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.)



In the past few months as I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into women’s rights issues, I’ve seen many calls for the ERA to finally be adopted. The Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution, would guarantee women the same rights as men. According to the official website, it was first proposed in 1923. It finally passed out of Congress in 1972, but since then it hasn’t been ratified by enough states to become law.

To be completely honest, my first reaction to this particular issue was to scoff. Why, I thought, should we need to specifically call ourselves out in the Constitution? That everyone has equal rights should be a matter of course. We shouldn’t need to codify it.

To everyone shaking your heads, let me explain something. I came of age in the 1990s, a time I look back on now as somewhat magical. Women’s rights were everywhere. People were having important discussions about equality on sitcoms. Popular music confronted social issues in thoughtful, powerful ways. And of course there was Lilith Fair. I went through high school and college feeling that women were powerful and could do anything, and those beliefs were bolstered by my surrounding culture. There were still problems, I knew, but they would be swept away in due course. I felt that humanity was on an inexorable upward climb.

It’s worth noting that at the time, I was a staunch Republican who got regular doses of Rush Limbaugh at home, and I was eager to point out to anyone who would listen that I was no “femi-Nazi”, but a “classical feminist”. It wasn’t embarrassing to be a feminist. It was normal. The issue wasn’t over whether or not to support women’s rights, but how to go about it.

With this background, you might see where I would get a little complacent. Perhaps that was the case for many feminists; I’m not sure. But something happened, because that golden age of feminism is no more.

After 9/11, the inclusiveness of the 1990s was shattered. We stopped being welcoming. We became suspicious of anything new, anyone who didn’t fit the “norm”. “Traditional values” became more and more important; they were comfortable, easy, a safety net. Never mind that these traditions are pretty new in terms of human history; they’re what we know and what our parents knew, so they must be for the best.

As progressiveness slowed, enmity grew between the traditional majority and minorities who had finally begun coming into their own.

I noticed the way fear had replaced openness in our society, but I thought it would pass. I didn’t think I really needed to do anything.

When a friend of mine in Mississippi started lobbying on Facebook against Initiative 26 last year, I didn’t think it was a big deal. Or at least, I didn’t think it would ever apply to me. I thought, here’s some lawmaker doing something silly in a different state. It’ll never pass. But as I watched, she continued to lobby, and it slowly grew apparent that it wasn’t going away. I think at some point I started reposting a few of her links, and I was gratified when ultimately the bill failed. I figured it was over.

Then Georgia put forth its “fetal pain” bill earlier this year.

Now it affected me. (I could empathize with those it would directly affect; I’m infertile. But more importantly, I could actually make a difference, as a resident of Georgia.) For the first time, I wrote about women’s rights on my blog. A couple days later, I wrote more. I posted links on Facebook. And I wrote the governor.

The bill passed.

After that I became more and more aware of similar bills being put forth across the country–the “personhood” movement. At a time when the recovering economy should have been everyone’s top priority, lawmakers were instead slowly chipping away at Roe vs. Wade. And then the attacks on contraception began–contraception, the most obvious way to avoid abortion entirely.

Whenever I would discuss my growing unease, someone would always tell me that these issues were a “distraction”.

Maybe they are a distraction, but if so, I’m not the one doing the distracting. The people actually making these laws are. And, worse, with people not allowing themselves to be “distracted”, these things are passing.

If this movement is indeed a “distraction”, my guess is that the people putting forth these laws are trying to distract us from the fact that they have no idea how to create jobs, or from the fact that the economy is recovering bit by bit. While they’re at it, they’re appealing to a radical base that longs for the “good old days”, and it’s working.

Whatever the reason, proponents of these laws are pushing thought out of government while pulling private matters of family and health into it. They’re forgetting that we know the cost of prohibition.

As a woman, I can’t sit back and view all of this as “politics as usual”. Not with the very culture changing around me. Not with more and more men and women speaking out against human rights. Not with the sudden rise of vitriol and suspicion toward rape victims. Not with the generally emerging sense that it’s okay for people who are not doctors to make medical decisions for other people, with no exceptions. Not with this apparent shift from making laws based on logic and science to making them based on unsupported beliefs.

