"Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power."
— Oscar Wilde
It was inevitable that my path would, by professional necessity, cross with E.L. James'. Though many of my fact-finding missions involve finding out unpleasant truths about humanity, there was none more unfortunate to discover than the contents of America's love affair with 50 Shades of Grey. Dear Readers: you sons of bitches have sent me on journeys to some dark depths, but none so blacked out my remaining hope for the future than reading this lousy book.
But instead of letting this devolve into a multipage rant against basic grammatical incompetence dominating the book market, I'll instead redirect to its singular positive effect on the culture as a whole: The masses are exploring their interest in alternative sexual experiences like never before. For that one thing, I choose to be grateful to E.L. James.
Throughout my last year of writing the Ask the Sex Doc column, I have discovered that most relationships succeed or fail based on one factor: the willingness to be emotionally vulnerable to one another. Couples that succeed, both in and out of the bedroom, seem to have a knack for asking for what they want from a partner who wants to explore their desires. In that respect, successful couples, both kink-practicing couples and "vanilla", (the term used to describe non-practicing people) have this and more in common.
I've noticed a shared respect of boundaries, the desire to return to a place of emotional balance, and a desire to help each other become the person they want to be. They both get there through deeply honest, open discussions about their thoughts, feelings, desires (emotional and physical), and everything in between.
Boil away all the leather and chains and things you see on TV, and kink relationships ultimately come down to a shared respect, trust, and intimacy. All the blindfolds, handcuffs and restraints do is reduce that vulnerability to very real, bodily sensations. Outside the bedroom, kinky couples are usually warm, engaging, broadly-interested and intelligent. The "play" is much, much more varied than simply whips and chains, ranging from '50s housewife-style play to full-on, heavy leather bondage.
"The foundation it's built upon is adult, consensual behavior that's negotiated," said Janet*, a local kink club leader who teaches workshops on safe BDSM. That negotiation is conspicuously absent from most of the two lead characters' interactions in 50 Shades.
In short, 50 Shades of Grey represents a dysfunctional, implausible relationship that is textbook "emotionally unavailable bad-boy meets inexperienced shell of a female protagonist", all shoehorned into a "kinky" narrative. Luckily, Indianapolis was ranked the most sexually satisfied city by TIME in 2010, and we are just lousy with knowledgeable kink practitioners. If 50 Shades turned your crank, it might be time to investigate these desires a little further. But first we're going to tell you what good kink is and what it definitely isn't. In short, things that start their lives as Twilight fanfiction, as 50 Shades did, should stay in their poorly-written, pixelated form where they belong: in that secret bookmark folder titled "vegetarian recipes II" or some such place. *Name has been changed
The Problems with Fifty Shades, step-by-step
"The only people who use my given name are my family and a few close friends. That's the way I like it."
— Christian Grey
From the outset, Christian Grey is an evasive, intensely defensive person about who he is and what he's about. Even from these early introductions, his character is already way out of sync with the kink personality status quo. For someone who seems to be eyeing her as a potential submissive, he isn't holding up his end of the most basic tenet of kink: honesty and communication.
"We're excited to talk about why we do what we do. We are excited to hear why you do what we do. We are sincerely intrigued by other stories and what makes them tick and why," says Janet. In the process of writing this piece, I discovered people who are quite the opposite as Anastasia. In fact, most folks in the kink community interact on a first-name basis while still maintaining a Fight Club-style unspoken agreement of discretion outside of safe spaces. It all wraps into this larger idea of open and honest communication between everyone involved. Being authentic is necessary to building trust, and there can be no good BDSM without trust.
"There's this layer of, 'Let's get rid of all the bullshit and talk about what you're into and why you got into kink," says Janet. In fact, when you bring up 50 Shades around folks in the community, most are quick to dispel Christian's authenticity as a dominant.
"Honesty is expected, and it's given by most people who play like this. New people should have that expectation, that people will talk to you."
