5 Things The 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Books Get Wrong About BDSM

A picture shows copies of the novel 'Fifty Shades of Grey' on display at a book shop in central London on July 19, 2012. It's a literary phenomenon: with nearly 40 million copies sold, 'Fifty Shades of Grey', an erotic romance spiced up with sado-masochism is well on its way to breaking all the records. AFP PHOTO / WILL OLIVER (Photo credit should read WILL OLIVER/AFP/GettyImages)
Source: AFP/AFP/Getty Images

On February 13, the film version of E.L. James' best-selling Fifty Shades of Grey was unleashed like a ill-lit beacon of kink upon the world. Fans of the books and new audiences alike will be lining up to get tangled in the naughty story of Anastasia Steele, virgin college student, and masochistic bazillionaire Christian Grey. God help us all.

As you likely know by now, the lure of these books lies in the tale of how Ana likes moody Christian, who is revealed to be very very into BDSM, and poor Anastasia can’t tell if her lust for her creepy stalker (seriously, he’s kind of a stalker) will trump her reservations about entering his “Red Room of Pain.” Little does Ana know that her reservations are extremely well founded, seeing as what Christian does in all three novels in the series (which yes, have already been greenlit for the big screen) is worlds away from the "safe, safe and consensual" model of BDSM that exists in reality

The novels have sold millions of copies with the promise of a glimpse into the world of kink, but should be taken as a taste, and not a guide book. Here are five ways the Fifty Shades books get BDSM all wrong.

Warning: Spoilers for the Fifty Shades novel series (and likely the film) ahead.

1. Contractual Obligations

The main conflict of Fifty Shades of Grey is whether Ana will sign Christian’s “crazy sex contract” and accept the terms of being his full-time submissive. Ana is galled by the strictness of the contract, which governs her clothes, behavior, and body, and would rather have Christian with some one the kink and none of the clauses. 

Contracts indeed are a very important aspect of BDSM relationships and play, and consensual 24/7 Dom/sub relationships — where the sub allows the Dom to be in charge of their everyday life — do exist. However, real BDSM contracts are very different from what Christian tries to push on to Ana. The contract is fully drafted by Christian (and his lawyer — awkward much?) and Ana can only nitpick certain things, such as only choosing to work out three times a week instead of four. Christian gives her very little choice about signing, if she wants to really be with him. It's not so much a negotiation, as an ultimatum.

The Reality: Real BDSM contracts are the culmination of lengthy discussion and back and forth. The process of writing down the parameters of the relationship is to make explicitly clear the understanding about the relationship. Terms are not set in stone, and can certainly be adjusted if anyone becomes unhappy. 

In the book, this positive communication is lost. The purpose of the contract is to empower Christian to punish Ana, not for their mutual benefit or safety. Even worse, Christian can break the contract and leave the relationship at any point, but Ana can only leave if Christian allows it. I’m not sure, but I think forcing someone to be your submissive sex slave against their will is called, rape, not BDSM.

2. Safety Last

In general, the Christian Grey of E.L. James' books doesn’t seem to care much about safety. When he shows up at Ana’s work, after meeting her once, it's to buy cable ties, among other things. Now, if that’s his thing, fine, it’s fiction. But the “safe” part of  the BDSM slogan “safe, sane, consensual” is very serious. BDSM practitioners attend workshops and work with people who know what they’re doing in order to learn to do things safely. The articles Christian uses to restrain Ana, like cable ties and silk ties, are actually very dangerous if used incorrectly.

The Reality: The tools Christian uses up are not the kind of thing a well-informed, safe practitioner would use. Even practitioners that follow the newer maxim of “Risk Aware Consensual Kink” or RACK, (which unlike SSC acknowledges that nothing is truly safe) would shudder at this, because, Christian's partner is never actually aware of the risk. Christian has a great deal of toys, but he gives Ana no reason to trust him, no proof he's had training and not assurance of her safety.

