I’m going to begin this blog with a personal note. All too often, when people hear about the @50shadesabuse Twitter campaign, they suggest that we just don’t understand BDSM and that we’re equating “kink” with abuse. That’s not the case and never has been.
When I (Emma) first read 50 Shades of Grey – because yes, contrary to the other common accusation we receive, I have read the book – I found it massively triggering. Not because of the BDSM. Christian Grey reminded me of my own abusive ex. It wasn’t the physical aspects of the story that immediately jumped out at me, but the way that Christian emotionally abuses Ana. I recognised it because I have experienced it. Nobody can tell me that there is not emotional abuse present in this book, because to do so is to deny my experience. I know what emotional abuse feels like. I know how to recognise it. And it IS an almost constant presence within this so-called “romance” novel.
Emotional abuse is difficult to define. Something so subtle, yet so capable of utterly destroying a person is hard to put into words. However, most experts will agree that emotional abuse can involve:
• Name-calling, accusing, threatening or blaming.
• Emotional manipulation
• Adopting a deliberately patronising, judgemental “I know best” attitude, which belittles the person being abused and is designed to make them question themselves.
• Being overly critical or controlling.
• Invalidating the abused person’s experiences, by denying what really happened (e.g. the abuser may say “I never said that; you’re lying” when confronted about a hurtful comment), thus leaving the abused person feeling confused and frustrated.
• Withholding – this can refer to withholding affection, sex, praise or even verbal communication (“the silent treatment”).
• Making unrealistic or unfair demands on the abused person.
• Denying or refusing to listen to a viewpoint other than the abuser’s own.
• Minimizing the abused person’s feelings. This may take the form of telling the abused person “you’re just oversensitive,” or “you’re exaggerating.” This is, again, designed to make the person being abused question themselves.
• Trivialising the abused person’s feelings or experiences.
• Spurning or rejecting the abused person.
• Isolating the abused person from their friends or family.
• Relying on the abused person to fulfil the emotional needs of the abuser, whilst not offering them any emotional fulfilment themselves in return.
• Eroding a person’s sense of self to the point where they only see themselves as having worth because of their relationship with their abuser.
• Flying into a rage over trivial things and causing fear.
Emotional abuse is so complex, that this is really only a small list of some of the many, many traits it can encompass. So how does this fit into Fifty Shades?
Christian Grey displays signs of being an emotional abuser from very early on in the story. His behaviour when Ana interviews him is cold and patronising. He is aware from the outset that he is in a much more powerful position than the naive Ana and he uses this to make her feel uncomfortable.
By chapter 3, he is managing to engineer situations in order to isolate Ana from her friends. He suggests a date with her and when Ana hesitates, he arranges one of his entourage to take everyone home, bar Ana, leaving her little choice but to stay and agree to have coffee with him. This action might seem trivial and innocent in isolation, but it’s important to remember that emotional abuse is, like all forms of abuse, about control. In this instance, Grey is controlling the situation entirely – something that he will continue to do throughout the series, regardless of whether Ana likes it or not.
By the time they go on their date, Christian is behaving in a troubling way. He makes comments such as “you should find me intimidating” and tells her that she blushes a lot – a remark which he knows will make Ana question herself. It’s all done to keep himself in control and it’s not romantic behaviour. He explains that he doesn’t want her to use his first name. This immediately puts Ana on a lower footing than him. From their very first date, Christian is ensuring that the balance of power between them is unequal and tipped in his favour. This sets a dangerous tone for their entire relationship. Equality is an important aspect of any healthy relationship. There is no equality between Ana and Christian.
Shortly after their date, when Ana narrowly avoids being knocked over by a bike, Christian looks into her eyes and tells her that he’s “bad” for her and that she should stay away from him. This kind of warning is calculated to ensure that she does no such thing and is supposed to make her question herself, as well as to provide a convenient later excuse for his abusive behaviour and her decision to stay. It’s a classic case of “well, he told me he was trouble and I stuck around anyway, so I’m to blame…” There’s nothing sexy or passionate about these “warnings,” given by abusers. They’re nothing short of emotional manipulation.
