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Shades of Grey: What now that BDSM has gone mainstream? 05 Dec 2013

By: Susan Hawthorne 


In mid-November Fifty Shades of Grey was listed for the Britain’s National Book Award in the popular fiction category. It was selected by ’50 book experts, made up of booksellers and trade journalists’ (Morris 2012). It has now sold 60 million copies worldwide, 3 million of those in Australia.


This book is paraded as a great read because 60 million people can’t be wrong. In fact, 60 million can be wrong. That the book has done so well is in part due to curiosity, to massive promotion in the media and at the front of bookstores, to controversy, but most importantly to the pornification of society that we have seen in recent years. If you have read Anne Summers’ (2012) talk about Julia Gillard that preceded Gillard’s (2012) misogyny speech, you will be aware of the level of vilification and violence directed against women. When a prime minister can be depicted with a dildo (just to give an example of one of the horrid misogynist attacks on Julia Gillard) then a book like Fifty Shades of Grey finds an easy position as a bestseller.


Anastasia Steele is the main character in the book, alongside billionaire Christian Grey. Anastasia expresses her confusion in a series of emails with Christian Grey that follows him spanking her to the point where she cannot sit comfortably. Anastasia writes that she feels ‘demeaned, debased, and abused’ (James 2011: 292). She receives the following email from Christian:


  • If that is how you feel, do you think you could just try to embrace these feelings, deal with them for me? That’s what a submissive would do.

  • I am grateful for your inexperience. I value it, and I’m only beginning to understand what it means. Simply put … it means that you are mine in every way (James 2011: 293).


What Christian Grey demands is total control. There is the pretense at consent and one of the very disturbing parts of this book is the so-called ‘contract’, which specifies what can and cannot be done. But Grey puts it all down to ‘It’s the way I’m made’ (James 2011: 287). That is, he avoids responsibility. Susanne Kappeler in her 1995 book, The Will to Violence analyses the way in which irresponsibility is coded into dominance. She writes:


  • Self-pathologizing and its attendant claim to incapability are thus the last resort of the relatively powerful in trying to outbid those with less power in terms of victim status (Kappeler 1995: 75).


Radical feminists have critiqued practices of BDSM for many years. In 1979, Kathleen Barry published Female Sexual Slavery in which she identifies the process of ‘sex colonization’.


  • Sex colonization is insidious. Not only are women dominated as a group–socially, politically, economically–but unlike any other colonized group, they must share the homes and beds of the colonizer (Barry 1979: 195).

Kathleen Barry goes on to identify prostitution, domestic violence, female genital mutilation and pornographic snuff films as instances of sex colonization. Furthermore, that when a woman is raped, gagged, deflowered, brutalized, she will ‘be even happier, having forgotten that she was raped’ (Barry 1979: 208).

Fifty Shades of Grey and the subsequent volumes have been bought by seven percent of the Australian population by (apparently) middle class, middle-aged women (these are the rumours about who has bought the book). So what is it that makes both EL James (Erika Leonard), the writer, and the women who read Fifty Shades of Grey not be offended by it?


  • It is an easy mistake for women to make, women whose culture trains them long and carefully to respond to masochism. An education in masochism is generally part of the conditioning of any group who experience being despised; their response of identifying with what degrades and humiliates them is illogical only on the surface: in fact, it has been carefully cultivated in them (Millett 1994: 160).


Fifty Shades of Grey is defended on the basis that it is simply fantasy and no one is harmed by just reading a book. But what is fantasy? I have never heard the word used in sexual contexts except as a way of defending a practice that has some kind of social opprobrium. And in the far majority of cases, it is used:


• to defend men’s use of women as objects of rape or violence;


• in a reversal, it is used by women to escape the terror of rape by turning rape into a fantasy;


• it is used by practitioners of S/M or BDSM to justify their actions;


• it is used by paedophiles to explain away thousands of images of child pornography on personal computers;


• it is used by the pornography industry, SEXPO and makers of pornography who claim that they are just satisfying the fantasies of their customers.


