There has been a lot written in both vanilla and kinky circles about the recent phenomenon which is the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E. L. James. People seem to either love the series or hate it, and many good arguments have been put forth for each point of view, with people in the kink world mostly coming down on the hate side. It has been decried as poorly written, and as bad education. It has even inspired some wonderful and bitingly funny parodies such as the one penned by Laura Antoniou, author of the popular Marketplace series. It is serving as the catalyst for a great deal of discussion in both the kink and the vanilla worlds, and that is never a bad thing.
Despite the negatives, on the whole, I actually really liked the books, and have some thoughts that I’ve not seen addressed elsewhere, specifically around the portrayal of consent.
First of all, before getting to that, what it actually is is a series written by a first time author who researched the subject of BDSM online, and makes no bones about that fact. It is first and foremost a love story, and largely a literary first in that it is clearly pornographic, but in a format that appeals to a very broad base of mostly vanilla women who generally are not associated with reading porn of any sort beyond the bodice-ripper genre. It is aimed at the mass market, and has succeeded wildly in exactly what it has set out to accomplish. It is a mistake to expect a book to be what it is not and was never intended to be – and to read it and to decry it as what it never did set out to be is to entirely miss the point, when reading any book.
The story opens a door into our world that most have never seen, and as such, makes what we do more accessible to the public, and will hopefully serve as a gateway for those who are curious to seek out information and ways to dip their toes into the waters. It also legitimizes women’s erotica and has gotten the world talking about women’s sexual fantasies and desires, not just those of men. It was never intended to be a book about BDSM education, so why get so upset that it isn’t?
Great literature it is not, but it is far from as terribly written as many writers have made it out to be. The much-vaunted Beauty series that is often brought up as a comparison is actually considerably worse, and ultimately deadly boring, despite being written by quite a good author. For one thing, Fifty Shades actually has a plot line and other things going on in the story beyond the endless jackrabbit-like fucking and sucking that permeate Beauty to the exclusion of everything else, and there is character development. Whether one actually likes the characters involved or not is a different question, and a matter of personal tastes, but we do see the evolution of both two individuals and their relationship unfold in its pages in what is actually a pretty realistic manner overall, even if the time frame is rather insanely sped up.
The arguments against the book range from the notion that it is just not a realistic portrayal of a BDSM relationship (which is highly debatable, actually, and very dependent on your particular preferences), to the incontrovertible fact that it portrays a taste for kink as resulting from being horrifically abused, and as a tool of abuse as well, on top of being poorly written in the estimation of some. The book makes it look as if all it takes to “cure” oneself of kinkiness is to find the right vanilla woman.
I have definite problems with this portrayal myself, but the fact of the matter is that while an abusive background is not the root “cause” of kinkiness for everyone, it very much is clearly behind it for more than a few, and to ignore this reality is to continue to put our collective heads in the sand.
This background of abuse for many players is also very much at the root of a great deal of the abuse that we see in our “community”. It is a fact of life, like it or not. Is it the one and only cause of kinkiness? Of course not, but it does happen, and probably more often than we would like to think, especially among dominants. Kink is also used much more often to exploit the innocent than we like to believe. We see both sides here – one person who heals, and one who doesn’t.
Other issues I see are the fact that if someone in real life were to act as Christian Grey does when he first meets Ana and falls for her, many of us would be rightly up in arms at the stalker factor. He does in fact stalk her quite aggressively, and it’s scary, especially because we know how innocent Ana is. This is really not a good thing – although it is very much part of the stuff of romantic dreams and novels, the white knight coming to the rescue of the maiden in distress, being so smitten he moves heaven and earth to seek her out, etc. Some things I think we need to allow to pass in the name of literary license, if nothing else. And the fact of the matter still remains that despite the clearly questionable and objectionable nature of this behavior, Christian does actually save Ana’s bacon from some really nasty situations and likely real harm because of it, so it’s really hard to hate him for it.
Christian is also extremely controlling and in some ways quite full of himself. I mean honestly, an NDA for a relationship? Still, I suppose if I were a billionaire businessman in his position, I can see how that idea might have appeal, but it’s not something I’d recommend to anyone who was actually presented with such a thing. Relationships require trust, not legal documents legislating their conduct from day one. The sophisticated billionaire falling for the poor, naive hick the way he does seems pretty far-fetched, but hey, it can and does happen – and in book 3, Fifty Shades Freed, we learn about his perspective and why and how that actually happened despite the initial apparent ludicrousness of the situation. It would have been ice to have heard more about this from him throughout the series, but it is what it is, and those who persevere through the whole series are likely to be rewarded with a whole different understanding of the entire undertaking than those who quit on book one.
In the description of Christian’s miscalculation, we see what plays out in real life in our circles thousands of times, the frequent projection onto others of supposed dominant or submissive qualities based only on some superficial behaviors, in situations that are not realistic ways to assess such inclinations or the lack thereof. The difference is that Christian ends up recognizing his error and still not throwing away what is good – or trying to beat Ana into fitting into the mold he has in his head of what he wants. He learns to roll with what is actually there, not what he is projecting onto his partner, and to deeply appreciate that.
All negatives aside, I think the book actually succeeds quite well in showing the ideal of consensual behavior we espouse, and that is where I think one of its greatest strengths lies, and an offering of an important lesson our community would actually do well to take careful note of.
