Fifty Shades of Consent

There has been a lot written in both vanilla and kinky circles about the recent phenomenon which is the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E. L. James.  People seem to either love the series or hate it, and many good arguments have been put forth for each point of view, with people in the kink world mostly coming down on the hate side. It has been decried as poorly written, and as bad education.  It has even inspired some wonderful and bitingly funny parodies such as the one penned by Laura Antoniou, author of the popular Marketplace series.  It is serving as the catalyst for a great deal of discussion in both the kink and the vanilla worlds, and that is never a bad thing.

Despite the negatives, on the whole, I actually really liked the books, and have some thoughts that I’ve not seen addressed elsewhere, specifically around the portrayal of consent.

First of all, before getting to that, what it actually is is a series written by a first time author who researched the subject of BDSM online, and makes no bones about that fact.  It is first and foremost a love story, and largely a literary first in that it is clearly pornographic, but in a format that appeals to a very broad base of mostly vanilla women who generally are not associated with reading porn of any sort beyond the bodice-ripper genre.  It is aimed at the mass market, and has succeeded wildly in exactly what it has set out to accomplish.  It is a mistake to expect a book to be what it is not and was never intended to be – and to read it and to decry it as what it never did set out to be is to entirely miss the point, when reading any book.

The story opens a door into our world that most have never seen, and as such, makes what we do more accessible to the public, and will hopefully serve as a gateway for those who are curious to seek out information and ways to dip their toes into the waters.  It also legitimizes women’s erotica and has gotten the world talking about women’s sexual fantasies and desires, not just those of men.  It was never intended to be a book about BDSM education, so why get so upset that it isn’t?

Great literature it is not, but it is far from as terribly written as many writers have made it out to be.  The much-vaunted Beauty series that is often brought up as a comparison is actually considerably worse, and ultimately deadly boring, despite being written by quite a good author.  For one thing, Fifty Shades actually has a plot line and other things going on in the story beyond the endless jackrabbit-like fucking and sucking that permeate Beauty to the exclusion of everything else, and there is character development.  Whether one actually likes the characters involved or not is a different question, and a matter of personal tastes, but we do see the evolution of both two individuals and their relationship unfold in its pages in what is actually a pretty realistic manner overall, even if the time frame is rather insanely sped up.

The arguments against the book range from the notion that it is just not a realistic portrayal of a BDSM relationship (which is highly debatable, actually, and very dependent on your particular preferences), to the incontrovertible fact that it portrays a taste for kink as resulting from being horrifically abused, and as a tool of abuse as well, on top of being poorly written in the estimation of some.  The book makes it look as if all it takes to “cure” oneself of kinkiness is to find the right vanilla woman.

I have definite problems with this portrayal myself, but the fact of the matter is that while an abusive background is not the root “cause” of kinkiness for everyone, it very much is clearly behind it for more than a few, and to ignore this reality is to continue to put our collective heads in the sand.

This background of abuse for many players is also very much at the root of a great deal of the abuse that we see in our “community”.  It is a fact of life, like it or not.  Is it the one and only cause of kinkiness?  Of course not, but it does happen, and probably more often than we would like to think, especially among dominants.  Kink is also used much more often to exploit the innocent than we like to believe.  We see both sides here – one person who heals, and one who doesn’t.

Other issues I see are the fact that if someone in real life were to act as Christian Grey does when he first meets Ana and falls for her, many of us would be rightly up in arms at the stalker factor.  He does in fact stalk her quite aggressively, and it’s scary, especially because we know how innocent Ana is.  This is really not a good thing – although it is very much part of the stuff of romantic dreams and novels, the white knight coming to the rescue of the maiden in distress, being so smitten he moves heaven and earth to seek her out, etc.  Some things I think we need to allow to pass in the name of literary license, if nothing else.  And the fact of the matter still remains that despite the clearly questionable and objectionable nature of this behavior, Christian does actually save Ana’s bacon from some really nasty situations and likely real harm because of it, so it’s really hard to hate him for it.

