Fifty Shades of Grey: Power, Relationships, and Consent

The movie Fifty Shades of Grey opened in theatres last weekend grossing 81.7 million dollars in its first three days.  It is categorized as an “erotic romance”, presented as “a love story” of Christian and Anastasia. However, what is clearly depicted in the novel and on the big screen is a glamorization of a huge power differential between a man and a woman that is used and abused thus harm ensues.

At BWSS, we know that…

The movie received numerous critiques and criticism from communities such as women’s organizations and the Bondage Discipline Sadomastic and Masochistic (BDSM) community mainly stating that what the movie depicts is not an accurate portrayal of a healthy, equal sexual heterosexual relationship nor of the BDSM community. Yes, it is not an accurate portrayal that is certain. However, it does give us each an opportunity to really talk about sexuality, consent, power imbalances and relationships within heterosexuality and within intimacy.

Here is a discussion which aired on Global News BC1 regarding Fifty Shades of Grey with Jill Krop, Sara Blaze, the President of the Metro Vancouver Kink Society, and BWSS Executive Director, Angela Marie MacDougall which sheds light on the issues of sexuality, relationships, power and control, consent, and the importance of media literacy and of a larger awareness of the most pressing social issue of our time violence against women and girls.

 You can find a rush transcription of the interview below.

Popular culture has a huge influence on real lives, people, behaviours, attitudes, and beliefs. So what is popular culture in this case in the form of Fifty Shades of Grey saying about relationships, about sexuality, about women, about men? What images, depictions, and portrayals are the audience leaving with and how true or how much of what they are leaving with is fantasy?

This is where media literacy, the ability and competency to enable people to analyze and evaluate, is important. What am I viewing? What messages are being conveyed? Who is presenting those messages? Do I agree? Disagree? Then we each have a choice on what we want to support. Do I want to support those messages by buying a ticket? Or do I not and what can I do to counter/correct those harmful messages?

Many choose to create and promote a hash tag campaign #50DollarsNot50Shades using social media to further a culture which promotes consensual, respectful, and healthy relationships and behaviours. Many donated the cost of a movie ticket to women’s organizations.

If you share this concern and want to promote equality and safety for women and girls, instead of purchasing a ticket to see 50 Shades of Grey donate those dollars to ending violence, BWSS.

What your dollars can do:

$15 – provides a dating violence prevention education workshop for two youth

$25 – provides twelve hours crisis line training and support for volunteers

$50 – provides one support group session for two women

Thank you for your support!

If you need support regarding a current or past experience of gender based violence, please call BWSS Crisis & Intake Line at 604-687-1867 or toll free at 1-855-687-1868.

A rush transcription of the interview on Global News:

Jill Krop: Well the long anticipated movie 50 Shades of Grey opens in theaters today. It is potentially a direct knock-off of the book that is written first as a trilogy of books. There’s been a lot of discussion about this movie, everything from the power imbalance between men and women, to abuse, to the BDSM community. And joining us to talk about this, the Executive Director at Battered Women’s Support Services, Angela Mare MacDougall, from our downtown studio. Hi there.

Angela Mare MacDougall: Hello, Jill. Great to see you.

JK: Yeah, you too. And on the phone, Sarah Blaze, the Metro Van Peak Society president. Hi Sarah. Hello? Hi Sarah.

Sara Blaze: Hi, nice to see you.

JK: Nice to have you on, thank you for your time. Angela Marie, just talk to me off the top about this movie and about any concerns you might have about the message, keeping in mind, that this is a movie with an “R” rating. And so that means that young teen boys and girls should not be able to see it.

AMM: Well, I think it’s wonderful, actually, that a film like this gives us the opportunity to talk about sexuality, to talk about consent, and to talk about power imbalances and power relationships within heterosexuality and within intimacy. I think it’s a really good opportunity. Now, you know, I’ve always thought about the books, and you know, certainly the film as also giving is another chance to talk about fantasy as well as reality. And then also, the whole kind of backdrop around violence against women and sexualized violence against women. So there’s a lot here for us to discuss, and it’s a really good opportunity for this conversation. So, I’m glad that you’re having it today.

JK: Sarah, talk to me, because for a lot of people the BDSM community is a complete unknown. From what you understand about this movie because I don’t know if you’ve actually seen it. Is it a fair representation?

SB: I haven’t seen the movie yet, or actually, we’re all going tonight to go watch it. But I did read the books, and I don’t think it’s a fair representation of what it is that we do. Mainly because of the consent issues. We, we are very big about consent, and this book is not.

