It’s often hard to discuss an emotive subject without getting drawn into a case of opinion-sharing rather than fact. With that in mind, I asked myself a question this morning: When it comes to Fifty Shades of Grey, how easy is it to separate fact from opinion? What can we prove to be fact?
Fans of the series often comment on our Twitter feed with a similar statement: “Christian Grey isn’t abusive. That’s just your opinion.” But is it?
Tonight, I googled “what is an abusive relationship?” The first website result was http://thisisabuse.direct.gov.uk/worried-about-abuse and this is what the first page suggests about relationship abuse:
Now firstly, this is not a definitive list. Obviously, there are many more forms of abuse than the behaviours listed above. But the fact (and that’s what I’m trying to put across, here – facts) is that these behaviours are abusive and are listed on a national, government website as red flags. And these are behaviours that Christian Grey exhibits. Let’s take them one by one:
• A partner may try to pressure you into having sex. Just to be very clear on the facts again, sexual coercion is described on http:/loveisrespect.org as being the use of extreme compliments, threats, manipulation/pressure, alcohol or drugs, sulking or anger in order to persuade a person into sexual activity. Love Is Respect also mentions the following, which is crucial:
• So, does Christian pressure Ana into having sex, or more specifically into having a certain kind of sex? Well… Yes. In book 1, when discussing their sexual limits, Christian deliberately plies Ana with wine in order to make her “more honest.” As I’ve just mentioned, using alcohol in this manner is a form of sexual coercion. Not my opinion – a fact. Afterwards, when Ana admits to being a virgin, Christian reacts with anger. Again, this anger is a form of coercion/pressure. Later in the same book, Ana says no to sex after Christian turns up uninvited at her apartment. She uses the word “no” specifically and kicks him away. He tells her that if she struggles, he’ll tie her feet and if she screams, he’ll gag her. This is a total and completely offensive misrepresentation of BDSM and this response from Christian is not mere coercion, but tantamount to rape. Ana’s subsequent enjoyment of the sex they have does not overshadow the fact that she said no and he refused to listen. In book 2, when Ana says no to sex again, Christian says “don’t over think this, Ana” and continues until she relents. Again, her subsequent orgasm does not mean it’s okay that Christian ignored her original “no” completely, in order to follow his own desires. Christian also uses manipulation (“I need this”) to ensure Ana agrees to his sexual demands. He plays on his own abusive childhood and makes Ana believe that he’s vulnerable and that his BDSM is something that she needs to do for him, rather than for herself. He also tells her early on in book 1 that he is only interested in a BDSM relationship and that if Ana wants to be with him at all, that’s the only way. This piles the pressure on Ana to agree to his demands. When Christian doesn’t get what he wants, he becomes sulky and angry, then claims that he doesn’t know how to behave any better, in spite of his being a 27 year old CEO of a successful business. His claims are clearly false and his sulky/angry behaviour is just another way in which he pressurises Ana. Ana also knows very little about the BDSM lifestyle and admits that her research into the subject frightens her. Christian does little to fill her in on the subject, instead leaving her to research alone, which means she cannot fully understand what she is consenting to and therefore cannot give full and informed consent. None of this is my opinion. This is evidence taken from the text of the trilogy and linked to government guidance as to what constitutes abuse and advice from an abuse charity on what constitutes sexual coercion. This is, therefore fact.
• They may call you names or threaten to spread rumours about you. Okay, Christian doesn’t tend to do this with Ana. If anything, he goes the other way; over-complimenting Ana, e.g. constantly telling her how bright she is, despite little evidence of it in the text. However, he does frequently make comments designed to cause Ana to question herself, such as reminding her of how uncertain of herself she is and how frequently she blushes. This causes Ana to feel off-balance and uncertain for much of their relationship, often questioning whether she deserves Christian’s attention. This manipulative behaviour from Christian is symptomatic of an emotionally or psychologically abusive relationship.
• They might try to control you by checking your phone. We barely need to question this one. Before they are even in any kind of relationship, Christian openly admits to tracking Ana’s mobile phone in order to decipher her whereabouts. He then turns up unannounced to “rescue” her from Jose, but this “rescue” is far from gallant, considering that Ana has actively told him not to turn up at the bar and also taking into account the fact that Christian takes her away from her friends to a strange place when she’s too drunk to consent. She even has to ask whether he had sex with her the next morning, because she was in no state to remember. Christian’s obsession with stalking Ana and tracking her phone continues throughout the novel and is simply written off as one of his personality quirks, or worse, as a way of marking him out as a Dom. Stalking and tracking someone’s phone is NOT part of a healthy BDSM relationship. Both are illegal, abusive acts. Again, that’s a fact, not an opinion and the evidence is taken directly from the text of the trilogy. Of course, Christian’s controlling behaviour is not limited to checking Ana’s phone. He attempts to buy her workplace and says he’d do the same no matter where she worked. Ana has asked him specifically not to interfere in her career, but he disrespects her entirely by ignoring her request and continuing to control her at work. Christian’s “control-freakery” is again presented as an aspect of the BDSM lifestyle. However, had EL James done any research, she would be aware that control in BDSM is given at the sub’s discretion. Ana is actively telling Christian “no” and he is overriding her. This is not BDSM, but a massive power imbalance caused by one abusive partner refusing agency to the other. In short, this is abuse. It’s important to once again note: The use of excessive and unwanted control in this manner is abuse as recognised by government agencies and abuse charities and my evidence of Christian’s stalking and control of Ana comes directly from the trilogy itself. Which, yet again, makes it fact rather than opinion.
