Why 50 Shades of Grey is a Toxic Representation of Our Sexual Culture

BY: Maggie McMorrow

***TRIGGER WARNING, Abuse, Sex, Rape***

Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James has sold over 100 million copies worldwide and is one of the top selling books of all time. The movie, out Valentines Day, is set to break box office records and propel Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson (who play the lead characters) into super stardom. And while FSOG is seemingly very popular, it has also drawn lots of criticism, specifically that it glamorizes sexual and domestic abuse, a critique that I wholeheartedly agree with.

The book’s lead characters are recent college grad, Anastasia Steele and billionaire entrepreneur, Christian Grey. I won’t go deep into the plot because you have most likely already read the book or at least know the basic plot line. They begin a sexual relationship and he introduces her to the world of BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadomasochism, and Masochism.) Christian’s parents in the book rescued him from a childhood of abuse, and he controls his resulting anger from this by acting out his sexual issues on submissive partners.

The characteristics of an abusive relationship are usually grouped into two categories under the abuser, and the survivor. The warning signs of an abuser are jealousy and possessiveness, frequent anger, mood swings, irrational need for control, isolation, abuse of drugs or alcohol, and intimidation and manipulation to get their way. There are of course many more warning signs but this is a basic list. It is also clear that Christian displays many of these qualities throughout the book. As soon as he meets Ana he yearns for complete control over her. He wants to decide which gynecologist she will see and whom she will see under his supervision and in his home, he wants to choose her birth control, he isolates her from her friends and family and follow her across the country, unannounced, on a trip to see her mother, he tells her that when they are married she will not be able to go anywhere because he will have a security team reporting back her every movements to him, and makes her sign a highly complex “sex contract” while she is under the influence of alcohol. This represents control, isolation, and manipulation.

Ana also shows a lot of the characteristics of a survivor. She is often anxious or sad about her relationship with Christian and feels guilty about his bad behavior, which he leads her to believe is her fault. She is constantly worried or fearful of if Christian will hurt her or if Christian will leave her. She is often dependent on Christian to boost her self esteem and has a great personality change throughout the book, caused by her relationship with Christian. She also is constantly blaming herself for the relationship not working and telling herself that maybe she is not accepting enough of the lifestyle he wants and excuses Christian’s abuse again and again referring to his stalking as a sign of affection. She lies to her family and friends about the relationship and becomes threatened by other females around Christian often slut shaming them in order to portray them as “bad” to the reader. She is always placing Christian’s needs over her own, the real reason she participates in the BDSM with him is because she is afraid to lose him. Probably one of the most concerning parts of the book is Ana’s need to fix Christian. She wants to change him and thinks she can fix the devastation from his early days. At the end of the book it seems like Ana has fixed him, which is not only highly unlikely in real life but dangerous as it gives unrealistic expectations to women reading the book who might be in real abusive relationships.

The many hintings of rape throughout the book is another prominent example of how this is glorification of sexual abuse. In chapter 12 when Ana jokingly breaks up with Christian, he shows up at her house and tells her “If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you.” He says this after Anastasia has already protested and said “no.” I hope that I don’t need to emphasize that if someone says no to your sexual advances, you listen to them and don’t continue or threaten them, but it is obvious through the book that Christian doesn’t really know the meaning of the word “no.” Some argue that the book isn’t about BDSM culture, but in fact rape culture. In Katherine O’clare’s essay “Why I Hate Fifty Shades of Grey (It’s not for the reason you think)” she writes, “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.

A lot of people may argue that this book has empowered female sexuality and that by discounting it, I am therefore discounting female sexuality. Many people have dismissed FSOG as trash because of the audience it appeals to, which is middle aged housewives, which is sexist. And yes, it is important to to empower all women to explore and embrace their sexuality, but in a healthy and comfortable way. If this is the first book to explore female sexuality and empowerment, then I think we have a lot of work to do.





Attend or host event Volunteer