You may or may not be aware that this month is Teen Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Abuse in teenage and young adult relationships is a serious problem, with around 1 in 3 adolescents experiencing some form of abuse – physical, sexual, emotional or verbal – from their partners.
At @50shadesabuse, we’ve been campaigning for greater awareness of what constitutes abuse in a relationship for more than two years. We firmly believe that the rise in abusive behaviour glorified in pop culture, such as the Fifty Shades trilogy, will only contribute to a society in which abuse is overlooked or goes unrecognised. And that is NOT acceptable. We invest a lot of our time promoting healthy relationships and encouraging our fantastic followers to analyse the relationship portrayed in Fifty Shades and to see that it is in no way something to aspire to.
When it comes to teenagers and young people, we feel this is even more vital. With the recent decision not to make Sex and Relationship Education compulsory in UK schools, we need to work all the harder to raise awareness of the red flags that signal abusive behaviour, particularly so that they are recognised by young people, who are then armed with the knowledge that could protect them from becoming trapped in an abusive situation. So here, in this blog, we’d like to show our support for the fantastic @loveisrespect as well as the vInspired Love Is… campaign and we’d like to look at some of the behaviour Christian Grey displays towards Ana in the Fifty Shades trilogy and explain why, rather than the romantic acts they’re portrayed as, they are in fact abusive.
1. Christian is a man who likes to take control.
How the book makes it sexy: Christian Grey is a successful business man. He tells the young, naive Anastasia Steele that he likes “to exercise control in all things.” Ana is excited by this, because whilst she is simply a college graduate, he is a powerful billionaire, controlling his own empire. He whisks Ana away for pre-arranged trips, surprises her with his unspoken plans and ensures that she has nothing to worry about; almost everything in their relationship – from where they live to where they work – is controlled by Christian, supposedly leaving Ana to relax and enjoy the spoils of landing so firmly on her feet.
The abusive reality: Christian really does like to exercise control in all things. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with planning surprise trips away, or having your partner arrange the details of your dates, Christian takes this to an abusive level. He tells Anastasia what she can wear, what she should eat and whether or not she’s allowed to visit her friends. When Ana “disobeys” Christian’s orders, he threatens her with physical punishment. This isn’t sexy. In a healthy relationship, a partner will encourage you to be yourself and to make your own choices. When your partner tries to control all you do, it’s abusive.
2. Christian is vulnerable and lets Ana know that he can’t help the way he behaves.
How the book makes it sexy: When Ana hears about Christian’s abusive childhood, she is heartbroken for him and wants to take care of him. Christian explains that what he went through as a child means he can’t help the way he behaves as an adult and that Ana needs to understand and support him. Ana is then filled with love for this man who needs her so desperately and, being a sensitive person, she sets out to do all she can to help him recover from his past, even if that means putting up with some behaviour she doesn’t like along the way.
The abusive reality: We’re not saying for a second that anyone who experienced abuse in their childhood will automatically become an abusive adult, nor are we suggesting that it’s wrong to care for someone who is vulnerable. We all have flaws, after all; nobody is perfect! However, Christian uses his abusive childhood as an excuse to behave abusively towards Ana as an adult. When she questions his behaviour, he subtly reminds her that he simply can’t help it. This isn’t true; Christian is using Ana’s sensitivity and her need to understand him as a way to ensure she won’t walk away from him, regardless of how badly he treats her. Using his past as an excuse for his behaviour gives Christian a handy way of letting go of responsibility for his own actions. In reality, there is no excuse for anyone treating you abusively. If someone upsets you, frightens you or harms you, they are making a choice to do so and nothing that they’ve experienced in their past can be used as a reason to make it “okay” to treat you that way.
3. Christian flatters Ana by seeming to be utterly obsessed by her.
How the book makes it sexy: When Christian meets Ana, he soon begins telling her that he can’t stop thinking of her and that she has had an enormous effect on him. He wants to be in almost constant communication with her, sending her gifts, texts and emails. He rescues her from a bar by tracing her mobile phone when she calls him in a drunken state. He turns up out of the blue in order to see her. When they meet Ana’s male friends, Christian likes to put his arms around Ana in order to show that he’s proud to have her as his girlfriend. He constantly tells her that she belongs to him.
The abusive reality: There is nothing wrong with having a partner who flatters you and tells you how much you mean to them. In fact, that can be pretty great! But Christian goes beyond the realms of a healthy relationship and into complete obsessive behaviour. If Ana doesn’t respond to a text or email, he becomes angry. He tells her that he expects her world “to begin and end with me.” This is an impossible demand – Ana has family, friends and a job. She can’t devote all of her time to Christian and his demand that she does so is unhealthy. When he “rescues” her from a bar, he has no idea whether or not she’s in any danger. All he knows is that Ana is on a night out with friends, yet he feels it’s his right to trace her mobile phone and stalk her to the bar, in order to take her back to his hotel when she’s much too drunk to consent. Christian cannot allow Ana to go out alone and have fun without him and his claims that he’s “rescuing” her are simply ways to manipulate her into seeing him as a hero, when in fact he has behaved abusively. In a healthy relationship, a couple will be happy to spend some time apart, indulging in separate activities. Christian does not like Ana to have a chance to do that and when she asks him for space, he turns up unexpectedly, ensuring that she doesn’t get time away from him. When they meet Ana’s male friends, Christian’s body language is not that of a proud boyfriend, putting his arm around his girlfriend because he loves her. He’s marking his territory. He’s ensuring that everybody knows that Ana is spoken for and that they better not dare to get too close to her. He tells her she is “his,” but in fact, we are all individuals and whilst it can be romantic to suggest that we belong to our partners, if your partner is telling you “you are MINE” as Christian does, this could be a sign of a possessive nature, which could easily lead to abusive behaviour in the future. You belong, first and foremost, to yourself. A good partner will encourage you to be yourself, without feeling the need to possess you or demand your attention every second of every day.
