This post originally appeared on July 30, 2012.
Or: “Juniper reads Fifty Shades of Grey and was utterly appalled.”
Yes, I read Fifty Shades of Grey. The book started to make appearances on my Facebook feed last month and I figured I would see what the hype was over. Also? Time to mention Linotte’s amazing series: Linotte Reads 50 Shades. It’s awesome. And need I say spoilers are to follow?
So I finished Fifty Shades of Grey after a few detours via Pratchett and Gaiman since I couldn’t persist in reading the book without the reassurance that there were good books still out there. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, I was appalled by Fifty Shades of Grey. The writing is one thing, but the plot? It was when I reached the point at which Ana notices the small circular scars on Christian’s chest that I truly began to despair. It couldn’t be. No, it just couldn’t be. Could it? It was going to be one of “those” books, wasn’t it? The type where the love of a Good Woman saves the Hunky Beast with a Traumatic Past. Except, oh my, this wasn’t any old trauma, this was going to be the humdinger which apparently gets woman terribly het up: childhood abuse.
It isn’t, as I recall, put quite so explicitly in the book (bearing in mind, I’ve only read the first one). Christian does say there was, to paraphrase, a lack of control during his “formative years” and hints are made at neglect, specifically regarding food. Abuse during the formative years tends to be classic in the background of certain mental illnesses. None of which Christian appears to display. For what it’s worth, abuse and mental illness aren’t a definite relationship. There are people who have been abused and who don’t go on to develop a mental illness, and there are many people who have a mental illness who have never been abused. But going on the Occam’s razor principle (which, I’ll admit, I’m probably not using properly, apologies), it seems strange that the experiences of Christian’s “formative years,” which were significant enough for him to be taken away from his drug-addict mother and adopted by another family at age four, haven’t resulted in some kind of diagnosable mental health issue for him. He’s been in therapy for years but the only “symptom” of how his trauma affects him (aside from his sexual behaviour) is that he gets angry when available food is not eaten.
As those who are familiar with the Caregiving series may be aware, Mr. Juniper was abused. Right from the formative years up until adulthood. Insight into what constitutes abuse is ongoing, and part of the therapy Mr. Juniper is going through. It’s a tough road, and he’s doing magnificently. He’s also where my despair at Fifty Shades of Grey comes from. As already mentioned, the effects of abuse are different for everyone, but experience suggests that E.L. James is portraying an abuse scenario with the same skill with which she writes.
So, onwards. The theme which made me squirm was that, as the book progressed, Christian was overcoming the way in which he had been dealing with his abuse because of Ana. That she was changing him and he was going to change because of her. That’s just not how it works. Not unless you’re standing on a pier by a lake in the pouring rain (I may or may not still harbour feelings of great annoyance for having paid for the experience of reading The Notebook). Love does not make pain go away. Love does not eclipse pain. There is a reason that mental health professionals and their patients have to observe codes of ethics while working. There is a very good reason why a partner is not a person’s therapist. Therapy needs to happen in the confines of a safe environment. And an intimate relationship is not a safe environment. Not in the way that therapy demands.
Sure, in a loving relationship there is support. A loving relationship can be very important in the success of therapy, too. It’s still not the “answer” to a difficult past. Though, on it’s own, therapy isn’t necessarily the “answer” either. What matters is having balance. Being in a loving relationship can help nurture the progress of therapy and therapy can help in understanding the dynamics of a loving relationship.
I also took issue with the suggestion of abuse and subsequent sexual behaviour. Assuming it’s consensual, then people can get up to whatever they like and there certainly aren’t rules about childhood abuse and subsequent sexual behaviour. But there was, on my part, still discomfort, which came from my experience with Mr. Juniper. To be fair, there are no indicators that the abuse of Christian’s formative years (or childhood as a whole) included sexual abuse. There is the sticking point of his Mrs. Robinson experience which just, oh dear goodness, wasn’t good. He maintains it wasn’t abusive. I would disagree. Especially as abuse isn’t something confined to childhood.
