When a novel romanticizes abuse, it creates victims. When a novel marketed as “erotica” depicts an abusive relationship and sells 70 million copies and a three-part movie deal, it perpetuates oppression.
The bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James follows the sexual escapades of remarkably uninteresting undergrad Anastasia Steele and millionaire with a penchant for sadism, Christian Grey. The illegitimate offspring of Twilight and a misunderstanding of BDSM subculture, Fifty Shades debuted on Fanfiction.net under the premise of a “sexier,” adult version of the vampire saga minus the vampires—save a certain metaphorical one. This recycled romance has since been published in three bestselling volumes and recently premiered in theaters worldwide.
As a writer, I fear what Fifty Shades has done to the publishing market. As a feminist, I fear the message it sends to women. As the former victim of an emotionally-abusive relationship, I fear how it eroticizes abuse.
Erotica as a genre explores sexuality. It offers sexual experimentation, education, and release. Theoretically, romance and erotic novels can sexually empower their readers—specifically the married women who make up the genre’s main audience—and I fully support that. I don’t believe in book-shaming, slut-shaming or censoring fiction.
Marketing Fifty Shades as erotica, however, is censorship—it conceals the existence of the abusive relationship depicted in its pages. The novel does not guide the reader into a healthy exploration—nor a knowledgeable one—of sex. BDSM is not by definition abusive, but Fifty Shades’ appropriation of BDSM exhibits all the signs. Christian Grey stalks Steele, even decides what birth control she will use, and does not respect her safewords. Real BDSM relationships are built on trust, in which the sexual partners have a clear understanding of each other’s rules, roles, and intended outcomes. When Grey ignores Steele’s safeword, he invades her personal boundaries and steals ownership over her body. Ignoring safewords is not consensual sex. Rape is not erotica.
Not only does Fifty Shades spread ignorance on BDSM and perpetuate abuse, it also sends a dangerous message to women about men’s desires. Submission isn’t just a role Steele plays in the bedroom. It is her entire existence. She does not see herself as an individual, much less her partner’s equal. She processes little to no agency or personality. Grey’s desires define her.
Erotica as defined by Fifty Shades teaches women that attraction is a man wanting to dominate her—in bed, in the workplace and in her personal decisions.