By: T Nicole Cirone Wilkinson
My first reaction to reading the (TERRIBLY written) book, which I read to see what all the fuss was about was, "this isn’t sex—this is abuse!" It's not just power and powerlessness, but abuse and torture that's being softened and packaged to women as something not just acceptable, but desirable-- something we should expose our most precious and vulnerable selves to in the name of pleasure. What the heck?
I know the whole fetish community and the people who practice BDSM have been around a long time. And it’s not the first time it’s made its appearance in mainstream or popular culture. Those of you who are around my age (40something) may remember in the 90s when mainstream fashion adopted the multi-strap "Dominatrix"-style dress and high boots. The look was "supposed" to be "sexy" and "dangerous"-- but we just kind of wore it and didn't think twice that it looked like we were tied up in those dresses and bound in those shoes because, I think, it wasn't thrown in our faces as something we regular people should/could/might consider a legitimate sexual turn-on. It was “just fashion.” Maybe as a feminist, one could study those clothes in the 90s and say, well, they corresponded to a moment when women were actually gaining a lot of power in the workforce and the world as decisionmakers and policymakers, and the fashion industry (run by men, both gay and straight) wanted to rein them in in some way, making them dress in chokers and strappy black garments. But that’s a reach for the general population who just liked the thought of wearing 10 black straps and stiletto knee-high boots and didn’t think about being bound and whipped because they were wearing a choker (come on, I know some of you out there wore black ribbon chokers—did you want to be tied up and beaten during sex?). In fact, speaking of the 90s, I remember people used to use “S and M” terminology to describe people who unnecessarily brought pain upon themselves (why are you working so much—are you some kind of a sadist?) or mean people (don’t tolerate that masochistic boss who makes you work 15 hours a day!).
So now, with the 50 Shades series and movie and this whole "mommy porn," mainstream accessibility to what used to be a sort of sick view and practice of sex and sexuality, I am personally horrified. Why aren’t more of us speaking out? Aren’t you angry? Here’s why I refuse to see the film and why I think more figures with a little influence in society need to get angry and speak up.
Women have fought for centuries, millennia, not only to be recognized in society, but to be treated with respect. Throughout history, women who were held captive as sex slaves, forced to be confined in palaces, sold as property or forced to work as prostitutes are the most extreme examples of what we have fought against, but also, women who wrote poetry or wanted to be healers or who wanted a say in whom they would marry or a say in the law of their land, or in what jurisdiction we have over our own livelihoods and bodies and sexuality, or those of us who just wanted to be able to go to work and use our gifts without harassment from the men in the office, or from families, who may have encouraged marriage over education, have all been held captive in some way, victimized and bullied and sometimes even abused by a male-dominated society. And society’s norms have embraced this gender dynamic because when people are put in specific boxes, the powerful aren’t threatened when they have control over the powerless. In the past century, women have finally fought our way into society, and now I feel that mostly, we are beginning to be able to look at gender relations as less of a power play and more of a give and take-- women have fought for and taken opportunities to do amazing things in the world—with the freedom to choose their path in life, and in many developed countries, they have a say politics and business and a right to education.
Furthermore, the international community has frequently rallied behind women who are still tortured in the form of sex trafficking and FGM; many individuals, governments and organizations have begun to address the inequalities that still exist in the world (though of course, there is still work to do) and most of our community and world leaders have said no to torture and abuse and sexual power dynamics.
And finally...finally, it seems the beauty and power and gifts women have to offer (in addition to—and in some cases, especially childbearing) are recognized and honored in the developed world, and in the developing world, women are still fighting to get there because they know they don't deserve to be beaten down (physically or otherwise). They are not the second-class beings.
SO...this is one reason why 50 Shades and the mainstream complacency over not just the popularity of the book or the release of the movie—but the availability of bondage-themed sex “toys” in TARGET, of all places, disturbs me. Because after all of this...our society-- and WOMEN in our society-- embrace a book and film that tells us we don't really want to be in control of our bodies, ourselves and our lives. . What we really want as women is to be controlled and dominated-- not just in the bedroom, but in all aspects of our life, because being a thinking woman or an independent woman in the modern world is “too hard” and it’s “against our nature.” Those of you who are familiar with the book will recall that in addition to his particular interests in the bedroom, Christian Grey is a control freak who doesn’t want to be vulnerable—so he won’t allow himself to be touched, and he starts controlling her entire life, down to the clothes she wears and the details of her life, and Anastasia is no longer her educated, intelligent self. In fact, she is consumed by his demands. And she feels “special” because he lavishes his attention on her—maybe the same way women will gravitate toward the “bad boy” and feel special when they win the guy over. There’s a bizarre sense of power tied up in that (pun intended).
