So far during Domestic Violence Awareness month, we’ve looked at the evidence of psychological and physical abuse in the popular trilogy, 50 Shades of Grey. Today, we’re going to examine sexual abuse within the series.
We commonly think of sexual abuse as meaning rape, or sexual contact without consent. However, the term “sexual abuse” can also refer to:
• Unwanted rough or violent behaviour during sex
• Refusing to use condoms or restricting/controlling a woman’s birth control methods.
• Sexual contact with someone too drunk/drugged to give coherent consent.
• Using threats to encourage someone into sexual encounters they may not want to have.
• Pressuring someone to perform acts they are uncomfortable with.
• Using sexual insults against a person.
With this in mind, let’s examine the evidence of sexual abuse in 50 Shades.
When Ana Steele meets Christian Grey, she is a virgin. Not only is she inexperienced when it comes to having sex with another person, she goes as far as to inform the reader that she has never so much as masturbated. She is entirely naive about the highly sexual kind of relationship that Christian is keen to have with her. When Christian discovers her virginity, he acts as though it is an annoyance, which he must quickly remove from her, in order to continue with his sexual plans. This shows a total lack of respect for his partner. Christian is not patient or genuinely tender towards his innocent girlfriend, but acts as though having to “make love” to her is an inconvenience, given that he’d rather indulge in his own sexual preferences.
Before they have even taken their relationship to this level, however, Christian displays signs of abusive, worrying behaviour. In chapter four, when Ana goes out dancing with her college friends, to celebrate the end of their exams, she drunkenly calls Christian from the toilets. He can tell she’s been drinking and phones her back to say he’s “coming to get” her. Ana has not, it’s important to point out, given him her exact location. Indeed, when he asks her during their first phone conversation where she is, Ana refuses to tell him. She says NO. However, Christian tracks her mobile phone in order to discover where she is. This is controlling and dangerous behaviour on his part. It’s not romantic to stalk someone into being with you and to have this behaviour written in a way that suggests to the reader that we should view it as passionate is enormously troubling.
The first real incident of sexual abuse within the book, however, comes from Jose rather than Christian. When Ana leaves the club to get some fresh air, Jose makes a move on her. Ana makes it clear that she’s not interested. Jose does not immediately give up; instead, he pressurises her and – bang on cue – Christian has to arrive to “rescue” her.
By the time Christian appears on the scene, Ana has already been sick as a result of drinking to excess. She is in no fit state to give – or withhold – consent to anything. Christian takes Ana to the dance floor, but shortly afterwards, she loses consciousness. Christian then takes her back to his hotel. To clarify: This is a woman that he currently is not in a relationship with. She is unconscious and therefore unable to give her consent to being taken anywhere other than her own home. To take her back to an unfamiliar place is irresponsible at best. Dangerous at worst. A decent man would have helped Kate (Ana’s best friend and flatmate) to get Ana back home, rather than taking her away from those she knows when she’s in no fit state to argue. Although no sexual activity takes place, Christian’s decision to remove Ana from those around her and to undress her and put her in bed cannot truly be seen as “romantic.” Upon waking the following morning, Ana is so confused by her surroundings and by her state of undress, that she feels compelled to ask Christian whether he had sex with her. THIS IS NOT A ROMANTIC QUESTION TO HAVE TO ASK.
Christian goes on to tell her she “wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week” if she was his, simply because she chose to get drunk with her friends. He also victim-blames her, when mentioning Jose’s sexual assault. And yet Ana refers to him as “a white knight, in shining, dazzling armour.” There is nothing brave or charming about taking a comatose person back to your bed without their consent, having stalked them in order to find out where they are in the first place, but EL James chooses to casually ignore that fact, in her crusade to make her fantasy the fantasy of every other woman in the world. Sadly, it’s a dangerous fantasy and one which should never be held up as an ideal.
Although by the time they have their next date, Ana is describing herself as ready for sex and seems excited by the thought, Christian bulldozes her with paperwork before anything can happen. He then takes her to his “playroom,” at which point it begins to become obvious that Ana is overwhelmed by what she is seeing. She thinks to herself “I know I’m going to say yes and part of me doesn’t want to.” A good Dominant (a good boyfriend full stop) would be able to recognise that his extremely naive prospective partner is not certain about the lifestyle she’s being asked to enter. However, rather than truly discuss Ana’s concerns, Christian plays on the fact that he is aware of Ana’s obvious feelings for him. When she asks what she would get out of a BDSM arrangement between the two of them, he replies: “me.” He knows that Ana wants more from him (her behaviour makes it abundantly clear) and is aware that offering himself to her in this way will make her more likely to agree to his demands. He is emotionally manipulating her in order to gain sexual gratification for himself. However, it is at this point that Ana reveals that she is a virgin. Christian’s response is not considerate of her feelings in any way.
“He closes his eyes and looks to be counting to ten. When he opens them again, he’s angry, glaring at me.”