For her part, even when prompted by Christian to explain her feelings, Anastasia doesn't. He just seems to "guess" exactly what she's thinking based on a limited number of physical cues she gives— because E.L. James is a shit writer who doesn't have the chops for anything but word-vomit style first-person narration. Neither of these people is a dominant or a submissive. They're two people who are terrible at communication who want to work out their issues simply by using each others' bodies like worn out pommel horses.
"How did you find me?"
"I tracked your cell phone, Anastasia."
I had to take a deep breath and a long walk after reading the action leading up to this scene. First of all, Anastasia Steele is a child (literally, a college student of 21) and Christian Grey is supposed to be a mature, in-control entrepreneur at the ripe old age of 27. After receiving a lavish gift, Ana drunk dials him in a bar, where she then proceeds to pass out after throwing up profusely. Grey shows up like a knight in sterling armor, and informs her — no big deal — he just went full Snowden on her ass to find her. Then she blacks out and he takes her to his hotel room, takes her clothes off, and puts her to bed.
Digital stalking: it's the new flowers.
This should send off a million alarm bells in any woman's head. Regardless of the "rescue mission," I would be completely icked out by the crossed boundary and invasion of my privacy. I doubt I'd make it through the next day without filing a police report. This one isn't even kink-specific. No matter what, if a guy shows up at your work to try to talk to you, or shows up at the bar where you're drunk when the most specific information you've given him is the city you're in, that guy is the king of all creeps and boundary disrespecters and should not be allowed genital access of any kind.
"If you are in a situation with someone new, and it does feel like fear, like 'Holy shit, he might really hurt me!' That's real fear, and that's wrong. That requires more conversation," Janet said, referring to kink specifically. This advice is salient regardless of your sexual predilections, and Janet fears cultural phenomenons like this will lead some women to act out these submissive fantasies with unhealthy, unbalanced imposter "dominants" like Christian Grey.
So to recap, there is nothing chivalrous about having your hammered ass tracked via cell signal, and there's nothing that screams, "I am not the mature, stable partner you need" like drunk dialing a creepy guy you just met.
"Two glasses of Pinot Grigio."
— Christian Grey
This is what bored housewives drink when they peruse this shit after the kids have gone to bed, not sexually competent, commanding Doms. No one has ever ordered Pinot Grigio in front of someone on a date and then gotten laid. Ever.
"I type "Submissive" into Wikipedia.
Half an hour later, I feel slightly queasy and frankly shocked to my core...I sit staring at the screen, and part of me, a very moist and integral part of me that I've only become acquainted with very recently, is seriously turned on. Oh my, some of this stuff is HOT. But is it for me? Holy shit...could I do this? I need space. I need to think."
— AnastasIa Steele
This crusty gutter mutt of a paragraph comes in the same chapter in which Ana is presented with a lengthy slave contract — before she and Gray have even had kinky sex once. All Anastasia has seen at this point is his "Red Room of Pain" which, I'm convinced E.L. James saw one time in a movie with a cartoonish portrayal of kinksters.
Once more, James proves herself as knowledgeable on the realities of kink as your average teenager after some cache-deleted Googling, which is where I put James' sexual and emotional maturity. I know this because she has the narrowest-possible view of what kink is, and I can tell based on the desires she's projected on her female protagonist. And she's kind of conflating her subjects, wanting their story to be at once romantic with a rescuing knight and as cold and detached as a contractually-dictated professional relationship would be, which isn't really possible.
The reality of kink contracts is that they come long, long after a few meetings or play sessions, and are only relevant to certain kinds of kink relationships. Contractual consensual slavery, not to be confused with chattel slavery, is one of the most intensely time-consuming forms of kink play, and no one who knew what they were doing would present the contract to a virgin who hasn't even had vanilla sex. James borrows from the BDSM playbook whenever her personal real-world kink experimentation fails or she can't write a scene where characters ask for what they want. The sad thing is that it both totally misrepresents BDSM, and also ties it to this extremely narrow notion of that old, tired picture of BDSM where the everyone is tied up, gagged and whipped. It's way more multifaceted than just dungeons and steel.
