Smutty February: The Ethics Of… 50 Shades of Grey

I swear, even if I live to be 1000 years old I will never understand why some things become popular while others do not. Whether it’s just the mundane pressure of collective demand, or some Board of Shadowy Figures dictating that next season’s fashion will be wearing one’s underpants on the outside, you have to admit that the end result is often quite bizarre. It’s not so much that I don’t understand why 50 Shades of Grey is popular – there are after all about 1000 softcore Mills & Boon ‘romance’ novels you can find in any sizable shopping centre.

A true classic that will endure throughout the ages.

No, what confuses me about popular things like 50 Shades of Grey, the Twilight series and Justin Bieber isn’t so much what people find so appealing about them, but more why they dominated extremely similar books, movies and singers that are a thousand times better written, acted and sung, respectively.

In case you’ve had your head under a rock for the last couple of years, 50 Shades of Grey is a series of books about a young woman’s introduction into BDSM – that is, a form of sexual lifestyle involving Bondage & discipline, Dominance & submission, and/or Sadism & Masochism – by a wealthy captain of industry she was sent to interview.

The trilogy has sold over 100 million copies and has recently be adapted into a major motion picture, with a full-blown advertising campaign all over my god damn web browser, such that it’s virtually impossible to avoid either the film, or the reaction against it. See, despite the immense popularity of the series, it’s copped quite a bit of criticism for a number of reasons.

Firstly, and unsurprisingly given the series started out as Twilight fan fiction, it’s really badly written. Weirdly so, with many of the turns of phrase and chosen similes really making you wonder what sort of awesome cough medication the writer was on at the time;

“I feel the colour in my cheeks rising again. I must be the colour of The Communist Manifesto.”and there’s plenty more where that came from

This alone weirds me out, because if there’s one thing the world currently does not lack for, it’s erotic fan fiction on the internet. And trust me, there is some significantly better-written gear out there than this.

Just… just trust me on this.

Secondly, the book has drawn a lot of criticism for promoting an ‘abusive relationship’. What is meant by ‘abusive relationship’ here varies quite a lot, ranging from people who think anything other than missionary sex in the dark to make babies is a mortal sin, through to feminists who view the lopsided balance of power and questionable quality of consent in the book as pretty much a how-to-start-an-abusive-relationship manual.

Obviously I have no time for people who think that their personal subjective tastes should dictate what other people enjoy, whether that be clothing or sex, so the first group is easily dismissed. But the second group is obviously a line of thought I have a lot in common with, so let’s have a look at their claims: Is 50 Shades of Grey messed up?


This is a book where the dominant Mr Grey is a victim of childhood statutory rape (something he views as a wonderful thing by the way), the protagonist Ana (an utterly naïve virgin) is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement about her relationship with Mr Grey, and another about their sexual relationship, and where the Mr Grey effectively rapes Ana in chapter 12 (she says ‘no’, he keeps going. Pretty clear cut). So messed up is this book that a team of experts assessed Ana & Mr Grey’s relationship against the criteria for Intimate Partner Violence, and essentially came up with the result of “RUN, WOMAN, RUN!”

So the book is messed up, to say the least. But you know what? I don’t care.

That’s right, I don’t care. You know why I don’t care? Because it’s a piece of fiction. It’s not real. It doesn’t really matter how fucked up what it describes might be, because none of it is actually happening. No one is being harmed, there is no damage here.

Many of you might find this argument strange, coming from someone who argued recently that the execution of two extremely guilty drug smugglers in another country posed serious risks to the Australian social fabric, but that is a real act with significant political ramifications. 50 Shades of Grey on the other hand, is a work of fiction that (thankfully) has not attracted a lot of political attention.

Sure the book’s template for an acceptable relationship is all kinds of messed up, but how is that any different from any television show, movie, book or piece of art that involves things we enjoy, but know we should never actually try. Every day millions of us watch various actors pretend to lie, cheat, steal and kill each other for terrible reasons, while millions more actively simulate these behaviours (and far, far, faaaaaaaar worse) on video games. And we all enjoy it, and none of us with stable brains actually go out and do any of those things, because we can draw a distinction between fantasy and reality.

If you happen to find 50 Shades of Grey and other pseudo-rape erotica (because that’s what it is) enjoyable, then good for you. I may think it’s a terribly written piece of garbage, but since I’m not you, that’s irrelevant – my subjective tastes shouldn’t dictate yours. Go out and actually start coercing clueless virgins into abusive relationships on the other hand, and then we’ve got trouble.

But there’s an interesting twist to this ‘whatever you’re into’ perspective, and it comes from a surprising quarter: actual participants of BDSM lifestyles.

This is strange, because you’d think that the immense success of a book series and movie about their sexual preference would be seen as a wonderful thing by the BDSM community – the first major step towards community acceptance of what has historically been considered an extremely immoral, perverted and sinful expression of sex. But it turns out that they actually view the success of 50 Shades of Grey in much the same way most normal atheists view Richard Dawkins’ antics.

