Violence dressed up as erotica: Fifty Shades of Grey and abuse

We can’t talk about “consensual” BDSM without considering the levels of violence against women. Universal Pictures

This Valentine’s Day, why not ditch the roses and celebrate by watching some sexual violence? That’s a more honest marketing pitch for the Fifty Shades of Grey film.

It’s astonishing that, in 2015, sexual abuse can still be marketed as romantic and bondage can still be defended as freedom. Yet advance ticket sales for the film have been record-breaking, demonstrating that, to the wider public, Fifty Shades is seen as little more than harmless, kinky fun.

Plenty of companies have been keen to cash in on the film’s expected success. One Australian chemist chain is giving away free tickets as a “perfect way to celebrate Valentine’s Day”. Others have organised screenings as fundraisers for cancer charities, pre-schools, and even White Ribbon.

Yes, someone thought it was a good idea to use “domestic violence dressed up as erotica” – to borrow a phrase from Lisa Wilkinson – as a way to raise funds for “Australia’s campaign to stop violence against women”.

White Ribbon was eventually forced to distance itself from the event, which not only involved a screening of 50 Shades, but also included a Q&A led by a “professional dominant”. To top it off, the event was sponsored by a sex shop that sells bondage gear.

This raised more questions than funds. If the film screening was supposed to promote a discussion about ending violence against women, why did it seem more like a platform to extol the virtues of sex-industry-sponsored sadomasochism? If the event really was about trying to promote awareness and end abuse, why not have a Q&A session with someone from a domestic violence service, or a centre against sexual assault?

The politics of BDSM

The key to understanding this situation is to understand the politics of BDSM – that is, the politics surrounding the practices of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism; practices which fundamentally eroticise domination and subordination. Through decrying what is depicted in Fifty Shades as violence, and “fake” or “bad” BDSM, a defence of “good” or “real” BDSM has been spawned.

The sex in Fifty Shades doesn’t qualify as “real” BDSM, so the argument goes, because it involves unhealthy coercion and unauthorised control. “Good” BDSM, on the other hand, is supposed to be about mutual trust, pleasure and explicit consent.

This dichotomy is maintained despite prominent BDSM bloggers writing openly about experiences of rape, abuse, and harm, when consent was ignored and bodily integrity violated, even in supposedly “good” BDSM environments.

The “good” BDSM defence is evident even among those organising boycotts of the film. Fifty Shades Is Domestic Abuse, among others, plans to protest at a number of premieres.

But the group’s founder, Natalie Collins, felt the need to declare her group was not “against sex or BDSM” and that many from within the BDSM community were “concerned not just about the domestic abuse but the way their lifestyle has been portrayed and misrepresented by the books”.

In the social media discussion surrounding the film, and the (largely) feminist resistance to it, many have gone to great lengths not to disparage BDSM. And perhaps this should not be surprising when criticism of BDSM practices is now frequently met with accusations of “kink-shaming” and claims that the “BDSM community” is persecuted in the same way gay men and lesbian women were “30 years ago”.

Universal Pictures, CC BY

These debates aren’t new. In 1982, the so-called feminist “sex wars” kicked-off at the Barnard Conference when radical feminists protested what they saw as the valorisation of sexual practices that harm women, in particular, pornography, prostitution and BDSM. What we are seeing now is a resurgence of the argument that engaging in BDSM is simply the expression of a liberated sexual choice that can be both empowering and transgressive.

Indeed much of the discussion today still hinges on individual choice, with the suggestion that if you choose to do something, and enjoy it, it is therefore beyond critique. But our sexual choices are never made in a social and political vacuum.

Continuum of abuse

In a culture where women and girls are encouraged to learn that sexual pleasure equates to pleasing men, even when it compromises their own physical or emotional comfort, the pleasure/ pain dynamics described in much pro-BDSM writing don’t look that radical.

In a world where at least one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence, it hardly seems transgressive to sexualise power dynamics. It just looks a lot like a continuum of abuse.

While a “liberated sexuality”, where patriarchy is magically subverted through sex-toy aided orgasms, may sound like a fun idea to some, this position is naïve, at best, and cannot seriously address the broader issue of violence against women.

As Professor Karen Boyle has wryly observed about the Fifty Shades phenomenon:

Whether individual women find new pleasure from butt plugs is not the point here. Rather, the novel’s engagement with broader debates about gendered violence and power cannot be fantasised away.

It is not enough to talk about “good” or “consensual” BDSM without taking into account the endemic levels of violence against women and the eroticising of that violence in a pornified culture.

Nor is it enough to talk about the pleasure that an individual may find in BDSM without considering the broader social context, not least the racist and misogynist origins of so much BDSM gear.

Indeed, the insistence on separating BDSM, as an individual choice, from issues of violence against women more generally, only serves to obfuscate the real underpinning of that violence, which is women’s inequality.

So maybe just don’t bother with the film at all and use your movie ticket money as a donation to a women’s shelter instead. Because while this debate rages on, many frontline services helping victims of violence and abuse could desperately do with a real fundraiser.


See also:
Fifty Shades of Grey and the legal limits of BDSM

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