The other aspect of Fifty Shades of Grey is the portrayal of wealth and power. There is nothing new about this trope. It appears in de Sade’s writings, in The Story of O (Reage 1981) and other books paraded as literature because they portray the powerful. Christian Grey is a man of great wealth, He runs a profitable company, owns a helicopter, can buy Anastasia an Audi, lives in a large apartment where he has his Red Room and various staff, and he is highly mobile. He comes from a family of wealth who are part of the establishment (later the reader discovers his birth origins). Against this, Anastasia is a virgin, she has few assets other than an old Beetle, is just finishing her university course, she works in a hardware store and was raised by a single mother.


What is carried out in these places of wealth is then copied in the houses of ordinary men who see their homes as their castles, but instead of it being the luxury of pornography, it becomes what that pornography really is: domestic violence, abuse of women.


Or as Clare Philipson, Director of Women in Need who has worked with victims of domestic violence for thirty years says about Fifty Shades of Grey:


  • It really is about a domestic violence perpetrator, taking someone who is less powerful, inexperienced, not entirely confident about the area of life she is being led into, and then spinning her a yarn. Then he starts doing absolutely horrific sexual things to her … He gradually moves her boundaries, normalising the violence against her. It's the whole mythology that women want to be hurt (cited in Flood 2012).


The representation of women in porn fiction promotes the extinction of women (Barry 1979: 252) and a free for all for men's dominance.


The most disturbing part of this book is chapter 11 where a contract is presented by Christian Grey to Anastasia Steel. This contract outlines precisely how she should behave. She has to be totally available to him at call. This is a male fantasy of a fuck on legs: wherever whenever, whatever. To quote the contract, ‘… in any manner he deems fit, sexually or otherwise’ (James 2011: 165). The Submissive, on the other hand


shall accept without question


• remember her status and role in regard to the Dominant


• shall not pleasure herself sexually without permission


• shall submit to any sexual activity… without hesitation or argument


• shall not look directly into the eyes of the Dominant


• shall keep her eyes cast down


• shall address him only as Sir, Mr Grey or other title  as the Dominant may direct


• will not touch the Dominant without his express permission (James 2011: 170).


Contracts of consent are made by the powerful when they have to deal with the powerless who might later bring a case against them. While in theory a contract is meant to be an agreement, in reality it is primarily entered into to protect the powerful. Consent under such conditions is no such thing. It is fake consent. 


In this situation, however, there is another layer of complexity. It seems likely to me that for women in relationships that do not come up to scratch and who are subjected to some of the violations in this novel, it is possible that an agreement with soft and hard limits might well seem like a better option. Combined with socialization, to perennial fear, to confusion, normalization and colonization along with the attractiveness of wealth and power, the popularity of this book is not inexplicable. It is in fact an indication of just how successful all the social forces against women are.


BDSM has become mainstream. And there are many defenders of BDSM. This is not surprising. You can attend classes in BDSM, you can make your career in queer studies, as Margot Weiss (2011) in the US has done by writing about these classes, presenting them as healing the tortured soul, by turning violence into a sexy career move. Or you can do what Pat Califia has done, join the men and become Patrick. Her Lesbian SM Safety Manual contains the following piece of advice:


  • By reviving the notion that sex is dirty, naughty, and disgusting, you can profoundly thrill some lucky, jaded lesbian by transforming her into a public toilet or bitch in heat (Califia, 1988: 52).


As Kathleen Barry said in 1979:


  • To live in a society where blueprints for female enslavement and gynocide abound is intolerable (Barry 1979: 252).


So what can we radical feminists do?


• we need to keep talking


• we need to read and re-read the works of radical feminists


• we need to boycott books like this except for the purposes of critique


• we need to be talking with students, friends, sisters, mothers about the way women’s lives are destroyed through pornography, anything-goes sexual practices, patriarchal fantasies and violence


• we need to keep going, being creative, resisting the forces which would have us give up in exhaustion


• we need to generate not a gender revolution, but a feminist revolution.








Barry, Kathleen. 1979. Female Sexual Slavery. New York: Avon Books.


Bell, Diane and Renate Klein (Eds). 1996. Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.


Brodribb, Somer. 1992. Nothing Mat(t)ers. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.


Califia, Pat.  (Ed.) 1988. The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual. Boston: Alyson Publications.


