Fifty Shades of F**king Abuse

Let me tell you how I got acquainted with some of the worst books on the market:

It was an odd time. I’d just spent over a month intensively critiquing creationist earth science texts, and that triggers depression after so many chapters. One begins to lose all hope for humanity. The end of summer loomed. B and I had a rather serious falling out. So there I was, mopey and miserable and wishing the world could just stop for a while.

I don’t remember what I was reading, but there was a link to Jenny Trout’s blog in the comments. And she had done to the Fifty Shades trilogy what I’m doing to Christianist textbooks. I’d been hearing for years how bloody awful the Fifty Shades of Grey books were, how they glorified abuse, how fake the BDSM was, and how terrible the writing was. I’d heard it from enough people whose opinion I trust that I hadn’t wasted my time attempting to read the bloody things. But now there’s gonna be a movie, and about nine trillion people think this shit’s the cat’s pajamas and ever-so-good for their looove lives, so maybe it would be a good idea to find out a bit more about it. And here was a brilliant, funny, and feminist writer who’d read and reported on them so I didn’t have to. It was like Cliffs Notes, with brutal honesty and snark.

Now, I should’ve been working, but I really couldn’t. And a day off wouldn’t hurt. And I read this:

Ana flushes way too much. I’m going to throw this out there right now. At the end of one paragraph, her face flames. There is a line of dialogue, and then the beginning of the next paragraph, she goes crimson. I get the distinct impression that she’s a Humboldt Squid in a dress, flashing red like a broken neon sign.

And I decided, “Fuck it. In bed, all day, with Jenny Trout’s MST3King of FSOG. That’s me.”

That day became a week. And it didn’t end with Jenny.

I couldn’t stop. I mean, this shit was far worse than I’d expected. Dude, I’ve read The Gift of Fear. I’ve delved into forensic psychology. And every section Jenny quoted screamed, “This asshole will murder you!” Have you ever read one of those signs-of-an-abusive-relationship dealios? Like Jenny pointed out in her Chapter 14 recap, this supposedly epic romance between Ana Steele and Christian Grey waves all the red flags:

When I first finished reading it, I thought it was funny, because how could anyone not understand that this isn’t a good relationship? But stuff stops being hilarious when a social worker sends you all her red flag charts and you realize that the book you just read is being held up as a romantic ideal by women all over the nation.

Yet this is the fucked-up “romance” that had the local adult stores filling their walls with BDSM-lite crap themed around FSOG, and people were raving about how seexxxy it was, and none of the fans seemed to realize this isn’t kink, it’s bloody domestic abuse. Shit’s not romantic, people, it’s rape culture, complete with rape.

Image shows 50 Shades noose cover. Left side says, "Fifty Shades of Abuse Romantacized. No thank you." Right side has list of "Signs of an Abusive Partner: Jealousy and possessiveness; Sexual violence; Verbal abuse and disrespectful behaviour in front of others; Not listening or responding when you talk; Unpredictable temper; Damaging or destroying your possessions; Controlling where you go and who you see."
50 Shades of Abuse Flyer – Canada

And we don’t need to be telling women that this is what true love with a side of BDSM is. Jesus. It makes me wonder how many women are trapped in physically, sexually, verbally, and emotionally abusive relationships right now, pretending they’re wonderful because E.L. James says this is perfect love. It makes me wonder how many women are dead because they mistook red flags for roses, because of these books.

Someone asked recently why I “hate” on the readers who liked this series. I don’t “hate” them. I’m just pissed off at them for making excuses for this blatant anti-female, anti-sex propaganda that tells women that kink is only for fucked up people, and if their guy is physically and emotionally abusive, they’re just not loving him hard enough. And you know, I don’t feel like I need to be particularly nice to women who want to further that message in our culture, just like I wouldn’t be nice to Paul Ryan if he emailed me asking why I just can’t be more civil about his policies regarding abortion. Because I can’t, because if you’re civil and nice about this shit, people take it as tacit agreement with whatever fucked up thing they’re trying to say.