We are no longer a country that doesn’t need an Equal Rights Amendment–if we ever truly were. Instead, we are on a road of hatred, marginalization, and silencing, on which people feel compelled to comment that when women are really raped, they can’t get pregnant, or that women should never have been given the right to vote.

The ERA would not solve the problems we’re currently facing, but it would be an important first step toward equality in the home, workplace, and political sphere. It would give us the ability to protect our rights in ways beyond protesting, lobbying, and writing letters. As the political tides shift, we need that protection. We need something as a buffer against anti-woman trends that could otherwise render us powerless.

One way to get the ERA passed is to find three more states to ratify it. Georgia is one possibility; there are fourteen others. Attempts are also continually made to get the ERA back through Congress. A survey from 2001 indicates that, at least at that time, the people were behind the idea of codifying equal rights.

To help immediately, you can sign this petition. As of now, there doesn’t seem to be a way to donate to the cause online. You can find various t-shirts and stickers here and there, but it’s unclear if the profits would help the cause.

In the long term, you can support legislators who support the ERA, through voting and campaign donations. You can call or write your lawmakers and ask them to support it. And you can talk about this issue with your friends and family.

The past year has proven to me that our rights are not inalienable. Not until we put them into the Constitution.


As a woman, I think about rape a lot.

I’m not constantly in fear of it. But I’m aware of it in a way that makes me wary. Intellectually, I find myself analyzing conditions that lead to rape. And of course emotionally I would like all rape to stop immediately.

There are those who say the onus of stopping rape falls on the victims, that they have somehow justified their rapist’s actions through some behavior of their own. And there are those who say the onus of stopping rape falls on the perpetrators, that they should exercise self-control and that victims are not responsible for what happens to them.

I find both of these opinions to be too idealized to be practical in real world scenarios.

The blame for the act of rape falls squarely on the rapist. There is nothing that justifies what they do. No action on the part of their victims makes it okay for them to attack and violate. And so yes, we need to be looking at how to marginalize this sort of behavior until it is broadly unacceptable.

But in the meantime, rapists are still going to rape. Unless people–women and men–want to be victims, they should prepare themselves and their children.

The first tool in a person’s arsenal is the “gut feeling”. This should be cultivated at an early age and honed throughout life. I highly recommend owning and regularly reading Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear; this book demonstrates through examples how you can turn that crawly feeling you get in skeevy situations into actionable information. It also offers excellent advice on defusing escalating scenarios, such as household fights that might be heading towards domestic abuse, disgruntled workers, and stalkers. The main takeaway is this: If someone gives you a bad feeling, don’t stay around them. If a situation gives you a bad feeling, get out of it.

The second tool is what some people might call “common sense”, but which I will call situational awareness and preparation. You’ll learn about this in The Gift of Fear too. Basically, when you are planning to go anywhere or do anything, you should be aware of where you will be, what type of place it is, who you can expect to meet, where the exits are, how long it would take you to get out of there, how public or private it is, whether or not there are places where a person might be lured out of sight or abducted, and more. When you park your car, you should pay attention to the cars around you. When returning to your car, you should do the same, and have your keys out and ready before you get there so there’s no delay. Always lock your car, and if you can see underneath it or underneath the cars next to you before you get there, definitely check. Even if you left it locked, look in the backseat before you get into your car.

When you go into an establishment like a restaurant, sit so that you can see the entrances and so there is a wall behind you if possible. Pay attention to the people who come in and think about how you would get out of the room or building quickly if you needed to. It is possible with training to sense when someone is staring at you. Start looking out for this sort of behavior.

Public restrooms are a place to watch out for. Restaurant restrooms are probably safe, unless the restaurant doesn’t feel right to begin with, in which case don’t even eat there. But gas station restrooms and rest stop restrooms can give you a bad feeling. Depending on the time of day, they can be empty, perfectly private for an assault. When possible, don’t travel alone, and don’t visit these restrooms alone. (I normally use fast food restaurants for my “rest areas” when traveling; they’re safe, family-friendly and have clean restrooms.)

In terms of preparation, there is no point in trying to change the way you look to dissuade rapists. There are a million different fetishes under the sun. What you find conservative, he may find provocative. Don’t let fear of being raped change who you are; don’t give rapists power over your personal style. Adorn yourself in whatever ways you want. About the only advice I would give in terms of clothes, shoes, and jewelry is to watch out for items that might make it difficult to run, or might make it easier for someone to hurt you. On the flip side, you might look for accessories you can use as weapons.

