50 Shades of saying NO

Warnings: The Fifty Shades series is extremely sexually explicit and involves BDSM. Because of that, and because they are not exactly well-researched or high-quality literature, I will mention things such as abuse, rape, rape culture, male dominance, sexism, relationship violence, and consensual BDSM. Also, the books began as Twilight fanfic, so I will be mentioning Twilight (which is a major squick for a lot of people just by itself).

Additional warning: This chapter contains a rape scene.

When we left Ana and Christian, he was carting her off to his parents’ boathouse so he could “spank and then fuck” her.  Her reaction:

Oh no…this is not good, my subconscious is quaking at the knees. He’s mad about something–could be José, Georgia, no panties, biting my lip. Jeez, he’s easy to rile.

Aside from the lack of proper editing in that paragraph, there are so many things that disturb me here.  What in the world would possess anyone to take off in the middle of a dinner party to get it on while the rest of the guests remain in place?  It makes me feel really, really uncomfortable.  I don’t want any guest in my home–even (or perhaps especially?) family–to take a sexy romp out in my shed during a visit.

We also get the requisite admonition from Ana’s subconscious.  Just about every time she has sex with Christian, we get to hear her internal debate.  She wants him, but he’s angry and menacing.  He’s screwed up, but he belongs to her.  Whatever.  I’m just plain tired of Ana putting this track on repeat.

What follows, though, is quite possibly the most horrifying thing I’ve read in this book so far.  You want to see how pervasive rape culture is?  Here you go:

Christian: You said no.

Ana: What? [thinking] No to what?

Christian: At the dinner table, with your legs. [He was feeling her up during dinner.] . . . No one’s ever said no to me before. And it’s so—hot.

The word no—when used for what it means [NO; don’t do that; stop; I don’t like it]—should not ever, ever, ever be “hot.”  You see how much emphasis I placed on that statement?  Yeah.  That.

I understand that in the context of some sexual relationships, the meaning of “no” can change; that’s the reason for safe words.  When Ana said “no” at dinner, however, she actually meant “no.”  She didn’t want Christian’s hands all over her in his parents’ dining room.  Inexplicably, he found her act of setting a firm boundary arousing.  Worse still is the fact that we are supposed to gloss over that part in order to get to more hot, kinky sex.  Instead of Ana being frightened by this incredibly rapey comment, she is enthralled by his ubersexiness.

That’s disturbing.

What happens next is, in my opinion, actual rape.  Ana never consents to what Christian does to her in this scene.  She mentions being aroused by how hot Christian is, and she appears to enjoy the sex to an extent, but she doesn’t ever give any indication that what he’s doing is acceptable to her.  She tells him she doesn’t want him to spank her (she uses the word “hit”) because they are at his parents’ place.  So he tells her that if he can’t punish her that way, he’s going to have rough sex with her on the couch in the boathouse.  He says it’s for his pleasure and not hers and tells her that she is not allowed to have an orgasm.  He proceeds to do exactly what he’s said he will.

Without her permission.

And before someone gets all up in my face about this being a BDSM book, here’s a tip: Fuck right off.  Even if you want to go with the whole contract thing (which she still hasn’t signed), there is no clause in there that says Christian can stick it in her because he feels like it, whether she wants it or not.

Folks, there are not two interpretations here.  It’s pretty clear that he rapes her.  It’s also clear that the author has intentionally written this to arouse readers, but doesn’t have the skill to pull it off correctly.*  I am disgusted.  I keep hearing about how Fifty Shades is empowering women to explore their sexuality because it’s being read far and wide and women are getting off on it.  I would love to celebrate that, but I cannot find it in me to do so.  I simply can’t condone the conflation of romance and rape.

It makes me particularly angry because my fellow feminists and I spend so much time talking and writing about what lies underneath rape culture.  We fight this kind of thing every day.  We rage against towns that cover up rape by athletes and news outlets that pity the perpetrators.  We study the relationship between purity culture and rape.  We fight institutionalized gender-based bias and power structures.  We have worked too hard to have everything undermined by a woman who thinks it’s a good idea to outright state that getting turned on by rejection is okay and that rape is sexy.

Rape culture in action, people.


*There are actually stories written (often by rape survivors) in which the authors toy with consent.  The difference is usually that skillful writers understand that conceptually, rape is not arousing.  There is an acknowledgement of the disturbing nature of enjoying rape or falling in love with one’s rapist.  I typically find those stories as distasteful as Fifty Shades, but I understand that it can be cathartic for some people to write them.  The main difference is that in those stories, readers are intended to find the characters’ actions troubling.  E. L. James wants us to find the characters’ actions romantic.


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