The contract Christian hands Ana is clearly taken straight out of every good educational book about BDSM out there, but adds elements not usually seen that clearly and explicitly recognize the reality of human nature and relationships that are often so sorely missing in such documents and attitudes about BDSM relationships. He absolutely never touches her without clear and explicit consent on her part, and he never pushes her towards anything she is uncomfortable with. He waits for her to come to him and ask to play. The contract reflects an attitude that the submissive is an equal partner in the relationship he envisions, at least in the sense that she is entitled to freely agree or disagree to anything, and also makes the option to renegotiate as needed clear.
James isn’t kinky herself, but she has done a doggone good job of portraying the consensual focus of what we do in spite of that, and I salute the amount of homework she obviously did.
Christian is a man who is fundamentally in solid control of himself in the ways that really matter most, and in behaving the way he does with respect to play and the contract, and not laying a hand on Ana otherwise without her explicit agreement, he lays a rock solid groundwork for her trust in him to grow and be nurtured. He drew some really crystal clear lines. I was cheering him all the way through the series for this.
I was actually once involved long ago with a dominant who also drew very clear lines in much the same way, and I have to say it was extremely refreshing. We were not otherwise compatible, and so it ended quickly, but I have always respected his ability and willingness to set and respect very clear boundaries. We don’t often see this, and no one said it’s necessarily easy, but it very much can be done much more than it often is.
As to the idea that a taste for kink can be “cured” by the right partner, well, sometimes it can, for some people. For some people (read – mature ones), the sum total of who their partner is is more important than any single aspect of the relationship, including kink.
And this is how it should be, in my opinion. Two people who have at least a reasonable crossover of tastes, given enough time and building of trust by respecting the differences and working together towards consensus, really ought to be able to find acceptable middle ground sexually, even in the context of a 24/7 D/s relationship.
What I really liked about Christian’s portrayal was that it showed a dominant who is not only fully human, warts and all, but who clearly values the relationship and his partner more than the exact method of how the game is played out. It is clear by the end of the series that his dominant and sadistic urges have not been fully extinguished, but that hers actually begin to grow – but they are both more focused on the overall picture. Kink is a backdrop, a part of their relationship, not the whole thing, and not the end-all and be-all. As such, it is doubly silly to judge this series as a BDSM tome, because it’s simply not about that at all, in the end. It ultimately portrays BDSM as a healthy portion of a fuller relationship, not the whole relationship itself – or at least not a healthy relationship by itself.
And kink by itself is not a healthy relationship. We are all much more than the sum of our kinks, and all too often, we find ourselves reduced to little more than a couple of checklists facing off together. The pathological relationships shown in the series are in fact monodimensional like this. The relationship between Ana and Christian is much healthier – and much more multidimensional.
So maybe it wasn’t really saying just that kink itself is inherently dysfunctional, but that kink as a sole relationship parameter is.
Christian was frustrated by Ana’s lack of kinkiness, no doubt about it – but made a deliberate choice to do what it took to keep the woman he fell in love with – the whole person, the human being – safe and happy, to focus on the big picture. There is always room to grow, from both sides, if the fundamentals are nurtured, and that is indeed what ends up happening, although too many people clearly quit reading before they finish the series, so they never find out what actually happens in the end.
I have to say that particularly having been at the effect one upon a time of a partner who clearly did not prioritize the person over the kinks, and who frequently allowed his urges and lack of self-control to put me at serious risk, I have nothing but respect for someone who is able to get on top of his own carnal desires in service to the greater ideal and good, namely that of valuing what you have in your hand even if it is lacking some element you might really like to have, and doing what it takes to build on that.
Christian worked his ass off to overcome a lot of issues he had, to be able to meet the woman he loved where she needed him to be – and in turn, he grew more into who he himself was meant to be and a lot more happiness. This is a relationship that is fundamentally all about give and take, and focusing on each others’ needs and desires, comfort and safety, not just their own. Both grow and change, and nurture the other. How anyone can view that as problematic is utterly beyond me.
I simply cannot respect people who are willing to throw away entire relationships, and with them the whole person they are involved with, simply because there are some differences in kinks. No two people will ever have exactly the same tastes, but so often we see folks running around in our community changing partners like they change underwear, just because they don’t have identical kinks, no matter how otherwise compatible they may be otherwise. I think this is a terrible tragedy, and probably a big part of why we don’t see more longer term successful BDSM relationships. Add in the “more realistic” notions that it’s all about the dominant, and that the submissive must sublimate her desires and needs to his or be considered at all desirable, and what we have in real life is a hell of a mess and a lot of very unhappy and dysfunctional people running around trying to build relationships without focusing on the fundamentals first.
A BDSM relationship is a relationship first and foremost, not a collection of kinks facing off together, and to treat a partner as undesirable because kinks don’t match up closely when everything else does align is, to me, the height of stupidity and selfishness, and displays an absolutely stunning lack of self control and respect for who one’s partner is as a human being. Every relationship requires compromise, and Christian and Ana’s relationship shows a good bit of that going in both directions.
Finally, the success and value of the series can be seen in the sheer amount of commentary and controversy it has engendered. It has touched chords for almost everyone who has read it, and at the end of the day, that is a really good thing, and a clear mark of a successful book. All of the ensuing discussion will end up straightening out whatever misconceptions exist about kink for most people to whom it matters, and for the rest, if all the series does is demystify WIITWD enough that the vanillas don’t view us all as monsters, and come to understand that kink is just another way of expressing sexuality and giving and receiving pleasure, which is the focus that Christian really gives it in explaining and demonstrating it to Ana, then James will have actually done our community a great service in the end.