'Fifty Shades Of Grey': Sexual exploitation or a sexual revolution?

Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy

While many of us are counting down the days until February 13, the day the film adaptation of the literary juggernaut Fifty Shades of Grey hits movie theaters, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE), previously known as Morality in the Media, feels otherwise.

The organization was first founded in 1962 as an interfaith effort to counter pornography. According to the NCSE, the Fifty Shades books and movie promotes and glamorizes “torture as sexually gratifying and normalize[ing] domestic violence.”

It has launched a campaign called #FiftyShadesIsAbuse, which labels the BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism) depicted in the book and film as sexual violence. “Even among ‘consenting’ participants, this is still sexual violence where many are often coerced to continue against their will and comfort level due to the pressure to appear ‘into it,’ to avoid alienating their intimate partner, or for other reasons,” states the NCSE.

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The campaign argues that consent does not remove the psychological and physical damage that stems from that consent. “Consent is not tantamount to good,” the NCSE states. “There are many things we consent to that are psychologically disturbed, illegal, and morally corrupt.” 

Is Fifty Shades Antifeminist? 

Some cultural critics think the NCSE may have a point, finding the message of Fifty Shades to be distinctly anti-feminist and questioning Beyoncé, who is pro-sex and vocally feminist, on her affiliation with the film. The singer contributed tracks to the movie’s soundtrack, including a remix of her hit song “Crazy in Love” (watch the video, below). 

Others wonder if the popularity of Fifty Shades is due less to the failure of feminism and more to women seeing the story as a release from the anxiety of their daily lives. “Given all the interrogating, no wonder so many women fantasize about someone just telling them what to do, Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “How pleasant, to have a break from the opinion polls and commentary about what your individual choices mean for women everywhere and the feature articles on how you should be doing that thing you are doing differently because it is harming your children/feminism/marriage potential. Just: eat this, do that, lean over.”

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In an interview with the Independent, Gina Barreca, PhD, a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut, says, “The thought of a guy watching you do things in various outfits only after you ask his permission and regarding that as an act of “love” is not something helping us embrace earned trust, shared experiences, and happy, equally-balanced romantic partnerships.” 

But Not All Gender And Sexuality Experts Agree 

“Many individuals who engage in BDSM pay a lot of attention to consent, discussing beforehand what they do and do not consent to, and discussing what signals they would use if they wanted the encounter to stop,” Charlene Muehlenhard tells Yahoo Health. Muehlenhard is a professor in both the departments of psychology and women, gender, and sexuality at the University of Kansas, and her research focuses on questions of sexual coercion, sexual consent, and miscommunication. “Individuals not engaging in BDSM usually do not discuss consent so thoroughly,” she says.

Such A Public Portrayal Of BDSM Can Be Freeing

People often have narrow ideas about what "normal" sex is, and can feel anxious if their desires stray outside of this. “The popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy demonstrates how common the enjoyment of sadomasochistic (SM) fantasies is,” says sex and relationship therapist Meg John Barker in the Independent. “Sexual problems are linked to an inability to tune into, and communicate about, what we want sexually, so it is certainly useful to open up a diversity of erotic possibilities.”

Barker also notes, “Some argue that the female submission in the books is inherently anti-feminist. It’s possible for submission or dominance  to entirely focus on the other person (linked to norms of women putting others’ pleasure before their own), or to emphasize more mutual enjoyment. It’s worth being aware of how conventional gender power imbalances can play out in any form of sex, but that doesn’t mean that a specific dynamic or activity is necessarily problematic.”

While some believe that the Fifty Shades series brings attention to a cultural undercurrent in which women want to feel powerless, it could just be, as Katie Baker wrote on Jezebel back in 2012, that the books and movie show that “[t]here’s a renewed popular interest in non-“vanilla” sex, even if it’s superficial and imperfect, and hopefully Fifty Shades is just the beginning.”

Tell us, what do you think?