Inappropriate? Possibly. But then when is rape ever an appropriate subject to bring up at the dinner table?
I read an article in the Independent today, entitled “It doesn’t take a genius to realise that Christian Grey is a domestic abuser“. The article’s core is one of complexity and nuance, which is strange considering 50 Shades Of Grey is a one-dimensional plotless bag of shit.
There need to be more explanations of genuine BDSM relationships in mainstream media, which this article succinctly provides, and increased highlighting that it is not what Ana and Christian are experiencing. But what really troubles me is the grey area (hoho) into which inter-relationship rape is placed, thanks in no small part to this book.
I’ve already discussed the fact that no means no. So when we have a woman saying “no” and the man continuing to have sex with her, and then the relationship subsequently continuing and her being all “he totally loves me!”, NOT ONLY is this a pretty simple study of domestic abuse, but it also makes the issue of consent a highly confusing one. This is a “debate” which right now, should not even exist.
Full confession: I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey. It was a conscious decision, for several reasons: A) reading is one of my favourite hobbies, so I’d be voluntarily ruining my lunch hour; B) I’ve read shit books at the gleeful instigation of others so that we can later discuss just how shit they were (My Sister’s Keeper is the stand-out loser) and whilst those subsequently incredulous discussions were indeed hilarious, they didn’t outweigh the several lost hours spent reading that I’ll never get back; and C) In my experience, the more popular a novel, the worse its writing (Da Vinci Code, anyone . . . )
What I have done is discuss it with many people who have; I’ve read the wonderful Snark Squad’s long and detailed take down; and the incessant quotes are literally in my face ALL THE FUCKING TIME so it’s hard to escape.
Look, when it comes to rape, we have a problem. There is a large swathe of the population (all genders!) who think that a woman inviting a man to her house – or indeed into her bed – has given her no-holds-barred, all-inclusive OK to sex. In actual fact, if she, at any point, decides that she’s not interested, or changes her mind, or sobers up, or just isn’t feeling it, she has every right to say no. Let’s be absolutely clear: this is the same the other way around too. Yes, men can be raped, and no, it’s not funny. If anybody, at any point, makes it clear that they don’t want the activity to continue, and yet the other party ignores their wishes, this is rape. THIS IS RAPE.
Yet it’s pretty difficult to argue this in society, or the courts. The Ched Evans case was a positive turn of events, but the popular backlash was astonishingly vitriolic. The general consensus of Evans’ supporters seemed to be that the girl walked into his house wearing a short skirt and holding a pizza; if that’s not consent, what is? Whether she had no idea that they expected her to have sex with two men, or she changed her mind, or she got scared, is irrelevant; the fact is that she didn’t want it, Evans did it, and he was rightfully charged.
But his is an unusual case. According to the Office for National Statistics (a study broken down in this Independent article and on the Rape Crisis charity website, with the official overview here), as many as 95,000 people are raped every year in the UK, but only 1,070 rapists are convicted. Crucially, 90% of rape victims said they knew the identity of their attacker – but only 15% reported the matter. Why? Most common reasons were that “it was ‘embarrassing’, they ‘didn’t think the police could do much to help’, that the incident was ‘too trivial or not worth reporting’, or that they saw it as a ‘private/family matter and not police business’.” (from gov.uk).
Most rape does not occur down a dark alley. It happens within relationships, be they existing sexual ones or abusive family members, colleagues, or friends or friends. It makes that issue of “consent” emotionally fraught; the rapist thinks their victim has been leading them on, that they’ve previously had sex therefore doing it again is a given; they have something to emotionally hold against their victim; they genuinely think that their victim is enjoying it. The latter is important because it’s a key of BDSM relationships which is ignored in the books and clouds everything. In BDSM, until the safe word is uttered, there is (presumably) enjoyment; and when it’s given, the activities will always stop. That’s the underlying principle; trust and respect. But when rape occurs, there is no trust – there is no respect – “no” is ignored and the victim’s suffering is played down. The rapist is the dominant force and only cares for his or her control or carnal pleasure (rape is arguably more about dominance than sex) and how the victim feels about this is irrelevant. He or she got themselves into this situation and now they need to put up or shut up. This is the idea played out in 50 Shades of Grey, and it feeds right in to that collection consciousness that once we’ve made our bed, we have to lie in it.
But we don’t.
It seems arbitrary to say it but let’s, nonetheless: sex should be mutual, enjoyable for both parties, and consented to every time. If you say no and your sexual partner continues having sex with you: this is rape. If you are married or in a relationship and make it clear that you don’t want sex, yet your partner does it anyway: this is rape. If you agree to one type of sex and your partner introduces something else to which you didn’t agree (a third party, some type of bondage, lack of contraception, etc) and you are not explicitly ok with it: this is rape.
50 Shades of Grey promotes the idea that it’s not – that it’s sexy – that it’s every woman’s fantasy. It’s not necessary for her to give permission, for them to decide on a safe word, or discuss what’s to come. It’s sexier this way.
Now this may (perhaps) be some women’s fantasy, but those women are very few and far between, so it only serves as fuel to the tired old fire that when women say no, they really mean yes. In this situation, it’s not so much the rapists that I’m worried about but the victims’ sense of understanding. The more we are force-fed this type of information, the more inclined victims of rape or sexual assault will be to unfairly question their reactions to a traumatic incident in which – categorically – they were not to blame. They may wonder whether they “led him on”, force themselves to falsely believe that actually they kind of enjoyed it, or believe that they were in some way responsible for their attacker’s actions. They may be embarrassed to go to the police because why should anyone believe that they didn’t want what happened, when they had voluntarily gone to his home in order to have sex with him in the first place?
The books have arguably brought to mainstream attention the novel concept that women are sexual creatures and perhaps, for that, we should be grateful. But if the payoff is to say that women are without agency, that they are slaves to their male partners’ desires, that they don’t really know what they want and must instead allow a man they don’t honestly know them that well to tell them and show them, then I don’t think that women’s sexual identity is getting a particularly good rap.
Humans, as a rule (and there are exceptions), are sexual creatures; but we also have rights, agency, and self-awareness. When we say no, we mean no. This is one area that truly isn’t grey.