Ana also clearly suffers from low self-esteem. Christian can see this (it’s obvious to the reader, so there’s no reason to assume it’s not obvious to Christian) and he uses it to manipulate Ana’s emotions throughout the trilogy, telling her how wonderful she is one minute and making subtle comments that make her question herself the next (such as pointing out her habit of blushing).
I’m going to add another personal note at this point. A lot of Fifty Shades fans have told me that I can’t judge Christian on how he behaves in a relationship, because he had an abusive childhood and doesn’t know how to show love, or to receive it. Excuse my language, here. BULLSHIT. My own abusive ex used the same excuse and it is NOT acceptable. You can experience the most tragic upbringing in the history of the world and still know how to treat other people with care and respect. To abuse another person is a choice. To be manipulative, unfeeling and obsessed with control is aCHOICE. Yes, it might be a choice that comes from your personal experience, born out of a need for self-preservation, but it is a choice. And if you make that choice to be abusive, controlling and manipulative, you lose the right to “blame” anything but yourself. End of rant.
In chapter 4, Ana gets drunk at a nightclub and Christian tracks her mobile phone in order to turn up unannounced and “rescue” her, taking her back to his hotel when Ana is no fit state to consent. We’ve discussed how utterly wrong this is in an earlier blog, so I want to focus on Ana’s reaction to these events. When realising that he stalked her in order to turn up and “rescue” her, she thinks to herself: “How is that possible? Is it legal? …Somehow, because it’s him, I don’t mind.”
It’s those words – “because it’s HIM” – that worry me. When you’re in a position where you can rationalise that someone’s behaviour is abusive (or at least worrying), there is nobody in the world so amazing that you should stay with them anyway. Please, if you’re reading this and you recognise that line of thought, speak out and find someone to help you.
In chapter 5, Christian reiterates his warning that Ana should “steer clear” of him. This time, he adds that he’s finding it impossible to keep away from her, subtly toying with her emotions once again and ensuring that Ana remains both flattered and intrigued enough to keep coming back for more.
Even Christian’s ridiculous “non-disclosure agreement” could be seen as potentially abusive, given Ana’s complete lack of experience. By originally insisting that she tells nobody about her sexual encounter with him, Christian is isolating Ana from friends or family members who may have been able to give her advice. We later see that this leads to Ana feeling confused and alone; hardly the most romantic of emotions. Christian also insists that a sexual, BDSM relationship is the only kind of relationship they’ll have. This is a way of pushing Ana away and given that she is a character whose heart is worn on her sleeve, meaning that Christian is well-aware that she wants more than just a sexual relationship, this is also evidence that by pursuing his own desires, Christian is totally ignoring Ana’s own emotional needs. His angry reaction to the news that Ana is a virgin is just further evidence of this. He is minimising her needs and invalidating her feelings in favour of his own and they’re not even in a relationship yet. A warning sign that worse is to come, if ever there was one.
In chapter 9, we begin to see examples of Christian’s drastic mood swings. Ana thinks to herself: “I want to call after him, but his sudden aloofness has left me paralyzed. What happened to the generous, relaxed, smiling man who was making love to me not half an hour ago?”
These changes of mood are often a symptom of abusive relationships and again, there’s frequently an underlying issue of control. In this situation, Christian thinks Ana is going to call one of her male friends and he is furious because he views her as his possession and is not willing to “share.” In fact, Ana wants to call a female friend, but rather than wait to find this out, Christian storms out and gives Ana the silent treatment because he feels he’s not in control anymore. He withholds any further emotional intimacy as “punishment” for what he views as Ana’s wrongdoing. This leaves Ana confused and frustrated. It’s a cold, manipulative way to behave. I’ve tried so hard to see why women find Christian Grey sexy or lovable, but when you’ve been with a man who does this stuff to you and makes you swing violently from being overjoyed to feeling totally dejected (as Ana does so often in this series), you know that the reality isn’t in the slightest bit exciting or romantic. It’s horrendous. And so is this book. End of second rant.
Ana’s emotional needs are further pushed aside in the wording of Christian’s ludicrous, non-legal “sex contract.” A clause states that he can “dismiss” her from “service at any time and for any reason.” However, should Ana wish to leave, the contract states that whilst she may “request her release,” it’s up to Christian as to whether he grants it. No. Just no. Nobody gets to dictate whether you can leave a relationship, regardless of what terms and conditions you’ve put on it. The second Ana wants to leave, that’s her right and she can go – Christian should have no say in the matter. Again, he’s paying absolutely no heed to her emotional wellbeing and he’s even saying as much in writing.