JK: Explain consent for me.

SB: Consent is about discussing what you going, essentially, we discuss what we’re going to do, then we do it, and then we talk about it again. And that doesn’t ever, really, happen in the book.

They start to talk about a contract, and what they can and cannot do, and will not do, and he goes ahead and just does what he wants to do, and she feels uncomfortable, but goes along with it anyways because she doesn’t want to lose the relationship. And that, that’s not consensual. It’s not enthusiastic consent. And that’s not what we try and go for.

JK: So, do you have any concern then that this is, suggests that this is BDSM, but it’s not really?

SB: Yes. And we’ve been discussing that since the books came out, but you know, the focus for us, anyways, is a matter of education. Everybody that comes to us, we do our best to educate them, and we do our best to educate our own community, so that consent is formal, and its, very important. So that people don’t take what they’re reading in these books and apply it in real life.

JK: Consent is important. You know, I was reading an article that was originally in Salon, back in 2012. The title of it ‘When Safe Words Are Ignored’. There’s some suggestion that even amongst the BDSM community that consent is not always respected. I’ve read a couple of articles about women involved who suggest that they’ve been sexually assaulted. Where they’ve said their safe or, they’ve said “stop” and the men continue. Do you know much about that? Are you aware of that? Is that an issue?

SB: I think it happens in any kind of community. I know lots of women who are not in the BDSM community say “stop” and they don’t get anywhere with their husband in sexual relationship either. So, it’s not unique to any community itself. At the public parties that we have, we do have people that are, in the rule of monitors, to be able to listen to the stories, and enforce them if necessary. But, once people are in the bedroom, there’s not much we can do, other than, as I said before, doing the education component.

JK: Angela Marie, you know, what I find fascinating, uh, we’ve talked before about domestic violence. There have been so many campaigns. We just finally have the NFL waking up to the fact that their football players can speak out, and be an example to other men, and suggest that, hey guys this isn’t any good. It just seems like such a contradiction when we’re finally coming around to that sociality, but yet these books were so popular, and now this movie is likely going to be fairly popular.

AMM: Well, and I’m really appreciative of some of the backlash. Both from the women’s community, and from the BDSM community where you know, the main stream media is, has not done a very good job of depicting BDSM, or healthy sexuality with respect to heterosexuality. And so, you know, this goes back to the whole thing about media literacy, and the role of media and in this case, entertainment media. And to the extent which their helping, or hindering our human relationships. Now, particularly, our relationships with our respect to men and women. And I like the part around consent and you know, having that conversation about consent. And about negotiation and how we negotiate safe relationships including safe sexuality and safe sexual intimacy. And you know, these are very complex things and it’s very difficult I think in a context where women do not have a quality in a larger society. We are still working for a general equality. So to be able to in relationships negotiate for equality, for you know for space and an place to negotiate even to negotiate with men there is a large portion of women who were talked about to how difficult is it to negotiate having orgasms within every day around one of the male  sexuality. This is a big deal for us, you know for women and that it is very important to first understand that this film is a myth and is doing harm and how it’s misrepresenting the whole bunch of things.

JK: Sarah, I am wondering now perhaps some of the concerns is almost much to do about nothing because there are so many movies out there that are fantasy related that we don’t know you know after the movie leave we want to copy what we see in the big screen.

SB: Yeah, and the other important point that Angela was talking about why it is that so popular. I really believe that it has more to with actually with people’s sexuality than it has to do with BDSM itself. The way people think about is like “Oh, I didn’t know I could do that, or that was an option. It just opens the door to sexuality and I think for a lot of women that are really read books that sexually with the triggers, not necessarily the violence that has been portrayed in the film. It has rather depressive sexuality in a missionary style all the time.

JK: And may be Angela Marie that is exactly the reason why these books were so popular two or three some years ago.

AAM: Well you know I am all for women’s empowerment for us taking a place, standing in our power, using our voice, using our voice in our work, in our families, in the bedroom, with our partners. So that is really important. Women’s empowerment in sexuality is really really important. We are all for that and we want to support that. We also have to look for some of the places in which we are not necessarily playing out our experiences of power in relationships. We rather well worn tropes about power and balances between women and men. And I guess that other part is separating out what is fantasy and what is reality. Fantasy is fantastic and it doesn’t mean that we necessarily take that to reality. So there are all kind of things that we might explore in our fantasy that doesn’t necessarily mean we gonna act that out in reality.

If you could do something to end violence against girls and women, wouldn’t you?