This may not be an expressed sexual insult, as mentioned in the list of sexually abusive behaviours at the top of this blog, but his anger is clearly intended to intimidate Ana, who has done nothing wrong besides admit to not having had sex before.
He then suggests that he takes her virginity. Rather than show any concern for her feelings, or make allowances for nerves that Ana may be feeling, he refers to having sex with her as “a means to an end.” He also piles on the pressure, using phrases such as “I know you want me.”
For Ana, a woman who until recently had never even held hands with a man, having sex with someone for the first time is a big deal. Christian doesn’t show any kind of patience or consideration for this. Instead, he simply continues to pressurise her, telling her how much he wants her, until she consents. When he does take her to bed, he tells her he’s going to fuck her “hard” – again, not showing any consideration for it being Ana’s first time – and Ana describes a “pinching sensation…as he rips through my virginity.” Far from being aroused by this scene, I personally found it uncomfortable; Christian, who has a wealth of sexual experience, choosing to have sex with a virgin whose hymen is still intact, is one thing. That he feels the need to take her virginity roughly, possibly causing some degree of pain in the process is another. Again, Christian Grey only cares about his own sexual gratification, regardless of what the text might say to the contrary. Indeed, he tells her during their second sexual encounter (moments after the first): “I want you sore, baby.”
Once Ana’s pesky virginity is out of the way, Christian swiftly moves on (throughout the next few chapters of book 1) to applying more pressure to her in order to gain her agreement to his sexual demands. “The sooner I have your submission the better,” he tells her in chapter 10.
In the same chapter, we hear about “Mrs Robinson,” or Christian’s former Dominant, Elena. Elena seduced Christian when he was 15 years old, yet this isn’t referred to as what it clearly is: Statutory rape. Christian is described as having “fond” memories of his time with Elena and is still in contact with her, but it’s worth pointing out here and now that to have a sexual relationship with someone under the age of consent is against the law. Later, this damaging “relationship” with Elena is used as a form of excuse for Christian’s own abusive behaviour. Therefore it’s worth reiterating again that there is no excuse for abuse. We can feel sympathy for Christian’s past, without needing to use it as an excuse for his present.
A few chapters later, when Ana decides to email Christian that it was “nice knowing” him, having been unsure of the BDSM aspect of their proposed relationship, Christian reacts by turning up unannounced at her apartment. He tells her that he’s there to remind her just how nice it is to know him, meaning that he intends to have sex with her. They have sex, which appears to be consensual, however afterwards, Christian finally admits that he came round because he was angry and didn’t find her “it was nice knowing you” joke funny. The implication behind his words is that he would have come round and demanded sex regardless of her consent. It also makes it blindingly obvious that Christian is trying to pressure Ana into agreeing to try BDSM, by coercing her through sex he knows she already enjoys. When he has her in a highly aroused state, Christian knows he can manipulate Ana into agreeing to his desires. This is NOT ROMANTIC. Indeed, Ana describes herself as feeling like “a receptacle. An empty vessel to be filled at his whim.” Ask yourself honestly; is that how you want to feel after sex? Used?!
Christian shows yet another sign that he doesn’t respect Ana’s freedom to consent, when they go to dinner to discuss their relationship in chapter 13. When Ana suggests that they eat in the main dining area, in order to be on “neutral ground” where he cannot distract her with sexual advances, he responds by asking: “Do you think that would stop me?” Again, he is not only suggesting that he’d go ahead with sexual contact despite Ana’s lack of express consent, but he is also applying more and more pressure in order to gain her agreement to his BDSM “contract.” Remember the “pressuring someone to perform acts they are uncomfortable with?” line from the list of sexually abusive acts? Just thought it worth mentioning… And of course, Christian ignores Ana’s wishes, taking her to a private dining room in spite of her request to remain in public. Once there, he begins ramping up the pressure, telling her how much he wants to undress her. Ana even refers to his use of sexual manipulation as “his most potent weapon.” He tells her “I know you want me,” which only serves to manipulate her further. Again, I have to ask, which part of this is supposed to be romantic? The total ignoring of his partner’s wishes, the gaining of consent through coercion or something I’ve missed?!
Ana decides to leave the restaurant, as she is unable to think clearly (can’t think why). Christian threatens her with: “I could make you stay.” This is clearly meant to be sexually exciting, but combined with Christian’s previous abusive behaviour, it just sounds menacing. When Ana says no, Christian kisses her passionately and, feeling her aroused reaction, he asks again if he can persuade her to stay. He’s not listening to her needs – he only cares about his own. Throughout this scene, Christian continues to try to get Ana to stay the night with him, from subtle emotional manipulation (making her cry at the thought she may never see him again) to telling her that her car is unsafe to drive home. All he wants is to have his physical desires met, regardless of what Ana is actually telling him. She’s saying no. He’s desperately trying to convince her to change her answer to “yes.” This is not romance.
