“50 Shades” of coercive sex: The movie is even worse than the book

BDSM experts say the film portrays "alarming and abusive" sex and violates everything the community values

Published February 13, 2015 1:30PM (EST)

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in "Fifty Shades of Grey"        (Universal Pictures)
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in "Fifty Shades of Grey" (Universal Pictures)

There is a scene toward the end of the movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” in which Christian Grey whales on a naked Anastasia Steele with a belt. Tears roll across the bridge of her nose. She has the rigid countenance of someone enduring unwanted torture. Afterward, angrily, she tells him, “You will never do that to me again!” He, on the other hand, is flushed and sweaty and has the look of a guy who has just jizzed in his pants.

America’s hot new record-breaking sex flick, everyone! It is just the date movie our puritanical -- and yet super rape-y! -- culture deserves.

Of all the unsexy sex scenes in “Fifty Shades of Grey” -- seriously, “Frozen” was more arousing -- this one in particular stands out. That’s because it typifies everything that the movie, and the book, gets so horrible wrong about consent. I went into a screening this week hoping that maybe, just maybe, the movie would fix what the book got so backward about BDSM. After all, much ink has been spilled on that topic, as well as on Anastasia and Christian’s broader abusive relationship dynamic. The moviemakers had an enormous heads-up -- one bigger than the absurd skyscraper the fictional Mr. Grey resides in -- about these issues. I thought, you know, maybe they would smartly correct a couple troubling things while still preserving the frisson that has made the story so popular.

But, LOL, what was I thinking! In reality, the movie presents an even more disturbing portrait of kink. One that does not reflect the principles of, and in fact completely stomps all over the rules of, those who responsibly practice sadomasochism. Put simply: This movie is fuuucked up, you guys.

There are far too many problematic moments in this film to cover them all -- and much of them were covered in critiques of the book -- so I'll focus on a couple of the standout examples, with some assists from BDSM experts. For one, the kink contract that Christian gives to Anastasia features not just stipulations about butt plugs and floggers but requirements about what she can eat, how much she can drink and how she behaves at all times. Now, such contracts are not unheard of in the BDSM community -- but nor are they standard, and certainly not with someone as inexperienced as Anastasia.

"Some folks in the kink world do use relationship agreements, but rarely, if ever, to such an extreme," says sex educator Charlie Glickman. "And it would not be appropriate to jump into that kind of agreement with a newbie." Remember, Anastasia is a complete novice -- not just in terms of kink but also sex, period. When she meets Christian, she's a virgin, which is a "situation" he sets out to quickly, in his words, "rectify." Such an intensive contract, says Glickman, "is not something you’d do with a newbie, any more than you’d run a marathon without lots of preparation and training. It’s just not something I’ve ever seen anyone do."

Carol Queen, Good Vibrations' staff sexologist, points out that "real contracts are generally done in short terms, at least at first," she says, giving the humorous example of, "For a period of one month I will own ALL your hair clippings." She explains, "If that works out well, the time period may be extended."

Now, one thing that the movie does allow is a negotiation over certain parts of the contract -- specifically, in what is intended as a comedic scene, Anastasia rejects vaginal and anal fisting. But the aspects that control her day-to-day behavior aren't given serious discussion. (While I’m on a somewhat positive note: The movie does feature condoms, which is better than can be said for most Hollywood depictions of sex, and a discussion of safe words, although they are never used.)

Then there's the fact that throughout the movie Christian pressures, even begs, Anastasia to sign the contract -- despite her repeatedly expressing fear and disgust toward kinky practices. "This may be the most egregious thing about this movie, and the fact that 'Fifty Shades' is first and foremost a romance novel confuses the issue quite a lot," says Queen. "Anastasia has one reason only to want to sign this: It’s because she wants Christian, and hopes that this is the way to have him. But that’s not the reason to engage in a D/s contract. Contracts are for people who want to sign them … and want to issue them."

Indeed, Anastasia makes clear on countless occasions that she wants to have a "normal" relationship where they go on dates and sleep in the same bed, something he refuses to do; and Christian repeatedly tells her that the only way to be with him is to sign the contract agreeing to things she doesn't want to do. She gets so freaked out by a Web search for "submission," and the resulting images of women tied up in rope, that she fires off an email to Christian reading, "It's been nice knowing you," as in, "I'm super freaked out by all of this and want nothing to do with it." He responds by showing up at her apartment uninvited.

Pressuring someone into signing a kink contract, says Glickman, is "like trying to convince someone who’s apprehensive or freaked out to have sex with you," he says. "It’s somewhere on the douchebag/rapist spectrum, and it demonstrates the total lack of respect for consent and boundaries that suffuses the story."

That brings me to that final scene that I mentioned above. The spanking is preceded by Christian having a shout-y business call, after which he decides that he wants to take out his anger on Anastasia, who has still refused to sign the contract. She relents and accompanies him to his "room of pain" because, as she puts it gravely, "I want to see how bad it can get." And it gets pretty bad: With zero warm-up, he bends her over a table and begins forcefully smacking her rear with his belt. One look at her face tells you that this is not about pleasure or arousal for her.

Tristan Taormino, author of "The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play and the Erotic Edge," says it's unacceptable for a dominant to engage in play from a place of anger. “If I’m mad about something that has nothing to do with you, I’m going to work that out before I lay a hand on you. And if I’m mad at you, I am most certainly under no circumstances going to lay a hand on you," she says. "That’s just abusive. That’s against everything we believe in.”

Glickman agrees. "Using kink to vent your frustrations with work or life by hitting your partner is a great way to end up really hurting someone," he says. Doing something painful to someone as a way of venting anger creates a situation in which you’re not paying attention to your partner’s safety or experience because you’re so focused on your own internal feelings."

Dan, the head of the educational website Kink University, which is holding a symposium next week on how to safely perform the acts featured in the movie, says responsible kinkster would have brought such a scene to a screeching halt. “It’s the dom’s responsibility to continually check in and take note of the sub’s reactions and consent throughout,” he says. “Consent is not a green light that’s given at the beginning of the relationship. Consent happens at every moment.” He adds, “The fact that he was oblivious to her reactions is alarming and abusive.”

This is how I find myself for the first time ever agreeing with conservative Christian organizations about something relating to sex. The president of the homophobic, anti-porn American Family Association told the Associated Press of the movie, “This is not a healthy thing to mainstream.” He’s right -- not because BDSM is unhealthy, but because the movie’s representation of BDSM is unhealthy. You know someone is doing something horribly wrong when a hateful Christian organization and a liberal, atheist sex writer from Salon find a common ground.

Suffice it to say, if anyone goes to this movie and uses it as a guide for bringing kink into their relationship, I feel very afraid for them and their partners. If its opening night really does inspire date-nighters to get busy, a lot of bad, and potentially abusive, sex is about to be had this Valentine’s Day. This movie is a how-to for coercive, one-sided, irresponsible sex.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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