So there’s this book called “50 Shades of Grey” that everyone is talking about, and I haven’t even read the damn thing, but it sounds like all kinds of silly and kind of fucked up, and probably a bad representation of BDSM and sex generally, and it’s being compared to Twilight and championed by “Mommy Bloggers” so I probably will not bother picking it up. When a journalist contacted me and asked if I’d give a quote on it, I said I hadn’t read it, but I could speak generally on issues of consent and sexuality. Great. She emailed me a very general question, I gave a general answer. This is the outcome:
The plot of “50 Shades of Grey” centers on a young and naïve college student named Anastasia Steele who is seduced by a rich and powerful entrepreneur named Christian Grey. Grey persuades Steele to sign a contract that allows him complete control over her life, in and out of the bedroom. Yet despite the fact that Steele becomes completely submissive to a very dominant man, feminists aren’t up in arms.
In fact, this is where the mommy bloggers and the feminist bloggers agree. Many traditionally feminist-minded writers are hailing the book for encouraging women to explore their sexuality.
A reviewer on the feminist-friendly website Jezebel wrote: “Our consensus: the book is pretty ridiculous — for every lashing there’s an ‘OMG!’ — but if it’s making more women feel comfortable discussing their sexuality, we’re all for it.”
Jill Filipovic, a blogger with Feministe.com and a contributor to the feminist anthology “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape,” told Fox411.com that because the book depicts a consensual relationship (Steele does sign that contract), she is unconcerned.
“I would say that there’s nothing wrong with BDSM when it’s fully consensual on both ends, both partners have relatively equal bargaining power, both partners feel comfortable setting boundaries, and boundaries are communicated and respected,” Filipovic wrote in an email. “I suspect it’s getting extra press because of the BDSM angle (which freaks a lot of people out).”
…yeah. I think what happened is that my actual response didn’t fit into the article’s narrative about how Women Unite around this book that actually sounds like it has a lot of problematic themes. So the writer used the parts of my quote that support her thesis that feminists are “unconcerned.”
Interestingly, the word “concern” did come up a bunch of times in my full response to her question. Here’s the entirety of what I emailed her in response to her question, which was, “The plot of the book is that a high powered executive contracts a naive and poor college student to be his sex slave in a submissive BDSM relationship. Is this at all concerning for women and does it send the wrong message that men have the sexual power in a relationship?”:
It’s really hard for me to comment on whether the book sends the “wrong message” when I haven’t read the book. I would say that there’s nothing wrong with BDSM when it’s fully consensual on both ends, both partners have relatively equal bargaining power, both partners feel comfortable setting boundaries, and boundaries are communicated and respected. Having not read the book I’m unable to say whether or not the relationship portrayed in it meets those very basic criteria; if it doesn’t — if the college student doesn’t have the ability to set boundaries in the relationship, or if she’s financially coerced into it — then yes, that is concerning, assuming the book isn’t criticizing that set-up but portraying a non-consensual relationship as sexy. It’s far from the first book to glamorize and sexualize non-consensual sexual relationships, and I suspect it’s getting extra press because of the BDSM angle (which freaks a lot of people out), but if what it’s actually portraying is a coercive or non-consensual sexual relationship then yes, that’s concerning for advocates of women’s rights and for advocates of good, healthy, consensual sexual relationships, whatever those might look like.
I often avoid writing about this stuff because it devolves into a downward spiral of stupid. “This proves that women want to be dominated!” “No, as long as someone finds it erotic, it’s ok and we have no right to look at this in the context of a misogynist culture!” “BDSM is freaky and for perverts!” “No, people who practice BDSM are always responsible and it’s never abusive!” etc etc etc.
So, a few points:
-Sex is good and healthy and fun. The things we like sexually don’t always fit into the traditional narrative of what sex looks like or should be. That’s ok. Do whatcha like, as long as it’s safe and all participants are enthusiastically consenting. And don’t be ashamed. More people should be having more fun, whatever that means for them. Maybe that means missionary position in an attempt to make babies. Maybe that means doin’ someone of the same sex. Maybe that means doin’ many people of various sexes. Maybe that means getting tied up and spanked by a man in a leather mask like the bad, bad girl you are. Maybe it means watching a lady with pretty feet squish her toes into Jello. Maybe it means wearing fake nails and a diaper and masturbating to My Strange Addiction. Whatever! Go on with your bad self. Too many people have unfulfilling sex lives, so if you’ve found something (or many somethings) you really enjoy, rock it. You’re one of the lucky ones. And if you haven’t found The Good Sex yet, whatever, keep doing whatever it is that feels good. Channel Madonna and don’t be sorry.
-Just because you like something in the bedroom doesn’t mean you want every other relationship in your life to operate that way. Just because you like missionary position doesn’t mean that you want to lay on your back on the floor of the bus during your commute to work. Just because you want your partner to dominate you in the sack doesn’t mean that you want your male coworkers to dominate you at work. It is stupid to suggest that because some women on the internet like an erotic novel with a sexually submissive female character that we all want to be submissive in all aspects of our lives. I enjoyed the documentary “Man On Wire.” I am also scared of heights and have no desire to walk a tightrope.
-It is actually worth reading these things critically, though. Sex, sexuality and sexual desire are not independent of cultural forces. The way we write about sex and talk about it directly reflects some of the most fundamental — and disturbing — truths about our society. I haven’t read this book. But the descriptions of it do raise some concerns (Example A: signing a contract does not necessarily equal “consent”).
-BDSM is not inherently bad or sexist or dangerous or weird. A lot of people practice it, to varying degrees. But it is one of the most culturally misunderstood sexual practices around, and the nuance required in discussing it thoroughly and honestly is almost always absent in mainstream media coverage (and in novels like this one, which sounds actually terrible). The narrative goes, “BDSM? Freaky! Weird! Women must all secretly want to be raped! People who practice BDSM are dirty perverts!” Which is obviously asinine, and not true (except for the part about dirty perverts. That’s true, and thank god). And so, understandably, some folks who practice BDSM get defensive and are like, “No, BDSM is always safe, sane and consensual, and I like what I like and what happens in the bedroom or in porn or wherever has absolutely on bearing on what happens outside of it!” And that’s not exactly true either. And I read these things and just want to stab myself in the head. And then I contribute to it on Fox News.