Stop Making Domestic Abuse Sexy: Why the Latest Fifty Shades Book Is an Irresponsible Defense of Violence
By Haley Halverson, @_hhalverson, Communications Director for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE)
Want a glimpse into the mind of an abuser?
Look no further than the latest installment to the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, Grey, which was released June 18th. This new novel by E.L. James rehashes the first novel in this erotic series from the perspective of the domineering character, Christian Grey. But instead of merely re-telling the original story from a different perspective, Grey promises to be an unapologetic, justification for domestic abuse.
The Fifty Shades trilogy follows Anastasia Steele, a virginal and insecure college student, as the rich and powerful Christian Grey lures her into a world of sexual sadism. Christian puts Ana under contract to be a sexual “submissive,” and he uses violence, humiliation, and other tools of control to manipulate her. In a recent statement Ms. James reflected on the newest book, saying, “Christian is a complex character, and readers have always been fascinated by his desires and motivations, and his troubled past. Also, as anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows, there are two sides to every story.” What Ms. James fails to understand is that there are no two sides to abuse.
While Ms. James’ characters get to live in a world of fantasy, the violent relationship she describes is too often a cruel reality. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline:
Nearly 3 in 10 women (29%) and 1 in 10 men (10%) in the US have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by a partner… [Further,] 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 7 men, aged 18 and older in the United States have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
Brutality against a partner should never be considered “sexy” or entertaining, let alone justifiable. Sexualized violence is still violence.
James cannot excuse Christian as an abuser no matter his past. Christian’s backstory is not a complete mystery to fans of the series. [Spoiler alert] As a child, Christian was physically abused, orphaned by his mother’s suicide, and eventually seduced at 15 years old by an older woman. It is a pitiful cycle of pain for a young man to endure; there is no doubt about that. But no personal history is so gruesome or pitiful as to excuse domestic violence against another. The Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon reviewed that Grey is “About as sexy as a misery memoir and as arousing as the diary of a sex offender.” Four books and a movie later, no matter how much time Christian’s backstory gets, he is only revealed to be more disturbingly dangerous.
Even the alleged love (in fact, obsession) that Christian has for Ana cannot validate his actions. A study of the first Fifty Shades of Grey book that appeared in the Journal of Women’s Health in 2013 concluded that, “emotional abuse is present in nearly every interaction [between Christian and Ana]…[and] sexual violence is pervasive.” Christian perfectly fits the template of a domestic abuser. He grooms his victim into submission partially through stalking and tracking her (Grey confirms the suspicion that Christian did a background check on Ana and intentionally followed her around.) He also intimidates her with threats, uses physical violence as punishments, and isolates her from her original social circle. Even a professional dominatrix in Berlin has criticized this relationship after seeing the movie, stating: “Christian Grey, played by Jamie Dornan, is supposedly a dominant in Fifty Shades. He isn’t a dominant. He’s a stalker. He breaks into Anastasia’s house, he bullies her friend, he buys her expensive gifts. He is constantly crossing boundaries. And S&M is all about respecting boundaries.” She goes on to affirm that the dynamic between Christian and Ana is “abusive.” From experts in women’s health to experts in S&M, it is clear that the “love story” of Fifty Shades is hardly one to be idolized.
Unless the newly released book is a wholesale condemnation and vilification of Christian Grey, it is a socially irresponsible publication and ought to be publicly admonished as such. By glamorizing the exploitive relationship between Christian and Ana, E. L. James is perpetuating the perception of many domestic abuse victims that they can “fix” their abuser if they only obey and love them enough. But no amount of appeasement will ever fully satisfy the perpetrator of intimate partner violence in the real world. The only answer is to get out of the harmful relationship.
When the true consequences of abuse are laid out in the open, instead of shrouded in delusional fiction, Grey will be shown for what it really is: a sympathetic defense of a domestic abuser.