As Domestic Violence Awareness month continues, we at @50shadesabuse have been examining the many different forms of abuse evident in the popular “romantic” series, Fifty Shades of Grey. Today, we look at physical abuse.
This kind of abuse occurs when a person uses physical force against another, in order to cause pain, injury or emotional distress. This can include, but is not limited to, hitting with hands, striking with an object, kicking, biting, pinching, pulling hair, scalding/burning, sleep deprivation, placing the person under physical stress against their will, strangling or cutting.
For obvious reasons, there is an immediate problem when discussing physical abuse in Fifty Shades. Christian Grey’s enjoyment of a BDSM lifestyle means that we expect there to be physical acts involved. Within a safe, mutually respectful relationship, BDSM does not equate to non-consensual physical abuse and the subtext within the Fifty Shades trilogy, that BDSM is some kind of sickness that Ana needs to cure Christian of, is an insult to the many people who enjoy this lifestyle.
However, Christian’s version of BDSM is warped at best, downright dangerous at worst. Many within the BDSM community have spoken out against EL James’ portrayal, labelling it “inaccurate,” as well as “offensive,” whilst expressing concerns for those who may attempt an unsafe version of BDSM as a result of reading the trilogy.
For a start, it is paramount in a BDSM relationship for the partners to command equal respect and to have their safety considered and their individual needs met. Ground rules must be set and adhered to. Safe-words are used for the protection of both parties. Although Christian provides Ana with a “contract” and pre-loads the laptop he buys for her with information on his lifestyle, he does not adequately prepare her for the world he expects her to enter. When Ana hesitates about becoming involved in a BDSM relationship, he actively persuades her to reconsider, gaining coercive consent through sex, rather than taking time to listen to her concerns. He does not listen to her at any point, thinking only of his own desires. When Ana tells him that she doesn’t want anal sex, he tells her they’ll try it anyway. This selfishness would be damaging in any relationship, but in a BDSM situation, it can cross the line into dangerousness. Christian is not respecting Ana’s limits.
From their earliest encounters, in spite of her insistence that she enjoys her time in Christian’s “Red Room of Pain,” Ana contradicts herself. Throughout the trilogy, she makes references to being afraid that Christian might “beat” her if she steps out of line. Her internal monologue makes several mentions of wanting to bring Christian “into the light” and somehow rid him of his “need” to physically punish her. After their first foray into spanking, although Ana is aroused whilst she is with Christian, as soon as he leaves, she feels guilty, embarrassed and upset at what has happened to her. She tells the reader:
“Have I strayed so far from who I am? …What Am I doing? The irony is, I can’t even sit down and enjoy a good cry. I’ll have to stand.”
Later in the same chapter (chapter 16, book 1), Ana weeps: “He actually hit me.” When Christian returns to her apartment, Ana goes so far as to inform the reader: “I don’t want him to beat me.”
Indeed, the poor writing in the Fifty Shades series means that Ana constantly yo-yos from being excited at the thought of physical admonishment for her misdemeanours, to being genuinely frightened and wanting to avoid punishment. Whilst this may be accidental on EL James’ part, the fear of physical repercussions to trivial “crimes” is a common theme in physically abusive relationships and does little to detract from the fact that Christian Grey is an abuser himself. A caring, responsible Dom would be aware enough to pick up on subtle signs that his partner is not enjoying their play as much as he is. Christian, regardless of whether or not he can tell that Ana is happy, makes no effort to show restraint and continues to take their BDSM relationship forward. He also makes frequent threats of physical punishment (“I will hit you and it will hurt”), in spite of knowing that his partner is inexperienced and has shown some reluctance. Again, this not only shows a bad Dom, but an abusive man. Instead of showing any consideration for his partner’s obvious distress, he tells her (again in chapter 16, book 1): “I want you to behave a certain way and if you don’t, I shall punish you and you will learn to behave the way I desire.” In a mutual BDSM relationship, this would be fine, but Ana is quite blatantly expressing enormous concern about entering into that lifestyle and so Christian’s words come across as threatening and cruel.
Despite Ana’s doubts about the BDSM aspect of their relationship, Christian does not back down from his desire to pursue it anyway. When Ana bites her lip, or rolls her eyes, or commits any other trivial offence, he reminds her that his “palm is twitching.” This means he wants to spank her and the reader is supposed to view this as erotic. However, within the confounds of this relationship – in which one protagonist has expressed large doubts about being physically punished – this is no such thing. Instead, it becomes the threat of the abusive partner, using words and the prospect of pain to ensure he retains complete control at all times.
As a result of Christian’s emotional manipulation of Ana (which we will explore in greater depth in another blog), she begins to shrug off her own physical and emotional responses. Remember the mention of “scalding” in the list of physically abusive acts? In chapter 25 of book 1, Christian encourages Ana to shower with him and we have the following exchange:
“‘Ow,’ I squeal. The water is practically scalding. Christian grins down at me as the water cascades over him.
