Nonny's Reviews > Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
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's review
May 02, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: 2012-books, 3-stars, erotic-romance, romance

Since the internet has been abuzz with rants and raves about this particular book... well. Initially, I was going to be the Cool Kid and not read it, but I gave in. ;) As always, I has thoughts!

(For those who have been living under a rock, Fifty Shades of Grey is a barely rewritten Twilight/Edward alternate universe fanfic in which Bella (Ana) is just graduating college and Edward (Christian) is a multimillionaire businessman. The book is about their romance and involves a lot of sex and BDSM. It's very clearly smut. The author, E. L. James published it through a small press which I believe is an author co-op and somehow, it sold like hotcakes. James now has a contract with Random House and a movie deal is in the works, though I have no idea how they're going to make this into anything less than an NC-17 rated movie.)

Let me get this out of the way first: The book is a hot mess. I have read significantly better prose in crit groups, and this is some of the worst writing I've encountered. I'm not surprised that the "publisher" was actually an author co-op, because it's pretty obvious between grammar errors, bad formatting, horrible punctuation, and writing that just plain doesn't make sense, that no editor touched this thing.

However, having read it, I'm not surprised it's popular. Let's face it: Many readers are not as discerning as writers are (which makes sense; we work hard at our skill and thus we see errors more easily), and I've honestly lost track of the number of times I've heard a reader say they care more about the story; good writing is just a bonus. On top of that, the story follows a well-worn wish fulfillment fantasy: that of the hot, wealthy businessman with loads of issues who falls in love with the girl next door and can only be healed by the power of true love. Look at pretty much every Harlequin Presents romance in existence; these books are not uncommon. The big difference with Fifty Shades is that it became popular outside of romance circles.

(Also I must add here: Not all romances follow this trope. There are plenty of well-written romances with strong heroines and non-asshole heroes. Considering I write romance, I don't really want to hear crap about the genre, thanks. ;)

But that's not what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the BDSM aspects. And for this I'm WARNING for frank talk about sex, BDSM, consent, coercion/sexual assault, and related stuffs; also includes some discussion of victim-blaming.

I've read a lot of criticism about Fifty Shades regarding the way BDSM is portrayed. That, say, "real" BDSM relationships don't have contracts, "real" BDSM relationships follow the mantra of "safe, sane, and consensual", "real" doms aren't controlling assholes, etc.

And to that I have to say: Are we in the same fucking community here?

Look, there are great things about the BDSM community. I have met some wonderful people in the scene, and I love that I am free to be myself and express my kinks without judgement. But let's be real here. Doms like Christian Grey flourish in the BDSM community.

The biggest complaints about Christian are that he is pushy about what he wants, that he doesn't particularly seem to care that Ana isn't into it, that he is controlling, and that he is really close to being a stalker. You know what? I have seen all these things, repeatedly, in real-life doms that are respected members of the community. Okay, maybe not quite to the specifics that Christian expresses, but I have no doubt that with the resources of a hotshot multimillionaire, they would do exactly the same thing.

(The other complaint about the books is that they treat BDSM as being like a mental illness, as something that Christian does because he is oh-so-traumatized. That's another matter entirely, and I'm not going to touch on that here.)

The problem with the situation in Fifty Shades is that it's a 24/7 lifestyle but these words are never really used. It's portrayed as "all Dom/sub relationships are this way", which is definitely not true, but for 24/7 D/s relationships? No, it's not unrealistic. None of the examples in the contract stuck out to me as particularly unrealistic, except perhaps the NDA. (I haven't heard of that one but it probably exists somewhere.) For people not familiar with Fifty Shades, these are the sort of things outlined in the contract: what Ana will eat and when, her exercise habits, grooming habits like shaving and waxing, what Ana will wear, Ana's behavior in Christian's presence and at other times, specific days that Ana will devote to Christian, and orgasm control; punishment is also set out for if she does not meet these requirements. None of these are too far out of bounds for a specific 24/7 relationship, but they are extreme for a standard bedroom Dom/sub relationship.

The problem for me in the book is not that these things are in the contract, but that Christian expects Ana to meet them even though she has not signed the contract. He basically assumes that she will sign it and treats her as though she already has. There is no doubt in his mind that she will do what he wants. The problem? Ana isn't kinky, and this is prerequisite for a relationship with him (if you can call it a relationship; he makes it pretty obvious that this is "kink only" but since it is a romance at heart, that changes). He is incredibly controlling and jealous. Although he has a good point about being concerned about her friendship with a man who tried to take advantage of her when they were drinking, he goes way too far. He treats her like she is already his sub when she has never agreed to such, and has in fact told him that she's not into that.

But let's talk about the community here.

