Fifty Shades of Grey is a novel by E.L. James, and the latest in lame trends that have taken our country by storm. While usually it is the hearts of teenage girls that the pop culture universe targets by advertising yet-sexually incompetent teenagers with gender-neutral haircuts as sex icons, James’s Fifty Shades trilogy is targeting an older crowd (at least, I hope it is).
E.L. James’s best-seller is the story of a young college student named Anastasia Steele who, by a chance encounter, meets the “control freak” named Christian Grey. Grey is the “mega-industrialist tycoon” of “the enigmatic Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc.”
In the summer of 2012, beaches everywhere were littered with mothers reading James’s glorified porn novels, leaving sons and daughters hoping that the Mayan calendar would end sooner than previously calculated.
“I don’t think that this aspect of sexuality, previous to the book, was popularly discussed,” said Dr. Karen Bearce, Psychology professor at Mercer who teaches a Human Sexuality course. The aspect she is referring to is known as BDSM.
BDSM is an overlapping acronym for Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism, and Masochism. Particular sexual activities within the scope of BDSM are often referred to as “kinks.” The important thing to understand, though, is that there is a fine line between BDSM and domestic violence, but that fine line is clear and easily definable. The difference between BDSM and domestic violence, sexual violence and rape is simple: a BDSM relationship is a relation- ship that is based on some sort of consensual inequality.
Mike Skalka, a third semester Computer Information Systems major at Mercer, and member of the BDSM community, explained that BDSM follows the three basic principles of “Safe, Sane, and Consensual.” Skalka explained that “structured kink” requires both parties to “set rules” and “make a plan” ahead of time. According to Transcending Boundaries, a BDSM advocacy/ education group, the acronym RACK explains this relationship: Risk Aware Consensual Kink.
“In one of the first scenes, she says ‘no don’t tie me up,’ and he says ‘no, bitch, I’m going to tie you up anyway,’ and then he ties her up and rapes her,” Skalka said in reference to the portrayal of kink in Fifty Shades. This scene in the book may not have been read as a rape scene by everyone, but it points out the gray area that presents the danger for people that are interested in trying structured kink.
Carly Punzo, a third semester Communications major at Mercer, told the VOICE that some of her friends became interested in kink and BDSM after reading 50 Shades.
“It made them interested in trying out to be submissive,” Carly said. “It doesn’t really tell you, though, as a woman, how to bring that up. It says that men are supposed to present it to women.” Prof. Bearce explained that one of the misconceptions people make after reading Fifty Shades is to point out “how weak [Anastasia] is” and assume that the bottoms, or submissives in proper BDSM relationships are supposed to be weak like this. The terms “top” and “bottom” are used in the BDSM community to refer to the dominant and submissive roles respectively. Prof. Bearce explains that this is a misrepresentation of the BDSM world: “The person with the real power is the bottom, or the submissive.”
“She is a really weak individual,” Punzo said of Anastasia Steele, the heroine of Fifty Shades. “I feel like it was kind of saying that if a man is really dominant, and is doing things to you that you don’t want to be done, then that’s okay.”
Kink sex involves consensual inequality. Non-consensual inequality is considered rape in most modern societies, and is illegal. Kink sex is not illegal in the United States, and cannot be made illegal, since there are no longer any sodomy laws in the United States.
When asked if she would teach Fifty Shades in one of her Human Sexuality courses, Prof. Bearce responded, “No… maybe… not in the traditional way.”
“It has made the topic of erotica something people talk about,” Prof. Bearce said of the academic value of Fifty Shades as a cultural phenomenon. “Instead of [in a whisper], “This is something we’re not supposed to talk about.” “It allows us to be more educated,” Prof. Bearce said. Prof. Bearce explained that sex-lives and sexuality in the abstract have long been themes discussed in women’s book clubs, but after 50 Shades, the conversation became accepting of discussions of more deviant behaviors.
“Our sex ed sucks… Even vanilla sex, a lot of the stuff isn’t taught… I think the basic idea of consent needs to be taught,” Skalka said. “Vanilla sex” is the term used within the BDSM community for non-kink sex.
Bearce explained that when a reader imagines the kink sex portrayed in 50 Shades, they construct an image from their own imagination, and this image is most likely not as harsh as the true reality.
By misrepresenting the power relationships within BDSM, and by portraying twenty-something females as catty simpletons who will do anything to be dominated (see: characters referred to only as “Blonde Number One” and “Blonde Number Two” by Ana Steele), E.L. James is damaging of the feminist project. Is this the book that we want to be the best-selling novel of 2012?