‘It’s only a little hot water.’”
It may seem trivial, but even something as simple as this, shows that Christian is not considering Ana’s physical responses. Although Ana goes on to say that actually, the temperature is “heavenly,” it appears that her response comes from Christian’s words, rather than her actual physical senses.
As their relationship progresses, so does the BDSM – again, not with Ana’s complete consent. At the end of book 1, we finally see Christian’s unsuitability as a Dom, as well as Ana’s unsuitability as a submissive.
Ana questions Christian as to whether she is able to say “no” to his “punishment.” Christian tells her that if she does, he will “have to find a way to persuade” her to allow him to physically admonish her. Ana then tries to jokily run away from Christian and when he remarks that it seems as though she really doesn’t want him to catch her, she confesses “I don’t. That’s the point. I feel the same way about punishment as you do about touching.
Christian has told Ana that he does not like to be touched. He went as far as to describe it as one of his hard limits. Here, Ana is clearly telling her partner that she DOES NOT WANT TO BE PHYSICALLY PUNISHED. She uses phrases such as “I worry you’ll hurt me” and “I do it for you… You need it. I don’t,” to describe her feelings about BDSM. She is making her feelings known and a good Dom – a good boyfriend – would listen. However, Christian then uses emotional manipulation – playing on his tortured past – in order to get Ana to change her mind.
Ana tells Christian to show her “how bad it can get.” Christian fetches a belt and makes it blatant to Ana that he is going to hurt her as punishment for threatening to leave. To reiterate: In a safe, consensual BDSM relationship, this would be an enjoyable experience for both partners. This relationship is not safe or consensual. As a result, Ana cries and is in very obvious distress. She is too upset to use her safe-word. Christian does not stop hitting her with the belt until they have counted six blows, in spite of her distress. Ana then leaves him, saying she can’t take his lifestyle. It should have been incredibly obvious to Christian, in spite of Ana’s later protestations in book 2 that she missed his “kinky fuckery” when the couple reunite, that her reaction to being hit proved that she did not want that kind of relationship. Instead, he pursues his own desires, telling her that he “wants” to hurt her. This massive power imbalance has nothing to do with BDSM. Christian’s selfishness and his total disregard for Ana’s feelings are not the actions of a Dom. They are the actions of an abuser.
In book 3, Christian demonstrates possibly the most worrying display of physical abuse in the trilogy. After Ana sunbathes topless on their honeymoon, Christian physically drags her from the beach, in an action designed to humiliate his wife. Ana begs him: “Please don’t be mad at me,” but Christian informs her that it’s “too late.”
They ride a jet ski together, but rather than relax and enjoy herself, Ana is displaying classic signs of an abused wife, internally asking: “Please forgive me?” as they ride, in spite of having done nothing wrong. Upon arriving back at the boat they’re honeymooning on, Christian tells Ana he wants to punish her. Ana asks him not to hurt her and he acts as though the suggestion offends him, telling her he would never do such a thing. He then proceeds to have sex with her, using handcuffs which he deliberately puts on too tightly around her wrists and ankles, leaving “deep, red welts.” He also gives her love-bites all over her chest (remember “biting” as a form of physical abuse?), causing bruises to her breasts, which he tells her will ensure she doesn’t sunbathe topless ever again. Ana has never, ever consented to having her body marked in any way, yet Christian does this in order to ram home the point that she belongs to him and that her sunbathing had to be punished. The act of marking her body was entirely non-consensual (Ana is horrified when she sees the marks). This is NOT BDSM.This is physical abuse.
Ana is even too afraid of physical repercussions to admonish her husband properly for his abusive behaviour. She remarks:
“Can’t he see what he’s done? …I want to shout at him, but I refrain – I don’t want to push him too far. Heaven knows what he’d do.”
Even when Ana is standing, with her body covered in welts and bruises (in spite of Christian promising her that he wasn’t going to hurt her and acting offended by the suggestion that he might), she does not feel able to adequately express her feelings because she is afraid of what he might do in response.
IN WHAT WAY IS THIS ROMANTIC?
As a lousy cherry on the cake of abuse that is this awful trilogy, Christian then manipulates Ana emotionally by reminding her of his terrible childhood and how hurt he was to see her sunbathing topless and Ana asks him for forgiveness.
This is not a book about BDSM. In a safe, consensual BDSM relationship, a sub would have previously agreed to having his or her body marked. Ana has never agreed to this and indeed, in the same chapter, Christian tells her that she’s his wife, not his sub. Yet he shows a total lack of respect for her by deliberately marking her body against her will, in order to show that he owns her and she must obey him.
There is nothing sexy or erotic about this relationship. Christian Grey is an abuser, using his physical strength and power against a naive young girl who he manipulates into being too afraid to share her real feelings.
BDSM does not equate to non-consensual physical abuse. But 50 Shades does NOT equate to BDSM. 50 Shades is abuse.