Christian is also extremely controlling and in some ways quite full of himself.  I mean honestly, an NDA for a relationship?  Still, I suppose if I were a billionaire businessman in his position, I can see how that idea might have appeal, but it’s not something I’d recommend to anyone who was actually presented with such a thing.  Relationships require trust, not legal documents legislating their conduct from day one.  The sophisticated billionaire falling for the poor, naive hick the way he does seems pretty far-fetched, but hey, it can and does happen – and in book 3, Fifty Shades Freed, we learn about his perspective and why and how that actually happened despite the initial apparent ludicrousness of the situation.  It would have been ice to have heard more about this from him throughout the series, but it is what it is, and those who persevere through the whole series are likely to be rewarded with a whole different understanding of the entire undertaking than those who quit on book one.

In the description of Christian’s miscalculation, we see what plays out in real life in our circles thousands of times, the frequent projection onto others of supposed dominant or submissive qualities based only on some superficial behaviors, in situations that are not realistic ways to assess such inclinations or the lack thereof.  The difference is that Christian ends up recognizing his error and still not throwing away what is good – or trying to beat Ana into fitting into the mold he has in his head of what he wants.  He learns to roll with what is actually there, not what he is projecting onto his partner, and to deeply appreciate that.

All negatives aside, I think the book actually succeeds quite well in showing the ideal of consensual behavior we espouse, and that is where I think one of its greatest strengths lies, and an offering of an important lesson our community would actually do well to take careful note of.

The contract Christian hands Ana is clearly taken straight out of every good educational book about BDSM out there, but adds elements not usually seen that clearly and explicitly recognize the reality of human nature and relationships that are often so sorely missing in such documents and attitudes about BDSM relationships.  He absolutely never touches her without clear and explicit consent on her part, and he never pushes her towards anything she is uncomfortable with.  He waits for her to come to him and ask to play.  The contract reflects an attitude that the submissive is an equal partner in the relationship he envisions, at least in the sense that she is entitled to freely agree or disagree to anything, and also makes the option to renegotiate as needed clear.

James isn’t kinky herself, but she has done a doggone good job of portraying the consensual focus of what we do in spite of that, and I salute the amount of homework she obviously did.

Christian is a man who is fundamentally in solid control of himself in the ways that really matter most, and in behaving the way he does with respect to play and the contract, and not laying a hand on Ana otherwise without her explicit agreement, he lays a rock solid groundwork for her trust in him to grow and be nurtured.  He drew some really crystal clear lines.  I was cheering him all the way through the series for this.

I was actually once involved long ago with a dominant who also drew very clear lines in much the same way, and I have to say it was extremely refreshing.  We were not otherwise compatible, and so it ended quickly, but I have always respected his ability and willingness to set and respect very clear boundaries.  We don’t often see this, and no one said it’s necessarily easy, but it very much can be done much more than it often is.

As to the idea that a taste for kink can be “cured” by the right partner, well, sometimes it can, for some people. For some people (read – mature ones), the sum total of who their partner is is more important than any single aspect of the relationship, including kink.

And this is how it should be, in my opinion.  Two people who have at least a reasonable crossover of tastes, given enough time and building of trust by respecting the differences and working together towards consensus, really ought to be able to find acceptable middle ground sexually, even in the context of a 24/7 D/s relationship.

What I really liked about Christian’s portrayal was that it showed a dominant who is not only fully human, warts and all, but who clearly values the relationship and his partner more than the exact method of how the game is played out. It is clear by the end of the series that his dominant and sadistic urges have not been fully extinguished, but that hers actually begin to grow – but they are both more focused on the overall picture.  Kink is a backdrop, a part of their relationship, not the whole thing, and not the end-all and be-all.  As such, it is doubly silly to judge this series as a BDSM tome, because it’s simply not about that at all, in the end.  It ultimately portrays BDSM as a healthy portion of a fuller relationship, not the whole relationship itself – or at least not a healthy relationship by itself.

And kink by itself is not a healthy relationship.  We are all much more than the sum of our kinks, and all too often, we find ourselves reduced to little more than a couple of checklists facing off together.   The pathological relationships shown in the series are in fact monodimensional like this.  The relationship between Ana and Christian is much healthier – and much more multidimensional.

So maybe it wasn’t really saying just that kink itself is inherently dysfunctional, but that kink as a sole relationship parameter is.

