“Fifty Shades of Grey” is a story that features sex enhanced with bondage, sadism, and masochism.
It has been credited for heating up a lot of bedrooms around the world.
But the sex between the characters Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele functions as a distraction for what appears to be a rationalization for abusive relationships.
Here’s what public-health researcher Amy Bonomi told Business Insider:
Every interaction involves abuse. Christian stalks Anastasia, intimidates her verbally, and socially isolates her. That’s the name of the game in abusive relationships: isolating someone from family and friends.
She tells him she feels demeaned, debased, and abused, and he says, “Well, you need to embrace those feelings and deal with them the way a real submissive would.” He minimizes her concerns. And he uses alcohol and sexual violence to impair Anastasia’s consent — he begins a lot of sexual interactions when he is genuinely angry with her. Those are two big red flags.
There are less-subtle red flags in the story.
The release form
Perhaps the most disturbing interaction between the two is when Christian tries to manipulate Anastasia into signing a form, releasing him of any liability for all of the awful things he plans to do to her.
There is something brilliantly evil about putting that language on paper. It reduces sexual relations down to a cold business arrangement. But it implicitly, perhaps unconsciously, includes a very dark emotional transaction: Christian gets the satisfaction of knowing Anastasia willingly got into this, and Anastasia more or less surrenders the right to blame him for being anything less than a gentleman.
In the minds of Christian and Anastasia, the release form marks the moment in which blame shifts from the abuser to the victim.
Anastasia never signs the release form, and on multiple occasions she walks away.
But that is when things arguably get worse.
Christian entices Anastasia with expensive gifts. (In the movie, she gets a MacBook, a new car, and at least one ride on a glider.) That’s in addition to a lot of fantastic, nonviolent sex. This is the “manipulation” Dr. Bonomi is referring to.
At some point, Anastasia confuses Christian’s actions for gestures of love. It is unclear exactly when it happens, but she falls in love with him.
That’s when she really gets herself into trouble.
Rationalizing the violence
As their unorthodox relationship proceeds, Anastasia learns more about Christian’s dark history. In the movie, she sees what appears to be cigarette burns on his body, which we later learn were put there by his abusive mother. She also learns that one of Christian’s mother’s friends used him as a sex slave for years when he was a boy.
Unfortunately, the actions of many of history’s worst people can be explained by upbringing. What’s the difference between Christian Grey and some other run-of-the-mill violent sociopath?
Anastasia loves him.
She desperately wants to understand him because she sympathizes with him.
At the climax of the story, Christian becomes very violent.
This chapter ends with her, once again, walking away.
It is very upsetting to hear about women who fall victim to their abusive lovers. It is even more frustrating to hear that those victims stay.
We hear these stories all too frequently, and many of us are left wondering, “Why?”
If you were one of the people who read or watched “Fifty Shades Of Grey” and found yourself even briefly fantasizing about what it would be like to be Anastasia, then maybe you know.
Abusive men don’t reveal their truths when they first meet you. They are — in one form or another — Christian Grey. On the surface they are harmless. Importantly, they fill some sort of need.
In the real world, there’s a point at which, like Anastasia, you fall in love. You struggle to articulate why, but you are trapped. Perhaps it is because love is a loaded emotion with lots of strings attached like patience and understanding.
None of this is new. But historically this type of story would have been filed in the horror or psychological thriller genres. This time, however, the material landed in a romance novel.
Regardless, it’s just fiction, right?
Wrong. Here’s Bonomi:
People have been making that argument about porn for a long time, but the empirical studies show that those who are interacting with porn are much more likely to hold attitudes that support violence against women and more likely to be violent against women in their own relationships.
There is an association that we really need to be paying attention to in society. If it is fantasy, then we need to be working with young people to look at those visions of fantasy with a critical eye.
Rather than perpetuating a harmful narrative, we should see “Fifty Shades Of Grey” as an opportunity to open a dialogue about abusive relationships.
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