I have purposefully never read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I did watch the movie, 9 1/2 Weeks starring Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, which to my understanding is basically the same story of sexual manipulation and submission. Rourke’s character is even named John Gray. However, 9 1/2 Weeks alludes to the fact that this type of relationship is ultimately damaging to the parties involved, whereas Fifty Shades of Grey does not. I have seen the repulsive previews of the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey and listened to my friends and co-workers rave about the books. The fact that this book series is popular with women is disturbing to me in so many ways. I am shocked and disgusted with the idea that women think this is sexy or romantic. In Christian Grey’s own words, “I don’t do romantic.” You’ve got that right, Christian; you certainly don’t.
However, I have heard numerous women say that the books are romantic. I believe these books portray the ideal relationship as dangerously abusive, patronizing, and dehumanizing, which should not be a romantic ideal for women, yet women are being brainwashed into thinking that being treated like a sex object, devoid of all identity and independence, is romantic as long as your partner is completely obsessed with you. This is a common idea in every Harlequin and Silhouette romance novel I ever had the misfortune of reading as a teenager, perpetuating the idea that obsession equals love; it is ludicrous. Yet many women believe this, and apparently not just as teenagers. If you were to ask them if they wanted a relationship characterized by submissiveness, low self-esteem, and having no identity of their own, they would say, “Of course not.” However, that is exactly the kind of relationship idealized in these books.
In Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian demands that Anastasia sign a contract to exercise a certain number of days each week, eat only what Christian tells her to eat, and take a form of birth control, so he doesn’t have to wear a condom during sex, implying that her physical appearance and not having a child with her are his greatest concerns. Does this say love to you? Romantic? How about sexy? Christian Grey is a sociopathic control freak, and Anastasia is in danger, not only physically, but also from losing all sense of self and independence. Christian does not care about Anastasia as a person at all. He basically owns her as a sexual object, and he doesn’t care about her feelings or her well-being. So is it the danger that is sexy? It is true that some people are sexually excited by danger, but is this ever considered healthy or loving? Something for women to daydream about? Sounds more like a male fantasy to me, a stereo-typical and unhealthy male’s fantasy. So why do women love it?
Surprisingly, some feminists find that Fifty Shades of Grey supports “traditional family values,” values which many women have worked hard to overcome, values advocating for the submissive role of women in marriage and the dominant aspects of male authority. According to feminist writer Carey Purcell of The Huffington Post, ideals promoted in Fifty Shades are not only damaging to women and relationships, but are archaic and patriarchal in nature, “Early marriage to one’s first sexual partner, having a baby even when saying neither of the partners is ready to be a parent, and submission to one’s husband as the head of the household are all aspects of life that feminists and progressive thinkers have worked to move beyond. Anastasia and Christian’s relationship is not romantic. It is abusive” (Purcell). In fact Christian’s first observation after saying his wedding vows is that now Anastasia unequivocally “belongs” to him, and he doesn’t mean this in the mutual or metaphorical sense. He is now free to require anything he desires from her. One might ask in the 21st century, when will we be done with oppressive gender roles for women? This, in my opinion, is just another patriarchal subversion designed to brainwash women into thinking that they want to be subjugated and objectified.
Of course, sadists are not all men, and masochists are not all women; however, for the purpose of the romance novel, this is usually the case. Sadomasochism is about annihilating self—the persons in submission have their identity and will annihilated. It is not about love, but killing the will of the other person. However, once the will is dead, the oppressor will often move on to a new victim, someone who still has a will to remove because this is where the pleasure for the sadist originates. The victim is left with the shattered pieces of her life to try and patch back together.
Many people will argue that role-playing and sadomasochism are just lifestyle choices and should be viewed as healthy among consenting adults. Ask anyone who has broken free of this lifestyle and see if this is how she sees it. But let’s see what the experts have to say. According to psychologist, Michael J. Formica, “In a relationship driven by power and control, rather than compassion and cooperation, one partner becomes ‘parentalized’ and the other ‘infantilized’. . . When the underlying dynamic shifts to one of compassion, cooperation and communication from one of push and pull, the cycle ceases, or at least recedes into the background, and the stage for authentic relationship is then set” (Formica). In other words, to have an authentic relationship consisting of compassion and cooperation, the cycle of sadomasochistic abuse must end.
Not only does this book series promote practices that destroy healthy relationships, but it stands to reason, that the mainstream acceptance of these ideas as “normal” will increase the danger of violence against women in the form of date rape, stalking, and even rape by strangers with the idea that women secretly desire this behavior, even if they don’t know it. So why are women attracted to this nonsense? I believe the only women who find these sadomasochistic scenarios sexy, are women who have either never been in a controlling relationship or are still caught in the destructive cycle of abuse.
One theory about the popularity of these types of relationships is that these women, like Anastasia, have “daddy” issues; they long for the love of a controlling parental figure because they have felt the lack of it at an early, developmental age. But I know too many women for which this is not the case. My theory is that we, as women, are conditioned from childhood to think our main source of self-esteem is derived from our attractiveness and appeal to men. If men find us irresistible, attractive, desirable, then we are worthy, and we will not end up alone, which we are taught to believe is the ultimate curse, and that we will find “true” love if our male counterparts are obsessed with us sexually. Magazines such as Cosmopolitan give women sexual advice to hold a man, reinforcing this as our primary value to the opposite sex. Women are taught that if a man is insatiably obsessed with them, this equals everlasting love. At the same time we are being taught this, men are being taught to be sexual animals even in greater degree than biology dictates. Men are taught to take what they want in order to be a man, they are told that women are attracted to “bad boys,” and that strength and violence are attractive. Being who we are is never enough, we must play games, dress up, role play, and be someone else, which inevitably lowers our self-esteem because we realize we are not good enough as we are.
Women are taught from youth that love means sacrifice and putting others first, even when it costs them their very lives and identities. And being willing to do anything sexually is the ultimate power over men. Women are considered desirable and valuable only because they are willing to do whatever a man desires sexually, even if it is degrading to them as people. This ideology turns the entire relationship into a “game,” while in reality, love and true intimacy require the absence of game-playing. For a healthy, successful relationship, a couple needs to know their communications, interactions, and sexual intimacy are authentic. Therefore, the type of “romance” in these novels is not only destructive to the psyche of both parties, but true intimacy and love can never exist within this framework.
I believe, once a woman experiences this type of relationship, she either mindlessly continues seeking this type of relationship as each ends in a vain attempt to succeed where the others failed, or if she is lucky, she will emerge from her conditioning, realize she is valuable just the way she is, and then she will no longer need a relationship to make her whole; she will know she is fine by herself, and will then only enter into a relationship if it is a healthy partnership, wherein both parties can be totally themselves with complete honesty and no unhealthy game-playing. When both people are healthy, each one caring for each other and themselves, neither person needs to control the other, and sex becomes just another way to communicate love, respect, and intimacy. It puts sex in its proper place and removes it as a means of subjugation and humiliation, which is a healthier and ultimately more satisfying place for it.
So, I refuse to participate in society’s patriarchal attempts to condition me to equate my value as a human being with the sexual gratification and the controlling desires of men. I am not a prude, but I sincerely believe women need to actively judge for themselves what it means to be loved or even desired in a relationship. Do you want to be re-made into an object of degrading fantasy, or do you want to be seen as worthy of love and respect the way you actually are, and have your sexual relationship be about expressing that value in the most intimate way? Don’t send the wrong message to men. Subjugation, humiliation, and physical control are not sexy or manly—and not what we want from them.—Christina Knowles