Flood, Alison. 2012. Fifty Shades of Grey condemned as 'manual for sexual torture'., Friday 24 August.


Foster, Judy, with Marlene Derlet. 2013. Invisible Women of Prehistory: Three million years of peace, six thousand years of war. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.


Gillard, Julia. 2012. Transcript of Julia Gillard’s Speech. Delivered to the Australian Parliament on 9 October, 2012.


Hawthorne, Susan. 2011. ‘Capital and the Crimes of Pornographers: Free to lynch, exploit, rape and torture. In Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry, edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.


James, E.L. 2011. Fifty Shades of Grey. New York: Vintage.


Jeffreys, Sheila. 1990/2011. Anticlimax: A feminist perspective on the sexual revolution. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.


Jeffreys, Sheila. 1993. The Lesbian Heresy. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.


Kappeler, Susanne. 1995. The Will to Violence: The politics of personal behaviour. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.


Klein, Renate. 2011. ‘Big Porn + Big Pharma: Where the pornography industry meets the ideology of medicalization.’ In Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry, edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.


Millett, Kate. 1994. The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment. London: W.W. Norton.


Morris, Linda. 2012. ‘Stiff competitor: Fifty Shades up for British book award’.


Reage, Pauline. 1981. The Story of O. New York: Ballantine Books.


Summers, Anne. 2012. ‘Her Rights at Work.’ Lecture delivered at 2012 Human Rights and Social Justice Lecture
University of Newcastle 31 August 2012.


Weiss, Margot. 2011. Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality. Duke University Press.

Associated Author: Susan Hawthorne
Associated Book: Big Porn Inc

That book is un-researched fiction. It's crap. And if a friend of mine was in a BDSM relationship like that I would tell them to find another one.

An abusive relationship is an abusive relationship, not a BDSM relationship. Just because you don't understand or agree with BDSM doesn't mean you get to call the women and men who do life the life misguided or abusive.
Posted by Daniel McLaughlin | 05 Dec 2012
While I agree that 50 Shades of Gray is not worth reading I do have to ask a related question. What if Christian had been Christina and Anastasia was Andrew? There are females who take the dominant role over submissive partners of all genders. Professional, female dominatrixes are vastly more common than their male counterparts.

What Ms. Hawthorne fails to understand is the importance of actualized consent in the BDSM subculture. The bottom's (the person receiving the action) has the right to limit what kind of activities occur and to what extent. If they don't like what is happening, they can revoke their consent. The difference is that people in the BDSM subculture openly negotiate what will happen from the first 'date' to the relationship rather than reading between the lines or guessing what the other person wants. Are there people that fail to respect the wishes of their partners? Of course. The BDSM subculture is a microcosm of the mainstream society where d
Posted by Bob Scott | 05 Dec 2012
Male makes the claim men who pay women to enact the 'dominatrix' are supposedly reversing the power men have always accorded themselves over women.

In reality those men who pay women to enact sexual domination are enacting their choice and have the financial means to pay a woman to subject them to a little violence. The males paying to have their sexual fetishes gratified in no way lose their male power over women or have their male pseudo right of sexual access to women denied. These men leave the dominatrix after having had their sexual fetishes satisfied and these men's socio-economic power over women remains intact. The man retains his male pseudo right of sexual access to females and he knows he can return to the dominatrix any time because he has the money to pay. This is how prostitution operates wherein it is male demand which causes prostitution to exist and yet men continue to claim it is prostituted women who have the power. Deliberate male attempts at revers
Posted by Hecuba | 17 Dec 2012
I am just as critical of Christinas as I am of Christian. If you read the end of the blog you'll see that I mention being critical of queers who think BDSM is fine. I don't care what sex those involved are, they are all forms of abuse.

I think it's possible that some readers of Fifty Shades think that consenting to abuse is better, in fact that line is a con. Have you noticed when consent is requested: it is always in cir(edited)stances of power: you sign a consent form with a doctor when the treatment might have fatal consequences; the powerful want consent from the powerless because it protects them legally. BDSM consent falls into this same category.
Posted by Bernadette | 06 Feb 2013

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