October 29, 2012

50 Shades of Grey and Consent

E. L. James’s erotic BDSM trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, has achieved mainstream, widespread popularity and bestseller status since its publication in 2011. A poorly written, widely popular erotic heterosexual romance series featuring BDSM, these books make us wonder: Why are they so popular? How do they portraying kinky sex, BDSM relationships power and consent?

Some anti-violence organizations condemn the series. A UK domestic violence charity, Wearside Women in Need, has called the books “an instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman”, and held a public book burning. Yes, that’s correct: a full on, drop-off-your-copies-and-we’ll-douse-them-lighter-fluid public book burning.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/24/fifty-shades-grey-domestic-violence-campaigners http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-19354560

SASC does not believe in such measures, nor the narrow viewpoint professed by this organization, but we would like to critically question the way in which consent is framed within this series. We want to examine mainstream (mis)conceptions around consent within BDSM relationships. What does the book get right? What does it get wrong, and how aware is the mainstream audience of what actually constitutes sexual violence in the series?

Andrea Zanin – blogger, freelancer, leather dyke community organizer, PhD candidate and queer kink educator extraordinaire – gives her opinion on Fifty Shades of Grey on her blog. Not only does she unpack public reception (mainstream and within SM communities), she examines issues and misrepresentations of consent within and lacking from these novels.

A few excerpts from her blog:

“…In short, the book portrays sexual assault, stalking, extreme possessiveness and control by people in non-kinky contexts as being no big deal; and it portrays kink as being an indicator of both mental illness and criminality in all circumstances other than heterosexual relationship heading toward marriage and reproduction. This, to me, is one of the places where Fifty Shades accurately, and very problematically, reflects mainstream understandings of consent and acceptable sexual conduct. The message is twofold: if you’re kinky and you’re not partnered in a heterosexual, monogamous fashion, you are mentally ill and criminally dangerous; and if you’re heterosexual and monogamous, then jealousy, stalking and control are indications of love, and playing with kink a little bit is hot as long as you don’t do it too much and you keep it in the bedroom…

…For this reason, if I had to say whether I’m for or against Fifty Shades, I’d say I’m against. Not because the kinky play it portrays is done poorly, because it’s actually not—E. L. James did her research, and it shows. Just about every kinky act she describes in glorious detail could have been taken straight out of a workshop I might teach. Christian’s technique is beyond reproach. He really knows the rules, and when he breaks them, he even does that carefully. In one scene, he apologizes for having only handcuffs available as bondage toys, because they are known to cut into the wrists and leave marks; so he asks Ana if it’s okay to use them despite this, and she says yes. He’s definitely taken his BDSM 101.

But mostly I dislike Fifty Shades because it normalizes assault, stalking, the use of money as a form of coercion, jealousy, rage, “winning” arguments, men’s control of women’s reproductive choices, game-playing, manipulation, marriage as the end goal and as the great legitimizer of relationships, lack of honest communication, and the healing power of innocent virgins’ inherent goodness. None of this is the least bit kinky—it’s just plain old hetero-patriarchal power relationships, and sexing those up in a best-selling “edgy” romance trilogy does nothing more than perpetuate an entire culture where “consent” takes a backseat to “normal.” This isn’t kinky or sexy or cool. So no matter how well-researched the BDSM technique, the relationships and politics that forms the core of this story are deeply unhealthy, and I fervently hope that they’re not going to become erotic templates for a generation of people who think they’re being sexy and oh-so-wickedly perverted.”

The blog post was originally written for a lecture Andrea Zanin gave on Fifty Shades of Grey and Consent for Carlton University’s Consent is Sexy week.

About Andrea Zanin:

“For over a decade, she has been teaching about queer sexuality, polyamory and BDSM/leather for universities, colleges, sex shops, community groups and conferences in Canada, the States and internationally, and she brings an awareness of privilege and oppression to all her work.”

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