Wednesday, 15 August 2012

50 Shades of Grey reading by a Sex and Relationship Educator

Thoughts on how SRE workers may have to respond to it with young people. 

I have just finished reading 50 shades of grey. As a youth worker and sex and relationship educator I felt it was important to have an informed opinion before September when teenagers/young people might ask me questions in lessons and youth clubs. I'm a little behind the trend but spending 12 weeks travelling did take me out of touch. I have always thought it is crucial to read a book itself before commenting on it. So even though it is not my typical book I thought it was important to read it. 

To be clear this book was not written for young people, it is not meant to be read by young people and I don't believe E. L. James would be happy for young people to read it. But in my experience young people love to consume (watch, read, listen) media that adults do not want them to read. Either as a form of sexual exploration or out of rebellion or for many other reasons young people have always wanted what is banned. The New York Post also has posted this story about Teenagers reading 50 Shades. I don't know if any young people will ever ask me a question directly about this book but I would be very surprised if I don't start getting more questions about bondage, discipline and submissive sex by some young people. 

This is not a literature review their are many blogs that have done that (for example Terrible line from 50 shades and Book Review), this is about how I believe this book represents sex and relationships and possibly how young people might be impacted by it. Just like visual pornography I am concerned that young people viewing material created for adults can have a negative impact. 

For those who have not read the book, Wikipedia offers this summary "Set largely in Seattle, it is the first instalment in a trilogy that traces the deepening relationship between a college graduate, Anastasia Steele, and a young business magnate, Christian Grey. It is notable for its explicitly erotic scenes featuring elements of sexual practices involving bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism." Anastasia is presented as a virgin who has never even been attracted to a man but falls madly for Christian. Christian is presented as a strong willed successful business man with intimacy issues. I have picked out a few points that concern me.

Saying "yes" when the mind says "not sure"

Early in the book Anastasia had just given her first blow job in her life to Christian Grey and she thinks. "Ehh I'm not sure about this but one look at him and I don't care." This stands against what we teach as healthy relationships. Sexual acts should not be a case of doing something you're not sure of to try and please your partner. The impression that it is "OK" or even desirable to sacrifice their own concerns/worries in an attempt to get or keep a partner is dangerous. We try to encourage young people to make intelligent informed choices, not letting their hormones rule their head. I choose one quote but this theme flows through the story. 

This is different to someone being certain about doing something they don't really enjoy, for their partners benefit. For example, going to a social event or doing a sexual activity. Compromising and doing things for a partner can be part of a healthy relationship if the person is certain they are happy to do it. But when a person is uncertain, unsure, worried and confused that is not a time to compromise and do sexual acts to try and get or keep a partner. 

Childhood sexuality  

The next morning Anastasia describes the start of another sexual experience "He runs his fingers down my pigtails. "You look so young with these," he murmurs and moves forward." Sorry what? looking young childlike is a turn on? I am not happy at all with this and if you read through other blog reviews I am not alone in noticing this. The details of the sexualisation debate are on going but we all recognise that something is not right with current cultural representations of sexuality/childhood. Throughout the story, Anastasia is presented as naive (Author Jennifer Armintrout picks up on this) and childlike. This is not presented as a problem but as an aphrodisiac for Christian. I really don't want young people to read this and think that childhood is to be embraced as a sexual turn on. I worry about the possibility of under age girls trying to act younger to please older partners reinforcing this potentially dangerous idea. 

Not a good representation of safe fetish sex

Reading through the news reports and blog post one issue keeps cropping up. For example 
What is wrong with 50 shades from a submissive viewpoint by the Daily Mail. E. L. James did not set out to write a "how to" guide for fetish sex (People like Violet Blue have done this) but it is acting as a teacher to many people. Practically speaking  the first time Christian spanks her things do not go well. Instead of a gentle introduction the spanking was so hard she needs to take pain killers. For a recent virgin new to the bdsm scene you should expect a better introduction. In a Channel 4 documentary on 50 Shades at the 26 minutes mark they are interviewing a dominant submissive couple and the submissive says "It's such a freedom because I have this amazing loving caring nurturing base, where I am very safe accepted for exactly who I am and the person I am."  This description of a submissive's relationship appears very different from the 50 Shades of Gray. 

