50 Shades and Abusive Relationships

Kel over at Coffee and Prozac sent me some very interesting .pdfs. These documents put a fine point on everything that bothers me about the popularity of 50 Shades (okay, not everything… they don’t cover the blatant plagiarism everyone seems to be giving a pass). They were hand outs that would help a person determine if they are in a relationship with an abuser, or if someone has the potential to be an abuser.

Now, when the publicity first started snowballing out of control for this book, Dr. Drew took a lot of heat by saying that 50 Shades was “actual violence against women.” He then went on to state that people who are abused as kids are into BDSM, which sent any validity in that first statement straight down the toilet. One thing he did have right was 50 Shades of Grey‘s glorification of abusive relationships. Unfortunately, because of the size of the ass he showed to Romancelandia, you can barely bring up the abuse components of Ana and Christian’s relationship without someone shouting over you that BDSM is not abuse, and you’re a small-minded person if you conflate the two. Hardly anyone will enter into a discussion of the abusive relationship in this book without the focus shifting to the characters’ sex lives. So, you know, thanks, Dr. Drew. You just made this discussion a fucking minefield.

BDSM is not abuse. I have never, nor would I ever, claim that safe, consensual BDSM is abuse. But these handouts Kel sent me really help pinpoint what is so wrong with the relationship that is the plot of 50 Shades, without confusing spankings with beating. Let’s go through one of them, point by point, shall we?

The following “red flags” are from a hand out entitled “Universal Red Flags” taken from a book called How To Spot A Dangerous Man. The instructions read: “Check all the following that apply even if only remotely”. Let me share the ones I checked on Ana’s behalf:

You feel uncomfortable about something he has said or done, and the feeling remains. I don’t think we need to cite any one particular incident where Ana has been made uncomfortable by Christian Grey. This is prevalent throughout the book.

You wish he would go away, you want to cry, and you want to run away from him. Ana often thinks about how she can “escape” Christian, how she needs to find an exit, how she can’t handle being around him because she can’t trust herself to think clearly. In just the portion of the book we’ve reviewed so far, Ana has ended three of her encounters with Christian as a sobbing mess.

You have the urge to “love him into emotional wellness,” if that were possible. Again, based on the chapters we’ve reviewed here so far, Ana does seem to believe that she can change him, or that he has psychological wounds that need to be healed.

You feel bad about yourself when you are around him. One of the clearest indicators, to me, anyway, that there is a power imbalance in their relationship is the fact that Ana constantly compares herself – how she looks, how she acts, how she’s dressed – to Christian and his very wealthy lifestyle, and she always finds herself lacking. She often wonders why he’s interested in her.

You only feel good about yourself when you are with him. Conversely, Ana doesn’t have a nice word to say about herself unless it is confirmed by Christian. When her roommate tells her that she’s pretty, Ana interprets it as a patronizing compliment Kate can’t possibly mean, but when Christian Grey calls Ana beautiful, she suddenly believes that she is. In fact, the only time she believes anything good about herself is when it’s Christian pointing it out.

You feel that he wants too much from you. I think this one requires very little explanation. Not only does he want more than she wishes to give, he constantly pressures her to give him what he wants.

You are emotionally tired from him; you feel he “sucks the life out of you. Now, Ana never says, “he sucks the life out of me.” But again, even if we just look at the first half of this book, she’s doing a lot of crying herself to sleep, needing to get away from him because he’s too intense, etc.

Your value system and his are very different, and it’s problematic. I have this phrase I trot out from time to time with my friends who are dating: If you have to “work on” the relationship within the first month, it’s not going to work out. Sometimes, people are simply incompatible. Ana and Christian have spent most of their relationship with Ana trying to find ways around giving Christian what he wants, and Christian refusing to bend on his expectations. This is not going to clear up in a few more dates.

Your past and his are very different, and the two of you have conflicts over it. Spoiler alert, Christian is obsessive and controlling about food because he went hungry as a child. I know we haven’t gotten to that part of the book in the review yet, but it fits in here. And that’s just one of the ways their pasts differ in problematic ways. While Ana sees his earlier relationship with a much older woman as statutory rape, Christian believes that it was appropriate and has a continuing friendship with the woman, which makes Ana uncomfortable. Ana doesn’t even want the type of relationship Christian is after, they both are aware of this fact, and he continues to pursue her.

You tell your friends you are “unsure about the relationship” Ana has already had this conversation with Kate in the part we’ve reviewed.

You feel isolated from other relationships with friends and family. Ana doesn’t just feel isolated, she is isolated, by the nondisclosure agreement Christian asked her to sign. She finds herself living a double life in order to please Christian and still maintain her relationships with her loved ones.

