Reading erotica can be a very enjoyable, healthy and an empowering thing to do, my issue is not with that; there is a difference between making the decision to go searching specifically for an erotic story heavily involving BDSM, and picking up the next hit book at the bookshop. I read the whole trilogy when it first came out, I was 17, a virgin and I thought it was sexy and exciting. Until a week ago I was thinking about going to see the film. But, the other day I was bored, so I thought...why not give it another read? In the last 4 years, my ideas changed and I have discovered feminism, which had a massive impact on my interpretation of the book. This time instead of sexy and exciting my response was more appalled...and scared by the blatant glamourization of a vulnerable young woman entering into a controlling and, frankly abusive, relationship.
Now, lets be clear, I am not saying that BDSM itself is abusive. From my - limited, mainly internet research based - knowledge of the practice E L James did not do her research very well. The kind of totally encompassing submissive and obedient relationship Christian Grey is searching for is not the norm in the BDSM world. Dominants and submissive do exist and enjoy healthy (often loving) relationships based on trust, a shared understanding and sexual desire; much of which I found to be lacking from the majority of the book. Of course, James didn’t write these intending for them to be international best sellers, they were initially self-published for a small audience and, if the myth is to be believed, they started life as Twilight fan fiction! So while maybe she can’t be held responsible for such widespread misinformation, it is still an issue.
All kinds of people enjoy and explore BDSM, whether that’s through taking part in it, reading it or watching pornography. It is not something that is often talked about which can lead people to feel isolated, if this kind of book can help even one person to feel less alone then that should only be a good thing. However, I wish James had written the book so that it featured a truly loving and equal relationship where neither party is physically or emotionally intimidated by the other. Maybe even - if I dare to dream - if it featured a switched female dominant/male submissive. That way the book could reach those who need to feel validated, whilst also educating and (hopefully) making readers question the patriarchy and our male dominated society through demonstrating that you can be powerful and in control and feminine and sexy and that in a healthy relationship trust and communication are paramount - no matter what kind of sex you’re into!
Of course, some people have found these books liberating and they have helped many people to feel empowered...In some ways I can see that Christian and Ana’s relationship is empowering for women (although the opposite is far more overwhelmingly true!) Ana does manage to help Christian come to terms with his issues and they go on to have - marginally - more equal footing in their relationship - amazingly, when they get married Ana doesn’t promise to obey - so, if you did feel liberated from reading it then I’m happy for you. However on the whole I feel that the book has the potential to be massively damaging. In the same way that most people who hear a racist joke won’t become a racist, most people who read this book won’t immediately enter into abusive relationships or become aggressive sociopaths; for those already predisposed to that kind of behaviour these books have the potential to encourage them. And for the people who have experienced abusive relationships in real life? How insensitive, painful and degrading to have that experience reduced to a badly written and irritating fantasy for the masses.
Finally, for an erotic book the sex was very boring to read. It also sets worryingly unrealistic expectations for normal (vanilla) sex - Are we expected to believe that in her very first sexual experience EVER (remember, Ana is so innocent she’s never even masturbated) Ana has three orgasms, two of which are purely from penetrative sex? I don’t know about you, but neither my first time, nor any of my friends went remotely like that! Then there is the intensely irritating way the author insists in writing about the actual mechanics of sex. Not once are the words penis or vagina used and I almost threw the book against the wall when I read (for the 1,000th time) something about Ana’s ‘behind’.
So, there you have it; at best this book creates totally unrealistic and frankly dangerous expectations for a relationship whilst also perpetuating damaging gender stereotypes and at worst it trivializes the experiences of people who have been in abusive relationships. These are books that are being read by over 90 million people in 52 different languages, all over the world; mostly women, but also men and, quite possibly, children! Please, correct me if I’m wrong...but I can’t find any evidence to say that there have been any age restrictions placed on the buying of these books; at least when entering an online erotic fiction site you are warned of explicit content and asked your age while in the UK the film has been classed as an 18. I will be boycotting the 50 shades franchise and refuse to give them any of my money for a cinema ticket, will you be joining me?