Christian was frustrated by Ana’s lack of kinkiness, no doubt about it – but made a deliberate choice to do what it took to keep the woman he fell in love with – the whole person, the human being – safe and happy, to focus on the big picture. There is always room to grow, from both sides, if the fundamentals are nurtured, and that is indeed what ends up happening, although too many people clearly quit reading before they finish the series, so they never find out what actually happens in the end.

I have to say that particularly having been at the effect one upon a time of a partner who clearly did not prioritize the person over the kinks, and who frequently allowed his urges and lack of self-control to put me at serious risk, I have nothing but respect for someone who is able to get on top of his own carnal desires in service to the greater ideal and good, namely that of valuing what you have in your hand even if it is lacking some element you might really like to have, and doing what it takes to build on that.

Christian worked his ass off to overcome a lot of issues he had, to be able to meet the woman he loved where she needed him to be – and in turn, he grew more into who he himself was meant to be and a lot more happiness.  This is a relationship that is fundamentally all about give and take, and focusing on each others’ needs and desires, comfort and safety, not just their own.  Both grow and change, and nurture the other.  How anyone can view that as problematic is utterly beyond me.

I simply cannot respect people who are willing to throw away entire relationships, and with them the whole person they are involved with, simply because there are some differences in kinks.  No two people will ever have exactly the same tastes, but so often we see folks running around in our community changing partners like they change underwear, just because they don’t have identical kinks, no matter how otherwise compatible they may be otherwise.  I think this is a terrible tragedy, and probably a big part of why we don’t see more longer term successful BDSM relationships.  Add in the “more realistic” notions that it’s all about the dominant, and that the submissive must sublimate her desires and needs to his or be considered at all desirable, and what we have in real life is a hell of a mess and a lot of very unhappy and dysfunctional people running around trying to build relationships without focusing on the fundamentals first.

A BDSM relationship is a relationship first and foremost, not a collection of kinks facing off together, and to treat a partner as undesirable because kinks don’t match up closely when everything else does align is, to me, the height of stupidity and selfishness, and displays an absolutely stunning lack of self control and respect for who one’s partner is as a human being.  Every relationship requires compromise, and Christian and Ana’s relationship shows a good bit of that going in both directions.

Finally, the success and value of the series can be seen in the sheer amount of commentary and controversy it has engendered.  It has touched chords for almost everyone who has read it, and at the end of the day, that is a really good thing, and a clear mark of a successful book.  All of the ensuing discussion will end up straightening out whatever misconceptions exist about kink for most people to whom it matters, and for the rest, if all the series does is demystify WIITWD enough that the vanillas don’t view us all as monsters, and come to understand that kink is just another way of expressing sexuality and giving and receiving pleasure, which is the focus that Christian really gives it in explaining and demonstrating it to Ana, then James will have actually done our community a great service in the end.

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6 Responses to Fifty Shades of Consent

  1. Jan says:

    Interesting perspective, thanks for posting. Re. abuse causing kinkiness; it’s difficult to say how many people who are not abusive have had their own kinks engendered by abuse they’ve suffered, isn’t it? I mean, if you discount everyone kinky who hasn’t been abused, everyone who has but it didn’t feed into their tastes, and everyone who is abusive themselves, it’s hard to know how many people that would leave. But it probably depends which position on this issue one sees as the default; I tend to think everyone assumes that abuse causes BDSM interest later, so I would approach this subject keen to say that sometimes it doesn’t.

    Anyway, I think you’re totally right about the conversations it’s started. The idea that women don’t like sex as much as men do is still ridiculously pervasive. I saw a post by a man on a comment thread on the website of one of the UKs most progressive newspapers peddling this crap, and I have to wonder: has that guy ever bothered to ask a woman what kind of sex she likes? Has he ever made sure a woman felt safe discussing her interests with him? Hopefully the success of “Fifty Shades…” (and I couldn’t get into it, so I’m fairly detatched from the work itself) will help women gain a bit of confidence about exploring and discussing their desires, because right now “women don’t like sex” is a hell of a self-fulfilling prophecy for a lot of people.

    On that note, an interesting consequence of my abusive childhood was that I grew up feeling totally alienated from my peer group and mainstream culture in general, and horrible and lonely though that was, I think it did help me embrace BDSM without much thought, because I was so far past giving a shit what anyone thought or fulfilling any gender roles. While I don’t think my abuse gave me my tastes, it has probably affected their place in my life in some peculiar and indirect ways.