Jenny Trout

I ran Christian Grey through Gavin de Becker & Associates’ Risk Evaluation Test. Based on his actions in the first book, he got a) 8 out of 10 for risk and b) a 154 out of 200 for quality of the assessment. (It could have been higher, but he did not own a handgun or share children with Ana. Both of these things will become factors in the next two books, so Ana’s situation will only become worse.)

Now, I don’t know how bad 154 is (though a risk of 8 out of 10 sounds pretty bad)…but de Becker & Associates kept imploring me to call the police on this (unnamed) controlling, manipulative, lying, abusive stalker-rapist and get his nameless victim to safety and shelter IMMEDIATELY. They pegged him as unstable, violent, rigid, and completely unable to deal with anything that challenged his viewpoint or the way that he saw himself. Interestingly, they said that people like him rarely kept jobs for long; any crisis at work or challenge from a co-worker or rival would reduce him to a state of rage. He simply wouldn’t be able to cope with any opposition. They also said that he had many traits shared by serial rapists and serial killers. And they found his frequent drinking to be a sign that he was becoming less and less stable.

Does that give you a general idea?

Gehayi from The Sporkings of Das Mervin and Company

When your romantic hero is the kind of person Gavin de Becker’s MOSAIC program tells you to call the police over, then you should know you’ve mistaken love for murderous psychopathy somewhere, and you maybe oughtta backtrack.

“… if a situation has several of these signals, there is reason for concern.”

Several of these signals. As in “three or four.” Three or four of thirty reliable pre-incident indicators associated with spousal violence and murder indicates that there is reason to be worried. The victim is in serious danger.

Twenty-four Twenty-five popped up in the relationship of Christian Grey and Ana Steele.

TWENTY-FIVE.

This is not a relationship. It is a murder waiting to happen.

– Gehayi from The Sporkings of Das Mervin and Company

Image shows Jackie Chan with his hands up by his head and a WTF face. Caption says, "What the actual fuck did I just read?"

Woman after woman in the reviews I read said the romantic hero extraordinaire reminded them of their abusive asshole exes:

Really, though this whole thing pisses me off for more than just the slave vs. submissive thing and you just kind of pointed out why. Because James, undoubtedly, would defend that mistake with the fact that she is an ignorant cockmonkey and just didn’t know. After all, I’ve seen people defend their love of the book with, “Well, I didn’t know that BDSM wasn’t like that, so it’s okay that it’s not accurately portrayed because I don’t know the difference.” No, it’s the fact that Gaston is getting her to crave sex and orgasms and actually manipulating her into believing that only he can give them to her and that the only way he’ll keep giving them to her is if she’ll agree to all of his demands. Wanna know why that is so off-pissing for me and why it makes me want to book a flight to England so that I might personally kick this bitch’s ass?

Because that is exactly what my ex-boyfriend did to me.

I was sexually naïve and innocent, very young, and he was the one who gave me my first orgasm. He got me hooked on them, and then proceeded to convince me that only he could do it, and that I couldn’t bring myself to orgasm. He conditioned me. And after he was done with that, he convinced me that I owed all kinds of sex back to him because, after all, he was doing that great favor to me and I couldn’t do it myself! Gaston is doing exactly what my ex-boyfriend did to me. The ex-boyfriend who abused me on every conceivable level: sexually, emotionally, physically, and mentally. The ex-boyfriend who had such a bad effect on me I wound up in a mental hospital because of him because I wanted to kill myself when it was all over and I realized that I’d just been abused for seven years and thought that I’d ruined my life, because of the time he found me.

*sneering* So, James, so far you remind Ket, Gehayi, and I very strongly of our exes, to the point that it both enrages and upsets us. Christian Grey is pretty much a nice little combination of all of our exes, taking all of their worst aspects and bundling them together into one absolutely foul and loathsome abomination of a character, and then you dump a lot of money on him and make him hot because, well, that makes it all better.

