Many of you at this point have read the book or seen the movie 50 Shades of Grey. And many of you have also read the myriad of criticisms about the story’s problematic messages about romantic relationships and BDSM. Many critics are doing a really good job at pointing out why it is really problematic to view or read 50 Shades of Grey not for enjoyment, but as a “how to” guide for BDSM. Some critics are making really important points about the problems behind having heteronormative, white-washed, undeveloped characters and the message that people who are into BDSM always have abusive childhoods or are otherwise “damaged.” But after reading (and agreeing with) these critiques, I am left feeling unsettled by something. It was not clear to me at first what was unsettling, because I support the arguments and I understand the perspectives of the people who have a problem with the story and the messages it sends to viewers. I realized that the unsettled feeling I was having was shame…because I enjoyed parts of the book and the movie.
And when I take a closer look at what is making me feel ashamed, I realize that many of the critiques leave me with the message that if I do read the book or watch the movie and I enjoy it, that means I do not understand what healthy sexuality looks like and I need to question why I am turned on by this particular story. If I found some pleasure in reading about how Christian Grey essentially stalked and emotionally coerced Anastasia Steele into being his submissive then I must be a really horrible person, right? This, I believe is why I feel uncomfortable with some of the reactions to 50 Shades of Grey – especially those written by professionals in the field of sexuality. Because in a field where we often do our best to fight against a power that tries to dictate what is sexy and what is “acceptable” or “immoral,” it feels like we are doing the same thing here. And while I am all about critiquing movies, books, and other pieces of pop culture – especially those where I feel like someone is trying to represent ME and is doing a poor job – I am not about making people feel ashamed for reading or watching something for pleasure.
Critiques where this shaming is present (and it is definitely not in all of the critiques I have read) can lead to discussions about the “danger” of reading or watching something because of how it will influence someone’s behavior. Just this past week a male college student was arrested after sexually assaulting a female student claiming that he was acting out a scene from 50 Shades. So, do we blame the book/movie? If the story had represented a BDSM relationship in an accurate way would this student have acted differently? This is a decades-old debate and one that will likely continue to surface any time someone who commits a crime references a movie, a musician, or a video game in order to account for their behavior. There was an article recently titled “Sex toy injuries rocket after release of Fifty Shades of Grey,” and I thought maybe I am wrong, maybe this book has had a greater impact that I could have imagined. Then I read the subtitle, “Injuries involving sex toys has doubled in the US since 2007, according to new figures, with a particular jump since the release of Fifty Shades of Grey.” Well, I know that the book was released in 2011, so the title is already a bit misleading, right? And then I went on to read further down the page “there is no evidence the two are linked, but the bondage-themed novels have been read by tens of millions of people.” Okay. So there has been some measuring of sex toy injuries and they have increased in the past 7 years or so and maybe there is a connection between some of those injuries and individuals who have read the book. I don’t know about you, but that idea does not fill me with the same sense of panic that the title originally implied. In general, I think this idea that a book or a movie will cause catastrophic damage and dangerous behavior does not give most people enough credit. I hope and actively want people who read or view 50 Shades who have had no previous “exposure” to BDSM and become curious about engaging in kinky behavior will do some research, talk to someone about it, and negotiate safety and consent with their partner. I can promote that (and I do), but ultimately it is not any of my business if they do that or not. And I also think it is possible for someone to read or watch something, be aroused by it, and not want to act it out in real life.
Someone recently asked me how I would talk to a high school student who had read the book or watched the movie. My response was I would tell them that BDSM and other kinks are one way that some adults engage in sexual activity and relationships and while the story or behavior in “50 Shades” might be entertaining or exciting (and that is okay!), in reality I believe that is not what a healthy, consensual relationship looks like. The characters and story are like those in many books and movies – created for entertainment, shock, and dramatic value and NOT as representatives of what makes for a pleasurable and satisfying experience in real life. If BDSM is something they find interesting and they want to learn more about it they should seek out information online from experts in the BDSM community (depending on my role at that point I would either give them names or just encourage them to seek better information in general) and understand that safety and consent are at the core of these practices and should not be tried until all parties involved are capable of establishing both, which is why waiting until you are an adult is a good idea. I explained that these would be my main points apart from asking them if they have any specific questions that they would like answered. I would not discourage them from reading it or watching it and I would tell them it is okay if they enjoyed it.
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