50 Shades of Hysteria: Why the Feminist Critique of the Movie ’50 Shades of Grey’ is Erotophobia in Disguise

Margie Nichols, Ph.D.by Margie Nichols, Ph.D.

The Internet has been blowing up about the movie ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ and most of the commentary I’ve seen is negative. Tracy Scott-Flore wrote a piece in Salon called ’50 Shades of Coercive,’ accusing the movie of contributing to the rape culture, And SFist.com published an article misleadingly called ’50 Adult Stars and Professionals On Why They Hate 50 Shades of Grey’ – misleading because many of them actually liked it and were happy to see BDSM mainstreamed. I had a hard time plowing through the book – not enough sex scenes – and wasn’t planning to see the movie. But overall, I’ve felt the book was great – because 100 million people bought it, most of them women. And tons more women bought sex toys associated with the book, implying they might be trying to make some of their sexual fantasies into reality. Because I’m a feminist and a sex radical who feels that by definition, any erotica that women likes is – feminist. Because I’m a sex therapist who feel women already feel way too much shame about their sexuality and I’m happy to see anything that validates and allows women to express formerly forbidden fantasies. Because in short, anything that expands women’s sexuality is a good thing. I’m not the only feminist to feel this way: Jaime Grant praised the ’50 Shades’ phenomena in HuffPo and Esther Perel applauded it in a video interview on Business Insider. But overall the response has been negative. On Facebook, when I commented on a feminist post accusing the movie of contributing to rape culture with the question, ‘Are you saying 100 million women are wrong and have been brainwashed?’ the poster responded, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.’ That really upset me. I’ve been a feminist since 1970, and I remember the ‘Feminist Sex Wars’ of the 1980’s, a time when ‘political correctness’ was paramount. In fact, ‘P.C.’ sex got so restricted among lesbians that any women who wanted to be penetrated was suspect. Feminist Andrea Dworkin called heterosexual sex in the missionary position rape. Women like me, turned on by submissive fantasies from an early age, had clearly been brainwashed by the patriarchy. The message the feminist movement, especially lesbian feminism, delivered to women like me was: you should be ashamed of your sexual desires and attempt to rid yourself of them. I rejected that brand of feminism thirty years ago, and ever since, I’m wary of feminists who decry erotica – which is what ’50 Shades’ is – soft porn romantic erotica. But so many critics talked about the nonconsensual violence in the movie that I felt I needed to see it myself. So here’s what I saw: First, the movie isn’t winning any awards. And Jamie Dornan, who plays Christian Grey, kept reminding me of Jim Carrey, which was disconcerting. I was most upset by the clear implication that Christian’s sadistic desires were the result of childhood abuse. That suggestion does a disservice to kinky people everywhere. And of course lots about the movie was wildly unrealistic – it’s fiction, not a documentary, and pretty fantastical fiction at that. Basically, it’s a romance story about a tortured bad boy and the woman who wants to tame him – and who pretty much succeeds. It’s easy to see why the fantasy appeals to women: Anastasia is wooed, swept off her feet, wined and dined, and lovingly seduced by a handsome rich dude. What’s not to like? And the BDSM is oh so light. As a submissive, the only ‘order’ Anastasia has to obey is to take her clothes off and wait for Christian to completely devote himself to pleasuring her – a greedy bottom’s delight! Oh, and a few spanks and flicks of a teasing riding crop are involved here and there. Ana is put it bondage in order to be forced to experience the horrors of sensual touching with a peacock feather and a lot of oral sex. It’s fairly hot, actually, but not very shocking and far from extreme. And then, at the end there is the ‘scene’ that feminists are decrying as nonconsensual. Poor tortured Christian is goaded by Anastasia into showing his ‘darkest’ desires – which apparently consist of hitting Ana with a belt six times. He doesn’t want to, she insists, she isn’t restrained, she’s completely free to go, she has a safe word which he encourages her to use. Instead, she chooses to ‘endure’ the six blows while she silently cries, and then afterwards contemptuously denigrates Christian and leaves him. In other words, she forces him to show her desires that deeply shame him, and then she humiliates and abandons him. Who’s the victim here? It’s hard for me to parse this movie in any way that shows the heroine as anything other than an assertive, independent woman who has Christian wrapped around her finger. Kinksters – you have something to complain about here, but it’s that poor Christian is pathologized and put down for his sexuality. However, I think the fact that the phenomena brings BDSM more into the mainstream outweighs the negative. Feminists – seriously? If you see this as rape, or as abuse, then I have to believe that you automatically see any sexual D/S with man as a top and a woman as a bottom as abusive. And that’s very retro, very 20th Century – a place I’m not willing to go back to. Feminists, like everyone, can be very erotophobic. I understand the concern: women’s bodies and women’s sexual desires have historically belonged to men, and yes, we DO have a rape culture. But kink really isn’t about that, it’s about pleasure. Years ago, Carole Vance’s book about the Feminist Sex Wars was called ‘Pleasure and Danger.’ We must not be so focused on the danger – of rape, unwanted pregnancy, assault, abuse – that we forget about the pleasure part. Anything that frees, validates, and promotes women’s sexual desires and sexual enjoyment is feminist. 100 million women aren’t wrong. (Okay, they aren’t all women but most are). They are asserting their sexual desires, their right to the erotica of their choice. Haters, leave our orgasms alone!

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