*Note to my readers: spoiler alert! If you don’t want to know what happens in the 50 Shades trilogy, I recommend not reading this post past the “Here Goes”.
Every once in a while, a book will be so popular its influence is undeniable. For better or for worse, 50 Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, is one of those books. Since its publication in 2011, over one hundred million copies of the book have been sold, and the film is about to hit the screens on February 13, 2015. In April 2012, Time magazine included author EL James in a list of “100 Most Influential People in the World”. 50 Shades of Grey is now a common household reference- it seems like everyone knows about it, and it’s safe to say a good chunk of people have read the series (or at least tried to).
What’s the big deal about 50 Shades? In a nutshell, it’s wildly popular trashy erotica. It originated as Twilight fan fiction, first posted under the title Master of the Universe with characters even named after Edward and Bella. After some push back on the sexual nature of the series, James removed the story from fan fiction sites and eventually posted the reworked original piece as 50 Shades of Grey. So its popularity most likely stems from the following first gained in the Twilight scene.
Is it any good? In my opinion (which I know many others share), the books are poorly written, lack character development, have painfully predictable plot lines, glorify some very unhealthy relationship behaviors, and the sex scenes are remarkably similar- you’ve read one or two, you’ve read them all. But I guess some people must like the books- or else how would they be so popular? Maybe people read them out of simple curiosity, maybe a socially acceptable way to learn more about BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominant/submissive, sadism/masochism) and/or read about sex, or maybe just because it was available at the right time in the right place. Or maybe because it’s somehow become socially acceptable to read this particular erotica- people are reading it on the subway, on airplanes, in waiting rooms.
Why did I read the series? I knew about the series well before picking the books up myself, and heard friends and colleagues say they tried to read it but couldn’t make it past the first few chapters. By the time I read the first book, 50 Shades was already part of regular conversations among sexuality educators. And I delved into them and read all three books for several reasons:
- People kept on asking me about it. They know I’m a sexuality educator, and wanted to know what I thought. Therefore, I wanted to have an informed opinion.
- I knew that my audience, my sex ed participants would have read 50 Shades or at least heard of it, and frankly I didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of them! Plus it’s helpful to have an idea of where your participants are coming from in terms of how/what they’ve learned about sex.
- I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Why THIS book? What could be captivating people THIS MUCH?
- To write this blog post, and provide a service to my fellow educators. Reading the series was annoying, frustrating, and left a bad taste in my mouth, and it’s THREE books. But sexuality educators NEED to know something about 50 Shades, because we can’t go around pretending it hasn’t impacted our culture on some level. So in this post I’m going to point out key components of the book that would be critical to know about in your role as an educator. (You can also read more on Wikipedia about the series.)
So here goes!
50 Shades of Grey is about Anastasia Steele, a young woman graduating from college who happens to be a virgin, and Christian Grey, a multimillionaire in his late twenties who has only had dominant-submissive sexual relationships. They meet (instantaneous chemistry!), Christian follows her around, showers her with gifts, and invites her to be his submissive. Anastasia is smitten, but also reluctant- she is aware of her sexual inexperience (framed as a lack of opportunity with the right person) and also desires Christian but wants an equal relationship, complete with emotions and intimacy. Christian is interested in a contractual relationship focused on just the sex. Anastasia agrees to give it a try because she is super hot for him. Christian presents her with a detailed and lengthy contract to sign (p. 165-175 of book I), which includes a non-disclosure clause and a requirement for working out with a trainer, among the hard and soft limits of explicit sexual acts. They go back and forth on the contract, all the while quickly becoming emotionally entangled- something Christian did not intend to do and has never done with his other submissive partners. As they develop their relationship, Anastasia struggles to comply with Christian’s dominant behaviors (for example he does not approve of her eye-rolling), resulting in punishments that walk the line between consensual sex and assault.
