The abuse in 50 Shades of Grey and other problems you should worry about

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It is here. After a very troubled shooting, the 50 Shades of Grey movie is being released worldwide to finally fulfill the expectations of 120 million fans of the book – an even more astounding audience considered it is almost exclusively female, while other best sellers like Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code or The catcher in the rye could count on a male readership too. Dismissing it just as an impeccably executed global marketing coup won’t change the fact that the franchise is here to stay, and that it will influence us all, if only as a meme.

The effects have been palpable for a while already. The BDSM community has been experiencing both an influx of new enthusiasts who discovered erotic domination games from the pages of E.L. James porny romance novels and an increase in accidents caused by their lack of understanding the difference between fiction and reality. Bible thumpers and religious nuts in general are having a ball condemning the books because reasons; the advertisement industry has embraced Christian Grey’s iconography, and kink has definitely entered the social discourse. Waiting for the movie to escalate it all, I have been looking closely at every discussion about the phenomenon, including one especially interesting group’s view of 50 shades of Grey.

Women’s issues advocates and activists are understandably busy with the so-called ‘mommy porn’ series as it dragged the debate about female sexuality on the spotlight, refueling a heated ongoing argument. At the risk of oversimplifying a very faceted discussion, it can be roughly summed up as two feminist factions fighting over the interpretation of erotic dominance and submission play, its depictions and everything that goes with it.
One group mantains that this “culture” is always unacceptable, as it demeans women and perpetrates a male chauvinist society that encourages gender shaming and discrimination, abuse and inequality. The other faction sees alternative sexualities and any discussion about them as empowering to females, because they give women more agency over their sex life, including better knowledge and control of their body and fantasies. I am frequently struck by the ferocious polarization of these two fields: they often seem more interested in defending their dogmas than in actually discussing the topic in question, and they leave very little opportunity to engage in a meaningful exchange of information.

In the last few weeks, one funny side effect of this situation was a wonderful 50 shades-inspired campaign that is doing right by being very wrong. #50dollarsnot50shades is a call to action to boycott the movie because of its glorification of female abuse. The rather successful campaign asks to donate what you’d spend for watching the movie (in an extravagantly expensive cinema, I guess) to women’s shelters and to women’s rights organizations.
The only catch is that the initiative is based on the assumption that BDSM and abuse are the same thing – ignoring the fact that James’ story has nothing to do with actual BDSM. To put it briefly: the very meaning of BDSM is defusing aggressive/self-destructive instincts through a culture of respect, positivity, safety, care and empathy to process them into a self-affirming and empowering outlook on life. Also, by its author’s admission 50 shades is a pornified romance dime novel, never meant to be a BDSM manual. With all of its stalking, trickery, pressure and plain psychotic behaviors, the relation described in the books really is a textbook example of abuse – but not for the kinky part.

This misunderstanding is easily explained when you look at the organization behind the campaign, whose business is based on fueling an indiscriminate “porn scare” based on personal assumptions and figures that have been repeatedly proven as exaggerated. In this specific case, however, I could not but welcome that people were reminded of how beloved Christian Gray is in fact a dangerous psycho – the reasons may be wrong, but the benefit is unquestionable for all the women who are dealing with real-life stalkers (and for all the men in the same situation: there is no gender exclusive on abuse).
I was thinking about writing a post about all of this, but then I stumbled on something even better. A heartfelt Youtube video in which a somewhat famous activist hit the 50 shades issue with perfect clarity. The glorification of BDSM is not the problem, she said. The real trouble is that the franchise is presented as a love story and a desirable lifestyle – to the same insecure women who already have their self-esteem continuously shattered by the media, and who are not emotionally prepared to understand they are looking at an abusive relationship.

Yes. That’s it! This is where 50 shades really bugs me and every other person knowledgeable with actual kink. This is what should be better explained to the general public.
That young lady was becoming my instant hero for the day… then I listened to the rest of her argument, and I recognized the same misunderstanding behind the 50Dollars campaign – with the important difference that this time it was in good faith. Please watch the video yourself:

See what I mean? I really loved most of her speech, however, so I got in touch with her offering an interview where she could discuss her views – and maybe think about the prejudices she was a victim of herself. The process was a bit more complicated than I thought, including a very awkward moment where she asked not to appear with her full name or organization because this website «is not exactly their style».
What I couldn’t expect, however, was the content of her answers. Let’s just say I found many statements rather odd, especially as they come from a women’s rights activist. This person sees sex just as a very limited set of activities delimited by many rigid rules, and her very refusal of considering other forms of eroticism has imprisoned her in a nightmarish world. Reading her misrepresentations of society, medical science and history is actually scary, as much as the thought of being judged for my erotic preferences by someone unaware of her own privileges, earned through the hardships and efforts of the very men and women she so easily discriminates against.  I guess the world has worse problem than a bad movie to deal with after all…

The interview

First of all, how do you prefer to be introduced?

Destiny is the 31-years old founder and president of a feminist group in America. She often covers issues such as the exploitation of young women, human trafficking, and the rampant sexualization of our culture.