3. The Dom Couldn't Aftercare Less

Throughout the Fifty Shades series, Christian makes no distinctions between play and real life (even in 24/7 D/S relationships, this is important) and very rarely if ever shows concern for the emotional and physical aspects of a scene or encounter with Ana, even when they are not acting under his contract. Aftercare is never discussed or provided. That’s not just bad BDSM — that’s a bad relationship.

The Reality: It seems that Christian missed quite a few classes in Dom school, because throughout the novels Christian never engages in or offers Ana one of the most important aspects of BDSM play, which is aftercare. 

Aftercare is the time after a scene in which the participants talk through things, come down from the scene mindset, and usually engage in comforting behaviors. This is an extremely important part of play, because parties experience extremely high levels of emotions, mental stress, and hormones (and an endorphin rush that is often called “subspace” and can be completely separate from sexual gratification). Following this high, Subs, and sometimes Doms, can “drop.” Subdrop can lead to flu-like symptoms, mood swings, emotional turmoil, and other not so fun things. Proper aftercare is one way to prevent this.

4. Ignoring The Safeword

Though this has been discussed at length by many BDSM experts and advocates, perhaps the most glaring crime that Christian Grey commits in one of the later novels is his refusal to acknowledge Ana’s safe word. For those not in the know, a safeword is a word that means the scene stops completely. No ifs, ands, or buts. 

Not respecting a safeword is a cardinal sin in the BDSM community, and Christian Grey does this. Not only this, but he disrespects the idea of a safeword; making Ana feel guilty for using it, and berating her for at one point forgetting it. 

The Reality: In a truly functional BDSM relationship, Christian as a Dom should have been cognizant of Ana’s limits, and would have used her saying the safeword as an opportunity to communicate and adjust his behavior.

What’s more serious here is that use of a safeword is the withdrawal of consent. Consent is the bedrock of BDSM. When consent is withdrawn and Christian continues to force a scene, or when in the books Christian uses alcohol or emotional manipulation to coerce Ana’s consent, what he’s doing isn’t sexy, and it can be seen sexual assault and rape. 

5. Depicting BDSM As A Problem

The final, and possibly most damaging mistake the Fifty Shades series makes is to depict Christian’s interest in BDSM as a problem. As you probably know, Fifty Shades started out life as an Edward/Bella Twilight fanfiction. This, isolated, is awesome, because fanfic is awesome. But E. L. James replaced the monstrousness of Edward being a vampire with something that she felt was equally monstrous — BDSM. 

Christian’s BDSM proclivities are portrayed as a problem, something he wants because he was hurt as a child by his mother and fantasizes about punishing her, and because he was sexually abused by a much older woman when he was fifteen. Much like Edward's uncontrollable desire to eat Bella, Christian's compulsion to hurt and punish Ana is not so much depicted as a kink as a broken part of his personality that Ana loves him in spite of.

The Reality: The portrayal of interest in BDSM as symptomatic of childhood abuse, and as compulsion and need, is not only inaccurate — it’s damaging to the whole community. Most people enjoy BDSM because they simply find it fun or sexy, they enjoy the cerebral nature of dominance and submission, or the sensation of bondage or “good pain.” Fifty Shades of Grey, on the other hand, sub-textually equates kink with monstrousness and dysfunction. Indeed, the only other BDSM practitioners we met in the books are a deranged ex-sub of Christian’s and the woman that sexually abused him as a child. Adding possibly abusive, controlling, and stalker-y Christian Grey to this motley lineup ends up implying that BDSM is a haven of crazy abusers, instead of the open and varied community it is.

If Fifty Shades does get you interested in kink however, that’s wonderful. Just don’t use it as a roadmap. Instead, find a munch — local gatherings of kinky-minded people over food that happen in most major cities. Check out some classes on kink at you local sex toy store. Want to stay inside? Find some fanfiction that gets kink right if that’s your thing, or check out some of the many forums and online resources in the community.

And please, for the love of kink, always respect the safeword.

Images: getty, imdb.com

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