50 Shades of Grey. You may have heard of it?
Four books, all of them best sellers.
Two movies, the first of which brought in $166 million in the US (and over half a billion world wide). The second of which was released on Valentine’s Day.
The series is about a very wealthy young man who sweeps a working class young woman off her feet. It’s a pretty classic romance tale, except it includes BDSM as a central part of the story.
Entertainment rarely worries over much about accuracy. 50 Shades is no exception. The depictions of BDSM relationships or the functions of the sex toys are frequently more than a little off. I'm not mad about it. That’s how entertainment often works. ER didn’t accurately depict medical things. James Bond is probably not even vaguely similar to real life MI6 agents (I suspect there’s more paper work). And I’m pretty sure the legal system is only a smidge similar to Law and Order.
Our suspension of disbelief when we watch movies is crucial to our ability to enjoy them. The problem comes in when we leave the theatre and wonder how much of that we can, or should do in our real lives. Which meant that I needed to get my butt in to see 50 Shades Greyer. People have questions. We need to be able to answer them.
So, Sunday night, I recruited a support posse of friends. I bribed them with free tickets to the fancy new neighborhood movie theatre and promises of free popcorn. I settled in with my note book. There was laughter. The seats were very comfy. Dakota Johnson said a line from her mom’s movie “Working Girl”. Kegel balls were represented inaccurately with much breath caught in the back of the throat on the part of Ms Johnson. I drank a drink called “Pink Flower” and ate popcorn from a bowl (this fancy movie theatre is fancy – also, environmentally responsible). My friend objected to the accuracy of the meeting at the publishing house. I objected to the spanking technique. Jamie Dornan did shirtless pull ups and some sort of impressive plank pose on a pommel horse. Christian Grey engaged in a significant amount of pussy eating. I don't think Ana gave one blow job. So there was that. Ana and Christian got engaged. Then we all went home. I watched part of the Oscars. Where Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan presented someone with an award.
I woke up the next morning thinking about the movie. And I kept coming back to the same thing.
The core conceit of 50 Shades Darker is that, as a result of the severe abuse Christian Grey suffered as a child, he is broken. That his brokenness creates his desires. And that his desires are “fucked up”.
Not ok. Not ok at all.
Not only is not not at all fucked up to desire to dominate or act as a sadist in a consensual, negotiated setting, but problemtizing the character's abuse history? This way of thinking about survivors. Of making their very survival a problem is not only not ok, it is dangerous.
Let's look at the story.
Christian, as an adult, has a healthy relationship with his adoptive family. He has learned to process some of his ongoing trauma through exercise, a challenging, successful career and the endorphin release of BDSM. He has had multiple sexual relationships with women in which he has been clear about what he wants and needs, has set hard limits with his partners and had those limits respected. When a partner has wanted something other than what he agrees to, he has ended the relationship.
God damn, sounds pretty freaking healthy to me.
He hasn’t engaged in significant romantic emotional intimacy (newsflash – that’s not a desire for everyone). He doesn’t seem to experience that lack of emotional intimacy as something that’s missing. Then he meets Ana. He and Ana are attracted to each other in multiple ways. They have desires that are somewhat discordant (although I’d argue Ana herself is plenty kinky, she’s simply demonizes a desire she sees as deviant). They split up and get back together. She sets new boundaries and identifies his desires and history as the problem in the relationship. He, after some fussing, agrees to her boundaries. And buys into her deviance theory about his desires. Whenever he pushes her boundaries (and he does so in wildly inappropriate ways), she pushes back. Whenever she pushes his boundaries, she does so saying that she needs to be close to him and that his boundaries are a problem. His childhood trauma and shame come into play and he has a hard time maintaining those boundaries.
That last part? That part where he has a hard time maintaining those boundaries? That’s the part that’s supposed to be romantic. Where he lets her in to emotional spaces and embodied places that others haven’t been. The places that he uses to keep himself safe. The places that he depends on. His safety plan is depicted as some kind of fucked up virginity that he gifts her with.
This is exactly the wrong way to be a good partner to someone who’s a survivor of abuse or trauma.
Why does that bother me so much?
A lot of folks who see this movie are survivors or partners of survivors. Some folks estimate that as many as 20-30% of children are abused physically or sexually. Every 98 seconds someone in the US is sexually assaulted. A significant percentage of both members and veterans of the armed forces live with PTSD. Numbers vary with the lowest estimate at 10%, to the highest at 80%. If you are not yourself a survivor of trauma, it is not unlikely that you will, at some point, be in a relationship with someone who is.
When you meet that person who turns your head, makes your stomach flip and is also a survivor, please, I beg you, do not model Ana’s behavior. It’s harmful.
Instead – apply the following.
- Body boundaries. It is healthy for all people, especially survivors of trauma, to have boundaries about their personal space and bodies. Ask your partner to show you where they like to be touched and where they don’t want to be touched. Once they have shown you, do not ask to touch those areas. Do not try to touch those areas. If at some point in your relationship the boundaries change and your partner invites you to touch a new area on their body, and you want to touch them there, go ahead. But understand, that change is not about you. It is about your partner healing and wanting to experience their body in a different way. If your partner never invites you to touch those areas, that is also not about you or about the emotional depth of the relationship between you and your partner. It means your partner is maintaining healthy boundaries. Support them in that
- Other Boundaries. Abuse and trauma hurts us by taking away our power and control. When you are in relationship with someone who has had their power and control taken away in significant ways, it is crucial that you don’t do the same thing. Sometimes that can be frustrating. Your partner may have a boundary that doesn’t make sense to you. Other people’s boundaries don’t need to make sense. They do, however, need to be respected. Sometimes your partner’s boundaries may be in conflict with what you want or need. When that happens, you and your partner may need to get creative to figure out a way for both of you to get what you need. Humans are infinitely inventive. Abandon what you’ve been told a relationship is supposed to look like. Dig down to your roots. Create something new. Have patience. I bet you can find a solution.
- Triggers. Ask them if there is anything about how they interact with the world today that would be helpful for you to know. Often folks have triggers. A trigger is a thing (Like a word, an object, a touch, a taste, a noise, a smell) that causes physical or emotional reactions that are rooted in the trauma. Often people are able to identify what those triggers are and you can help your partner avoid them.
- Support When Triggered. Ask your partner what’s most useful from you if they experience a trigger. Then, if your partner gets triggered, do exactly what they asked you to do. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you. Again, other’s people’s needs don’t have to make sense. Caring for a person means caring for them in their own language.
- Information About the Trauma. If your partner chooses to share information about experiences related to their trauma, listen. Don’t ask for additional details. If they don’t choose to share, don’t ask. For many people sharing those stories in a non-professional setting is not helpful to their healing process.
- Processing Information About the Trauma - Sometimes, when a partner shares information about past abuse, it is upsetting or painful to you. People can and do treat other people in extremely horrible ways. It is really appropriate to have a reaction. However, it is not appropriate to have or process that reaction with your partner. Your reaction is yours. Do not place the burden of that on your partner. It is your job to go and process that elsewhere – preferably with a professional. Professionals are great for this kind of processing. Especially because your partner’s story is theirs and you need to respect their confidentiality. Talking about it with a friend who doesn’t respect confidentiality can accidentally put your partner’s business in a place that isn’t safe for them.
So, enjoy 50 Shades and remember, Christian Grey is not broken. He is healing.
Just like every other survivor who is breathing, fucking and tumbling into love.
 Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2010-2014 (2015).
 There is a moment in the film in which this is actually modeled decently. Christian is re-traumatized when anyone touches his chest. So he has Ana draw an outline on his body of where his no-go zone is.