A lot of people want to characterize the BDSM community as this happy-go-lucky place of awesome sex and kink where there are never any control freaks or bad guys and everyone respects safe/sane/consensual and enthusiastic consent. Sorry, but that is not the case. There are lots of essays about this (warning: nudity on page, plus discussion of sexual abuse in a kink context), and it is a huge problem in the community.

Men like Christian Grey, that have no qualms about controlling intimate details of their sub's life, including some real scary things like isolating from friends, are not uncommon in the scene. Hell, I have run into women dommes that portray the same warning signs. It's a real issue, and I'm very upset that instead of talking about these things, the reaction to the portrayal in Fifty Shades is: That shit doesn't happen here.

Sorry, but that shit does happen here, and it needs to be talked about. Because women (and men, but I'm going to continue to refer to women because rape culture definitely contributes) are being hurt by these people. They are being pressured into doing things they don't want. I have been pressured into doing things I didn't want, and I did it because I wanted to make the person I was with happy. It is in a very real sense, coercion, which is a form of sexual assault.

And you know what happens in the community? Usually, the survivors are discouraged from talking about it. They're told that it was their fault, that they gave their consent, that they had the opportunity to safeword, that they shouldn't try to accuse a dom of rape when it was "just" their "bad decision" or something they "regretted." If they don't let it drop, they are often ostracized from the community. Instead of being there for the victimized woman, the community rallies around the dom, because, how dare a "false accusation"! (Never mind that they often aren't false.) I am active on BDSM feminism groups, and I have honestly lost track of the number of women who have disclosed horrific stories of doms ignoring their boundaries, sometimes ignoring their safewords, and sometimes outright raping them (note: I truly believe that coercion is a form of rape, but I specify situations that are unarguably rape to bring attention that, no, it is not just "grey area" situations in which this happens) -- and the community's reaction was to ostracize them. The victims. The survivors.

Mind, the same survivors who have virtually no legal recourse because the legal system is woefully unfamiliar with the BDSM scene and is just as likely to say, "You let him beat you? You deserve what you get." And if a woman should go to the police, she will receive even more censure and abuse, because the community likes to believe that it takes care of their own. Except it doesn't. The problem people, the rapists, the creepers, they're still there. They're protected. It's the survivors who are left out to dry.

The rapists? People are quick to make excuses for them. They're quick to support them. Particularly if they are a Name in the community. If they are well-respected, they can get away with almost anything, and nobody will speak up in the victim's defense. It is terrifying, and it's all-too-common.

And it isn't talked about. Many women are aware that this happens, but we don't talk about it, because we would rather believe that our little paradise doesn't have its flaws. Well, it's time to stop that. It's time to start being aware that dom/mes like Christian exist. It's time to talk about it. We need to call out these behaviors when we see them. We need to protect our own. We need to offer support to women who have had these experiences happen. We need to believe them instead of immediately responding with, "Well, maybe you misunderstood......" or "I'm sure he didn't mean it that way", or "Well, you shouldn't have done something if you didn't know for sure you were going to be okay with it. Etc.

They are told to be silent and threatened with the loss of their community if they continue speaking up. They are told that nobody will believe them -- and when the first people they talk to don't believe them, well, what else are they to think? Many of them wind up believing that it was, indeed, their fault, and they stop talking about it. They may even remain in the community and chalk it up to a "bad experience", even though it was so much more.

Shit needs to change. It needs to change before more people get hurt.

And that is why I say to the people who are complaining that Christian is an unrealistic dom: Bullshit. Christian is one of the most realistic doms I have read in a very long time. And you know what? That's fucking sick. You want to know what's even sicker? He's better than a lot of the real life doms I have known. He actually cares about the well-being of his sub, even if he is an overbearing, domineering control freak. Some of what I have seen discussed in kink circles don't lead me to believe that some doms care very much at all.

Edit to add: Since I'm sharing this on Goodreads as well, I'd like to also share why I rated it 3 stars. Even though the book has huge issues, it kept my interest, and I wanted to know what happens next. It also is very much a control fantasy, and I will admit that the fantasy of this uber-hot guy who gives me no choice in the matter makes me weak in the knees. However. This is like rape fantasy; I would never want it to happen in real life, and because this book is being discussed so much as almost a how-to for kink and being presented as a guide to the kink community, I felt the need to speak up about how freaking toxic it is. (And also the extent to which the kink community is insisting that nothing like this ever happens, which is hugely egregious to me.)
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message 1: by Kate (new)

Kate Willoughby Great and informative review, Nonny. Thanks. I too want(ed?) to be the cool non-reader, but I'm so curious. The part of me that hates badly written books is saying HELL NO, but the "wanna be part of the conversation" part is irritatingly persistent.

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