WesKink and Students for Consent and Communication hosted a discussion on Tuesday, Feb. 17 about the popular novel and film “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The event, titled “Fifty Shades of Nope,” was publicized with the subtitle: “Where the World’s Worst Romance Novel Went Wrong.”
The discussion began with a presentation prepared by WesKink pointing out the abusive aspects of the relationship portrayed in the book, arguing that this abusive dynamic was romanticized.
They further provided a list of signs of an abusive partner, such as jealousy and possessiveness, sexual violence, verbal abuse, disrespectful behavior in front of others, not listening or responding when you talk, unpredictable temper, damaging or destroying your possessions, and controlling where you go and who you see.
The presentation then moved to specific quotes from the book itself that highlight certain controversial aspects of the relationship between the main characters. Many highlighted instances of coercion and force, surveillance and control, and threatening language.
One of the main issues presented was that “50 Shades of Grey” portrayed its primary relationship as consensual, despite multiple scenes to the contrary. Within the BDSM community—which is characterized by bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism—communication needs to be constant and open.
Drawing from the books and film, students pointed to a lack of communication and the use of combative communication.
A representative from WesKink talked about the duty of the BDSM community to be anti-oppressive and to work towards breaking down scripts existing in everyday life that can seem to keep people in particular roles.
One student pointed to the issue of the author’s creative license, stating that the book is a work of fiction and never claimed to be non-fiction or to portray an accurate picture of BDSM. This student believed that the author should be allowed to write whatever she pleases.
In response, another student referred back to the chief complaint presented in the beginning of the discussion: the book does seem to make a claim that the relationship is consensual, though many interactions imply that this is not the case.
Kelsey Henry ’15 argued that it is not inherently bad for people to see what an abusive relationship looks like.
“I think that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be exposed to or to willingly consume representations of an abusive relationship,” Henry said. “I know that it’s not a textbook, ideal depiction of BDSM whatsoever, I don’t think that it’s trying to be, but I think that it does do a very good job of showing a woman who is in a relationship that isn’t working for her. It takes her a while to recognize what her limits are, and then she gets the hell out of there—I had no problems with it.”
Another student pointed out that the criticism of “Fifty Shades of Grey” has also become misogynistic, criticizing women specifically for liking and consuming erotica.
Candace Powning ’18 related this idea back to the BDSM community at large.
“The BDSM community in the real world doesn’t want to be told that what they do is bad or abusive or negative in any way,” Powning said. “In the same way, women who find this book sexy or arousing shouldn’t be told that their sexuality, or the way they view this erotica, is also bad.”
Rebecca Zegans ’18 posed a question to the group about the idea that this portrait of a seemingly abusive relationship is designed to be “sexy” or “turn people on,” asking what message is being sent to women who could potentially be in abusive relationships at the current moment.
Another student argued that critiques of the story are not simply about the sex that takes place, but the entire relationship maintained by the two main characters. In this way, she argued that more people could relate it to their own relationships outside of this purely sexual context.
With the recent widespread social media coverage of the story, many students agreed that misrepresentation of a healthy relationship had run rampant. Some expressed the worry that young girls consuming this narrative would begin to characterize an overly controlling and jealous boyfriend as protective and caring.
Henry responded to this idea of the public being negatively influenced by this story and using it to justify unhealthy aspects of their own lives.
“I think we should be careful not to assume the worst in the general public and assume the stupidity of the viewer,” Henry said. “We’re all in this room, a lot of people read the book, a couple of us have seen the movie, and we’re critical of it. I think it’s curious that as students in this bubble of intellectualism, we would assume that the general public outside of [The University] is not capable of critiquing this.”
The discussion concluded with one student’s remark that a general need for education and awareness about what healthy relationships entail, whether they can be classified as BDSM or not, will always be necessary.