After Christian and Anastasia break up at the end of book one, they give their relationship another go in book two, but without the rules and strict contract. Anastasia really drives this effort of having a ‘real’ relationship, and now Christian struggles to understand his role. This is new and different territory for Christian, and they end up in a relationship beyond the sub-dom context Christian has had in the past (he even introduces her to his family!).
Over the course of the series, we learn that Christian’s past haunts him significantly- he was abused and neglected as a small child, and found his mother dead from an overdose. He was adopted by a wealthy and loving family, but continues to deal with his childhood experiences- he does not like being touched in certain areas, and struggles with the intimacy that he and Anastasia have. The abuse he suffered as a child is framed as the rationale for his interest in BDSM.
We also learn that Christian’s first sexual relationship as a teenager was with an older woman- a friend of the family. In their relationship, he was the submissive and she was the dominant, which is how he learned the ins and outs of a dom-sub relationship. Christian and the family friend ended their sexual relationship years ago, but maintain a friendship, which Anastasia does not like, and is very jealous over.
Speaking of jealousy, Christian does NOT like it when Anastasia talks to her college friend (who is a man). He also gets VERY upset and angry with Anastasia when she does not do as she is told, and instead wants to have her own job, spend time with her friends, or happens to not reply to Christian’s calls/texts/emails in a timely manner.
You may be wondering about all the sex- oh, there’s plenty of the same old sex scene- they have sex in the elevator, Anastasia’s apartment, hotels, Christian’s ‘playroom’, the piano, the office, the elevator again (apparently a big turn on for them), Christian’s bed (which is apparently a big deal and a first for him), the shower- you name it. There’s tying-up of hands, feet, some use of paddles, some vibrator action, lots of “do it this way” and “do it that way”, and even some plain old ‘vanilla’ sex. And they mostly have sex after having an enormous, blow-out argument, which they have pretty frequently. Their sex is ALWAYS hot and heavy, passionate, and incredibly emotional.
Along with the relationship turbulence between Christian and Anastasia and the sex they have along the way, there’s also some action and danger integrated into the plot- something to take the reader from one sex scene to another. You’ve got Leila, one of Christian’s ex-submissives, who has hit rock bottom and tries to kill herself and then tries to kill Anastasia. In the second book Anastasia’s former boss seeks revenge on Christian, who Christian fired because he was a sleeze-ball that was sexually harassing her. (Kudos to him for shutting down sexual harassment, but you may be wondering, how did Christian fire Anastasia’s boss? Because he bought the company that Anastasia was working for so that he could keep tabs on her.) Fortunately, Christian did not die in the plane that crashed due to sabotage (of course he has a plane and is a pilot). The boss returns in the third book with even more vengeance to reek havoc on Christian and Anastasia after they get married.
Yep- Christian and Anastasia get married. I’ll backtrack and give you a quick timeline of their relationship:
- May 9- Christian & Anastasia meet, as Anastasia is about to graduate from college
- May 21- Anastasia & Christian have sex the first time
- May 22- Anastasia receives the proposed contract, which they negotiate and they agree upon four days later
- June 4- they break up because of incompatibility, which crushes Christian (end book 1)
- June 9- they get back together
- June 14- Christian proposes (she accepts on June 17)
- End of July- wedding
- August- honeymoon
To wrap things up, the third book is back and forth trying not to get killed (while also designing their brand new house), managing their relatively volatile relationship, and having some sexy times.
And while they’re having all this sex, you may be putting your sex educator hat on thinking, was their sex ‘protected’? They use some condoms before they settle their contract, which mandates contraception, so Anastasia started out on birth control pills but stopped taking them when they had their brief break up. When they got back together Christian insisted on Anastasia getting the shot, which has a limited timeframe- you have to get one regularly. Amidst all the planning of the house and the danger of being killed, you may not be surprised to hear that she got pregnant on their honeymoon. In the end, the vengeful boss is caught, everyone is safe, they move into the house and all live happily ever after, babies and all.
