This post originally went live on mydnyht.wordpress.com on 1 August 2013.
It wasn’t until the breaking of the Penn State scandal that I was inundated into the world of rape culture and rape jokes. I recall much discussion on Facebook regarding their inappropriateness and offensiveness, and for some reason which I can neither fathom nor have fully explored in therapy, I took the stance of defending rape culture and rape jokes. I wrote a note which I published on Facebook (I later deleted both the note and the account itself so that various comments left on other people’s statuses would disappear from the internet) which debated the time and place of rape fantasies and the use of rape culture and jokes as an outlet for violent behavior and a preventative measure. If potential rapists can act out their fantasies in an online trolling landscape, I argued, perhaps they would be made aware of the consequences of their actions and be able to separate fantasy from reality and prevent themselves from sexually acting out against others. Whether or not this is actually how the psychology of a rapist or child molester works I can’t speak to; nor do I care to explain why I felt compassion for the offender.
Not long after the Penn State trial began, talk of rape culture renewed itself in discussions of the book “50 Shades of Grey”, which had just been released and was growing in popularity. I have read both “50 Shades of Grey” by E.L. James and “The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty” by Anne Rice (written under A. N. Roquelaure) in an attempt to compare BDSM fiction and debate the time and place of rape fantasies. Beginning with “The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty”, we are entered into a world of pure fantasy where it is very clear that this type of BDSM could never be re-enacted in real life (individual acts could be re-enacted, perhaps, but the keeping of sex slaves in trade between kingdoms? Not so much). It is also very clear most of the time what is considered non-consensual and what is considered consensual. I would even argue that most of Beauty’s desires and feelings of consent regarding the Prince who captures her have more to do with Stockholm syndrome than anything else; I do believe that her feelings for Prince Alexi, however, were truly consensual. If you’re into BDSM fiction and rape fantasies, it is a well written book and a quick read that leaves you with a cliffhanger that ropes you into reading the next book in the series. Even if rape fantasies happen to horrify you, it’s worth noting that this fantasy world is not something that the average person would aspire to and it’s made quite clear that, yes, rape happens in these books. The same can’t be said for “50 Shades”.
Given what I had read online about “50 Shades of Grey”, I had anticipated a book that had multiple scenes of coercion and more blatant non-consensual sex or sexual activities. The book was not well written, although it doesn’t particularly bother me that it started off as a fan-fiction – technically isn’t “Wicked” fan-fiction? Or any re-adaptation of traditional fairy tales? But I digress. When I finished reading the book, I was left with an overwhelming feeling of confusion. Despite the fact that I didn’t particularly enjoy the book, I found myself rooting for the main characters and was unsure about the nature of their relationship in the context of whether or not it was healthy. It wasn’t until I read a blog post by a woman who had made it out of an abusive relationship who compared her relationship with the way Christian treats Anastasia that it became clear that this book was a dangerous way to present such relationships (you can read the article hereand I’d encourage you to do so; it’s very eye-opening). More than that, it made me question an unhealthy relationship I’d had in high school – it brought back memories and I think this is where some of my confusion came from. Having been treated this way myself, I’m not surprised that I felt a connection to the main characters or wanted them to be together (however, this isn’t to say that most fans of the book have had similar experiences). Without getting into too much detail about my own personal experiences, I will say that I recall talking to a person I was in a relationship with in the school library. I’m not sure how this came up in conversation, but this person told me that should they ever want to “do anything” to me (their words), they would be able to and I wouldn’t be able to fight back – this person made it clear that they could handle a fight with someone who was physically larger or stronger than they were, so I would be an easy target. When I stated that, should this person do something to me, I would scream, they responded by saying “I know how to disable your vocal chords so you wouldn’t be able to scream.” In retrospect, I probably should have ended the relationship right then and there or told an adult about the conversation, but these types of quips were common from this person so although I was frightened and didn’t trust them, I remained in the relationship. I can imagine this is similar to the confusion and fear that Anastasia must have felt toward Christian.
What’s particularly dangerous about “50 Shades of Grey” is that it’s touted as a modern alternative romance and it doesn’t have the clarity of pure fantasy that “The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty” does. “50 Shades” is something that women in BDSM lifestyles are supposed to aspire to, and certainly even women generally engaged in vanilla relationships want their own Christian Grey. It’s not so much the physical aspect of the relationship that is abusive (although there are times when Anastasia is unsure of or flat out dislikes the idea of being a submissive and all the physicality it entails), but the emotional aspect, and I think that’s what is getting to me and to so many others. Because the physical aspects of the relationship are drawn up in a contract, and because physical aspects of the relationship are so key to BDSM, it’s easy to ignore the emotional abuse and coercion that Anastasia is subjected to. Unlike “The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty”, which makes it clear when abuse is taking place and therefore allows the reader to understand and engage in a rape fantasy, “50 Shades” blurs the lines of what is acceptable in a relationship and what is healthy between two partners. It’s not a true rape fantasy, but rather a portrayal of an emotionally abusive relationship that at times appears rather benign. For many of us, it may not be until every unhealthy action is stripped down and portrayed in a more black-and-white fashion that the reality hits (it certainly was that way for me).
I am a firm believer that exploring dark areas in fantasies is healthy so long as a person can clearly recognize that there is a difference between fantasy and reality and that, should their fantasy be made a reality, there could be serious negative consequences. As such, very few people who read “The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty” are going to go out and start BDSM sex trafficking industries. However, the popularity of “50 Shades of Grey” combined with so few people realizing the unhealthy aspects of the relationship of the main characters is a recipe for danger when it comes to the fantasy world. Tread carefully when these fantasies come to fruition.