By chapter 13, Christian and Ana are finally discussing their “contract” in detail. However, when Ana asks questions (important questions, given her inexperience), Christian refers to her as having“issues.” This is trivialising her emotional response and also minimising – by suggesting that Ana has “issues” about the whole idea of BDSM, he is again putting himself in the position of power. He knows about that world and has plenty of experience. By brushing aside Ana’s genuine concerns, he is – not for the first time – showing a total lack of concern for her emotional wellbeing and proving himself to be manipulative and abusive.
Later in that same chapter, Ana shows the reader that she is not ready for a BDSM relationship and that she is already keenly aware that being with Christian is unlikely to satisfy her emotionally.
“What if…in three months’ time, he says no, he’s had enough of trying to mould me into something I’m not? How will I feel? I’ll have emotionally invested three months, doing things that I’m not sure I want to do. And if he says no, agreement over, how could I cope with that level of rejection?”
Ana can already tell that Christian could potentially damage her emotionally, yet she doesn’t allow her own instincts to stop her from pursuing him. This is entirely down to the way that Christian has manipulated her up until this point. From engineering an unequal balance of power, to withholding affection and even communication in order to get his way, Christian hasn’t wooed Ana into wanting to be with him. He has coerced her. This isn’t romantic. It’s a startlingly accurate depiction of how abusers often get their victims to fall for them. The push-pull tactic of being lovely one minute and leaving the person wondering what the heck they did wrong the next, combined with sexual manipulation for added measure has led to Ana completely ignoring her own needs. Why? Because Christian doesn’t want her to consider them; he sure as hell doesn’t consider them, after all.
And just for added evidence of Christian being an abusive scum-bucket, Ana has the above thought whilst on the way home from a dinner date with him, after which she has asked him for some space to think. Does Christian respect this request? Of course not. When Ana reaches her apartment after a short drive home, Christian has already sent her a manipulative email, pressuring her to agree to his demands. Way to pile on the emotional abuse, Christian…
One of Christians “limits” is that he doesn’t want to be touched. Whenever Ana tries to stroke his arms, or nuzzle into his chest, he tells her to stop. We later find out that this is due to the abuse he suffered as a child. In a healthy relationship, Christian might have waited for things to develop between he and Ana, before opening up to her about this and explaining why he might sometimes flinch at physical contact. However, as we’ve established (several times over), this relationship is about as healthy as a long-dead corpse. The fact that Christian refuses to explain his dislike of being touched only serves to hurt and frustrate Ana. His insistence that she doesn’t make any attempt at contact therefore comes across as withholding physical affection without reason. When Christian finally begins to open up about his past, he does so in a manner that still keeps Ana guessing on some levels. He also begins to play upon his abusive childhood, using it as an excuse for his behaviour (“I’m fifty shades of fucked up”), knowing full-well that Ana will therefore do the same. It’s worth reiterating the whole THERE IS NEVER AN EXCUSE FOR ABUSE thing at this point, because it’s fifty shades of rubbish to suggest that there can be.
Of course, because EL James wants us to believe that this relationship is the most wonderful, passionate love that has ever existed, Ana does exactly what Christian wants. She begins to excuse his behaviour on the basis of his past and starts telling herself that she can “fix” him if she only tries hard enough. At this point in an abusive relationship, the abuser can pretty much consider himself to have carte blanche when it comes to how he behaves, because his victim will blame herself if she dislikes the way he treats her. Ana follows this pattern to the letter. Whenever she feels that Christian has let her down, or that she can’t deal with his behaviour, she becomes angry with herself for not being able to cope better. Poor Christian can’t help it, after all. Except he can and I apologise if I sound incredibly angry in this particular blog, but as I mentioned at the start, the emotional abuse and constant manipulation was the aspect that really triggered me when I read this excuse for a novel, because by this point in the story, EL James is pretty much writing the worst experience of my life as a love story. And then she went on record as saying that people who see abuse in the books are “doing a disservice” to abuse victims. Oh hi, EL. Don’t mind me, whilst I point out the hideous emotional manipulation in your love story. I just really enjoy doing a disservice to myself.
