Sadistic abuse is not romantic

At a time when many of us are working flat out to help young women avoid controlling, manipulative, emotionally and physically violent relationships, comes a film which presents these behaviours as romantic.

Fifty Shades of Grey, based on E.L James blockbuster book, hits the cinemas tomorrow for Valentine’s Day.

Sex shops report a boom in sales, hardware stores are stocking up on cable ties and rope, and everyone’s getting in on the act. Anti-violence men’s group White Ribbon Australia was to be the beneficiary of a Fifty Shades screening until we pressured them enough to scrap it. A Uniting Care pre-school was to benefit also from a fundraising screening but the organization was persuaded that that wasn’t such a good idea either and the idea was pulled.

But the juggernaut rolls on. The film is being advertised on bus shelters outside high schools and even in respite care centres for children.

Why say “I love you” with chocolate when you can say it with blood and bruises?

Christian Grey, 28 — in reality a sexual sociopath worthy of a restraining order — is depicted as handsome, alluring, and exceedingly wealthy. Playboy Grey targets and grooms Anastasia (Ana) Steele — a virginal, klutzy, 21-year-old college student.

His obsessive and controlling behavior towards the naïve Ana is read as a sign of love and devotion. He loves her like no other.

In the advertising overdrive, the dangerous messages propagated by the Fifty Shades phenomenon should not be missed: stalking, aggression, sexual violence, threats, intimidation, manipulation, and control are sexy.

If he stalks you he must really love you. If you say “no,” that’s just a come-on. And if you love a sadistic abuser he’ll change and you’ll live happily ever after in a really big house.

None of these behaviours are marketed as problematic but, rather, promoted as romantic. That’s why domestic violence groups internationally have launched a campaign called “50 dollars not 50 shades,” calling for a boycott of the film and asking for donations to women’s shelters instead. They have seen too many real-life Anastasias.

One refuge worker has described Fifty Shades as a “classic narrative of domestic violence.”

But rather than walk away from the Christian Greys of the world, the genre tells women that if you love him and cop enough of his shit, eventually he’ll magically morph into the man you wanted.

Melbourne, Australia mental health profession Geoff Ahern agrees. “It’s fiction that glorifies fear, intimidation, stalking and violence against women. When I read extracts from the book I hear my clients telling the same stories and that is most certainly not fiction.”

Natalie Collins set up the campaign group, Fifty Shades Is Domestic Abuse. The Independent reports:

When Collins’ co-campaigner first read the books, she said she was “deeply disturbed by how it mirrored the abuse that she had experienced from an ex-partner… women are coming to us and saying, ‘We feel exploited, we feel that our stories and the abuse and trauma that we have suffered are being capitalized upon.’ We’re concerned especially how that’s reflecting and impacting young people.”

Men learn to be turned on by women in pain.

Grey calls Ana his “submissive” and expects her to sign a contract outlining the ways he intends to control her.

“I’m going to fuck you now, Miss Steele… Hard.” He “rips through” her virginity, making her cry out. Grey then tells her he wants her to be “sore.” 

Young women are growing up in a culture which grooms and socializes them to be subordinate. Fifty Shades reinforces that – with the expectation they should also find aggression sexy and desirable.

An analysis by Michigan State and Ohio State universities determined that Grey is a perpetrator who uses an “interlocking pattern” of emotional abuse strategies to manipulate Ana and control the relationship, including: stalking, intimidation, isolation, and humiliation. Physical and sexual violence are prevalent and Grey uses alcohol to impair Anastasia’s consent.

“Sexual violence is pervasive,” said the authors, citing Christian using alcohol to compromise Ana’s consent, intimidation, initiating sexual encounters when angry, dismissing Ana’s requests for boundaries, threatening her, and humiliating her.

The authors noted that Ana experiences reactions typical of abused women such as constant perceived threat, altered identity, stressful managing, engaging in behaviours to “keep the peace,” like withholding information to avoid Christian’s anger.

Researchers believed the popular book series had the power to influence attitudes and beliefs surrounding intimate partner violence, arguing “individuals regularly alter their real world beliefs and attitudes in response to fictional communication.”

The impact on Anastasia is consistent with that of other victims of intimate partner violence — constant perceived threat, managing and altering her behaviors to keep peace, lost identity, disempowerment and entrapment.

A 2013 Vic Health survey found a sizeable number of people believe there are circumstances in which violence can be excused.

We don’t need more myths about intimate partner violence being a reflection of true love. And the last thing we need is to romanticize domestic abuse.

We can’t ignore the implications of depicting a man worthy of criminal charges as hot, sexy, and desirable. The packaging of a story about an abusive relationship as “romance” perpetuates violence against women and undermines efforts to promote equal, respectful relationships.

This is an extended version of a piece which appeared in the Herald Sun (Australia) today. 

Melinda Tankard Reist  is a Canberra author, speaker, media commentator, and advocate for women and girls. She is known for her work on the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls and her work to address violence against women. Melinda has published several books, including: Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls.

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