But in case the incredibly convoluted acronym, the BDSM scene is far more complex and organised than the spanking-people-before-sex image most of us seem to have. There are rules in the scene, both to enhance the enjoyment of both parties and critically, to ensure that no one gets hurt. These vary depending on what part of the scene one belongs, and since I am absolutely not in any way qualified to explain them, I strongly recommend you check out some of the many, many, many, many fine blogs on the topic.

But there are a few rules that cover any legitimate BDSM scene:

Explicit consent is DEFINITELY required – both as part of the scene, the law, and good old common sense, consent must be explicitly established for any and all of what parties participate in. The second consent is revoked, continuing is rape. And on that topic…

Respect the safe word – various parts of the scene, the most obvious being rape simulation (looking at you 50 Shades of Grey), involve one party pretending to withhold consent. This does not mean consent does not exist however – it is merely redirected through safe words. In practice, nothing changes; the usual methods of consent and revoking consent are just replaced by a specific phrase, word or gesture. Ignoring these constitutes rape.

The sub is always in control – And this is where it starts getting interesting. For an outside observer, the power relationship between a dominant and submissive partner in BDSM might seem obvious: the dominant partner controls the show. But in practice this is untrue – the submissive partner controls what does and does not happen through respect for the two rules above. The only thing the sub need ever do is say ‘stop’ (or the appropriate safe word) and everything stops immediately. Anything else constitutes rape.

After-care is important – It’s an important point that there are no aggressors or victims in BDSM; only willing participants. After-care – the process of attending to the physical and/or psychological after effects of the BDSM activity – is a perfect example of this. BDSM is an intense experience which does not simply finish the second the act itself is. Participants need to help each other come down from the experience, readjust out of the headspace of dominance and submissiveness, and generally prevent the potentially harmful aspects of BDSM carrying over into real life.

Attentive readers may notice that these are four things that 50 Shades of Grey does not do, or else does very sloppily. But who cares, right? It’s just a work of fiction, same as an action movie or violent video game – no one’s actually going to go out and try it, are they?

And here we run into the major distinction between most fiction and sexual fiction – sexual fiction is possible where going on an armed rampage generally is not. Yeah there have certainly been exceptions to that, what with the occasional nutter shooting up a school, but compared to the sheer volume of fiction on these topics, they are extremely rare. It is after all, rather difficult to pull off a mass-murder, what with the Feds tending to keep an eye on people that buy large volumes of weapons, the complete lack of training most of us have for that sort of thing, and the absolute inevitability of your own death under a hail of police gunfire.

This sort of thing generally doesn’t end well.

By comparison, getting involved in an unhealthy relationship is a walk in a park, especially when your template for a good relationship is as fundamentally messed up in the head as 50 Shades of Grey. Domestic violence against both genders is an ongoing serious problem in Australia and most nations, as are sexual assault, rape and victim-blaming for all of these crimes. The generally private nature of sexual or relationship-based violence, combined with the shame they induce in victims, make such crimes extremely easy to perpetrate and get away with – no surprise then that people are looking at the immense popularity of 50 Shades of Grey, which promotes highly unhealthy norms for a relationship and/or sex and calls it BDSM, and feeling rather worried about it all.

Ideally of course, the many fans of 50 Shades will be able to maintain a distinction between their enjoyment of fiction, even if it’s problematic, and reality where those practices are totally unacceptable – there is, as we’ve discussed, nothing wrong with enjoying problematic things in itself. But the risk is that for some, this line will be blurred, and seriously bad decisions will be made.

So really the ultimate question is: how serious is this risk? Will, after reading the book or seeing the movie, your average viewer be inclined to pursue a similar relationship? And if they do, is it likely to lead to equally bad or worse outcomes?

Generally speaking, my guess is no. Really, the reaction to the problems with the book and movie by both feminists and the BDSM community ensure that anyone who hears about them, can’t help but hear about their problems and better ways of going about it all. The fact that the BDSM community is in fact so well established and organised further helps that – while 50 Shades of Grey does indeed turn up in a google search of ‘BDSM’, it is swamped by hundreds of sites filled with good quality advice, rules and information to guide new initiates to healthy and safe sexual experimentation.

At the end of the day, is 50 Shades of Grey the great moral, social, patriarchal threat it’s being painted? Or just a jumped-up smut paperback for bored housewives, that will fade from memory just as fast as it appeared? Only time will tell, but I’m pretty confident making an educated guess.


4 thoughts on “Smutty February: The Ethics Of… 50 Shades of Grey

  1. The blowback against this movie is frightening really. I sort of just saw it as this bored woman in her 40’s who had a little fantasy and decided to write a story. And yet I read an article that said this movie was representative of the harm of pornography and symbolic of capitalist greed and all that’s wrong about western civilization.

    I think there are more harmful things in the world. But maybe that’s just me!

    • I think the ferocity of criticism was partly proportional to the popularity it’s been getting, but yeah I definitely still agree. It’s smut, pure and simple. Stupid, poorly written smut that promotes a terrible relationship, but then again pornography is far worse than that and society hasn’t crumbled yet. As for symbolism of capitalist greed… jeeze. Someone had a lot of time on their hands.

  2. Pingback: Smutty March: The Ethics Of… The Bad Stuff | The Ethics Of

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