Jul 122012
 

Generally, we’ve been criticizing Fifty Shades of Grey on the grounds that it might be harmful to the heterosexual women who read it and develop unrealistic or dangerous expectations of what a BDSM relationship should be. But have we thought about it in terms of how it might affect heterosexual men?

Way back in 1980, John Preston wrote a book called Mr. Benson, a classic of gay male leather erotica.

Pat Califia described it in an essay, “The Limits of the S/M relationship, or Mr. Benson doesn’t live here anymore” in the Leatherfolk anthology (Alyson Publications, 1991 Pg. 221-2):

In the mid-seventies, when it was being serialized in Drummer magazine, I literally saw leathermen waiting in line at newsstaands to get the latest installment. This amazing popularity was an index of how common and potent a fantasy the book presents.

There is no question that the two main characters, Aristotle Benson and Jamie, are respectively “a real top” and “a real bottom.” Aristotle Benson is not merely sexually dominant and sadistic; he is also wealthy, educated, and older than Jamie. His connections with other topmen, the underworld, and law enforcement enable him to spin a network of hidden control and surveillance around his slave. He expects complete obedience from Jamie and does not see the need to give him explanations or accept excuses. Mr. Benson’s power as a master flows seamlessly from his status in the real world. Jamie is younger, malleable, has no real goals, and lives (without benefit of a job or rights to use the furniture) in Mr. Benson’s world. He owns nothing and has no rights. He also has no responsibilities beyond providing sexual and domestic services. When he escapes from Mr. Benson’s control, his survival is threatened. His life is literally in his master’s hands.

Sound like anybody we know? There are differences of course, in that Jamie throws himself headlong into Mr. Benson’s domination, whereas Ana does a complicated one-step-forward, one-step-back dance with Christian.

One issue that Califia brings up is, how can any flesh-and-blood human dominant live up to Mr. Benson? Likewise, how can any man live up to the expectations engendered by Christian Grey? And how is he going to feel when he tries and fails?

When we discuss safety, consent and limits, we focus almost exclusively on the concerns of the bottom. Almost all of the technical information that’s in print about how to play safely is intended to protect the bottom from physical injury or emotional trauma. There’s very little attention paid to equivalent needs on the part of the top. […] Mr. Benson never needs to call a time out. [Pg. 224]

Christian Grey never will either, and you can be damned sure he isn’t going to switch and ask Ana to top him.

David Stein had this to say about Getting Over Mr. Benson:

Mr. Benson, the archetypal fantasy Master, is very tall, very strong, extremely wealthy, extremely intelligent and discerning (almost a mind-reader, in fact), ruggedly handsome, totally self-confident and assured, a 110% Top adept in all the SM arts, cultured, sophisticated, equally at ease in formal evening dress, full leathers, and butch sleaze gear. And, not at all incidentally, he has a dick of death.
As for Jamie, he’s the archetypal slacker with a decent body, a pretty face, a great ass, and an empty head. His job is inconsequential, he lives in a rooming house, his friends are other bar-flies, and his relatives are out of the picture. Becoming Mr. Benson’s slave is clearly a step up, and Jamie knows it. He submits totally in a heartbeat.
Does all that sound familiar? It should. Other, lesser authors have been recycling this tale for almost two decades, drumming it into our heads that a “real Master” is godlike and a “real slave” a blank slate.

I draw a parallel here that Mr. Benson and Fifty Shades of Grey represent early versions of a particular fantasy, one that can cause problems if the fantasizer doesn’t move past them, or alternately learn to modulate them in keeping with what’s possible in reality. Most dominants aren’t rich enough to have a private helicopter, but on the bright side most don’t have Christian Grey’s psychological issues either.

What’s missing is that acknowledgement (by Ana and by the book itself) that Christian Grey is human too. And I don’t just mean some tragic, Gothic flaw (as is revealed in this chapter), I mean ordinary, everyday foibles. By extension, bottoms need to be accepting of their tops too. I hope that if some percentage of this books readers do take further steps into BDSM, they grasp that dominants are people too, and need as much understanding.

Back to the critique:

Christian carries Ana into his family home’s boathouse.

Holy shit.  I could spontaneously combust from his look alone.
“Please don’t hit me,” I whisper, pleading.
His brow furrows, his eyes widening. He blinks twice.
“I don’t want you to spank me, not here, not now. Please don’t.”

His mouth drops open slightly in surprise, and beyond brave, I tentatively reach up and run my fingers down his cheek, along the edge of his sideburn, to the stubble on his chin.

There’s an obvious beauty-and-the-beast dynamic here, which brings in a truck-load of reactionary gender dynamics. In this moment, it works, and instead of him spanking her, they have sex.

…this is my power, this is what I do to him, and it’s a hedonistic, triumphant feeling.

In other words, they’re manipulating each other with sex instead of negotiating.

After leaving the Grey family estate, Christian and Ana talk in the car. Christian is still opposed to Ana leaving for Georgia, while Ana is making the reasonable and even advisable move to take a step away and think about this relationship from a distance.

What do I say? Because I think I love you, and you just see me as a toy. Because I can’t touch you, because I’m too frightened to show you any affection in case you flinch or tell me off or worse – beat me? What can I say?
I stare momentarily out of the window. The car is heading back across the bridge. We are both shrouded in darkness, masking our thoughts and feelings, but we don’t need the night for that.
“Why, Anastasia?” Christian presses me for an answer.