4. Christian is a great lover
How the book makes it sexy: Ana is a virgin when she meets Christian Grey. She is excited by his attention and she enjoys the sexual contact they have together. Christian likes to take charge of their sexual encounters, incorporating his love of BDSM. Christian talks openly about what he wants in the bedroom and helps Ana to become more confident, sexually.
The abusive reality: Christian is almost always only interested in sex on his terms. When he discovers that Ana is a virgin, he is angry and treats her virginity as a matter to be swiftly dealt with, so that he can have the sex that he wants. This is not romantic. Your partner should respect that your first time could be a big deal for you and when and how it happens should be a mutual decision. Christian also doesn’t listen to Ana’s concerns regarding certain sexual acts. When she tells him that she doesn’t want to try anal sex, he responds by telling her they’ll probably do it anyway. If your partner is not listening to you when you express yourself intimately, then they are not giving you your right to be respected. In the first book of the trilogy, Christian goes round to see Ana and immediately wants sex. Ana tells him that she wants to talk about their relationship instead. Christian continues to pressure her, until Ana says “no” and tries to kick him off. He warns her to keep quiet and stop struggling, and then has sex with her anyway. This is not acceptable, healthy behaviour in a relationship. If you say “no” to sex, you have every right to be listened to. If your partner continues to have sex with you against your will, it’s rape.
5. Ana loves Christian and she heals his emotional wounds
How the book makes it sexy: Ana comes into Christian’s life when he’s supposedly a closed book; he won’t let anyone get emotionally close to him and says he never wanted a relationship to be about more than just sex until he met her. She puts up with his difficult behaviour, his jealousy, his stalking and his need to constantly control her and over time, she softens him and allows him to reveal his true self. They get married and raise a family, living happily ever after.
The abusive reality: It’s possible for a person to change. It’s possible for a person who is very closed off and distant to meet someone who challenges them and breaks down their boundaries. But the fact is simple: A person will only ever change if they want to. At no point during the Fifty Shades trilogy does Christian Grey show the slightest real bit of interest in changing. He continues to control Ana, dictating where she goes and who she sees right up to the end of book three. That’s not change. That’s not progress. It’s simply a continuation of the abusive behaviour he displayed from the outset. The message the book seems to be giving is that if you love a person who treats you badly – more importantly, if you love them the right way – they will change for you and you’ll have the happy ever after that you’ve been dreaming of. That’s just a fantasy. In reality, if someone is hurting you emotionally or physically and they are intent on doing so, there is little you can do to mould them into your perfect partner. They will only change if they want to and in most cases, they don’t. People often stay in abusive relationships out of hope that their partner will change and unfortunately, they are usually disappointed. Confession: I stayed with my abusive ex in the hope of “fixing” him, but I could never do the right thing. Why? Because he didn’t WANT to be “fixed.” He wanted to continue to use and abuse me.
We could list many more examples from the text that show that the relationship in Fifty Shades is the very last kind of thing that any teen or young person should aspire to. Instead, we’ll sum it up like this:
• Christian Grey controls Ana: He tells her how to dress and what to eat. In a healthy relationship, your partner will value you for being YOU. They will listen to what you want to do and they won’t want to control or change you.
• Christian Grey only wants sex on HIS terms. In a healthy relationship, your sexual needs and desires will be considered by your partner. A loving partner will never force sex on you, or make you do anything you feel uncomfortable about.
• Christian Grey manipulates Ana into believing he can’t help his behaviour and that he needs her to accept his abusive ways as being a part of him. In a healthy relationship, your partner won’t make up excuses for treating you badly. That’s because they won’t be treating you badly in the first place.
• Christian Grey checks up on Ana all the time. He stalks her to find out where she lives. He traces her phone. He follows her hundreds of miles away when she asks for space. In a healthy relationship. Your partner will respect your privacy. They will not stalk you or hound you if you ask for space. They will not trace your calls or spy on your messages. A loving partner will respect your right to independence.
• Christian Grey refuses to let Ana go out and see her friends unless he gives permission first. In a healthy relationship, your partner will encourage you to have a life away from the relationship as well. They will understand and support your need to spend time with friends and family.
A healthy relationship is based on love and respect. There is precious little evidence of real love or respect in the way Christian treats Ana. He views her as something he owns (“YOU. ARE. MINE.”). If someone treats you in a way that makes you feel scared, confused or worried, then please speak to someone who can help. Here are some links you might find useful:
For educators and practitioners this resource may be of interest: www.dayprogramme.org
Remember, abuse is NEVER your fault and you do NOT have to accept it.