“So do we make love now?”
“I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard.”
Cue people swooning and fanning their crotches, either it’s in front of their laptops or in theaters around the world. Man. Whose Inner Goddess wouldn’t effing jump to do a conga when it’s Christian Grey, the young billionaire with a jawline so sharp it will serve as a great tool for Akik stone artisans? Not only the naive, virginal Anastasia Steele, I believe.
Who hadn’t heard of Fifty Shades of Grey? The worldwide phenomenon that brings BDSM into the light of the glittery, mainstream lane. The alleged “bringer of fiery passion to the beds of thousands and thousands of bored American couples”. Starter of hundreds of toddlers who wears ‘Generation Grey‘ or ‘Nine months ago, my mommy read Fifty Shades of Grey‘ bibs—and a huge stimulant to the sex toy market.
This fruit of E. L. James’ loins hands, which started as an erotic fanfiction for the Twilight fandom literally exploded to popularity, and recently, has been adapted for a movie. The plot? Simple. Naive, clumsy, virginal girl (Ana) meets rich, sexy-as-hell, broody boy (Chris) and they get involved in some romantic escapade which changes her life for-hella-ever. Yes, your standard Cinderella story—not quite. The gimmick in this story, its sole selling point because the writing is so terrible, is that the prince has ‘a deep, dark, terrible secret’ : he prefers his sexual activities to be…a bit unconventional, leaning to activities where pain and pleasure collide within a strict hierarchy of the ‘Dominant’ and ‘submissive’ role.
Yes, Ana’s supposed Prince Charming is a Dom, much like Irene Adler (yum—and her title is Domme, fyi) in BBC’s Sherlock (double yum), and he has a catch. If the smitten Ana wants to be with him, in a way or another she must agree to be his sub. Long story short, Ana has to live under the rules of her super delicious, chiseled Dom, Christian. If she’s asked to shave her armpits, go shave it. If she’s asked to go to the gym and has a meal plan made for her (in Secretary (2002), a film that also highlights a BDSM relationship, the menu is “a scoop of mashed potatoes, four peas, and as much ice cream as you want”.), well, you gotta dig in. In bed, a sub has to assume the passive, receiving role (at least that’s the traditional role. There is also a role called Power Bottom). Violating the contract or rules will lead to punishments, usually in the form of spanking, caning, or whipping.
Mix this dangerous, alternative variant of sex and a Cinderella arc formula? You get a blockbuster movie with the gross income of US$ 413.000.000 (when this piece is written), from a mere US$ 40.000.000 budget (remember, Torrenting your favorite movie doesn’t count. Geez, imagine if it does count. How many billions can the company get?). There are also a lot of merchandise, ranging from Christian’s legendary striped tie to lipsticks, teddy bears (what even), lingerie, sex toys, etc. Normally-vanilla people raced to tie their partners into the bedposts, or dabbled in whipping their bedfellows with belts or spatulas. BDSM is suddenly a trend, while people who walks the talk is protesting hard to the movie, since FSOG does poop in representing their lifestyle. That FSOG is not BDSM like the marketers (or gullible die-hard fans) tell you, but instead, it’s a movie about domestic abuse and violence, and your writer here agrees wholeheartedly.
Why? Let’s step back for a while and examine what BDSM really is.
The term BDSM itself was first coined at ’69 (teehee) as an umbrella term for variants of sexual activities and interpersonal relations expanding from B&D (Bondage and Discipline), D&s (Dominance and submission), and S&M (Sadism and Masochism) between at least two persons. How each category differs, Google it yourself, but in the core of this practice is that instead of a power-neutral approach to your ordinary/vanilla sex, BDSM has a clear inequality of power in the roles its participants assume, so there’s an active/Dominant role and a passive/submissive role, be it physical or mental. Usually, the period of time where the acts are done is called a ‘play’, a ‘scene’, or a ‘session’.
In that particular period of time, the two/more participants will derive pleasure from activities that, when put in other context, might be very unpleasant, such as verbal humiliation or movement restriction. Here, it’s the explicit trust of both parties, often written down in the form of a contract, are in play. In these documents, the Dom and sub’s rights and obligations are explored, and there’s usually a section called Yes/No/Maybe sheet, where a sub can tick down kinks and activities they are willing to try with their Doms, highlighting their limits and tastes (my personal kicks are in taking orders, and I really, really dislike the idea of sounding). A very neat system, huh? This contract is then read, modified, and signed together. You can see here that an actual BDSM practice is highly consensual, respectful, and mutually beneficial—in terms that a party can’t push their will to the other beyond the limitations predetermined in the contract.