Anyway, in chapter 16 Ana tries to explain to Christian that she doesn’t really want him to hit her. Her first experience of spanking has left her confused, ashamed and deeply upset. Christian responds by completely and utterly ignoring her feelings and tells her: “I enjoy punishing you.” Again, he’s overriding her emotional needs in order to satisfy his desires. This is the man that women all over the world think is some kind of romantic ideal. Which kind of makes me want to leap from something high. Because he has come round to stay the night with her, Ana is manipulated into thinking that he cares and rather than this confrontation being the end of this imbalanced, damaging relationship, it’s sadly just a continuation of it. Once again, Christian has managed to mess with Ana’s head so that she ignores her gut instinct.
In the following chapter, however, Ana decides to email Christian to explain her confused views on BDSM. She refers to him spanking her as having been “assaulted” and says she felt ashamed by her own arousal. She is trying to have a serious discussion with him. Christian, however, responds by being patronising: “So you felt demeaned, abused and assaulted – how very Tess Durbeyfield of you.”This attitude shows no concern for what Ana is saying whatsoever. He goes on to suggest that because Ana suggested the spanking in the first place (having wanted to see what she was getting herself into), the way she feels is entirely her own fault. He tells her to “deal with” the negative emotions that she’s feeling, because “that’s what a submissive would do.” He’s making unrealistic demands of a woman clearly not prepared for his lifestyle and he’s also trivialising her feelings once again, because his sexual needs are the only thing that matter to him. SWOON.
By chapter 20, Ana is displaying further signs that Christian’s protracted emotional abuse has truly taken effect. When Kate tells Ana that she deliberately riled Christian, so that Ana could see what he’s really like, Ana internally screams: “I KNOW WHAT HE’S REALLY LIKE – YOU DON’T!” It’s a very common trait in abusive relationships for the abused person to believe that they and only they really know the abuser. Often, the abuser tells them that that is the case. Making the abused person feel this way is a manipulative tool, designed to keep the person in the relationship. It makes them feel as though they must be pretty special to have gotten closer to the abuser than anyone else in the world. It falsely encourages them to believe that the abuser must really care and makes them feel protective of the abuser, so that they actively defend the negative behaviour, rather than run as a result of it. Again, I know this from experience. I don’t take Ana’s insistence that only she can ever understand or love Christian as evidence of their beautiful relationship. I see it as a woman whose sense of self has been eroded to the point that she sees her only worth as being reflected through her relationship with the abusive man she has fallen for. And that is exactly what Christian wants.
In the same chapter, Ana decides to voice her feelings for the man she loves. When Christian asks if she wants him to fuck her, she replies “No – I want you to make love to me.” Christian, being the emotionally abusive control freak that he is, shuns her because she hasn’t wanted the same kind of sex as he likes. He throws a t-shirt at her and tells her to go to bed. He’s withholding sex/affection because she has admitted that she wants something tender from him. And Ana, having been manipulated so thoroughly by this “wonderful” man, blames herself entirely for his rejection, cursing herself for trying to rush him into intimacy he’s not yet ready for. It’s NOT Ana’s fault and she is well within her rights to want some affection from the man she has literally bent over backwards to please so far, but Christian’s systematic abuse of her means that she will never blame him for the way he makes her feel. Of course, they do end up having sex, but it is, as always, on Christian’s terms.
In chapter 22, Ana and Christian have an email conversation in which Christian subtly blames Ana for any emotional distress she has been feeling (she has had to go to see her mother, as she needs space from Christian). He tells her that she’s not communicative enough, she doesn’t speak honestly enough to him etc… At no point does he take any responsibility for his own behaviour, or acknowledge that he might have contributed to her need to get away for a while. The next day, having promised her that he’ll give her the distance she needs, Christian turns up at the bar in which Ana is enjoying drinks with her mother. He has stalked her across hundreds of miles when Ana has asked him to give her some space. This is a calculated move on Christian’s part; he’s not there because he cares. He’s there because he needs to be in control of Ana at all times. Ana reacts by wondering if he’s there because he’s angry with her. HE has tracked down her mother’s home, booked a room in the hotel above the bar at which he knows they drink and arrived unannounced in spite of being asked to give Ana some space, yet SHE is concerned that she might have done something wrong. If this isn’t a perfect example of how an abused person is manipulated into a constant state of self-blame, I don’t know what is.