Now for a couples of quotes from chapter 23:
…and we’re finally having this conversation.
“Why do you need to control me?”
“Because it satisfies a need in me that wasn’t met in my formative years.”
Point one: this all happens in the midst of sex. In the midst of the tampon incident no less.
Point two: I would be very interested to see a poll of partners and how many answer “yes” to the question, “Do you question your partner’s sexual behaviour which you suspect is linked to abuse, in the minutes after sexual intercourse?”
I mean, really? Mr. Juniper and I have had many conversations about the abuse he suffered, and they’ve been important conversations. I can’t say I’ve ever been thrilled about them. You need to talk about things that were done to you, darling? Fantastic! Let me get out the balloons. We must celebrate. Also? Talking about abuse immediately after sex. As in, still naked and entangled? Just… no. Having sex is a moment of great vulnerability. Asking Mr. Juniper to then talk about his past would be nothing short of cruel.
There is though, I will concede, one therapeutic point that can be a part of sex. Apart from what a person learns during therapy, there is one “skill” which we have found can be implemented. For us, this has been enthusiastic consent. Something which doesn’t occur in Fifty Shades of Grey. The safest Mr. Juniper has felt with sex has been with enthusiastic consent. I wasn’t comfortable with the concept of enthusiastic consent at first, because I felt it undermined the consent in the previous years of our relationship. But one evening, Mr. Juniper and I were talking – fully clothed – about what he had gone through and I brought up enthusiastic consent. This came after a discussion which prompted me to say, “I don’t think you know what consent is, do you?” Oh, sure, Mr. Juniper knows what consent is, but as with many people who have had a difficult past, while he could make sense of consent applying to what he did with the other person in a relationship, he couldn’t necessarily make sense that consent applied in regards to what people wanted to do to him. So, enthusiastic consent. I told him what I knew of it, from having read the P-mag article on it a few days before. We would try a version of enthusiastic consent (asking at every moment of wishing to do something), and it would most certainly apply to us both. We tried out enthusiastic consent soon after, and after the happenings which required the involvement of enthusiastic consent, I did ask how he felt about using it. “Safer,” he said. I wanted to cry. Out of guilt, out of relief. Turns out, safety isn’t a contract of limits. It’s asking at every step.
So: Christian, abuse, and consent. Another point where I felt uneasy. Christian goes on and on about safe words and Ana having a choice in what he does. But as with Mr. Juniper, I did begin to wonder if Christian could even fully appreciate what consent was. BDSM is great if that’s what you’re into, but as a person’s sole sexual experience? It doesn’t seem quite right. I could be wrong. There could be people out there who have happily only ever experienced BDSM. But with the added aspect of abuse, I wondered if Christian could really understand what consent was. Which led me to wondering at the effect of the book: the assumption that the Hunky Beast with a Traumatic Past has no issues around safety and consent.
I guess I have, as I loathe in others, made a lot of assumptions in this article. I have tried to remind myself that there are no hard and fast rules for how someone with a difficult past will go on to behave in a sexual context, my experience of which is only with Mr. Juniper. And he is the Handle With Care kind of person, unlike the Handle With Violence kind of person that Christian appears to be. It is also worth bearing in mind that for all my despair over Fifty Shades of Grey, Mr. Juniper is also the type of person whose past has caused him to direct difficulties inwards, rather than outwards, like Christian appears to.
Time for a nutshell. There are a lot of issues to be had with Fifty Shades of Grey. My issues lay in the portrayal of someone with a traumatic past and how, in particular, this influenced their sexual behaviour. My issues also lay in the suggestion that the love of a Good Woman plays a greater role than that of a Good Therapist in coming to terms with a traumatic past. On a lot of this, I could be wrong. But with Mr. Juniper – my man, who is certainly not a mysterious billionaire – a traumatic past has meant a balance of love and therapy. And an understanding that love doesn’t mean being submissive to the behavioural and emotional manifestations of a traumatic past.