There's only one shade of rape

Poster for theatrical release on Valentines Day.
Friday, February 20, 2015

50 Shades of Grey
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring Dakota Johnson & Jamie Dornan
Based on the novel by EL James
In cinemas now

Perhaps the most concerning thing about 50 Shades of Grey is not that it is a film adaptation of a novel that was written in an online forum — and a Twilight fan forum at that.

Neither is it that the characters are underdeveloped or that the storyline could have only been made more predictable if it were constructed by online YouTuber trying to come up an “original” content about the “differences” between men and women and coming up with periods and racing cars. The most concerning thing about 50 Shades of Grey, was, in fact, the response it received.

Let’s be real here. There are few people who watched it because they genuinely thought they would like it — this will be the film version of Rebecca Black's song “Friday”, famous for being hated. But people dislike the film (and the novel) for different reasons: there are those that dislike it simply on the basis that it’s a badly made film adaptation of a badly written story.

Others dislike it for being antifeminist, portraying a weak docile female character who is subsumed into an abusive relationship.

Much of the controversy surrounding the film centres on its portrayal of BDSM. Melbourne radical feminist group, Radical Alliance of Women, are currently calling for protests at screenings of the film, while arguing that all BDSM is abuse and any sexual relationship that involves BDSM is abusive.

However, one does not need to believe that BDSM is inherently abusive to see the relationship portrayed in the film as abusive. While there are some who argue that the film takes a sex positive line, others, including people who practice BDSM, have pointed out that the relationship depicted in the film is indeed abuse and distorts what BDSM actually is.

Leaving aside that the male protagonist in the film, Christian Grey, is possessive, manipulative and uses his immense wealth to illegally stalk the female character, Anastasia Steele — for example, tracking her phone communications and even buying her place of employment — certain scenes in the film are rape.

Society does not seem to be able to agree on what rape actually is. Feminists are pushing to broaden the understanding of rape.

Contrary to popular belief, consent is something which needs to be continual throughout the sex. The general consensus among feminists is that consent must be given with a clear, enthusiastic “yes”. A common misunderstanding of consent, all too often shown by courts of law, is that there needs to be struggle for rape to have occurred. This is not the case. Rape can occur if the other person simply doesn’t say yes.

There are several scenes in the book where Anastasia says with clarity that she’s unsure of what’s about to take place or that she feels uncomfortable with it — to which her sexual partner responds by proceeding with the sexual manoeuvre or telling her to “shut up”. This is a clear sign that consent was not given.

However, there are some scenes, in which Anastasia is enthusiastic and more than willing to participate and learn before and during the sex that occurs. What that says is that some of the sex depicted was rape and some was not.

However, her enthusiasm occurs in the context of a relationship in which she is controlled and at many times clearly states that she thinks “he might beat the shit out of her.”

A number of feminist critics have pointed to Grey’s controlling, manipulative behaviour as being archetypical of a domestic abuser. Pointing out that there is nothing romantic about this, and critiquing the book and film for suggesting that such a relationship is something women should aspire to, should not, however, lead to saying that Anastasia should have made a better decision or that she would leave if she respected herself.

A common fallacy and dangerous notion around domestic violence is that women always have the choice to leave. This ignores the nature of controlling and abusive relationships, and the pragmatically difficult situations women face in trying to leave, whether in Christian Grey’s world of extreme wealth and decadence (highlighting the economic and social power he has over her) or in a one bedroom apartment on an average street.

So, how should feminists be responding to 50 Shades of Grey?

Well, firstly by acknowledging that what took place in some parts of the book was rape and that makes this book have an underlying sex negative tone. After all, the championing of consent culture is about acknowledging rape when we see it, not just dusting it under the rug because there’s heaps of interesting sex happening and there may be sex positivity potential there.

However, that does not mean that just because the BDSM in 50 Shades of Grey was for the most part not healthy sex that we should take the line that all BDSM is wrong.

When premised with continual consent, a clear understanding of what’s about to take place, and mutual respect, there’s nothing wrong with BDSM. Many women can enjoy it as they see fit.

To imply that all BDSM is abusive denies a woman agency or a decision making process in deciding what she wants to consent to. It generally plays into ideologies espoused by the far right in slut-shaming and sex negativity.

One of the most common misconceptions espoused by this anti-BDSM movement is that women are never doms (playing the powerful role in the sex) which simply isn’t true. Another is that BDSM can never be healthy or safe — also not true.

There are groups and clubs associated with the practice of BDSM, which are places for people to go and practice healthy and safe BDSM.

Finally, to imply that a woman is a victim in any sexual act that is out of the ordinary is inherently sex negative because the promotion of consent culture is about recognising that sex is a mutual process with two active people involved. It’s not something that’s done to someone or performed on someone.

No feminist is allowed to tell another woman what they like in the bedroom. That’s a body policing practice and no matter how feminist you claim to be, to push an ideology that controls women’s sexuality, you might as well just sign a document right now that says “I heart the capitalist-hetero-patriarchy.”

However, consent culture is something we all, as a society, need to be more educated on.

High schools ignore the idea of including feminist ideology in sex education classes, or even talking about what real conversations around proper consent are. What constitutes rape needs to be brought into the curriculum.

Why not start with popular culture? Given the popularity of the book, and now the film, why not start with 50 Shades of Grey?

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