"I know some couples who do a kind of '50s housewife kind of lifestyle. What works for them is a power exchange where she takes care of him and he lets her take care of him. Not my thing, but it's one kind of submission," says kinkspert Janet.
Moreover, in reality, the prospect of becoming someone's slave is taken on with as much seriousness as getting engaged or moving in: it's a really big deal. It's not something you'd spring on a newbie who has just learned basic terms, especially if she has the same willingness to please authority as a detention-withered mathlete after his one day of hanging with the burnouts.
However, this contract is one place where James may have done a little Googling and then called the loneliest attorney in the UK for a consultation on how to write it out.
"One of my mother's friends seduced me when I was fifteen. I was her submissive for six years."
"Why don't you like to be touched?"
"Because I'm fifty shades of fucked up."
Of course, the single most disturbing part about the book is that the object of so much sexual desire is a victim of sexual abuse, and he's using his partner's body and consent to work out his issues —but without really putting much consideration into why he's into what he's into. Instead, he seems to be using bondage and kink as a way to "get back" at his abuser—to do to others what has been done to him. Anastasia never feels in control of what is happening to her, is always having her emotions toyed with, and has been pulled into a relationship by her sexual curiosity, putting her in what we would assume is the exact same headspace Christian was in when his "mother's friend" took him as a submissive when he was 15 years old.
This is the most profoundly angering thing to me about the novel: The author fashions this character as a lingering figure that looms in the background of Christian's sexual proclivities, completely dissolving the darkness of his sexual abuse by giving her the cute nickname "Mrs. Robinson." He seems to be seeking to regain some sense of lost control through his sexual desires.
"Some people get into it because they're working through stuff," Janet agreed. But again, it comes back to the necessity of dealing with these issues and being as honest about them as we can. That doesn't mean that BDSM can ever stand in the place of actual therapy, and burdening your partner with that goal yokes way too much of one's emotional balance to a sex act. It's a delicate balance that neither real-life dominants nor submissives take lightly.
"A play partner would check in, like 'What have you done before? What is your interest in this? Are there any health issues I need to know about? Any emotional triggers I need to know about?'"
Worse, it propagates the notion that you have to be somehow "damaged" in some way to be curious about kink — or, rather, more damaged than average, I suppose.
"Some people want to play just because they're curious about what certain toys or things feel like," Janet clarified.
The last 20 pages [Spoilers]
After all this talk, after all the prepping and the bondage play, all the tension and the much-talked-about Red Room of Pain, Anastasia asks to do a real scene with Christian. He, for his part, informs her what her safe words will be, and then just starts wailing on her ass with a leather belt.
After about four strokes, Ana seems to want the scene to continue, but more to please Christian than because she enjoys it. ("...the belt bites me again, and now the tears are streaming down my face. I don't want to cry. It angers me that I am crying. He hits me again.") Anastasia is only a submissive in the most literal sense: she wants to submit to the will of her master, but hasn't yet figured out what SHE wants and does not know how to ask yet. When she says, "I don't think I can be everything you want me to be," she is correct, but she should have added "right now."
That's why folks like Janet encourage you to make connections with real people in the community. The important part is finding a supportive, trustworthy group of experienced practitioners who can guide you through the process, instead of being misguided by one possessive, deeply damaged person trying to find peace through the non-consensual whipping of his partner. That's just not kink: it doesn't respect boundaries and it's not built on a healthy respect and trust.
Anastasia Steele's character might have discovered a really fun, healthy, awesome supportive community of kink folks if she had gotten the right introduction. She may have been delighted to meet so many doctors, engineers, artists, and everyone in between, and could have had a really fulfilling, enjoyable experience.
Unfortunately, she met Christian Grey first. But you do not have to suffer the same fate! We have put together a handy-dandy list of terms so you don't pull an Anastasia and look like a fool when all your friends get their brand-new Fetlife accounts.