Aug 062012
 

BDSM is about rules, which are there to regulate the interaction so that all parties involve benefit. Christian presented Ana with a contract, but that has been completely abandoned by now. Christian pays lip service to concepts like consent, negotiation and rules, but he’ll go beyond them on the thinnest of excuses. Ana just doesn’t understand them at all. Put them together, and you get a disaster.

“Show me,” I whisper.
“Show you?”
“Show me how much it can hurt.”
“What?”
“Punish me. I want to know how bad it can get.”
Christian steps back away from me, completely confused.
“You would try?”
“Yes. I said I would.” But I have an ulterior motive. If I do this for him, maybe he will let me touch him.

This is a hideously bad idea on several levels.

First, this will only be the third time that Ana has played. She is far too inexperienced to give Christian carte blanche to do as he wants with her. She just doesn’t know her own tolerances and tastes well enough. Prior experience also strongly indicates she doesn’t like “punishment” or punishment.

Second, “no limits” is a very dangerous game even for experienced players. There are a hardcore fringe of TPE (total power exchange) devotees who will argue with this, but I’ll say right now, “no limits” is a recipe for injured bodies and injured feelings.

Third, it’s not good to go into a scene with hidden agendas or ulterior motives. If Ana wants to touch Christian, see should say so, not put herself in danger in hopes that he will somehow guess what she wants and give it to her. Ana’s thinking seems to be, the more she suffers at Christian’s hands, the more he will reveal himself to her and allow intimacy. The two are not connected at all.

“…And you and I will know, once and for all, if I can do this. If I can handle this, then maybe you –” My words fail me, and his eyes widen again. He knows I am referring to the touch thing. For a moment, he looks torn, but then a steely resolve settles on his features, and he narrows his eyes, gazing at me speculatively as if weighing up alternatives.

This is a folie a deux, two crazy people trying to mesh their respective crazies. Ana views suffering as a road to truth, a martyr’s idea. She’s also calling what she thinks is his bluff, that he wouldn’t really hurt her because under the steelhard shell there’s a soft and cuddly centre. That’s a hell of a gamble. Test until destruction.

Abruptly, he clasps my arm in a firm grip and turns, leading me out of the great room, up the stairs, and to the playroom. Pleasure and pain, reward and punishment – his words from so long ago echo through my mind.
“I’ll show you how bad it can be, and you can make your own mind up.” He pauses by the door. “Are you ready for this?”

She isn’t. Ana’s inexperience may excuse this, but Christian should know better.

Back in the red room of pain, Christian bends her over a spanking bench and gets ready to beat her with a belt.

In a quiet part of my brain, I’m vaguely surprised that he hasn’t made me take it off. Holy fuck this is going to hurt… I know.  My subconscious has passed out, and my inner goddess is endeavoring to look brave.
“We’re here because you said yes, Anastasia. And you ran from me. I am going to hit you six times, and you will count with me.”

You know when, in the scary movie, the girl goes alone into the dark and scary basement or attic for no good reason? That’s about how I feel about what Ana’s doing now: being extraordinarily stupid because the plot demands it.

Christian is being his own kind of extraordinary stupid. Apparently he believes that if he goes to the max, Ana will suddenly learn to appreciate it. He can’t or won’t restrain himself, or exercise any kind of common sense. A submissive who says they have no limits is a submissive to avoid. If Christian doesn’t get this basic concept, then he has no business being a dominant; he’s a danger to everyone. Dominants can control themselves. Abusers can’t.

This clearly shows that EL James simply does not get BDSM, does not understand the principles of consent and negotiation and safety, does not understand that people who act like this are in an abusive relationship. This is what happens when somebody knows just enough to get it wrong.

“I am doing this so that you remember not to run from me, and as exciting as it is, I never want you to run from me,” he whispers.
And the irony is not lost on me. I was running to avoid this. If he’d opened his arms, I’d run to him, not away from him.

He starts beating her with the belt, having her count the hits.

“Two!” I scream. It feels so good to scream.
His breathing is ragged and harsh. Whereas mine is almost non-existent as I desperately scrabble around my psyche looking for some internal strength. The belt cuts into my flesh again.
“Three!” Tears spring unwelcome into my eyes. Jeez – this is harder than I thought –
so much harder than the spanking. He’s not holding anything back.