So that’s the story, or at least the most important parts that you need to know about. Here are the KEY things I want to highlight:
- Is Anastasia and Christian’s relationship healthy? No, it’s not. Because Christian is controlling Anastasia in ways that she does not want to be controlled. Keeping tabs on her whereabouts. Limiting her time with her friends. Telling her where she can and cannot work. This is couched as ‘protecting’ her from the dangers they are facing, but these behaviors start well before the danger shows up and he is far more upset when Anastasia doesn’t do as she is told. He doesn’t respect her autonomy or independence at all, and it’s couched as love.
- How many warning signs of abusive partners are demonstrated? More than I can list here. A few: Christian pressured to move in together and for a commitment early on. He showered her with gifts to win her over. He tracked her whereabouts via her blackberry and email account, which he gave to her. He showed up unannounced to her office and when hanging out with friends. And the list goes on. For more on this, check out this peer-reviewed journal article, “Double Crap!” Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey.
- What about 50 Shades’ portrayal of BDSM? The book introduces a few practices that are common in some BDSM relationships, but not all. What I find most problematic is that the rationale for Christian’s interest in BDSM is rooted in his emotional abuse as a child. While some people who practice BDSM could be survivors of abuse, there are people who have never been abused that also participate in BDSM.
- Isn’t Christian’s behavior just him playing the role of a Dominant? Christian is an incredibly controlling partner, and his controlling behaviors are not OK with Anastasia. She consistently pushes back on his need to control her, and Christian gets upset and angry when she does not do as she’s told. If Christian’s controlling behaviors were OK with Anastasia as part of their relationship dynamic, then I would not be quite as put off by them. In a healthy relationship between a dom and a sub, both partners are consenting to the power dynamics and rules/regulations, and any communication about concerns would be welcomed and encouraged, rather than shut down and silenced.
- What about the sex? The sex described in the book is always intensely passionate, mind-blowing, hot and heavy, and most frequently follows a fight or some dangerous situation. Sure, they use a few props and toys that may not be part of mainstream portrayals of sex play, but it’s nothing extraordinary or even that creative. Also, sex scenes that consistently describe all sex as amazing and flawless can build up unrealistic expectations about sexual activity- I urge readers to take the sex in 50 Shades with a grain of salt!
- How much harm could a book do? Well, it is just a book, not a ‘guide-to-relationships’ or an instruction manual for BDSM, so hopefully people will remember that. Although, one small research study found that female readers of 50 Shades were more likely to have indicators of health risks (for example binge drinking, use of diet aids, and intimate partner violence). We should continue to explore how this wildly popular book may influence cultural norms around sexuality (beyond the increase of sales of BDSM products in sex shops).
In short, I’m not saying don’t read it, I’m not saying don’t watch the movie. I am saying that we desperately need to engage in critical dialogue about the themes in the book, and encourage readers to think critically about how this book is a work of fiction, and that in real life relationships would ideally look very different.
How can you engage with participants in thoughtful conversation about 50 Shades of Grey? Use these topics/discussion questions to make sure your audience is analyzing the relationship and sex portrayed in the series:
- Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships
- What are the characteristics of Christian & Anastasia’s relationships that are healthy? Unhealthy?
- What would be different about Anastasia and Christian’s relationship if it was healthy?
- What makes a relationship work well?
- How can partners balance the needs of the couple and the needs of the individual?
- Power & Control vs. Equality
- What do controlling behaviors look and sound like?
- Describe the negative impact controlling behaviors can have on a relationship.
- What does a relationship based on equality look and sound like?
- How might it feel to be in a relationship where partners are equals?
- Fiction vs. Fantasy
- How realistic is Anastasia & Christian’s relationship?
- What would be different about their relationship if the book was depicting real life?
- What about their relationship would you think would be good to replicate in real life?
And, if questions come up about 50 Shades of Grey that you struggle to answer, feel free to post in the comments- I’m happy to provide whatever insight I can, since I did get through all three books and don’t want that to be for naught! No need for all of us to suffer.