Monday, 16 July 2012

Fifty Shades of Grr

A spanking model reads That Book

This is a guest post by Adele Haze

Last summer I went to see Sir Patrick Stewart in The Merchant of Venice. He played Shylock, a member of a minority subculture, in a work created by a writer from outside that subculture. The director performed feats of inventiveness to turn a play full of wounding stereotypes into a spectacular, memorable production. The play’s contemporaries would have had to make no such efforts: there weren’t many Jews in Shakespeare’s target audience.

Of course there's no real comparison between EL James and Shakespeare. Merchant is a work of genius. Fifty Shades of Grey is a black hole of literary merit: shelved next to other books, it sucks the quality out of them. That it’s a bad book is indisputable, but that in itself doesn’t matter. Many books are bad; to save on blood pressure medication, we literary snobs are well advised to ignore them.

Yet, media attention, the viral nature of memes, and the appeal of some porn wrapped in a culturally sanctioned package have turned Fifty Shades from a trio of terrible books into a conversation carried out at a deafening level. There are a few categories of people who can’t simply pretend it isn’t happening. These are, at a minimum, writers of erotica, sellers of sex toys, gender theorists and members of the BDSM community.

Here’s something you may not know about kinky people: we are hungry for mentions of our lifestyle and its expressions in the mainstream media. When a book, film, article or a documentary focuses specifically on kinky people, there is usually a lot of buzz on the message boards and around dinner tables. Having lived through several BDSM-centric cultural events - large-scale, like the film “Secretary”, or minor, like episodes of police procedurals featuring a BDSM club here, a professional dominant there - I can say that on the whole, we don’t expect to see anything positive.

Whenever I prepare to see a production of The Merchant of Venice, I brace for Shylock. While these days a production that isn’t culturally sensitive is unlikely to make it onto the stage, the play is what it is, the characters are who they are. Shakespeare’s genius notwithstanding, Shylock is a stereotype of a Jew, and, as far as much of Western culture was concerned, he was the only type of Jew that had ever existed.

While race isn’t the same as sexuality, kinky people brace for every mainstream portrayal of our subculture in a very similar way. We know what to expect, from heroes and villains alike: if a character is into BDSM, there’s usually either a flashback to childhood beatings (Exit to Eden), or allusions to a present-day mental illness (Secretary). And these are just the romantic comedies. As we travel across genres through drama (The Piano Teacher?) and romance to thriller , there are precious few examples of kinky characters who haven’t been served up from the same cauldron of lukewarm stereotypes. What a miserable, guilt-ridden, destructive lot we are.

Now that every person in the country who ever reads books has either read 50 Shades or taken a decision not to, it’s the BDSM novel. While some are happy that the BDSM conversation is happening at all, participating in it is not dissimilar to discussing current events with people who read only the free newspapers. To get a balance of views, a person would has to search and to pay.

Here’s the thing: 50 Shades isn’t a BDSM book at all. It’s a romance novel with a redemption plot, not unlike Jane Eyre, where a pure heroine saves the tortured hero from a demon of past addiction. The addiction in this case happens to be a minority sexual interest that launches a thousand sex scenes. While I’m delighted that people new to openly buying porn at Asda now have the go-ahead for culturally sanctioned masturbation, I wish their wank material hadn’t been delivered in a form that props up exciting fantasies with a bank of puritan sandbags.

The heroine can enjoy sex - but only if at the start of the book she is a virgin. (EL James takes the innocence rule further, and makes Ana chaste to the point of asexuality: by the age of 22 the woman has never masturbated, and even managed to go through puberty and beyond without having a sex dream.) The hero can have non-mainstream sexual appetites, but these have to be justified with the excuse of an unhappy childhood. While it’s possible for the hero to have had sexual partners before who shared his interests in BDSM, those women could never have the same effect on him as one with whom he’s profoundly sexually incompatible - that is to say, an innocent who will, in the words of the novel, bring him “to the light”. In order for the timid readers to enjoy their BDSM, they must be given a chance to retreat into a mental state in which they’re not really enjoying it.