Sexual domination and abuse packaged in a way that makes BDSM seem sexy and desirable because it's "taboo" and "dangerous" is, I think, enticing for a lot of women who have not realized their own beauty or power because they feel they are "just a mom" or they are married to men who have given up on the relationship (because, in my humble opinion, of the ready availability of cheap, quick porn and standards of "beauty" that NO real woman could ever aspire to). Perhaps the way 50 Shades is packaged is supposed to appeal to the woman who "really" wants to be dominated by a man because she doesn't know what to do with herself in society-- the pressure of "thinking" and "performing" in a "man's world" is too much-- so naturally, she wants a man to put her in her place, to dominate and hurt her, and this is supposed to be a fantasy for all of us who have fought so hard to get out of the possibility of domestic violence or degradation or trapped in marriages we never wanted but were arranged by our fathers and husbands. The fantasy or escape aspect is supposed to be exciting to people who have been told all their lives to play by the rules and keep things safe. I suppose the book allows women to escape to this place, where things would probably never happen to them, but vicariously, they can experience the attraction to danger. But it is, in fact, danger, and pain—not beauty and intimacy-- so if what women “want” is to feel pain and danger during sex, how, then, can we know rape is absolutely wrong but see a “gray (grey) area” in sexual domination that uses force and pain to bring “pleasure”—and, worse yet, put it out there to mass market consumers? Is this acceptable because Christian Grey shows some concern for her and asks her if she’s ok once in a while?
Grey’s dangerous "red room of pain" gives women who are desperate to feel a vicarious way to experience sensation-- even if it's imagined pain-- because they have lost sight of their own power. And we as a culture have lost sight of the intimacy of sex and have made it a game, a sport, a pursuit-- and not just for men. "Everyone" has casual sex, and the Friday and Saturday night Tinder booty call is alive and well in bars all over the country (yes, some single people use this app to meet people -- but I recently read that married people use it "just for fun"-- as a drinking game and a way to “safely window shop”).
So what is the solution? I think maybe a little more vocal outpouring from religious organizations about the beauty of women's strength will help. For people who aren't religious, I think more groups-- not just feminists (because people will say, oh, it's those feminists again) need to address this. Why is Hollywood making this movie? It's going to make money because people are going to pay to see it. Where are the female actors who have used awards ceremonies as a podium for advocating women’s voices and women’s rights now? Why are they not speaking out against the message this book/movie sends? And my biggest fear-- has our mainstream culture become so numb to this that we really aren't horrified?
If a woman was taken hostage by someone and bound and whipped and made to believe that she liked it, we would respond with outrage. Why are we supposed to be watching this for entertainment? We are no better than countries in which women are stoned in public, then, for sexual misconduct, or kept under lock and key. We are embracing that which we despise. In Canto III of Dante’s Inferno, he describes the souls in hell in this manner: “their dread turns wish; they yearn for what they fear”—and then Dante is so frightened and horrified by this that he faints.
In our wonderful country, we have the freedom to say what we want, to write what we want, to read what we want, to view what we want. And the erotica genre has been around a long time. Anais Nin and Henry Miller were both writers of erotica, and their books were banned for scatological passages. I am not suggesting we go on a censorship tear; rather, I think the accessibility and easy acceptance of BDSM as mainstream entertainment is symptomatic of other forces at work. This is about love and sex and the beauty of sexuality, which is being lost. It’s also about gender politics. It fundamentally cuts women-- and men-- to the core, and just because it’s out there and “softly” packaged so that it’s mainstream culture-friendly instead of on a fetish porn site or an adult store doesn’t mean we have to support it. Financial support is our greatest tool as a free-market culture. Without demand, the supply dwindles. What if we could raise enough awareness and make enough noise that we could prevent more of this sort of material from dominating mainstream culture (or at least keep it out of family-oriented stores like Target, for heaven’s sake!)?
And if we really want to be bold… what if we looked at our culture and, even in our own lives, tried to make a small difference in uplifting both men and women, by fighting against not only the most blatant abuse and domination and sexual politics but also the micro-aggressions that slowly chip away at the self-worth and sense of beauty of those around us? Would 50 Shades be so entertaining then?
T Nicole Cirone Wilkinson has a BA in Political Science
and Italian Studies from Rosemont College, an MA in
English Literature from Rosemont College and an MFA
in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University.
She is a published poet and writer and teaches English
at Malvern Preparatory School.