With fetish sex, by its definition, being on the edge of society peoples encounters with it often are hidden and they will not ask advice about their worries/problems. Good healthy fetish sex is possible but is not simple. Media which presents unrealistic or bad fetish sex is not good because people may believe it and then make dangerous mistakes. Especially as it is a form of sex that has intrinsic risk. Young people could end up getting hurt emotionally or physical if they only draw on bad media bdsm portrayals like this.

Is it all bad?

It would not be fair to say that this entire book portrays bad negative sexual practices. The most positive thing I can say is that this book always makes pains to mention the use of contraceptives. The use of condoms, mini pills and sexual health screening are all included. This is in sharp contrast to the common approach in porn (and most mainstream media, where condoms in particularly are only ever included to make a joke/pun). Whilst the information may not be 100% correct it was good to read that the use of contraceptives was presented as a necessity not an option. If any young people read this book I hope they pick up this as one positive thing from the book.  

No meaning no

Anastasia is talking to her room-mate Kate
"I sent him an email." Anastasia 
"Asking him to drop by?" Kate
"No, saying I didn't want to see him anymore." 
"And he turns up? Anastasia that's genius." 
"Well actually, it was a joke." 
"Oh. Now I'm really confused." 
Patiently, I explain the essence of my email, without giving anything away. 
"So you thought he'd reply by email." 
"But instead he turns up here." 
"I'd say he's completely smitten with you."

Or he is a creepy abusive man that doesn't take no for an answer and came round to "use sex as a weapon" (author's words not mine) to exert his power over Anastasia. Regardless of the intention of Anastasia to make a joke, the author makes it clear Christian believes it is a genuine rejection. His response under that belief is not acceptable. It is only after he has had sex with her does he clarify and find out it was not a genuine no. Anastasia does not seem to think there is anything wrong with this (and even Kate who is constantly on guard about Christian does not see an issue). This is never OK. I think this is potentially the most worrying theme from the book. Girls (and guys) should always feel that if they say no it should be respected. No does not mean yes and I can not fail to see this scene as an act of abuse. I would hate to think that a young person may uncritically read this and think that it would be OK to treat someone like this or be treated like this. Even if you argue her responses indicate she consents, he goes to the house with the aim of sex with someone who he believes has just rejected him. From my reading the intent is abusive. 


These are not the only points I have noticed in the story. For example Anastasia thinks this after crying "He’s in my bed… I don’t quite understand why. Maybe I should weep more often in front of him." Not convinced this is a healthy view of a relationship but I couldnt fit everything into this post. Many people are calling the relationship an example of domestic abuse. If you would like to read more about this, here is a good collection of links

For adults who can read this and recognise it is a destructive relationship it may not be a large problem. I do not think media should always show perfect relationships, stories regularly don't have perfect or even good people because that is the plot. Many classics, from Shakespeare to Wuthering Heights have bad men acting badly, these characters are recognised for doing this and not celebrated.Christian Grey should be recognised for what he is. Personally I did not enjoy this book but if you did I do not assume that makes you damaged, abusive or wrong in some way. However, I believe this relationship should not be celebrated as a good example for adults and especially for young people. 

Overall 50 Shades of Grey is not a good educator for sex, relationships or bdsm. Just like visual porn I believe that this book provides a false example for young people. A false example that can distort young people's expectations and lead to emotional, relational and physical damage. Whilst some under 18's may have the ability to discern this is an unhealthy relationships, I fear others will not have developed those skills and then may believe this book is a good guide. Sexual health educators and youth workers should be prepared to challenge, educate, inform and support young people who have questions about the many issues raised in this book.

For something a but light hearted. During researching this post I came across this light hearted (with some serious points) musical parody of people reading 50 Shades of Grey. 

(all images used are royalty free from