I’m not gonna bother trying to find a picture, GIF, or video that would best encompass just how much I despise you, getting rich off of this. Because there isn’t one. It just makes me feel used and dirty, like you’re publishing the worst chapter of my life and calling it True Love and making millions from it.

Fuck you, and fuck your fanbase. Yes, fuck the fanbase too. Because they agree with you. Because all of them, by saying it is romantic and True Love and wonderful, are by default saying that what happened to me, Gehayi, and Ket wasn’t rape and abuse.

Fuck. You. All.

– Mervin from The Sporkings of Das Mervin and Company

When your epic romance is triggering abuse survivors to this extent, you’re doing romance wrong. But we’ve been doing it wrong for a long time, haven’t we?

Those of you who have been reading the sporkings for a while know that I’m an editor, and that many of the things I edit are romances. Now, I have MAJOR issues with rape, stalking and controlling another person against his or her will being presented as romantic. All of these things are rife in the romance genre and I HATE that, because people are idiots and will believe that if an author SAYS it is romantic, the author must be right.

I’m an oddball in that I will tell the author that X is not acceptable and that we don’t want to send the message that rape and stalking are signs of love. But all too often, both are sugar-coated, so that you read about a man being “overwhelmed with passion” and “taking” a woman as she vainly tries to fight him off, or about a boy stalking someone he has exchanged one word with: “Hello.” And if you repeat something often enough, people begin to believe that is not only the way that it is, but the way that it SHOULD be.

This kind of drivel—which, fortunately, is not the only thing written in the genre but is far too common—causes damage. It tells women that stalking is love, that rape is love, that physical and mental degradation which they loathe and want no part of are love. It’s just the man’s way, and they need to accept that.

It is a vile, contemptible, anti-woman message and the fact that this piece of shit, like most romance novels, was written by a woman just makes the message that much worse.

The fact that I have a couple of friends in the BDSM lifestyle and that their information directly contradicts, oh, THE ENTIRE BOOK, plus the fact that the Suethor couldn’t be arsed to do one scrap of research is just the rancid icing on a very ugly cake.

– Gehayi from The Sporkings of Das Mervin and Company

This is dangerous bullshit, and it needs to stop. We need far less Fifty Shades, and far more Boss trilogies, not to mention our own Greta Christina’s Bending. We need real kinky (and vanilla) love that respects and requires enthusiastic consent. We need truly strong female leads, not glorified doormats. We need series that don’t trigger domestic abuse victims into creating a blog ring to document all the ways this fucked-up shit glorifies violence.

All of the above issues in FSOG are horrible enough. More than enough to torpedo the series. But even setting that aside, there’s the fact that James got so very much about BDSM wrong. Completely, dangerously wrong. Want to know how it should have been done? Read The Curious Kinky Person’s Guide to the Fifty Shades Trilogy. Please, please read it, or download the ebook for a mere dollar, and mark up your copy with copious highlights and notes, before jumping into a BDSM relationship because this stupid series got you curious about kink.

Two strikes. Strike three: the atrociously-bad writing. Jenny Trout and sporkers Gehayi and Ket do magnificent jobs showing the endless errors. James’s grammar is awful, words don’t mean things, the prose is so purple it’s urple, the comma is abused as badly as the female lead, and the bits of plot that sneaked in are tiny and broken things. On top of all that, the research wasn’t done for pretty much anything. Most of the characters are so cardboard you could box up a Barnes and Noble with them. The female lead was a shallow twit who was so sexually repressed she used “down there” as a euphemism for her genitals. The male lead was a violent shallow twit who thought rape was an appropriate response to a woman’s defiance. The writing was so glaringly awful, it makes Twilight look like a masterpiece.

