Did 'Fifty Shades' Cause A Real Sexual Assault?

There are a lot of things to be said about Fifty Shades of Grey and the effects it — and its mega popularity — may or may not be having on our culture; however, even the most vehement critics generally don't think it's directly causing specific acts of violence. But that view might need to change now that a college student accused of rape is using Fifty Shades of Grey as a defense. People suck, huh?

Mohammad Hossain, a freshman at the University of Illinois, has been charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old fellow student. According to the report the young woman gave to the police, she went back to Hossain's dorm room and voluntarily removed her clothes, but after that the encounter got violent. Hossain allegedly tied the young woman to the bed, blindfolded her, stuffed a necktie in her mouth, and beat her with a belt. He continued hitting her even after she told him to stop, and said, "You're hurting me." He then allegedly sexually assaulted her while holding her hands behind her back as she struggled.

The young woman called the police immediately once she was able to leave, and Hossain was arrested not long after. However, Hossain maintains that the incident was not an assault, but that the two were simply role playing a scene from Fifty Shades of Grey. In fact, his lawyer actually used this argument as his primary defense in court, and claimed that the whole thing was consensual.

There are a lot of potential ways to look at this case. It's worth pointing out, of course, that there is a possibility that Hossain is telling the truth and the incident was consensual — but since rates of false rape reports are statistically very low, that possibility is a slim one. So given that the young woman is most likely telling the truth here and that they were not acting out a scene together, what does that mean? Is Fifty Shades causing violence?

It is entirely possible that Hossain's attack was not motivated or influenced by Fifty Shades of Grey at all, and that the series simply provided a convenient way to justify his vicious attack. After all, the victim in this case almost certainly would have had significant bruising from the beating, which can be difficult to explain away if one is claiming the sex was consensual. Claiming BDSM play — or Fifty Shades play — can be a way to do that.

This is already not a very encouraging possibility. After all, it is already notoriously difficult for rape victims to get justice or to even be believed by friends and family when they come forward with their stories. Cases in which victims were visibly injured are somewhat easier to get taken seriously, though it is often still an uphill battle. The fact that rapists might be using Fifty Shades to explain away their actions will only make such cases harder as the series' popularity and its surrounding ethos of being "what women secretly want" lends credibility to their claims.

Even more disturbing, though, is the idea that the series — either the books or the movie — may well have influenced Hossain's behavior in some way. Did he go to the movie and really want to try out what he saw on screen? Did he perhaps buy into the hype about it being "what women want" and decide that Christian Grey's example was an acceptable way to conduct a sexual encounter? Did he maybe believe that Fifty Shades was an accurate portrayal of how to participate in BDSM? Did he assume that because women enjoy the film, they enjoy being treated like Anastasia Steele in real life? Given the fact that this series has become an inescapable pop culture phenomenon with millions of people reading the books and seeing the film, that possibility also does not bode well.

And then there's the much more vague — yet also much broader reaching — possibility that Fifty Shades of Grey might not need to directly inspire a budding young rapist in order to contribute to an assault. We live in a country where the understanding of what consent even means is disturbingly low. A series like Fifty Shades of Grey in which the idea of consent is almost wholly absent from the narrative only contributes to that fact. Throughout the entire series, not only are Ana's "no"s (in and out of the bedroom) never respected — Christian either wheedles her into a yes or disregards her wishes entirely — but the narrative treats this as romantic and desirable, rather than disrespectful and abusive.

In the context of a culture where such behavior is already normalized, can glamorizing it in a blockbuster, bestselling series really be harmless? Obviously, there are men and women who enjoy Fifty Shades of Grey without falling for its rape culture myths or its unrealistic portrayal of BDSM. But is it contributing to a culture that already believes some pretty messed up things about sex and consent? On some level, I think the answer is "definitely" — but whether or not that influence is strong enough to directly cause specific assaults is more difficult to deduce.

One thing should be clear though: Claiming "Fifty Shades of Grey made me do it" is not an acceptable defense for rape. Nothing is ever an excuse for rape. Not ever. The End.

Images: Giphy (2)