As they argue over “Mrs Robinson” (the woman who committed statutory rape against Christian when he was 15), Ana points out that Christian gets insanely jealous over her friendship with Jose (whom she has never had a sexual relationship with), but becomes angry if she questions his friendship with the woman who introduced him to BDSM. Christian tells her “I do as I wish, Anastasia,” thus neatly trivialising Ana’s feelings for the ninety millionth time. Because hey, he can do as he pleases. And Ana can do as he pleases, too. That sounds like a healthy, balanced relationship to me!
After they return to Christian’s hotel room, Ana tells him “we should talk.” Christian simply says “later”and proceeds to have sex with her. Again, ignoring her emotional needs in favour of his own desires. Someone please tell me what women see in this pitiful excuse for a man, because I can’t even pretend to know what it is.
Ana then manages to finally get Christian to open up a little more about his childhood and they begin to talk about their own relationship. Ana confesses that she’s unhappy with the BDSM aspect and tells him that it’s making her feel as though she’s tied up in knots. To which Christian laughs and says “I like you tied up in knots.” I’m getting so tired of pointing out the ways in which Christian trivialises Ana’s feelings over and over again, but this is the best-selling book of all time and people seem to be so wrapped up in how wonderful and sexy the story is (it’s not) that they’re not seeing what is utterly blatant. Christian manipulates Ana. He blames her for feeling confused or depressed about their relationship, when she only feels that way because he constantly overlooks her feelings, coerces her into doing things she doesn’t want to do and withholds affection at will. He is so emotionally abusive that it’s not as though we even have to dig to look for it. It’s just there, laid bare on every page. Each time Christian does something that seems genuinely nice, there’s a total change in his personality and he undoes it all by being horrible again – usually because Ana has done something terrible, like exercise free choice. Either that, or it quickly becomes obvious that he only did a nice thing in order to manipulate Ana into staying with him, or doing something that she might otherwise refuse. Why aren’t more people seeing this as abuse? I don’t believe that I can only see it because I’ve been with a man that treated me as appallingly as Christian treats Ana. It’s glaringly obvious. I can only assume that the hype around this book and the peer pressure that comes from knowing that so many people think it’s amazing is either genuinely blinding people to what’s there in black and white, or encouraging them to pretend they can’t see it, rather than accept an uncomfortable truth.
Christian Grey is an abuser. Over the course of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we have shown evidence from the text that proves as much. He systematically erodes Ana’s sense of self from the moment he meets her. He confuses her and manipulates her. He does not respect her personal boundaries and he overrides her emotional needs in favour of his own sexual desires. He does not take “no” for an answer. He controls and stalks Ana, then blames her for any negative emotion that she might be feeling as a result. He cannot control his own temper and uses BDSM as a cover to inflict genuine pain and punishment on her, which he has not gained permission for. He bruises her. He has mood swings that actively scare her. And the best bit? The message in this unhealthy trilogy is that not only can Christian not help his behaviour due to his tragic childhood, but that the love of the right woman can “fix” an abusive man. Neither of these appalling messages are true. Both are incredibly dangerous.
As I said earlier; abuse is a choice. There is no excuse for abusive behaviour, regardless of what happened in a person’s past. And as for the right woman magically “fixing” abuse through love? That’s what keeps people in abusive relationships. That’s what leads to women dying. Because they believe that the man they love will change if they can only try harder to make it work. The fact is, you can never fix an abuser. They have to recognise their own behaviour and want to change. Instances in which that happens are, sadly, incredibly rare. You can try and try to meet the expectations of your abusive partner, but you will never get it right. They will always move the goalposts. There is no “perfect way to love” that will make everything better again. It terrifies me that this message is being given to women and girls all over the world, when the truth is so horribly different.
Christian Grey is nothing to aspire to. He is cold, manipulative, controlling and self-centred.
This is the man that we’re being sold as a romantic ideal. There’s nothing romantic about abuse. Fifty Shades is not a love story. And in real life, relationships like Ana’s and Christian’s do not have happy endings.