Fifty Shades of Grey and the subsequent Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed have become a hit and the must read book for women over the recent few months. Is it justified? What is causing people to get these books and read them? There are a lot of spoilers in this review so don't read it if you don't want to know any of the minor plot details. You have been warned.
I was asked to read them and give my opinion by a friend and also my brother. I did. While they are entertaining, it is in the same way as watching an episode of Judge Judy, entertainment without any real substance and for the most part not particularly good. The book does get you to turn pages, I will grant that and some of the sex scenes are mildly titillating. But for the most it reminded me of a poorly written Mills and Boon book (I read several of these a week as a teenager and loved them). It also irritated me for several reasons.....
The premise is that Christian Grey, an unbelievably wealthy and extremely handsome twenty something (I think he is supposed to be 27) CEO, falls for Anastasia Steele, a 21 year old student with a penchant for old British literature. "Ana" is, of course, beautiful (but has no clue about her attraction) and very slim (unhealthy eating habits to boot), still a virgin and hasn't had a serious boyfriend despite the gorgeous men she seems surrounded by. After their meeting Christian obsessively pursues Ana, who falls for him in a very short period of time (days), before offering her a proposal in the form of a BDSM contract (after getting her to sign a non-disclosure agreement of course). Thus the relationship is born and is fraught with difficulties relating to Christians abusive childhood.
The prose in the book is not great. Throughout it seems that Ana is suffering a mild form of DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder which is commonly known as multiple personality disorder). I am not making light of the real disorder, by the way, it can be a very serious and distressing condition. The character makes constant (almost every other page) reference to either her stubborn feminist subconscious or her sex-starved inner goddess who always seems to have the correct attire for the occasion (yes, she describes what these alter egos are doing and wearing as well as their opinions). Both of the "alters" and Ana herself can be incredibly annoying ("Oh, my!").
From being a naive virgin who has never masturbated (yes, she is 21 years old and not overtly religious), Ana becomes remarkably adroit at all things sexual very quickly. This must, of course, be down to the incredible attraction she has for Christian and his remarkable prowess in the bedroom, in the elevator and pretty much everywhere else. She also has a significant streak of insecurity, in the face of all information to the contrary, which is never really addressed, certainly not dealt with in the same way that Christians issues are.
And then there is Christian. So good looking it is almost as if he has been cursed by the gods to make all heterosexual women attracted to him. He is sexually "deviant" in as far as enjoying BDSM, but throughout the book it is portrayed as a very unhealthy relationship dynamic stemming from early abuse as a child and later abuse during his first sexual relationship with his mother's best friend. He has not been in love with any of his former submissives and encounters problems with his kinky nature when he falls in love with Ana. He is domineering, has stalker tenancies that would make any clued up female hesitate for more than a few seconds, and, quite frankly, just an irritating individual. But Ana sees how wounded by his past her poor "fifty shades" is and makes it her goal to heal him through love, no matter what he puts her through or what she may have to endure. And of course, she gets the rewards in the end.
It is made clear in the book that the relationship between Ana and Christian is consensual (as far as is understood by Ana, and as I mention below, it is questionable how much she understands). There is lip service towards safe-words and nothing really bad ever happens to Ana, who on the whole finds she enjoys it. However, there are numerous aspects of the relationship that bother me.
It is coercive, and from that perspective the issue of consent is questionable. Christian never really outlines what BDSM is, what he is going to do to her, etc. even knowing she is as inexperienced as it is possible to get. What happened to RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink)? How on earth could she consent to something she knows nothing about? While there is some mention of discussing things she doesn't know much about, most of the knowledge comes from Ana's research using Google. Facts but no understanding. I have no idea if the author actually does engage in BDSM but the book comes across as her doing exactly what Ana does and there is a distinct lack of understanding motivation and what drives people to enjoy BDSM as a healthy part of their sex life. There is a scene that goes too far because Ana doesn't use a safe word or any other words to demonstrate she had withdrawn consent. It should have been Christians responsibility to ensure she not only knew but understood the use of safe words.
At the first point of resistance towards anything kink, Christian drops the BDSM side, apparently doing this perfectly happily. Bearing in mind how integral to his sexuality it is initially portrayed as being this certainly undermines the character and comes across as lacking any form of substance.
Also, no distinction is ever made between Dominance and submission (D/s) and sadism and masochism (SM). Relationships can have dominance and submission in them without any S&M, because D/s is the relationship dynamic, the power exchange between individuals, whereas S&M is a physical interaction. With D/s, the submissive will relinquish control over specified areas of their life, to what ever extent the couple agree upon. This could be as little as simply deferring to their partner for advice in situation or what to wear down to having all aspects of their lives micro-managed by the Dominant. D/s can be part of a relationship where the couple are only interested in "vanilla" sex.
When S&M is brought into the relationship it adds additional areas which have to be considered by both parties. In my experience in healthy and consensual relationships, it is not about harming an individual. Harm results in ongoing issues, either psychological or physical, and neither party usually wants this. Hurt is a different matter, is temporary and only within the limits set by the person being hurt. Often it is done to experience the sensation and broaden horizons. to challenge the mental and physical aspects of sexuality. It can also be used as a corrective measure, as a punishment, where agreed upon. However, I don't personally agree with that as I think non-physical forms of punishment for transgressions are far more effective in the long run.
I don't think that anything wrong was said in the book as such, but at the same time it also didn't come across as being right. It is as if I supplied an individual with a recipe for doing a scientific experiment. Providing they had the equipment and chemicals there should be no issues conducting the experiment, but they would not understand why they are doing it or be able to interpret the results that came out. That is how I feel about the S&M portrayed in the book. It lacks any form of understanding.
As far as I am aware, an interest in S&M or D/s is not indicative of some childhood abuse. The author tangles the two ideas up so much in Christians motivations that this is one of the messages that seems to come out and irritated me. The implication that only people who have been damaged in some way want to be involved in BDSM is incorrect. There is a spectrum of people who have interest, people who have been abused in the past and those that have had a perfectly normal upbringing. It is an easy motivation and one that reflects the poor quality of the books as a whole.
By far the largest problem I have is the concept that a woman just has to endure the bad parts of a relationship while at the same time changing the person she is with until she gets the final reward of the perfect life. This is so fundamentally wrong that it ended up leaving me with a very bad feeling and taste in my mouth. If there are problems in the relationship that are so bad you have to endure something you really don't like or hate then you should reconsider being in the relationship in the first place. While it is true that any couple has to compromise to some degree, expecting a partner to change fundamental aspects of themselves is fantasy at best and could lead to a lot of hurt in the long term.
Overall it is a light bit of entertainment. Don't expect anything more than that. It is impressive that the books have received so much attention, and that shows the power of viral marketing, but that is the only really impressive part. I am not looking forward to the film.
Skeptical kinkster musing on whatever takes my fancy!