I strongly agree with your argument against the conflation of Cosmopolitan-style values and violent pornography, and I wholeheartedly endorse the point about most people being emotionally and culturally unprepared to be exposed to 50 Shades of Grey, which is basically the glorification of an abusive relationship. You lose me however at your equating violence and BDSM, and BDSM with 50 Shades. But again, you said you are not an expert on that and that’s fine. However my question is: what led you to think violence and BDSM were the same thing?  Do you think there is yet another media-induced misrepresentation of reality at play behind it?

I fully understand that Fifty Shades is not an accurate depiction of BDSM. However, it claims to be within its pages, which is very dangerous both for those unclear of what BDSM actually is and those who participate in authentic BDSM. I think we can agree this book’s misrepresentation is a bad thing all around. It paints a picture of an abusive, manipulative, and violent relationship, then slaps the label “BDSM” on it.
As to your question regarding why I assume BDSM (as an outsider) is violent, I would say any assertion of force that is intended to hurt the one on the receiving end is an action of violence in my opinion.

Another point that made me stop and think was your not considering other cultural influences on the female identity beside “chick mags” and violent porn. While they clearly play a role, I am under the impression that women today have much better access to many sources of empowering information than in the (even recent) past, and the trend keeps on getting better. It felt a bit strange to hear such a reduction to Cosmo from a digital media-savvy feminist: could you elaborate on that?

You’re right, we also have MTV, the Kardashians, breastaruants down every street and not one but TWO feminist perspective classes at Rutgers on Beyonce.
Not to mention we have many other “liberating” resources available too, like, chemical birth control for instance. Fifty years ago if you said you were not interested in having sex with someone that made sense because there was a lot at stake. However, now if a woman does not want to have sex with a guy (because say, he bought her dinner so she feels indebted in some sick twisted way) she has to come up with a myriad of excuses. Sex is no longer sacred; it’s now expected because of how consequence-less is it. All the while, women are the ones being asked to suppress our fertility with a class 1 carcinogen, and if we do become pregnant, we’re the partner expected to abort our fetus because that’s not what anyone involved in the sexual intercourse intended to create. Women in 2015 are more sexually exploitable than they ever have been.

The chick mag attitude of controlling men through extravagant sex is of course juvenile and very flawed. A proper education to sex and sexuality however plays a critical role in female (as well as male) empowerment and self-acceptance, for example by allowing people to gain a realistic view of sexuality instead than bowing down to its exaggerated media depictions, or by teaching them to accept their “weird” fantasies and explore them safely instead than feel ashamed for them. My experience is that alternative lifestyles outlets tend to do a great job toward this, while in your video you seemed very critical of what you described as a “sexual revolution”. Considering that most countries do not offer an institutionalized approach to an education to ethical sex, could you explain your wariness of this revolution?

Absolutely. As I somewhat eluded to above, I don’t think we get to count the sexual revolution as a win. Any gains that were made are a wash in my opinion. I am a fan of great sex… probably because I have had a lot of bad sex.
We’re humans and so we fuck up everything. Constantly. Our sexuality is no exception. It’s the most amazing and beautiful thing we’re capable of sharing with another person but we turn it into a power struggle almost all the time. Guys in their twenties think they’re the ones with the power because they’re out getting laid, but really they’re pretty powerless. Girls in that same demographic think they’re the ones with the power since they know these guy will do anything to have sex with them (then worship them once they give the green light), but they don’t have the power either. Both parties are completely and totally exploiting themselves and their sexuality because they think it’s all about an orgasm. (Even though studies show the female is statistically proven to have fewer, she still feels empowered by getting her partner off…which as I’ll explain in a moment might actually be safer for her emotionally in the long run.) That’s bad sex. It’s drunk, and rough, and sloppy. 
Good sex comes from replacing that power with trust and respect. When you know your partner as well as you know yourself you are able to connect on a much deeper level which yields far more long term satisfaction. It’s not always tame or missionary style, but even when it is there’s an intensity to it that goes far beyond the short life of an orgasm. There’s an oxytocin release that (re)connects you to the other person, and you’re allowed to relish in it. Unlike nowadays how most women are mocked for bonding with a guy they just went to bed with, you’re allowed to accept your natural biology and make-up and truly enjoy that other person because you respect their human dignity.

Elaborating on the previous questions, how would you envision an ideal education towards a serene outlook on sexuality? How would you use the worldwide 50 Shades phenomenon as a springboard to achieve it?

I live in a country that uses sex to sell EVERYTHING. It’s cheapened one of the most amazing human interactions and honestly, made sex not very sexy anymore. It’s all about friction, and we’ve become little more than dogs in heat. How do we combat that? With human dignity. 
Once we start acknowledging the intrinsic dignity owed to each human being, we’d be forced to stop using them merely as semen receptacles or a free dinner. We’d have to start attempting to connect with their soul. For a culture so obsessed with sex we sure do tolerate a lot of mediocrity on that area. We must stop settling for bad sex. As others much more enlightened than me have said, it’s like drinking saltwater and expecting it to quench your thirst… when in reality it’ll only make us that much thirstier. We’re all searching to connect, belong, feel safe and loved. We’re also wonderfully sexual beings. Those attributes must go hand in hand. If they are separated they splinter off into an endless number of psychological disorders and emotional baggage… which we then simply carry into our next relationship so we can fuck that one up too. I know this because I’ve lived it, and I’ve seen so many other women who’ve traveled the same path.

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