Image shows Edward and Bella from Twilight. Caption says, "Still a better love story than Fifty Shades of Grey"

And speaking of Twilighthere’s a fairly comprehensive list of what James ripped off from Stephanie Meyer. Remember, this dreck started as Twilight fanfic. She changed a few details, but she basically put a wig on a pig and called it a pony. Not. So.

It nearly finished off my will to live, knowing this crap not only got published, but found such a vast market of willing suckers. And I’m not the only one who has found themselves massively changed:

Just for reference, when I started reading these books I was a church-goer. Now I’m an atheist. I’m not saying they’ve destroyed my faith in God all on their own, I’m just suggesting they may have been a contributing factor.

*shudder* And to think these horrible books are actually responsible for something positive

Thanks to sporkings and spankings by incredibly talented people, plus the Boss trilogy, I survived. And I have plenty to shake FSOG fans with. And it brought B and I back together – there’s no bonding experience quite like commiserating over awful writing. And I learned a lot about my own sexuality, and am a lot less reluctant to discuss it. Excellent people have wrested some good from this unmitigated horror, and I’ve benefited from their wisdom.

I hope they’ve also given you some gifts. And I hope more than a few of you are now prepared to patiently explain to those who gush about the movie just what this story is actually glorifying, thus preventing some very stupid mistakes by enamored fans.

Image shows a cat that looks startled and horrified. Caption says, "This is what people like to read!?!?!"

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Fifty Shades of F**king Abuse
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10 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of F**king Abuse

  1. rq
    1

    This is not only what people like to read, this is what is being marketed to men as ‘what women want’. Witness the christmas when I think the third book came out, with full-page magazine ads everywhere saying ‘give her what she really wants’ etc.
    So not only are women using the books to model their own (unhappy, non-consensual) relationships, but men are being told that this is how it’s done. Now, I don’t know how many men actually read the books, but I’m sure enough get forced into it or hear bits and pieces to know that, hey, no just means whine a little more!
    To be honest, I wouldn’t mind the books so much if the people truly loving them (excuse me while I retch for a moment), and the author herself, could own up and say ‘hey, yes, I know he’s an abusive asshole, and really, here’s some material to read on this abusive relationship crap, but you know, something in these books really gets me off and I loves me some escapism!’, that would make it a leetle beet better (I mean reading dystopias where Nazis are in charge doesn’t mean I actually want that, right). But: (a) the writing isn’t good enough to make this such a darn hot read that the horrible controlling aspects of Mr Grey can be ignored and (b) they’re not doing this, they’re calling it the most freakingly romantic thing ever EVER EVER written, and completely ignoring all the testimony to the contrary. I believe the author has in actual interviews quite callously dismissed all these worries of people in at-risk relationships as being possibly in even more danger, with quite blithe “we’re all adults here”. Oooooh, the privilege of the loving relationship! It bleeds out of her eye sockets!
    Now, on the topic of all that testimony, one anecdote does not data make, but… well, you’ve done a fine summary above, Dana.
    Then there’s the lack of marketed, viable, better-written alternatives. Yes, there’s The Boss and the other books in that series. There’s a lot more out there – and none of it is getting a single bit of public relations, not when compared to 50 Shades. This is a problem: The Boss was awesome (sadly, I didn’t get to the others because that computer has crashed and I’m not allowed to download stuff into this one – house rule!), and could really, really use a bigger audience – a faster-growing one than the word-of-mouth that it will get. And that is the problem, too – there really were probably a string of housewives, first introduced to naughty literature, eating up the 50 Shades books at home with the kids and feeling a little guilty and deliciously forbidden, and getting in touch with sexuality, which can happen because hey, once you’re a mother, sexual activity is like…. weird. Ew. It takes some hard work to get over that (by either refusing to acquiesce to that idea in the first place, or by overcoming it later in life – being so scared of a sexless relationship, I went for option 1, but it’s still not easy!), and yes, smutty, sexy, highly-marketed romance novels (that also guys are told to read as a way into the panties of their wives) are a great way to do it – but the options and the range of relationships have to be out there for that to really work. Right now, it’s been 50 Shades. Maybe some other books, there’s the usual low-visibility ‘chicklit’ books that men will never read because they’re for women, but no other big blockbusting ‘THIS IS SEXYYYYY!!!’ big-name romance book-to-movie presented this way. Well, maybe – but I haven’t seen it. And this is a huge part of the problem, too.

