO build your own dungeon, plunge deep into the complex joys of torture and flagellation, and wholly embrace the lifestyle and practices of sadomasochism. It's up to you. Or it would be if state and church and law kept their grubby fingers out of it.
So it is not so much verisimilitude that is at issue, so much as the messages and image that the book conveys to its readers. And in the end it is a mixed picture. Yes, there are lots of nasty implications that (like Christian) you will only do this stuff if your psyche has been disturbed and traumatised by childhood or other similar experiences. Of course, this conclusion can itself be interpreted in different ways. For example: BDSM is just one of a multitude of sexual and emotional responses that are thrown up by our complicated and difficult passage through life and should be understood and accepted (or even celebrated) as such. Or..... it is stuff that only sick people do! Well, let's hope that more people go with the former than the latter. One of the really puzzling responses that come out of the book is that many women who think Christian's BDSM is 'sick' are simultaneously enraptured by him as a romantic figure (beautiful, enigmatic, powerful, alpha-male) and ignore his jealous, controlling, intrusive, stalker aspects. Clearly Christian does give a bad name to BDSM, but you would hope that he would also help to do some reputational damage to fairy-tale princes.
Given that BDSM is widely demonized and marginalised, however, there are some positives in the book. It brings BDSM into wider mainstream discussions. And the fact that it is something that can be both 'scary' and 'OK' in the book is probably not a bad place to end up. Christian's abusive, self-obsessed, emotionally screwed up BDSM is pretty dismal, but Ana finds her way to some fun places. Perhaps the worst thing about the book is not what it does or does not do for BDSM, but what it does for 'romance'. The book has let the junk of 'romance' fiction out of the closet and into the mainstream. Boy-meets-girl and 'Prince Charming' fiction has always been a thriving industry. Yes, people do buy books (and in large quantities) from those lookalike shelves of 'Romance' in W. H. Smith or Barnes & Noble. But at least they kept it to themselves and didn't trouble the world of up-market literature. Under the cover of risque sex, Fifty Shades has sneaked romantic crap back into the best-seller lists. But please don't blame that sin on BDSM!!