What BDSM there is in the trilogy is frequently inept: in part dangerous, in part offensive. Here are some of the misconceptions a new reader will learn about BDSM:


- BDSM relationships include a detailed contract. (Some do, most do not.)

- It’s acceptable to physically punish somebody even if they haven’t consented, as long as you’ve warned them in advance that you don’t like certain behaviours. (No, it’s still assault.)

- Cable ties are bondage tools. (They’re not.)

- It’s acceptable for the submissive's limbs to become numb while in restraints. (It isn’t. If they are, the restraints are too tight.)

- “Lovers don’t need safewords” (There are circumstances under which people choose to suspend the use of safewords. True love is not what makes this safe. In addition, there are two universal safewords: “vomit” and “lawsuit”.)

- Dominants are strong, and are older. Submissives are weak, and are younger. (Spare me.)

- Switches, that is, people who enjoy both roles, don’t exist. (A position with which bisexuals may find it easy to sympathise.)

The eminent erotica editor Rachel Kramer Bussel writes that it’s patronising towards readers to think that they would use a novel as a sex manual. I disagree. It isn’t patronising to acknowledge that people for whom 50 Shades has been a revelation aren’t basking in a bubble of sex-positivity and self-acceptance. In a world in which a woman can be assaulted by her boyfriend for reading 50 Shades, and in which the Times advice column can recommend that a woman leaves her BDSM fantasy just that, a fantasy, it will take some people more effort and courage than others to seek out the educational resources available out there. It’s better than getting your sex ed straight out of Marquis de Sade, but I don’t envy the BDSM educators and community greeters their role in clearing away the misinformation introduced by EL James and helpfully propagated by the likes of Cosmopolitan.

Still worse, Grey’s lifestyle is used to justify behaviour that’s possessive, stalkerish and emotionally abusive. He berates Ana (who isn’t even his girlfriend at this stage) for arranging a trip to see her mother, he billows puffs of drama whenever she talks to another man, and his jealousy of her boss is so profound that he arranges to buy the company she works for. (I realised that this was what must be happening with the NHS privatisation: perhaps Ana wanted to be a surgeon, and Grey had to buy it.) He throws his toys out of the pram when, newly married, she chooses to keep her name at work - and this is in the third book of the trilogy, in the midst of their “happily ever after”. Yet, it is not this bad behaviour that gets shaken out of him by the force of Ana’s love and innocence, but his perfectly mundane spanking fetish.

A certain social ritual is expected to play out when a public figure gets dragged through the press for their sexual conduct. They must necessarily perform what the advice columnist Captain Awkward calls a “shame dance”: a display of (most likely) false contrition, a visible intention to not stray again. One of the reasons I deeply admire Max Mosley is that he chose to tell mainstream society where to stuff their disapprobation; you won’t hear him denounce BDSM or swear chastity.

Not so, Christian Grey. In order to keep Ana, he’s willing to swear off BDSM; the shock of her rejection gives him anxiety about entering his playroom again. So that the readers don’t expire of tedium, the author allows some sex props to drip back into the trilogy, but the hero is adamant that he will stay vanilla if he has to, because he’s been cured by the power of love.

At the end of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock converts to Christianity. For an Elizabethan audience, this was a happy ending, for now he could earn his way to heaven. This is not how Jewish people would see it. As Patrick Stewart took off the trappings of Judaic religious dress, and said the words bullied out of him by the victorious heroes, nobody could have been left under any illusion that what happened to his character was anything but spiritual rape.

Christian Grey is happy to denounce his sexual identity if Ana should ask this of him. To a reader from outside the BDSM lifestyle, this is the pinnacle of his love, a testament to his healing. To somebody who values their sexual identity - who has, perhaps, spent some years trying to come to terms with it - it’s a direct insult.

I’m sure we’re all looking to a faithful film adaptation.

Adele Haze is a fetish model and performer. Her website and blog are here. Or follow her on Twitter @AdeleHaze