• They might try to force you to do things by hitting you. This is the point at which fans will accuse us of being anti BDSM. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, EL James’ gross misrepresentation of the BDSM lifestyle causes some huge problems here. Lack of research means that EL seems to believe that threatening Ana with his “twitching palm” is Christian being a playful Dom. However, if you read the original novel, Ana tells Christian that the thought of being spanked or hit as “punishment” makes her frightened and uncomfortable. She is not a willing sub when it comes to this aspect of their sexual relationship and therefore every time Christian tells her “I do believe you’re making my palm twitch,” he’s threatening her with something she has told him she doesn’t want or enjoy. A good Dom would never do this. BDSM is something which is supposed to be enjoyable for both parties. Christian also often uses this phrase or threat when he’s genuinely angry with Ana for something. Again, in a healthy BDSM relationship, a good Dom knows never to hit his sub out of actual anger. That’s crossing a line from play to abuse. Yet Christian frequently uses the threat when Ana has disobeyed some arbitrary rule – usually one she hasn’t agreed to or doesn’t even know about – and his threat is therefore simply to hit her. He tells her at one point in the trilogy that he doesn’t want to hit her to punish her, but adds: “If you’d caught me yesterday it would have been a different story.” That’s nothing but an admission of a desire to hit Ana out of anger. During a meal, he also tells Ana to eat, adding: “So help me God, Anastasia, if you don’t eat, I’ll take you over my knee here in this restaurant and it’ll have nothing to do with my sexual gratification.” That’s utterly clear. That’s not a sexual offer and it’s nothing to do with consensual, healthy BDSM. It’s a threat of physical assault. Christian also deliberately bruises his new wife’s body whilst they’re on honeymoon, as punishment for sunbathing topless. Ana has never consented to having her body marked in this manner, but Christian has no concern for her consent (as always) and he hits her to bruise her purposefully out of anger. I can’t stress enough that this is NOT BDSM, but abuse. Hitting or threatening to hit out of anger is abuse as recognised by the government and abuse charities. Christian does this in the novel – it’s there in black and white. So once more, this is not my opinion. This is fact.
• They might get angry when you want to spend time with your friends. We see Christian isolating Ana from her friends and family from very early on in their relationship. Christian tells Ana that she must sign an NDA, which means that from the word go, she is unable to discuss her new relationship with her supposed best friend – the only person who might be able to give her advice. Later, once Ana has moved in with Christian, he expects her to ask permission before she goes to see Kate. Although he claims this is for her own safety, due to threats from characters such as Leila and Jack Hyde, Christian makes no effort to involve the police in order to keep the woman he claims to love safe, so his protestations of protection can be immediately seen through as lies to cover his excessive need for control. Indeed, Christian comes home early from a business trip purely because he’s discovered that Ana has been out with Kate without his express permission. He’s furious because Ana has disobeyed him. This unwanted level of control is not BDSM as it is in no way consensual (Ana has to lie about her whereabouts because she wants to see her friend and is afraid of punishment for it) and is therefore quite clearly abuse.
Finally, taken from the government website, here is a list of questions to be answered by anyone who is concerned that they might be in an abusive relationship.
Try answering those questions as Ana. And even as a fan of Fifty Shades, try answering them honestly as Ana. You will be forced to answer “no” to more than one. The advice is then clear – “if you have answered “no” to any of these questions, you could be in an abusive relationship.” Not my opinion. Fact.
Now, for all of the above headings – and it’s important to note once again that there are other forms of abuse, the aforementioned is not a definitive list – I have used government and abuse charity guidance as to what constitutes an abusive relationship. That means that these headings are factual examples of abusive behaviours – it’s not simply my opinion that to behave in this way is abusive. And the evidence of Christian Grey displaying these abusive behaviours comes directly from the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Although the books are fictional, the actions displayed by the title character are written in black and white and are therefore fact in the Fifty Shades universe. For example, it’s not an opinion that Grey stalks Ana, because the text literally tells us that he does. Ditto for coercion, threats of assault and manipulation. They happen in the story. It’s cannon. It’s there.
So, here we encounter a problem. If we’ve established as fact that Christian Grey’s behaviour is abusive, based on evidence from the text and government/abuse charity guidelines, what do we say in response to fans who insist: “That’s just your opinion?”
Well, we can immediately provide them with evidence. That’s the handy thing about facts; they’re provable. We can direct those fans to any number of government or charity websites, detailing what constitutes relationship abuse. And we can provide references taken straight from the text of the Fifty Shades novels, in which Christian Grey is written as displaying those abusive behaviours. And what we will find – in almost every single case (and believe me, I’ve had to do this a lot since joining the 50 Shades Is Abuse campaign) – is that actually, we really are dealing with a case of fact versus opinion. The fan’s opinion that what Grey does is not abusive.
