A little more on Fifty Shades

As I’m hearing more and more about Fifty Shades of Grey—again, I have no plans to actually read or watch it—I’m becoming more and more unhappy with my waffling in the previous post. The movie sounds horrible; not only do we lack the apparently comedic effect of Ana’s narration, but Ana also is never actually shown having an orgasm. I mean, what is even the point then?

The more I think about what I said about Fifty Shades of Grey, the more I realize that my own perspective was clouding my analysis. I wasn’t imagining the perspective of someone who is naturally submissive.

You see, I do not have a submissive personality in the slightest.

As an introvert who has suffered from social anxiety, I have behaved in ways that could be called submissive many times. But it makes me chafe. I like being in control. Years and years ago, when Sean and I were first dating, we were in a play-by-post RPG together. I was the GM, meaning I should have been in charge, but Sean, who also has a strong personality, and who had been playing in and occasionally running the game far longer than I had, argued hotly against a story decision I had made. I ended up changing the story to please him, and this lost me one of my favorite players.

I have despised having made that decision ever since. It was my game, my decision, and I rolled over. I didn’t want to fight with Sean, so I just did what he wanted.

(Thankfully, I eventually learned that this is not the way to behave in a relationship, and I have been much happier since figuring out how to actually have discussions. Sean has too; my unwillingness to fight for my position had been a source of frustration for him.)

I don’t want to mischaracterize submission here. Being submissive doesn’t mean you’re weak or that you don’t stand up for yourself. It just means you are relinquishing control willingly. You’re demonstrating absolute trust in another person. This is something that is extremely difficult for me to do. I’ve tried it, and I’m very bad at it. When I wrote my original post about Fifty Shades, I wasn’t coming from that perspective at all.

Now, I’m reconsidering. If you crave a dominant to take care of you, if you’re actively looking for someone to make decisions, you might miss the warning signs of abuse. Stories that paint abuse as romantic make it harder to see the difference between a loving, trusting relationship and a relationship in which one person abuses the other.

I would never want to abuse a partner. If I were the dominant in a BDSM relationship, my purpose—the thing that would make me enjoy it—would be pleasing my partner. I would never want them to be afraid of me or to feel like they couldn’t say no. I would be so thankful that they were willing to indulge my controlling nature. I would want to reward them with whatever treatment they desired.

Sex can be wonderful, but it’s so vital to actually communicate. You have to tell the other person what you like, and ask them what they like. Ask for what you want. Or demand it, if your partner likes submitting to your demands. Every relationship is different. But you should never feel afraid. You should feel safe, and happy, and excited. You should be enjoying yourself.

Making yourself vulnerable to a person who loves you is absolutely romantic. Having an abuser take advantage of your vulnerability is not.

Fifty Shades of Controversy

NSFW. Trigger warnings: abuse, rape.

It was intriguing to watch the various reactions to Fifty Shades of Grey play out online as the movie’s release date approached. I’ve seen many discussions breaking down how the story is a grossly inaccurate portrayal of BDSM. People are worried that 1) this will reflect poorly on people who engage in BDSM safely and with proper consent; and 2) people will hurt themselves and others. In my opinion, these are very valid concerns. On the other hand, I’ve also seen it pointed out that fantasy is just that: fantasy. Just because someone reads or watches a story about something doesn’t mean they want to try that something in real life. If that was the case, we would have a lot more serial killers. I think this viewpoint has merit as well.

Portrayals of BDSM in popular culture have been strange. I obviously have not consumed all media, and I often feel that my pop culture knowledge is inadequate, so keep that in mind…but Fifty Shades is the only high-profile example I can think of where the main characters engage in what is supposed to be BDSM. I can’t remember there being a mass-market motion picture advertised all over the place like this. And usually when I see BDSM in a TV show—often a police procedural or medical drama—it is engaged in by a suspect, victim, or patient. The main characters may raise their eyebrows, or even discuss how it’s perfectly fine, but they never seem to go so far as to dabble themselves.

While looking for examples of portrayals of BDSM in media, I read through this Wikipedia page, and it gives me the impression that two different things are being treated as if they are the same, when they obviously aren’t. The first thing is abuse: domination and punishment of someone who has not consented. The second thing is play in which all parties have agreed to certain rules and situations and which will stop at any time if any of the participants wishes it to.

I recently read a series of stories in which the characters engaged in BDSM. One of the characters wrote storylines that they all then acted out. In one ongoing storyline, the submissive characters were literal sex slaves of the dominant character. There was no consent involved whatsoever. But the characters who were acting out the storylines were all equals, and any of them could stop the play at any time. In other words, one of the characters pretended to own sex slaves, and two of the characters pretended to be sex slaves, but they were never actually those things. The stories spent a lot of time on after-care, as the dominant (or dominants, depending on the story) pampered the submissive(s) afterwards.

This meta-portrayal of BDSM really drove home to me the idea of fantasy. A person might, for example, have a rape fantasy. They might simply imagine it. They might read stories or watch pornography about it. They might go so far as to ask a partner to act out a situation with them. But they don’t actually want to rape someone, or to be raped.

In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, there is no meta level. The person having the fantasy is the person reading or watching. The fantasy is the book or movie.

I imagine there will be varying levels of response to Fifty Shades of Grey. Some people will keep the fantasy in their heads for their own private amusement. Others might decide they want to try acting it out. In the latter case, I think it’s good that so much has been discussed about the book and film—people who are interested in BDSM have plenty of resources to draw upon.

Ultimately, I think it’s important to give people as much information as possible, and then let them make their own decisions. It’s dangerous to look at any work of art as a guideline for how to live. Art is an expression of emotion and thought and possibility. It’s a way to explore ideas. It asks questions; it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) provide answers. Answers are up to the person experiencing the art.

I’m more interested in making sure people have the tools they need to critically evaluate the world around them than I am in trying to “protect” people by banning certain stories or types of story.

I do hope people take advantage of all the information that’s out there. I hope all the discussion of Christian Grey as an abuser will help people recognize abusive relationships and avoid being abused. And I hope that as the film raises the profile of BDSM, people research it instead of making snap judgments. I really hope people stay smart and take care of themselves.

Beyond the realm of fantasy vs. reality, there is the fact that individual works don’t exist in a vacuum. The stories we surround ourselves with do have an impact on our perceptions. Men have been told through culture, pop and otherwise, that they are entitled to women’s bodies; women have been told that they are worthless without a man’s approval. These are issues that go well beyond one work, but Fifty Shades certainly does nothing to change the situation.

I’m nervous about the movie, honestly; this author says that while the book is easily understood as fantasy, the movie plays out just a little too real. I don’t want to see that. I’m actually pretty sensitive about abuse. I won’t be seeing the movie.

I don’t plan on ever reading Fifty Shades of Grey, either. Beyond my ambivalence about the story’s potential impacts, there’s the simple fact that I’m kind of picky about writing. I tend to get tripped up by wildly improper punctuation, poor word choice, bad sentence structure, and a lack of smooth narrative flow. The story has to be really good for me to get past that sort of thing. I enjoy rule-breaking when it is intentional, but not when it obviously isn’t. Based on the excerpts I’ve seen, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t force my way through the book. (I can’t read Dan Brown novels for the same reason. Hell, I had trouble with the last few Harry Potter books because of all the ellipses.)