    I would suggest:
    1) accepting that 50 Shades is a fucking abusive series of books and dealing with that aspect with education, and
    2) working towards finding and marketing (to everyone, not just women!) relationship-friendly alternatives.
    For the industry and everyone in it, not just individual authors or readers. Demand better, readers, but first, know that there IS better. And you, publishers and editors – demand better from your authors, by insisting that there is better (and that it will sell, just put the good ol’ marketing/PR machine to work!). And you, authors, do what authors do – research, and then write better. It’s not about just putting the words down into the computer (as I’m sure Dana well knows); it’s about getting the facts right, and yes, it matters.
    Because you can wrap shit up in diamonds and pearls, but it will still be shit when you open the box. So with abusive relationships: make it look like romance as much as you like, but it sill still be abusive. And knowing this culture’s attitude towards women, and knowing how much stock readers put into what they read, you’re not helping if you’re doing it wrong.

    Sorry for that massive wall of text, Dana, it just kind of all came out and sorry.

  2. 2

    Cliff over at The Pervocracy (http://pervocracy.blogspot.com) is also doing a fine chapter-by-chapter takedown (that is also hilarious) of the book. Cliff is a kinkster currently in a consensual BDSM poly relationship, and a survivor of an abusive BDSM relationship, and she hits the nail on the head.

    I tried steering my friends and family towards Cliff’s takedown and have commented whenever the topic comes up, but frustratingly enough no one seems to take it seriously. That is just unfathomable to me considering that my sister just split up with her husband over domestic violence, and a niece has just told us that her dad sexually abused her. The tools of manipulation used in the book are exactly the same as the ones other abusers use, so I can’t for the life of me understand why people, especially in my family, are so blase and ready to ignore these connections when it they are staring them directly in the face!

    I hate this book soooooooooooooo much….

  3. 3

    I have a hard time being angry at anyone other than the author and the marketers for this book. The audience was a shoe in because rape culture has been internalized. I understand why people are mad; I was abused by ex husband, and I’m furious. I don’t think it’s helpful to refer to people who liked the books as stupid or as defenders of abuse. I think it is really fucking sad that they’ve been brought up in a culture that has them convinced that this behavior is ‘normal’ by virtue of it being fucking everywhere they look. I really, for serious, thought I could change my ex. I even, in my head, referenced back to my favorite books and films on a regular basis. Culture was in cahoots with my ex husband to keep me imprisoned. That didn’t make me stupid. I’d been lied to, and so have the fans of the series.

  4. 4

    I’ve been writing romance novels for 22 years. I never wrote rape, even when I was ignorant and wrote my first book in the early 90s, but I did feel bound to write true “alpha” males who were probably treading the line of stalking and pressuring, and on occasion even abusive (though I clearly showed that they were in the wrong, and what they were doing was a sign of a real problem. ) I wrote what I had seen and been told was what romance readers wanted to read.

    In spite of that, as a long time sf-fantasy reader, I found I could not stick to the program. I kept wanting to write truly strong female characters who weren’t so easily swayed. But I kept running up across the rules: ultimately, the hero has to be the one in charge. Sometimes I wanted to write male characters who were not true “alphas,” and worried.constantly that my editor wouldn’t accept my books. I also wasn’t that into writing sex scenes (I’m much more interested in focusing on character and relationship psychology and sexual tension.) It’s fine if you like to write erotica, but it’s not for me, and many, many romance readers want a lot of sex.

    As a result, after 20 years, my books never became popular except with a relatively small but loyal subset of readers. At the end of 20 years, I lost the 40,000/book contracts I’d had for years and was reduced to writing those “monthly” books at 1/4 the advance.