“Four!” I yell as the belt bites me again, and now the tears are streaming down my face.
I don’t want to cry. It angers me that I am crying. He hits me again.

“Five.” My voice is more a choked, strangled sob, and in this moment, I think I hate him. One more, I can do one more. My backside feels as if it’s on fire.
“Six,” I whisper as the blistering pain cuts across me again, and I hear him drop the belt behind me, and he’s pulling me into his arms, all breathless and compassionate… and I want none of him.

And here’s the problem. She told him to go to the maximum, and he did, and it turned out to be way beyond what she could handle, much less enjoy.

“Let go… no… ” And I find myself struggling out his grasp, pushing him away. Fighting him.
“Don’t touch me!” I hiss. I straighten and stare at him, and he’s watching me as if I might bolt, gray eyes wide, bemused. I dash the tears angrily out of my eyes with the backs of my hands, glaring at him.
“This is what you really like? Me, like this?” I use the sleeve of the bathrobe to wipe my nose.
He gazes at me warily.
“Well, you are one fucked-up son of a bitch.”

“Ana,” he pleads, shocked.
“Don’t you dare, Ana me! You need to sort your shit out, Grey!” And with that, I turn stiffly, and I walk out of the playroom, closing the door quietly behind me.

Ana doesn’t understand that Christian doesn’t have to go that hard, that it is possible for their play to be calibrated to a level that she enjoys. I’d say she has basically sabotaged her own relationship, by not upholding her part of the dominant-submissive social contract. She told Christian “no limits” and when he took her up on that, took it as proof that he was sick. All of Ana’s subtextual judgment of Christian and his ways has come to the surface.

Likewise, Christian did not exercise his own judgment. Instead of restraining himself, he went to the maximum. Neither of them upheld their role in the BDSM social contract.

Crying, Ana withdraws to the room Christian set aside for her.

What was I thinking?  Why did I let him do that to me? I wanted the dark, to explore how bad it could be – but it’s too dark for me. I cannot do this. Yet, this is what he does, this is how he gets his kicks.
What a monumental wake-up call. And to be fair to him, he warned me and warned me, time and again. He’s not normal. He has needs that I cannot fulfill. I realize that now.
I don’t want him to hit me like that again, ever. I think of the couple of times he has hit me, and how easy he was on me by comparison. Is that enough for him? I sob harder into the pillow. I am going to lose him. He won’t want to be with me if I can’t give him this.

Christian comes in for aftercare, as he should.

“Don’t hate me,” he breathes softly against my skin, his voice achingly sad. My heart clenches anew and releases a fresh wave of silent sobbing. He continues to kiss me softly, tenderly, but I remain aloof and wary.
We lie together like this, neither saying anything for ages. He just holds me, and very gradually, I relax and stop crying.

Ana is right that she and Christian have incompatible needs, but that isn’t the same thing as “I’m good, and he’s bad.”

“I don’t think I can be everything you want me to be,” I whisper. His eyes widen slightly, and he blinks, his fearful expression returning.
“You are everything I want you to be.”
What?
“I don’t understand. I’m not obedient, and you can be as sure as hell I’m not going to let you do that to me again. And that’s what you need, you said so.”
He closes his eyes again, and I can see a myriad of emotions cross his face. When he reopens them, his expression is bleak. Oh no.
“You’re right. I should let you go. I am no good for you.”

They should have realized this hundreds of pages ago, but then there wouldn’t have been a book.

Inexplicably, Ana says she’s in love with him, which makes him freak out.

“But you do make me happy.” I frown. “Not at the moment, not doing what I want to do.” Holy fuck.  This really is it. This is what it boils down to – incompatibility – and all those poor subs come to mind. “We’ll never get past that, will we?” I whisper, my scalp prickling in fear. He shakes his head bleakly.

This whole mess was about proving something, but it actually leaves it even more confused. It’s possible that Ana and Christian could negotiate a BDSM relationship that would satisfy both of them; she has enjoyed some of the things Christian has done to her, and may enjoy more in the future with experience. But Ana seems to believe that they are incompatible because she can’t handle Christian’s maximum, neglecting the fact that they both have a stake in regulating the transaction.

Christian, for his part, seems ashamed of his desires, and Ana’s response isn’t helping. He’s stuck in a false dilemma of his own, unable to compromise and negotiate.

I have had my eyes opened and glimpsed the extent of his depravity, and I now know he’s not capable of love – of giving or receiving love. My worst fears have been realized. And strangely, it’s very liberating.