By the time we reach chapter 14, Christian is demanding that Ana makes her mind up regarding BDSM. He takes her into the men’s locker room at her college and locks the door behind them, telling her that she has until tomorrow to reach a decision. This kind of behaviour is threatening and he is once again paying no heed to his partner’s concerns or desires. Yet this is the man women are claiming they wish they could meet in real life… I find that terrifying. Shortly afterwards, in a room full of people, including her stepfather, Christian manipulates Ana again, telling her how good a BDSM relationship would be. He’s pressurising her yet again and this time it works. Ana says yes.
In the following chapter, Ana and Christian discuss their “hard limits.” Ana says that she isn’t interested in either fisting or anal sex. Christian tells her: “I’ll agree to the fisting, but I’d really like to claim your ass.” Essentially, he’s telling her – AGAIN – that he’s overriding her desires, or lack thereof. Ana doesn’t want anal sex, but Christian does, so eventually, they’ll be having anal sex, because his desires are far more important to him than hers will ever be. Again, I’m compelled to refer you back to “pressuring someone to perform acts they are uncomfortable with.”
It’s also worth noting that during this conversation – an important discussion about the limits Ana feels comfortable with when it comes to BDSM – Christian is plying her with alcohol. By the time they move on to talking about safe words and hand signals, Ana is clearly drunk. Christian asks her: “Would you like another drink? It’s making you brave…” This is a conversation that is important within a healthy BDSM relationship and it needs to be taken seriously. Christian is intentionally getting Ana drunk so that she’ll consent to whatever he wants. This is coercive consent. This is sexual abuse.
Christian then shows Ana that he has bought her a car and she is reluctant to accept his gift. As a result, he becomes angry and demands that they go in and have sex. Ana tells him “you scare me when you’re angry,” but Christian does not respond to this (quite an important admission on Ana’s part) and instead focuses on seducing her. After he has had his way, Christian will not allow Ana to touch him, leaving her once again feeling confused and unhappy. This is not a positive sexual relationship between two equal partners.
In a particularly unpleasant exchange, Christian first tells Ana he hates condoms and orders her to sort out some other form of birth control (you might want to check that list of sexually abusive acts again), then admits to having gotten Ana drunk on purpose so that she wouldn’t “over-think everything.” That renders the sex they’ve just had as sex gained through coercive consent. Ooh, romantic!
The following day, after Christian has spanked Ana for the first time and she is trying to explain her confused feelings about it, he once again shows total disregard for her concerns, asking: “If that is how you feel, do you think you could just try and embrace these feelings, deal with them for me? That’s what a submissive would do.” Ana is telling him that she felt guilty and uncomfortable. Christian is telling her to “deal with it.” WHY ARE WOMEN WANTING THIS MAN?! DO WE ALL HATE OURSELVES THAT MUCH?! Given that Ana is, at this point, saying she’s not sure she wants to be smacked during sex, we can look back up to that list, to the “unwanted rough or violent behaviour during sex” part. If Ana says no and Christian does it anyway, it’s abuse. Here, she’s saying she’s not sure she wants it and Christian is pretty much letting her know that she needs to accept it happening for him.
In chapter 19, Christian moves on to caring even less about his partner’s wants. During a family dinner, knowing that Ana is not wearing underwear, Christian runs his hand up her leg and attempts to touch her sexually. Ana is not comfortable at this and bats his hand away, squeezing her thighs shut. Christian then “punishes” Ana for denying him what he sees as his. This is not healthy. Ana has the right to say no to his sexual advances at any time. We ALL have the right to say no to anyone. Writing a subsequent sex scene in which we are supposed to be aroused by Christian telling Ana that saying no to him was “hot” does not undo the damage. Christian was angry because Ana said no. He wanted to have sexual contact regardless of her desires. I don’t even have to refer you to the checklist. That’s just wrong. He then tells her that the sex they have will be for him, not for her and that he will punish her if she has an orgasm. Orgasm denial can be a part of BDSM relationships, but Ana has never agreed to this. In non BDSM relationships, orgasm denial is recognised by abuse counsellors as a form of sexual abuse. So Christian scores another sexual abuse point. Yay.
In the final chapter of the book, we come across a scene I’ve mentioned in these blogs already, in which Christian hits Ana with a belt to show her “how bad it can be (it being BDSM).” Ana’s reaction – tensing, crying, heavy breathing etc – would all let Christian know that she is not enjoying what he’s doing to her, yet he continues anyway. Although Ana has agreed to the scene, she is clearly not happy within it and Christian should have stopped and checked if she was okay, regardless of whether she used her safe word. His inability to consider her needs just shows him as he is – abusive.
I’ve only looked at the first book for this blog, yet I’ve found several examples of Christian displaying signs of sexual abuse. From plying Ana with alcohol, or using manipulation to gain coercive consent, to completely ignoring her desires and threatening sexual activity with no consent at all, Christian Grey is a sexual predator and not a romantic hero. Holding him up as such sets a dangerous precedent and is yet another reason why what happens in 50 Shades should never be seen as any kind of romantic ideal. The relationship portrayed within its pages is abusive.