If I had a pound for every time a Fifty Shades fan, spurred on by the author’s insistence that her “hero” is not abusive, has said to me: “Well, that’s your opinion; I think it’s a love story and I don’t think Christian is abusive,” I could afford to have the movie pulled. And frankly, the world would be a better place for it. But more importantly, every time I hear this argument, I find myself asking a specific question: WHY is that your opinion?
Is it because you’ve been told by the author via the text that the character of Christian Grey is sexy and rich and that makes it okay? Or is it because Christian had a tragic childhood and simply “can’t help” his abusive behaviour? Is it because you believe – despite it being told in the story and almost never actually shown – that Ana’s love “cures” Christian of his abusiveness and that that fact turns their relationship from being abusive to being loving? Or it is simply because it’s “just a book” and it doesn’t matter what Christian’s like, because he’s not real?
Let’s go back to some facts about abuse:
1. Abuse is never okay, no matter who commits it. My own abusive ex was, at least in my eyes at the time, the most beautiful looking man I’d ever met. He was sexy as HELL to me when we met. But that didn’t excuse any of what he put me through. It doesn’t excuse Christian, either. Nor does his money.
2. A person’s past might go some way to explaining their present, but it most certainly does not excuse it. And Christian was adopted at a young age by a loving family. He has excelled in business and sees staff and family members in successful relationships. He knows how to behave properly. He chooses not to. His past – and again, my ex used the same excuse – does not make the way he behaves in the present okay.
3. Love does NOT cure abuse. To suggest as much is offensive to anyone who has ever been in any kind of abusive relationship. Countless people remain in those kind of relationships, hoping that things will change if they love the person enough or in the right way. If an abuser shows you enough of the loving person you want them to be, you find yourself believing that you can bring that out of them more often if you only behave the way they want you to. That dangerous myth keeps people in relationships that could get them killed. That’s not an opinion – that’s fact. You will not ever be able to love an abusive person into wellness. For an abuser to change, they have to want to. And most abusers don’t. If they do, then they will need to take ownership of their behaviour and accept that it’s wrong. Only with professional help can they then make big changes. Christian Grey, like most abusers, does not see a problem with his controlling or stalking Ana. He doesn’t see a problem with threatening to hit her, calling it BDSM to make it more palatable. This means that he’s not owning his own behaviour and therefore cannot change, even if he wants to. The fact that he lets Ana get closer to him than previous partners have is not evidence enough of his being a changed man, because his abusive behaviour continues. Ana’s love does not “fix” Christian, because deep down, there is no evidence of Christian Grey truly wanting to change. This incredibly dangerous, offensive trope has no place in fiction, because the reality is so horrendously different.
As for the “just a book” argument. Well, we’ve talked this through many a time. Romanticising abuse in fiction normalises it in reality. And whatever anyone says about the idea that fiction doesn’t influence reality, we have thousands of women saying they want a man just like Christian Grey. And having had one… No they don’t. Because the truth of being with a man like that is nothing like the “happy ever after” fiction likes to try to present us with. The fact of being in an abusive relationship is painful. It’s soul-destroying, confusing and dangerous. And that’s not my opinion. It’s accepted fact.
This brings us neatly back to the question of fact and opinion in the case of Fifty Shades. We’ve seen that the abusive patterns we accuse Christian Grey of following are indeed factual in the text and we’ve shown that those behaviours he displays are factual examples of abuse. If your opinion is that Christian Grey is not abusive, ask yourself why. Why are you rushing to protect a fictional character? What do you lose if you admit that although you enjoyed the story, the lead character’s behaviour is deeply problematic and not something to aspire to in reality? Nothing. The phenomenon has even gone so far that the author would lose little by simply saying “I accept that in reality this wouldn’t be romance. But in the context of my fictitious novel, I believe it to be and so do others.” She’d merely be stating an opinion, just like her fans. She couldn’t be stating a fact, because unfortunately for EL James, she has written the abuse into her novel, unwittingly or not. It’s there. There’s no “opinion” about our viewpoint at 50 Shades Is Abuse, because stalking is in the trilogy and stalking is abuse. Coercion is in the trilogy and coercion is abuse. Ditto threats, unwanted control and manipulation.
So the facts are simple: Christian Grey displays abusive behaviour throughout the trilogy, as recognised by government agencies, abuse charities and professionals in the field. The evidence for this comes directly from the author’s words.
Your opinion may be that Christian Grey is not abusive. Your opinion might be that a relationship with a man like him would be ideal. Nobody can take that opinion away from you, if you so choose to hold onto it. But please do ask yourself why you’ve chosen to hold onto that in the face of the facts. And if you’re holding onto that opinion by avoiding those facts, ask yourself what you gain from doing so.
Knowing the facts of abuse saves lives. To recognise them in fiction helps us to recognise them in reality. And that’s just a simple fact.