The Atlantic

Consent Isn’t Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades

The blockbuster fantasy has become a big movie—and a bigger problem.
Source: Jackie Lay

What is a fantasy? From Freud to Ludacris, it's been an elusive idea, suggesting both an escape from reality and an expression of hidden desire. In culture, fantasy works like a mirror: It reflects who we are, but it also shapes what we become.

Love it or despise it, American culture's sexual fantasy of the moment is Fifty Shades of Grey. Since Random House bought the rights to the trilogy in 2012, the series has sold well over 100 million copies worldwide. Trailers for the movie adaptation of the first book have been viewed 250 million times, according to an ad aired in early February; it’s expected to gross at least $60 million at the box office in its opening weekend.

And that means the Fifty Shades fantasy is about to become all the more influential. Yes, the story will likely reach an even larger audience, but more importantly, it will be told in a new, visual form. When the movie comes out, the Fifty Shades version of hot, kinky sex will become explicit and precise, no longer dependent upon the imaginations of readers. Early reports say the movie shows at least 20 full minutes of sex, although it's only rated R.

The story is fairly simple. Anastasia Steele, a middle-class senior at Washington State University Vancouver, meets Christian Grey, an incredibly handsome, debonair 27-year-old multi-millionaire CEO. They fall in love, hard and fast. Theirs is a romance full of drama and passion, and they end up living the conventional American fantasy: love, marriage, and a kid.

What’s not so conventional is their sex. Early on in the first book, Ana discovers that Christian has a “dark secret”: He’s obsessed with BDSM—a condensed abbreviation for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. This is the central tension of the books: Ana loves Christian, but she doesn’t want to be his submissive; Christian loves Ana, but he’s turned on by violent sex.

As several experienced BDSM practitioners emphasized to me, there are healthy, ethical ways to consensually combine sex and pain. All of them require self-knowledge, communication skills, and emotional maturity in order to make the sex safe and mutually gratifying. The problem is that Fifty Shades casually associates hot sex with violence, but without any of this context. Sometimes, Ana says yes to sex she’s uncomfortable with because she’s too shy to speak her mind, or because she’s afraid of losing Christian; she gives consent when he wants to inflict pain, yet that doesn’t prevent her from being harmed.

This is a troubling fantasy in American culture, where one in five women will be raped within their lifetime, according to the CDC; where nearly 40 percent of those rapes will happen to women aged 18 to 24; and where troubling evidence of casual attitudes toward rape—such as in 2010 when a number of Ivy League-educated men thought it was okay to chant “no means yes, yes means anal” on their campus—is not uncommon. As images of Ana being beaten by Christian become the new normal for what’s considered erotic, they raise questions about what it means to “consent” to sex. Clearly, consent is necessary; but is it sufficient?

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