I have a confession to make: a few weeks ago, I watched Fifty Shades of Grey. I never had any intention of consuming this franchise, and not because I was offended by sexual relationships which involve power exchange (because let’s be real: it’s extraordinarily rare for any sexual engagement with more than one person to not involve power at some point). When the first book of the series was published in 2011, I read the reviews. I read the critiques. I read it was initially Twilight fan fiction. I was also sexually assaulted in 2011, and I was being careful with how I allowed pop culture into my survival bubble (a context note, neither here nor there).
Fast forward to a conversation I had with my 15-year-old daughter a few months ago.
“Mom,” she asked, “do you know what Fifty Shades Darker is going to be rated when it comes out? Some friends and I want to see it.”
“I don’t, but based on the content, I’d be pretty surprised if it weren’t R,” I replied.
“Huh,” she said. “I guess. I mean, I’ve watched the first one, and it was fine.”
— record scratch —
She did what, now? Oh, holy hell, here we go.
More deep breaths.
“Oh, really? Okay. So, you know that’s not a healthy depiction of a relationship involving dominance and submission?”
“And you know that these, like all kinds of relationships, need LOTS AND LOTS of communication and ongoing negotiation and solid respect of boundaries?”
Okay. Here’s what I see from this interaction:
- My relationship with my teenagers is strong enough that they both feel comfortable discussing more complex sexuality questions with me, even going as far as initiating those conversations themselves.
- My openness to having these conversations prepares my kids to have those conversations with peers who may not have an adult they can talk to about this sort of stuff.
- As an educator, I recognize these questions may come up in my teaching practice, and I need to be ready to respond in ways that make young people more prepared to make safe(r) choices (ahem, without ending up in the Ontario College of Teachers Blue Pages for inappropriateness).
- Regardless of my personal aesthetic, it’s important for me to engage with the pop culture artifacts that appeal to young people so I am adequately prepared to have these conversations from a place of hard knowledge.
So, with this last point in mind, I watched Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). And… I was left perplexed.
There are several pieces in this film I need to address:
First, not everyone who is attracted to the idea of dominating or submitting to a sexual partner has a history of being a victim of sexual violence. Christian Grey is a sadist, with “singular tastes.” He also happens to have been introduced to this life when he was taken in as a submissive AS A YOUNG ADOLESCENT by his mother’s friend. This was not a consensual relationship.
This common stereotype reinforces the idea that one must be damaged in some way to want to engage sexually with someone else using role play, sensory play, bondage, etc. Why this is dangerous: people who are attracted to this kind of sexual dynamic are less likely to seek out help if their situation does become abusive. It’s also dangerous because if someone has experienced early sexual violence, they may not realize if they’re in an unhealthy situation or that they don’t have to connect their sexuality with violence if that doesn’t feel right for them.
Next, the idea that *anyone* gets to control another’s choices around reproductive health needs to be addressed. Christian INSISTS Ana take an oral contraceptive, and never once uses a condom or discusses STI testing.
He engages in penetrative vaginal sex with almost zero foreplay and no attention to Ana’s need for pleasure. He kisses her, takes off her clothes, and immediately and aggressively puts his penis into her vagina. Without ever checking in with whether she is lubricated enough to accommodate him without discomfort or pain. Immediately after being told she’s never done this before. Being a dominant is not synonymous with being a selfish asshole. When we engage in sexual activity with a partner, we are somewhat responsible for their wellbeing for that duration.
He also demonstrates the bare minimum of aftercare towards his young, inexperienced partner. Regardless of your dynamic, you need to check in with your lover to make sure they’re doing okay. It’s part of the package when you’re building a foundation on consent. We may agree to do all kinds of things once or twice, to see if they work for us. We need to CHECK IN with our partners after the fact to make sure those choices were actually good (and whether they were one-time good or repeatable good), or whether they were forevermore “no thank you” activities.
“You want to leave? Your body tells me something different.” No. Unless the idea of violating verbal consent is explicitly negotiated and there’s a known and agreed-upon out, this is a red flag. Our bodies are capable of doing all kinds of things that we don’t want them to do. That doesn’t mean someone else is welcome to listen only to the signs that agree with their want.
Oh! Also! If your partner gets angry with you when you want to spend time with friends and family, this isn’t romantic – it’s a red flag for abuse. It is common practice for abusers to isolate their partners from anyone else who might give them support or love. All of us need to know this, but young people who are still developing their dating sea legs especially need to know that this is not cute or a reasonable relationship goal.
In the end, I’m glad I watched it, and that I had a conversation with my kid afterwards. These more complex “Beyond the 101” sex ed talks are so important to have with youth, especially since they’re often accessing media that doesn’t depict these concepts in ways that are affirming or even accurate. As a teen (and even younger), I was drawn to every depiction of sexuality I could get my hands on, and I exposed myself to a lot of deeply problematic scenes. In 2017, youth have access to exponentially more representations of less vanilla sexuality than what I had, and I had A LOT.
We need to be having these conversations.
We need to support each other in having these conversations.
We need to check in with our own assumptions, and we need to remember that some of us are raising kids whose sexuality is oriented towards kink. And just as we do our best to meet the responsibility of preparing queer kids and trans kids (and queer trans kids) for making healthy, affirming, safer choices in their sexual relationships with others, so must we consider the information needs of our kids who may also be kinky (or at least curious).