No matter what you may think of Fifty Shades of Grey and its childish and subpar writing, the fact is, the book has become a cultural phenomenon. You either love it (I have actually not met anyone who loved it, but maybe I'm running in the wrong -- or right -- circles) or hate it. Or, like me, you take some kind of pride in having no interest in it whatsoever.
Since we can all agree that the book hasn't become a worldwide bestseller because of its transcendent prose, then what is the appeal? The answer lies in the relationship between the two main characters, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. That relationship is centered around a naive, powerless, sexually inexperienced young woman, and a cold, aloof, domineering, and sexually cruel man. In other words, says Katherine O'clare of Crushable, between a rapist and his victim.
In her essay, "Why I Hate Fifty Shades of Grey (It's Not for the Reasons You Think)," O'clare says that the book isn't about the BDSM culture at all -- but about rape culture. She writes:
BDSM is about mutual care, mutual pleasure, and mutual respect. A healthy and safe relationship that involves BDSM requires all the things that any healthy and safe relationship requires: trust, intimacy, vulnerability, respect ... And most importantly, BDSM is based on consent.
None of which, O'clare says, is in the relationship between Ana and Christian. Instead, she calls out this relationship as an abusive one, and Christian himself as a rapist:
Christian Grey is an abuser. He is emotionally unavailable, emotionally abusive, and sexually exploitative. His complete disregard for his partner’s comfort, experience, and emotional well being are contemptible: he gets his pleasure at the expense of his partner ...
All sexual relationships, whether vanilla or kinky, require consent. There is no such thing as having sex that is not based in consent. The only thing that happens without it is rape.
O'clare's description of the book is one of the prime reasons, beyond the bad writing, that I have no interest in reading it. Perhaps I'm just too old (or too smart?) to romanticize abuse. If I'm going to read about an abusive relationship, I'd prefer to read about a real one, and how a woman survived it.
This wouldn't be the first time that a toxic relationship has entered the cultural lexicon as a love story. One of the most famous "love" scenes in the world involves Rhett Butler throwing a screaming Scarlett O'Hara over his shoulder and taking her up the long, winding staircase to his bedroom for a night of sex that is -- at least initially -- against her will.
The author, Margaret Mitchell, writes of Scarlett's thoughts the morning after:
He had humbled her, hurt her, used her brutally through a wild mad night and she had gloried in it.
Well, that's pretty convenient. Since both Fifty Shades and Gone With the Wind were penned by women, and women make up the majority of readership, what does this all mean? Do women secretly long to be raped?
Let's look at the facts: Both Ana and Scarlett are "used" (raped?) by men they are attracted to and, at least in Ana's case, in love with. Scarlett only decides she loves Rhett after his "rape." The key seems to come in what Mitchell writes after describing the rape scene:
A lady, a real lady, could never hold up her head after such a night. But, stronger than shame, was the memory of rapture, of the ecstasy of surrender.
In other words, good women ("real ladies") are not supposed to enjoy sex. In fact, they've been slut-shamed about it for so long -- by both men and women -- that being stripped of the choice and responsibility of having sex equals pleasure. After all, if sex is forced upon you, then you are free from the "shame" of admitting you want it.
In the real world, rape is a horror that strips you of your choice, and of your "personhood." O'clare knows this, as she is a rape survivor. Women do not long to be raped in the true sense of the word. In fact, it is probably our deepest fear. But we would like to have sex without feeling shame about it. Hence, the fantasy of a man who forces sex on us -- and who happens to be deeply attractive to us and makes us orgasm.
I don't think the popularity of Fifty Shades connotes a secret desire on the part of women to be raped. But it does connote a very real desire to enjoy sex without shame. And it's shameful that women are still shamed about sex.
Do you think Christian Grey is a rapist?
Image via Random House