I shrug, trapped. I don’t want to lose him. In spite of all his demands, his need to control, his scary vices. I have never felt as alive as I do now. It’s a thrill to be sitting here beside him. He’s so unpredictable, sexy, smart, and funny. But his moods… oh – and he wants to hurt me. He says he’ll think about my reservations, but it still scares me. I close my eyes. What can I say? Deep down I would just like more, more affection, more playful Christian, more… love.
He squeezes my hand.

“Talk to me, Anastasia. I don’t want to lose you. This last week… ” He trails off.
We’re coming near to the end of the bridge, and the road is once more bathed in the neon light of the street lamps so his face is intermittently in the light and the dark. And it’s such a fitting metaphor. This man, whom I once thought of as a romantic hero – a brave shining white knight, or the dark knight as he said. He’s not a hero, he’s a man with serious, deep emotional flaws, and he’s dragging me into the dark. Can I not guide him into the light?

I’ve quoted this lengthy passage because it shows just the underlying dynamics of this relationship and this story.

Ana is right that Christian is deeply flawed, but she does not have the responsibility (or realistically, the capability) of fixing him. Indeed, the whole concept that “men are dogs” who need to be tamed by women so they can be part of human society (i.e. heterosexual monogamy, companionate marriage, the nuclear family) is a very flawed idea.

There’s also the problem that Ana thinks of Christian’s kink as his “scary vices.” That Ana is somewhat submissive and not at all masochistic, is one thing, but there’s a boatload of moral judgement in that phrase. Christian’s kink is his flaw, something that needs to be corrected.

Ana’s  idea that Christian is “dragging me into the dark” is another indication of her underlying ideas, that by moving her away from her idea of a proper relationship, he is somehow damaging her virtue and therefore her social worth. Ana thinks she is in a liminal state: no longer a virgin, no longer a model of some Victorian ideal of chastity, but not yet in a stable, committed, monogamous relationship. Thus, her project is to somehow maneuver Christian into a quasi-marriage without further damaging her virtue by giving in to his demands, but also without him dumping her.

“For you, Anastasia, I will try.” He’s radiating sincerity.
And that’s my cue. I unbuckle my seatbelt, reach across, and clamber into his lap, taking him completely by surprise. Wrapping my arms around his head, I kiss him, long and hard, and in a nanosecond, he’s responding.

Christian makes a concession, and Ana rewards him with sex. Ana 1, Christian 0.

“Yes,” I acquiesce. “And I’ll try too. I’ll sign your contract.” And it’s a spur of the moment decision.
He gazes down at me.
“Sign after Georgia. Think about it. Think about it hard, baby.”

Another 10 per cent right, 90 per cent wrong moment. Christian is letting her go and urging her to think about this relationship. But it’s not as if this contract is a massive commitment in the way that a marriage proposal would be.

The reason this is such as dilemma is that, arbitrarily, Christian refuses to compromise on his demands, and because Ana believes that this is the only way she can have a relationship with him, but this means he would be allowed to hurt her and damage her virtue. In other words, Ana is trying to negotiate between a future as a lonely cat lady, stuffing used kleenex into her cardigan sleeves and having imaginary conversations with Mr. Darcy, and a future as Christian Grey’s fuckpuppet and chew toy. She’s no longer a virgin, so it’s spinster or whore for her.

I’m rushing him. He’s not ready and neither am I. We are balanced on the delicate see-saw, that is our strange arrangement – at different ends, vacillating, and it tips and sways between us. We both need to edge closer to the middle. I just hope neither of us falls off in our attempt to do so.

Ana’s right that they are trying to calibrate a relationship that works for them, but the problem is that the balance may be impossible, or at least a compromise that leaves everybody unsatisfied.

Ana wants to know more about Christian’s childhood, especially his issues with his chest being touched, and he agrees on the condition that he can put ben wa vibrating balls in her and then fuck her. We’re getting into a trading-sex-for-things dynamic that’s a bit uncomfortable, along the lines of, “I don’t put out for anything less than a steak.”

Ana enjoys the balls, and being ordered around by Christian a bit, then he spanks her for pleasure. Got that he makes a clear distinction at this point. Ana enjoys this too, though she seems reluctant to admit it.

Everything moving forward, inside me… and in between each smack he caresses me, kneads me – so I am massaged inside and out. It’s such a stimulating, erotic feeling, and for some reason, because this is on my terms, I don’t mind the pain.
It’s not painful as such – well it is, but not unbearable. It’s somehow manageable, and yes pleasurable… even. I groan. Yes, I can do this.

This is Ana finally grasping how she can enjoy the physical side of BDSM.

As reward (as if mutual pleasure wasn’t reason enough), Christian brings out his deep Gothic secret.

“The woman who brought me into this world was a crack-whore, Anastasia. Go to sleep.”

[…]

And I slip into a dazed and exhausted sleep, dreaming of a four-year-old, gray-eyed boy in a dark, scary, miserable place.

Ana now has the key to the Gothic fortress that is Christian Grey, what supposedly explains him and renders him fixable. All she had to do was not be a good girl.

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