You feel in the wrong because he is always right and goes to great lengths to show you he is right. This was most obviously displayed in chapter fourteen, where Christian responds to all of Ana’s concerns and questions with long explanations that dance around actual answers.

You are uncomfortable because he continually says he knows what is best for you. He isn’t pressuring her into signing a contract that allows him to act out his sexual fantasies on her for him. It’s all about her, and her happiness. He just wants what’s best for her, just like when he showed up at the bar when she asked him not to, and his concerns about her car.

You notice he needs you too frequently, too much, or too intensely. Christian goes so far as to say that he wants her too much, or that he can’t control himself in her presence because of the intensity of his passion for her.

You notice he quickly discloses information about his past or present or his emotional pain. After they go out for coffee, their first encounter that is not tied to the interview, he warns her off from him with cryptic, tortured statements like, “I’m not the man for you.”

You sense he is pushing too quickly for an emotional connection with you. Okay, this one, Ana wouldn’t check off, but I would. From an outside observer standpoint, Christian is running a very good game of  “pull her in, push her away,” which is forcing an emotional connection with Ana. After having coffee with the guy once, she’s on the floor of a parking garage sobbing. This isn’t just Ana being emotionally immature, it’s Ana being emotionally manipulated by Christian.

You find yourself accepting him “for now” even though you have plenty of red flags that would help you to terminate the relationship if you paid attention to them. Ana is already aware that what she wants from the relationship and what Christian wants are two vastly different, completely incompatible things, but she commits to the relationship despite knowing it has no hope of a future.

These weren’t all the entries on the list, but some of the questions regarding previous children or substance abuse obviously don’t apply to Mr. Grey. Looking over what we have here, is this a healthy relationship? Can we even consider this to be a romance novel, with all of these elements in place?

However, we’ve seen ample evidence of women saying they would prefer their husbands to behave more like Christian Grey. Others say that obviously, they wouldn’t want Christian Grey in real life, but it’s the fantasy they’re enjoying. What fantasy? I fully support fantasizing about a man who takes control in the bedroom. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how it would be enjoyable to fantasize about a man who takes control in all aspects of your life. And remember, I’m not talking about just a BDSM lifestyle here. I’m talking about the measures Christian takes to control Ana’s life before they even enter into a relationship together.

The more I think about it, the more I am depressed by the message of this book, a message that so many women have embraced as a romantic ideal. While in the end, Ana does not stay with Christian (spoiler alert), there are two more books in the series. I do not have enough faith that those books will rectify the glorification of emotional-abuse-as-love in the first book enough to read them. The more I delve into this book, the more disturbing I find it, and its popularity.

You may have noticed that the recaps have become fewer in the past two weeks. This is not because I am bowing to pressure or discontinuing them. I just need to maintain a balance between talking about 50 Shades and talking about other things. This is, after all, my author blog and not a blog about 50 Shades of Grey exclusively. The recaps will still go up, just not the five a week that I started with. That way, I will have time to concentrate on what I really want to blog about. INTERPRETIVE MOVEMENT!


9 Comments on “50 Shades and Abusive Relationships”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I was married for 16 years to a Christian Grey. No BDSM, but all the possessiveness, isolation, authoritativeness, and psychological abuse which runs rampant in this series.

    I had no idea when I married that the highly intelligent, attractive, funny, and well-respected man I knew would want to pick out my clothes, tell me how and when to do everything, and put me down constantly. We couldn't have people over and I was not permitted to visit friends. After turning down invitation after invitation, people stopped calling and I was cut off. He was also right about everything and got tremendously defensive if I questioned him. If I tried to defy him, he stopped talking to me for days. He wouldn't say a word. During these periods of cold shoulder, he would still want to have cold, unromantic sex with me after which he would remain icily silent. I was being punished. Finally, after days of this, I would give in and agree to do or not do whatever he wanted. After about 10 years of marriage he asked me to sign a document stating that I would not divulge any personal information about him or my marriage to my parents or anyone else. I never figured out what specific incident caused him to do that. I signed it because I didn't know what else to do.

    Looking back, I'm puzzled by my own actions. I'm an intelligent, outgoing woman and I've always been independent and opinionated. The almost constant barrage of put downs and build ups kept me confused and unsure of myself. He broke me down.

    He was damaged himself and after years of depression and prescription narcotic addiction brought on by an injury and that depression, he became suicidal. Knowing his attitude toward the world and my daughter and I, I knew if he took his own life, he'd take us with him. I finally left him and he killed himself a few weeks later. It's been five years since his death and I'm just emerging from the shadow of those terrible years.