The third tool in your arsenal against rape is self defense techniques. Once you are mature enough to know when to use martial arts–for knowledge and defense, never for attack, as Master Splinter said in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–then there are some devastating techniques you can be taught for protection. Bear in mind, the ideal is to escape or avoid dangerous scenarios entirely. But that’s not always possible, and if you find yourself under attack, and your gut is telling you you are in real danger, you should know the fastest and most effective ways to bring your opponent down. This includes offensive maneuvers and even striking first if you must. It also means fighting “dirty”. You’re not trying to win “points”, you’re trying to survive. It doesn’t matter how large your opponent is, if you can get a good strike in to the right area. After you’ve done that, just keep hitting them until they can’t get back up.

Once you have learned some techniques, you should spend time mentally training, imagining various situations and what you might do to disable your opponent and escape. A good self defense class should also run you through some scenarios, but it’s impossible to practice some of the best techniques. Yes, they are that dangerous. Padding wouldn’t help because it would make the practice unrealistic. With the sort of self defense techniques I’m thinking of, your attacker could wind up maimed or possibly dead. This is why you should not learn these techniques until you are mature enough not to use them.

But once you do know them, you will be that much more prepared for the worst.

With these three tools–trusting your gut, situational awareness, and self defense techniques–you can feel more empowered to live in the world of today. Making smart choices doesn’t mean you have to hide yourself at home. In fact, the whole point is for you to be able to get out there and speak your mind.

Many people, women and men, who speak out become the targets of hate speech and abuse. Sometimes the fear of these threats becomes so great that people withdraw, their voices silenced. When this happens, public discourse loses something vitally important: the public. These fringe harassers are not the majority; their voices are just the loudest. People who are interested in things like decency and real solutions need to be able to talk about hot-button issues without fear. Taking steps to protect ourselves will help.

And then there’s the long view. The steps outlined above are nothing but bandages covering the third-degree burn that is oppressor entitlement on world societies. Protecting ourselves is important, but we need to start applying skin grafts.

Why does rape happen? My impression is that rape is emotional. It comes either from a seed of obsession that is nourished over a long period of time, or from a sudden burst of emotion. Either way, the victim is not seen as a person so much as a means to work out or through that emotion. In the case of obsession, the rapist doesn’t want a relationship; he wants control and pleasure. In the case of sudden outbursts, the rapist is overwhelmed with a rush of feeling and uses the most convenient means of getting it out. We see more of the obsession type here in the US; an example of the outburst type is what happened to CBS’s Lara Logan in Tahrir Square.

There are two main problems, then, that need to be dealt with. First, men need to learn to see women (and other potential rape victims) as people, not as things they can use for their convenience and throw away. Second, men need to learn how to deal with their emotions properly.

It starts with our kids. They need to know they can’t always get their way, that the world doesn’t owe them anything, and that preying upon others is unacceptable. They need to know that everyone is different, but everyone deserves to be treated with respect. They also need to know that it is okay to cry, to talk or write or create art or run around or do any other healthy activity in order to work out a difficult emotion.

And it continues into our schools and workplaces. We need to stop holding up domineering personalities as the main role models and start valuing all personality types equally. We need to cultivate a culture of community rather than a culture of arbitrary competition. Deadlines and competition are necessary to a degree, but they need to be more reasonable…at least reasonable enough that coworkers don’t resent one another for taking time off.

We need to pay women and men equally for the same work, and we need to not put up with anything from one group that we would not put up with from the other. No more “boys will be boys” or “well, she’s a girl”.

We need more women elected to public office, more women anchoring serious news shows, at least one late-night comedy/interview show starring a woman, more female lead characters in movies and TV shows and video games.

We need to chip away at this impression of woman as “other”, make women identifiable to men (and women, for that matter) as human beings, such that objectification becomes more and more difficult.

The long view is very long. I doubt I’ll see its goals achieved in my lifetime, especially with the backsliding we’ve been doing lately. But for the sake of the next generation, and the one after that, and the one after that, we have to keep trying.