“I belatedly realise he’s not asked me where I live – yet he knows. But then, he sent the books, of course he knows where I live. What able, cell-phone tracking, helicopter-owning stalker wouldn’t?”
This is a pondering from Ana Steele early on in book one of the Fifty Shades trilogy that has gained much hype in advance of the film premiere in London this week. The books – which I have heroically completed reading – are filled with the abusive behaviours of an extremely wealthy, powerful man (Christian Grey) towards a naive female student (Ana Steele).
Much is being made of the BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism) within the series. However, I’ve run a campaign about the series over the last two and a half years, and I would suggest the kinky sex is really a red herring within the conversation about Fifty Shades. Many who practice BDSM have been outspoken about the many ways the books misrepresent the kink lifestyle. I don’t think El James researched the kink scene – examples of Christian Grey using cable ties and ignoring Ana’s pleas are seen across the books make that clear. Both show lack of even a rudimentary understanding of BDSM and the codes in place.
Behaviours an abuser may display towards a partner include intimidating, isolating, devaluing, belittling and disrespecting. Using, exploiting, demeaning and exhausting are further examples of abuse, as are minimising, denying and not taking responsibility for the abuser’s own behavior. Coercing, controlling, manipulation, stalking and ignoring – you can add them all to the list.
All of these are present within the Fifty Shades series. And rather than these behaviours being recognised as abusive; they are celebrated and glamourised as romantic, sexy and desirable. Stalking is seen as a charming character quirk; avoiding responsibility is portrayed as the tortured soul of a broken man, and the coercion and lack of respect across all the books is shown as sexy.
But the backdrop to this is the 25 per cent of women in the UK who will be abused by a partner in their lifetime, and the 750,000 children who will witness abuse.
I was being interviewed on the BBC World Service about my campaign against Fifty Shades while I was on the train this morning. I spoke about domestic abuse and the ways the books normalised it. After finishing the interview, a woman who was sitting opposite me started sharing her story. Her ex-partner had raped and assaulted her regularly. Her children had been removed from her. She was on her way to a therapy session.
People would like to think domestic abuse is something ‘over there’, affecting ‘those people’. But it’s not. The woman on the train opposite you. The girl in your youth group. Your sister, friend, church leader. Any of them may be experiencing abuse from a partner or husband.
People like to feel safe – to imagine they don’t know anyone capable of behaving abusively. Yet, they are – mainly – men in our families, friendship groups and churches. They are the boys in our youth groups, schools and colleges, abusing their partner. And they don’t have ‘MONSTER’ tattooed on their forehead, anymore than Christian Grey does within the books. Yet to accept that abuse is close, is in our communities, means sacrificing a psychological safety that we are very invested in protecting.
Christians in America are calling people to boycott the film because of the explicit sexual content. One pastor is even going to baptise a book. Yet, in our churches women weep after being told to forgive the husband who raped them. Girls grow up deeply ashamed for the sin of having boobs or showing skin – disguised as ‘modesty teaching’. Men are enabled to continue abusing their wives and children in the name of forgiveness, repentance, the gospel and the sanctity of marriage. Yet it’s because of sex that the books are being baptised. Just as the abuse within our Christian community is often ignored, so the Church ignores the abuse within Fifty Shades.
I’m organising a protest at the premiere of the film today because we need a new narrative about relationships and sex. One that isn’t rooted in male domination and ownership of women. One where women’s sexuality is as valued and as important as men’s, and where abuse is not glamourised or romanticised. Feel free to join me. Here are the details.