    The idea that women are reading these books and idolizing this abusive, manipulative man and James' weird idea of a relationship makes me sick. I hope if they're reading Fifty Shades, or the Trilogy of Terror as I refer to it, they're thinking of it as a cautionary tale, a mildly erotic bit of nonsense, or a call for people to read The Elements of Style again.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I dated a Mr Gray for 2 1/2 year.
    I am absolutely not a naive woman, plenty of experience instead but what is described in this book is a sociopat and it is really hard to identify one. Once you are there is even harder to get rid of him. And yes, when you are there, in that terrible relationship you romantize it and try to understand that misteious person because you cannot time that beast.

    My selfsteem was absolutely destroyed I am still trying to recover it .
    I would consider this book as dangerous. There are women that would fantasize with this book and if they end up to this situation for real would not know what to do.

    Women that have not experienced this kind of treat do not know how dangerous it is.
    A sociopat will persuade you until you get yourself locked with a beast that does brain damage you rather than only give you orgasms, then you dont feel the right for complain or leave because you were never forced, did you? your curiosity and your stupid heart telling you that man has feelings put yourself in that situation.

    I repeat, this book in hands of women that have appetite for sex and do not know what a sociopat abusive is, can be really dangerous.

    My story ended fortunatelly with my Mr Grey going back to his love affair who is a better target for SM, she is married with children and tired of her nice but boring husband.
    So he has more space to fantasize and punish her than me .
    This is when you really do not feel sorry or regret that your partner goes away.
    Now there is the same Mr. Grey and another Ana, who by the way , is a big fan of this book. She must be the real naive one believing he loves her. As he told me so many times ” I express love throughout sex”…

  3. LauraDeLuna says:

    love this sooooo much!!! finally somebody gets it! i just wrote a blog about the impact this book has had on the bdsm amateur community and how all of the “dominants” now days are like mini-greys so its great to see that someone else has seen through the hype to the massive pile of festering carcass that lies within.

  4. Kalasyn says:

    One good thing about these books, which I admit I have never read, only what you’ve posted here and what I’ve heard other friends talk about, is they seem to be a gateway for abused women to open up and say “This is not okay”. I too had a Mr. Grey, back when I was just out of high school. It was the standard controlling relationship and everything you posted above (only there as no physical contact ever- not even holding hands). It took 2 years and him breaking my foot before I would leave him. Now, as a high school teacher, I am actually able to use popular yet bad relationship examples (cough cough Twilight) books to help other girls recognize/avoid/end/ abusive relationships.

    Thanks for posting the recaps.

    And as a member of my local BDSM community (and a fairly new one at that, only a year experience), from what I’ve read here and fellow members have said, this does not accurately represent the community. Contracts I agree to are easy to read (I skimmed over the quoted text in the recaps) and are discussed together, not sent home. I hate that readers use these books as their informative source on the subject. My Dominant, as *most* Dominants do, gets his enjoyment from seeing me pleasured and leaving with a smile. Very few Dominants are in it only for their own enjoyment, and those who are very quickly run out of submissives or bottoms who will play with them.

  5. RickR says:

    I think the fact that Christian’s sexual kinks are labeled as “BDSM” in these books clouds the abuse issue. It’s not the specifics of what goes on in the red room of pain that makes the Ana/ Christian relationship an abusive one (and it clearly is).
    It’s the emotional interactions between them outside of sex that are abusive. I know many people active in the BDSM community who would not (and do not) condone what goes on in these books, and are offended by having their lifestyle portrayed in such a clueless and insulting manner in a popular work of fiction (soon to be a major motion picture!).

  6. RickR says:

    Aaaaaaand I just read your post “Why BDSM doesn’t need 50 Shades defenders”, so I’d like to edit my comment above and say instead “Yeah. What Jen said.”

  7. Corrine says:

    I’d like to really thank you for posting this. I am a survivor of an abusive relationship. Interestingly enough, my abuser is named Chris. When I first read the book (which I did very shortly after it became popular, before there were a lot of discussions about the book and abuse), I found the book extremely disturbing, and very reminiscent of what I had been through with Chris. A lot of scenes in the book were incredibly triggering for me, and I legitimately thought that the book was intended to portray abuse, and that the trilogy would end with Ana breaking up with Christian and finding a non-abusive Dom. It really bothers me that people are looking at the sort of thing that I went through, and thinking that it’s romantic. Blech.
    So anyway, thanks for posting this.

  8. […] any interest (especially after reading Jenny Trout’s recaps/teardowns here and especially this link about abusive relationships) nor do either of the lead actors, so I’m able to watch the train wreck without feeling […]

  9. […] No, the abusive relationship is not a subplot. It’s the plot. Jenny summarises the evidence here, using an actual handout a reader sent her intended to help women figure out if their partners are […]


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