  2. Very interesting thoughts, Jan. I doubt we’ll ever have a firm fix on how many people come to WIITWD as a result of abuse, but I certainly know people myself and have seen postings from more than a few others who are quite clear that their childhood abuse very much at least fed into their adult predilections – and not just their preferences for BDSM, but also their own abusive tendencies, which would certainly express themselves regardless of what form of sexual expression such people were to engage in..

  3. girl_nextdoor says:

    Interesting views here, expressed well. There were two ideas you shared that kind of stood out to me, the first being the correlation between kink and a history of abuse. I personally know a fair amount of kinky people who have been abused, but I also know a fair amount of vanilla people who have also been abused. Now, I’m not saying that some kinky people’s predilections aren’t linked to whatever abuse they may have suffered. Obviously everyone’s history is going to impact/shape their present and future, kinky or otherwise. My point is more about the implication that more kinky people have been abused than vanilla people. I think that’s a bit of a dangerous fallacy as the notion only further supports the idea that there is something inherently wrong with us kinky people, that we are all damaged.

    The other concept you shared that really stood out to me was this idea of a person being “cured” which I think really ties back into what I just said above. I understand what you’re saying about a person prioritizing their relationship over their kinks/fetishes, but choosing to do so does not mean a person is “cured.” See, I think my problem with what you said lies in the use of the word “cure” because kink, BDSM, D/s…none of these things are a sickness that require curing. Again, the implication here is that kink is bad and “conversion” to vanilla (or finding some middle ground) is the cure. I’m pretty sure, from what I’ve read, that this isn’t the idea you intended to promote in your defense of “50 Shades…” but that’s how it’s come across, at least for me.

    I do agree that the ideas about consent and boundaries in “50 Shades…” were spot on. I can’t say I was really a fan of the series, less so every time I hear someone hold it up as a great example of kink and BDSM. Even if I can’t swallow most of the ideas about kink put forth in the series, I do take a huge amount of comfort in the fact that James really hammered home the idea and importance of consent. So, there’s that at least. 🙂

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

      Yes, abuse happens and people turn out both kinky and vanilla; the abuse is clearly not *the* determining factor. That doesn’t change the fact that for *some* people, it definitely is one of the major reasons they turn to kink, if not the main one.

      I don’t think one can really generalize from Fifty Shades that that is true in all cases, although one can certainly be forgiven for taking away that interpretation.

      As to whether or not the series is even a good example of BDSM or not, all I can say is people differ substantially in how they express their kink. For some, obviously, Christian Grey would be the epitome of tame. For others, how he expresses his kink might be absolutely perfect, or even over the top. Ain’t no such thing as “one twue way”, so even passing this sort of judgment on even the character in a book smacks of failure to acknowledge that what may not be an “accurate” description of kink for one person might be totally accurate and desirable for another.

      • You’ll get no debate from me on the “one twue way” front. I am firmly in the “to each their own” camp. That’s not at all what I was trying to say. When I said I had trouble swallowing some of the kink related stuff from the book, I was referring to things you yourself pointed out…”it portrays a taste for kink as resulting from being horrifically abused, and as a tool of abuse as well, on top of being poorly written in the estimation of some. The book makes it look as if all it takes to “cure” oneself of kinkiness is to find the right vanilla woman. I have definite problems with this portrayal myself…”

        As for what I said about kinky and vanilla people both having abusive roots–that was more a commentary on something you said as well. One of the biggest arguments arising from the kink community regarding the series is the notion that kink=history of abuse and/or past trauma. While kinky people reading the books might be able to take that idea in stride as simple character development, vanilla people (especially vanilla people with an already negative idea of kink) could get the wrong idea from this widely acclaimed story that all of us kinky people are damaged. Which, I believe, is a stereotype that people within the community have been trying to break down.

        My point was that yes, abuse happens. But I do not believe that the percentage of abused folks in the kink community is greater than outside said community. In my admittedly limited experience anyway. And I’m not saying that the book puts forth this idea; this is more my response to your post on the whole.

  4. Pingback: Going from fifty shades of grey into the black? « Belasarius

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