    And now I just can’t write them anymore. I can’t stick to the rules at all. I’ve become far too committed to my feminist beliefs. The alpha male thing sticks in my craw. So does having to make sure I have enough sex in the book, even feeling I have to plant sex scenes in places where I don’t think they’d logically be. I have one more three-book contract to go, and I’m struggling horribly with trying to get to the halfway point of a book that is technically due in less than two weeks.

    These will be the last three romance novels I ever write. I’m trying to establish a SF/fantasy career and have published two “urban fantasy” novels based on Norse mythology, but I have no idea how well they’re doing, and the publishing industry is struggling. I have no other job to fall back on; my degree was in illustration, and I’m almost 56 years old. But I just can’t write it anymore without destroying my soul, and I’m not one of the writers who can write to an audience without regard to what I love and want to write. I’ve been doing that far too long.

    Fifty Shades simply represents what I’ve been seeing for many years in the industry: hit certain notes, and the audience will follow you. Miss those notes, and you’re out. Unfortunately, many of those notes are from songs i don’t much care for and can no longer sing.

  5. rq
    5

    Of course, none of this would really be an issue if female sexuality were an accepted and perceived-as-ordinary part of adult life. Sort of tangentially, Jenny Trout reviews Outlander, which is apparently a show that I need to watch.

  6. 6

    People who don’t like torture should be aware of triggers before reading Outlander. (Stop reading here if you don’t want to know.) I enjoy Gabaldon’s story telling very much, but the first book in the series ends with extended man on man torture committed by the villain against the hero who he has a passion for. (Ugly stereotyping there.) More details from this night are expanded upon in the second book. It’s very thoroughly stomach-turning. I still read the series, but I don’t like to reread these bits very much.

  7. 7

    “… she basically put a wig on a pig and called it a pony.”

    I am so stealing that line.

    I had been hearing for a long time that the book presented some very dangerous expectations, but many were coming from the Christian right. Thanks for doing the research and finding excellent commentary from the kink communities: I have several friends, male and female, who need to be schooled on FSoG.

  8. rq
    8

    Maybe not stupid, but a lot of the readers are defending the abuse. Not all of them, to be sure, and I’m sure some just like to read something that is so bold and new to them – but there are those who refuse to accept the fact that this is an abusive relationship, and are pissed off that anyone would even suggest that Christian is anything but The Perfect Man. If they can’t even acknowledge that some aspects of the relationship might be troublesome, then what are they doing, if not defending abuse?
    And I have to wonder why the audience was such a shoo-in: could it be a lack of alternatives and a negative view of female sexuality, all wrapped up in rape culture?

  9. 9

    I’m heartily seconding blondeintokyo’s recommendation of the Cliff (Pervocracy)’s Notes chapter-by-chapter fisking of FSoG, not only because it’s extremely funny at times (when the source material isn’t provoking utter rage), but because Cliff exhaustively hammers out why the BDSM in the Fifty Shades novels is so abusive and tramples over the idea of kink being Safe, Sane, and Consensual.

  10. 10

    I tried reading 50 Shades for a panel at a SF convention I help run, and it triggered me so hard, I couldn’t finish, it sat hyperventilating for about half an hour, and nearly threw up.

    Then the person I did the panel with, who is a fairly well known kink educator in this city proceeded to needle and trigger me during the panel until I was nearly in tears, and afterwards many folks in the audience came up to apologize to me for sitting quietly and watching that. At one point the other person on the panel asked, “Don’t you want to feel like your partner is smarter and just better than you?” My response was a horrified, “NO! I want to feel like my partner is my equal, and views me as the same.” I mean, yeah, I’m submissive, but that’s in the bedroom, not real life.

    It so perfectly mirrors the abusive relationship I very narrowly got myself out of in my late teens, that it felt like someone was pressing on my chest while I was reading it.

    And yeah, the writing is fucking awful.

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