Again, a false dilemma: love or kink. Ana thinks you can’t have both.

Ana is also still judging Christian, using words like “depravity” and considering him incapable of love. The “I’m OK, you’re not OK” way of thinking. She’s fine with him stalking her, threatening her, controlling her, invading her life, manipulating her, lying to her, bribing her, getting her drunk… all the prerogative of the privileged, steelhard, alpha male. But violate the canonical laws of heterosexual monogamy and vanilla sexuality, and she can’t handle it.

Ana shows a modicum of integrity when she gives her gifts back to Christian, despite his protests.

“I don’t want you to go,” he murmurs, his voice full of longing.
“I can’t stay. I know what I want and you can’t give it to me, and I can’t give you what you need.”

[…]

“Goodbye, Christian,” I murmur.
“Ana, goodbye,” he says softly, and he looks utterly, utterly broken, a man in agonizing pain, reflecting how I feel inside. I tear my gaze away from him before I change my mind and try to comfort him.

This is the money shot for this kind of story: the steelhard man fragmented and squishy, begging for the woman to come back to him. Arguably there’s a perverse kind of sadism at work here, with Ana (and therefore the reader) vicariously enjoying the spectacle of Christian’s suffering.

Embarrassment and shame washes over me. I’m a complete failure. I had hoped to drag my Fifty Shades into the light, but it’s proved a task beyond my meager abilities.

Ana cries it out in the car, and even more at home.

The End, for now.

***

In my ongoing effort to understand what exactly Fifty Shades of Grey is, I want to cite some other writers endeavours in this field.

At the Erotic Writers and Readers Association, Remittance Girl says that FSOG is an unexpected and unprecedented market success because it manages to give the readers just enough BDSM to get them off while making them feel in moral control of the narrative.

But mostly, I think she had an instinctive understanding of how a mainstream public needed to find engagement with kinky sex, while providing them with a moral escape clause.

Fifty Shades of Grey does an interesting dance with the explicit. It revels in the details of the taboo of BDSM while seeming to condemn it. Like the torrid pseudo-journalistic pieces written about Tiger Woods’ illicit affair, it whispers to a rather creepy corner of the mainstream psyche which has a propensity to enjoy the titillation inherent in a sin while, at the same time, censuring Mr. Woods for being such a faithless bastard.

And many, many readers love this. They can masturbate furiously to the scenes played out in the Red Room of Pain, while waiting for the heroine to cure Mr. Grey of his perversions.

In other words, the narrative telos of FSOG is heterosexual monogamy and the nuclear family (and concomitant vanilla sexuality), but its techne is all about passionate, kinky sex and materialist indulgence. The telos excuses the techne. Kind of the way the alleged health of the greens in Caesar salad excuse the fat and sugar of the dressing.

Salon has an interview with the head of Ellora’s Cave, who pioneered the erotica ebook market years before FSOG, and hasn’t seen a fraction of the sales.

On The Rumpus, Roxane Gay discusses the book in the context of fairy tales and their toll on women, and describes the low level of discussion about the BDSM in the books, such as not letting people in the Scene into the discussion.

The Fifty Shades of Grey books have also opened the door for pundits, including Ellen Degeneres, to treat the BDSM lifestyle with derision, mockery, and outright ignorance. Whips and chains are so very funny, or they are freaky and weird. For those who don’t understand different expressions of sexuality, humor seems to be the easiest coping mechanism unless, of course, you are critic Katie Roiphe who concludes that the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey merely proves that independent women today secretly yearn to be dominated by men but are afraid to admit their submissive desires. Roiphe takes her typical anti-feminist stance by supporting her argument with an odd range of vaguely related texts. Take Secretary and The Story of O and a few other texts et voila: irrefutable proof that women want to surrender sexually. At no time does Roiphe actually speak to submissive women about their desires. At no time does she try to understand the complexity of submissive sexual desire, instead making a tenuous connection between a popular, highly fictional series of books and the state of modern female sexuality.

  One Response to “The curious kinky person’s guide to Fifty Shades of Grey, Chapter 26, part 2”

  1. I know Roxane Gay’s opinion does not necessarily have to be yours, but I don’t think Ellen Degeneres was mocking BDSM as much as she was mocking the book. Most of her humor comes from reacting immaturely, and this was part of that.

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