When boundaries are crossed, there’s a safety precaution called a safeword. If my safeword is Chincilla and I say it in the middle of play, my Dom have to stop whatever they are currently doing. When speaking isn’t practical because of instances such as gags or water play or something else, a ball with bells can be an alternative. When the ball drops, the play stops, and communication starts. Remember this, because it’s very, very important. “Do you need a break?”, “What went wrong?”, “How are you feeling?”, “Did I go overboard?”, “Do you need anything? How do I make it better?” are questions commonly asked. This, darlings, is called the aftercare. You can imagine that plays can get so intense—physically or mentally—in this environment. Aftercare consists of cuddling, talking, and a variety of other stuffs. If the sub requests to be bathed, take them to the shower and gently clean them up. If they want to be read a bedtime story, read the heck of something they like. Post-shibari sores? Massage your sub. Lacerations? Some of your whips broke their skin? Mend them. The thing is to restore the mental and physical state of you both to where it was before the play—returning trust and emotional bonds, so no one finishes the scene feeling terrible.
In relations to that, there are two variants of BDSM principles: SSC and RACK. SSC (Safe, Sane, Consensual) sometimes gets backlash over the ‘sane’ element which to some people connotes that participants are ‘insane’. Some practitioners are then moving to SCC (Safe, Controlled, Consensual). It’s really up to debates, though. Meanwhile, RACK (Risk-Aware Consensual Kink) is more focused to the individuals participating, since in essence, no acts in BDSM are truly ‘safe’. Participants are encouraged to understand the underlying risks, and are held responsible to their choices. But hey! Whatever your principle of choice is, Teh Botol Sosro is your drink, and in the BDSM circle it’s called Informed Consent. Like in researches, all parties involved has to know what’s going to happen in the play, including the risks.
And there you have it. You have now, basically, passed from Introduction to BDSM, and is allowed to take the next subject: Comparative Review of BDSM Practices. We will now delve into the world of FSOG, and we will compare it to the principles of: 1) Relationship Common Sense, and 2) BDSM Principles. In the following writing, the books and movie is molded together, since there’s only a little differentiation between the two.
To make it a lot easier, strip off (ehe) all the glamours in the story. Okay? Christian Grey isn’t handsome. He’s probably an average-looking IT worker (because Grey Enterprises are supposed to concentrate in telecommunications). He’s not rich, and definitely does not possess a private helicopter or a penthouse. Just a regular bloke, like your kerja bakti-skipping neighbor. Done? Add Anastasia Steele—a regular girl. Probably someone you know, or your best friend, or your sister, if you have difficulties sympathizing for a woman for the sole fact that she’s a human being. Stir well, and consider these four facts about her new fling: Christian Grey.
- He stalks her. When she goes out to meet friends, going for dinner, maybe a drink or two, which is okay, because you’re an adult, because, probably, one of your friends just got the job they have always wanted, Christian comes storming to her location without even asking where she was in the first place—creep alert—then proceeds to rant at her in public, in front of her friends. They’re not even a couple yet. In another event, Ana goes to visit her mother. And lo and behold, Christian appears on her doorstep. Awkward. He also has the supernatural knack of figuring out where Ana is—her workplace, her home… When she sends him an email telling him that she never wants to see him again, CHRISTIAN EFFING GREY APPEARED IN HER BEDROOM WITH A BOTTLE OF BEER!!!! When she moves workplaces, suddenly Chris is working there too. He reads her emails and correspondences. What even. If Ana is your best friend, what would you tell her? As Felix Siauw goes: Putusin aja deh!
- Extremely destructive jealousy (or insecurity) from both sides. Long story short, Christian keeps Ana in a cage. She can’t meet people without his permission. She can’t go to a business meeting out of town because it means that she’s going to spend time with her male boss. She can’t have a male friend, while Christian is still in close contacts with his numerous ex-girlfriend. On the flip side, Ana is so scared of being abandoned by Christian, and will agree to whatever he wants her to do, even things she’s not even comfortable with—just so she pleases him. This ‘relationship’ clearly weighs more on Ana. She’s the one making all the sacrifices. She’s the one trying to fix their mess. Christian never gives his controlling ways up. Now think of what would you say to her if Ana is your friend, and what would you think of their relationship when she starts making excuses and defending this Grey dude.
- Too fast, too soon. They had known each other for a really, really short period of time, and Ana is already asked to sign a contract that basically tells her what to eat, when to sleep, what to wear, and when to meet her new Dom. Are you even serious, Chris-From-IT? And immediately after that, she’s given a tour to the Red Room? And? Extreme play??? It’s like pushing a kid who had never swam before to a pool with obstacles in it. Poor dear.
- Relating to the previous point, Ana agrees to Christian’s requests mainly because she’s afraid of starting an argument, fear of being punished, or abandoned. Christian tells her that he’s a ‘damaged goods’, and tells her his sad background story when Ana disagrees to his term, making her feel bad about him. Ana loses herself. Her friends point out how she’s ‘a shadow of what she was’. She’s constantly thinking that she’s never enough.
And then there’s the problematic part. The BDSM:
- Contract. Ana never signed it. Christian was never her official Master. He pestered her continuously about it though, and even though he said that the contract is negotiable, it’s really…not. Ana never had a choice, it’s an illusion that Christian gives her.
- Manipulated or assumed consent. Ana is either intoxicated or pressured in a way into agreeing with what they do in bed. She was never allowed to express herself freely, mainly in bed. Once, Grey gets her drunk to ~loosen up her boundaries~. Ana safe worded in another occurrence, but Christian continued on. In BDSM, as I’ve said before, safewording means the play is too much and you /have/ to stop. If you don’t, it’s called rape, friends.
- Lack of Respect. Christian doesn’t trust Ana. At all. He ‘worries’ over her in a sickeningly obsessive way, stretching to stalking. He demeans her sexuality, seeing her virginity as a trouble to be taken care of, like a challenge. Christian treats her like a child, both in and out of the Red Room. This isn’t /love/, it’s demeaning. According to Christian, Ana can’t take care of herself, or make an independent decision. Like Rapunzel’s Mother Gothel. Maybe, instead of The Weekend’s Earned it, Christian’s theme song should have been Mothers Dominants Know Best.
- Deflection of responsibility. When he punishes her, he tells her that it’s her own fault, and then he said that it’s not that bad and he had gone easy on her. Another occurrence is when after hitting her, he has sex with her and she’s aroused–then Grey resumed telling Ana that ‘you must have really liked it’ while in fact she’s just really confused and shocked and really upset. This is a classical mind game employed so Ana wouldn’t tell anyone. Much like rape.
- Absence of aftercare. Big mistake. Communication and trust is the very baseline of a proper BDSM relationship. Dominants are supposed to nurture and empower their submissives and with a safe environment to communicate, they can grow together and be comfortable with each other. Without aftercare and informed consent (no one likes to be surprised by a riding crop to their back), it’s just abuse.
Now stop. Does FSOG still fall inside the romance category for you? Can you see the abuse? Do you feel sad when people starts saying ‘Christian Grey is my perfect man’, or ‘ ‘Where’s my Christian Grey’? The proper answer to that question is ‘in jail, I hope’, by the way. What kind of a decent man, no matter how handsome and rich he is, stalks you to your parents’ house? Bugs your phone and hacks your email? Humiliates you in front of your friends? Restricts your freedom? Gets you drunk to have sex with? Threatens to punish you sexually when he’s angry? None. None. None. If you meet a person like that, you grab your keys and run, okay?
I’ve tried to talk about this to some people in my circle, and their most common ‘defense’ is that ‘it’s just a movie’. But not really, though. Media has a huge influence on the society. As a scholar of communication studies, I know how the media can be used to make society think of something in one way instead of the other. This act of romanticization and glorification of abuse is dangerous. Girls will think that it’s okay to be abused. Boys will think that it’s alright to treat girls like this. It’s not just a movie. It has an impact in real life situations. To real life relationships.
There had been one murder-rape case involving an attempt to recreate a FSOG scene. A student in Chicago was tied up to her bed, beaten, whipped, and then raped by another student, claiming that he was trying to re-enact a FSOG scene. One high school girl in Philippines died out of blood loss because her classmate whipped her with the tail of a stingray, and tied her to the bed with rubber bands. These two extreme cases are just the ones that are already exposed. I’m sure that there are people who are pressured to do as Grey and Steele did in either the book or the movie when it’s not actually their cup of tea.
One last thing. I’m not against BDSM. God knows that I’ve dabbled into the scene from time to time and enjoyed myself. I just think that people should not try it without proper research and understanding about the practice. BDSM itself is great. It’s a fun way to escape, given a safe environment and partners who actually understands what it’s about. It’s just that its current ambassador, Fifty Shades of Grey, is so damned problematic!
*A jumping bean of bittersweet contradictions. Student of Communications in Universitas Indonesia, batch 2011.