Abuse, or the Lack Thereof, in the 50 Shades of Grey Movie

A couple of disclaimers to start with: I have still not read the 50 Shades books, and I’ve read enough critiques of them from enough sources that I trust to not feel compelled to do so (I did my time with Twilight and The Da Vinci Code – I’m through reading crappily written novels).  I am happy to believe that the novels present Christian as an abusive stalker.  As such, this post relates wholly to the movie and makes no commentary on the books.

Second disclaimer:  I’ve seen the movie once, and I was a bit tipsy at the end of a fabulous day of helping a dear friend celebrate her birthday, so I may just have been more open to giving it a favourable reading.

Third disclaimer:  Contains plenty o’ spoilers.

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I’ve read several reviews of 50 Shades of Grey describing Christian Grey as an abusive, stalker-y fuckwit, and then seen a couple of comments from people insisting that while the books were awful, the movie didn’t in fact portray abuse.  After a fairly lively discussion with one of these people on Twitter, I was convinced to go see it and form my own opinion.

There were definitely some parts in which Christian came across as super creepy:

  • He turned up at the bar where Anastasia was celebrating the end of her exams with her friends, even though she hadn’t told him which bar she was at.
  • He showed up at her house – in her bedroom, even (presumably let in by her roommate, not breaking and entering, although this was not made explicit).
  • He arrived at the hotel where Anastasia was having drinks with her mother in Georgia, which was just about as far away from Seattle, where Christian was based, as it’s possible to get without leaving mainland USA.

In all of these instances, Christian was uninvited, and, yep, it was pretty creepy.  However, it’s not any more creepy than, say, the Prime Minister knocking on every door in Harris Street looking for Natalie, or Jamie travelling from London to Portugal to propose to a woman he’s never even had a conversation with, both in Love Actually.  The difference is that Anastasia expressed her displeasure and discomfort at these events rather than simpering and saying, “Aww, how sweet, let’s snog now.”  I am not saying that this makes Christian’s behaviour 100% A-OK, but I think the only thing that stops viewers as reading these actions as super-romantic is Anastasia’s reactions to them.  These were not the moments when she found Christian appealing, and, honestly, I’ll take that over the standard rom-com framing of these sorts of behaviours as totally sweet and adorable.

A scene which people have expressed some consternation at is the one in which Christian is unhappy that Anastasia is going to visit her mother in Georgia and that she hasn’t informed him of this.  I’m not going to lie: if my new partner casually mentioned over dinner with my parents that they were going to be flying across the country tomorrow and hadn’t mentioned it to me, I would have been pissed too.  Christian’s response is to make an excuse to get her alone (“I promised Anastasia a tour of the grounds”), and, when she complains that she can’t walk that fast in her heels, he throws her over his shoulder and spanks her ass a couple of times.  Now, they are already in a Dom/sub relationship at this point and Anastasia knows her safe words, so I don’t find this as hugely shocking as someone without any awareness of BDSM might.  However, it’s generally pretty frowned upon to strike someone in anger, even (especially?) if they are your submissive, so this is probably the most problematic part of the movie to me.  On the other hand, Christian’s subsequent tantrum – “You’re mine, all mine!” – came across as petulant and rather stood to underline that Anastasia is not in fact all his but still her own free agent who’ll go visit her mother if she damn well wants to.

Early in the movie, Christian expresses some jealousy over some of the men in Anastasia’s life.  However, Anastasia’s response to this is basically “Chill out, what’s your problem?” and Christian makes no attempt to suggest she should keep away from them.  In fact, I saw no evidence of Christian trying to isolate her from her friends or family at all.  Each time Anastasia asked to go home (which she was not shy about doing), Christian ensured she got home safely (it was necessary for Christian to ensure this when Anastasia was in a different city to the one she lived in and without her own transport).

Most importantly, Anastasia explicitly consented to every sexual act which occurred in the movie, and all but one of the BDSM scenes (the above-described fallout to Anastasia’s announcing she was going to visit her mother).  There is not even the vaguest suggestion of sexual assault in this movie.

Now some words about agreed-upon levels of control and excuses for punishment.  Some of the reviews I have read have expressed dismay about the level of control Christian seeks to exert over Anastasia’s life: she is to dress how he wants her to, see the doctor of his choosing to obtain contraceptives, not drink to excess, etc.  An important aspect of most Dom/sub relationships is, of course, the bondage and the spanking and flogging and blindfolds and all those accoutrements. There are various ways of framing this type of play.  Christian frames it as a punishment: he wishes to punish Anastasia for breaking rules.  This means it is necessary to create rules for Anastasia to break.  The night of Anastasia’s graduation, she rolls her eyes at Christian for some small reason.  Christian says, “If you roll your eyes at me again, you will go over my knee for a spanking.  Do you understand?”  Anastasia indicates that she does, and not five minutes later, she rolls her eyes at Christian again.  Over his knee for a spanking she goes – which is, of course, what Christian wanted to do to her all along (Anastasia is pretty happy about this too).  If Anastasia rigidly kept to all the rules Christian laid out for her, he’d never have an excuse to punish her.

On the flip side, a lot of Dom/sub relationships also include agreed elements of control outside of a BDSM scene – for instance, a Dominant selecting a submissive’s clothing for them.  My relationship has some of these elements, and yet you better believe that I still consider myself strong and independent.  It’s just a pleasing daily reminder of the sort of relationship we have in between full sessions (which are pretty impossible to conduct every day while still getting on with the rest of life).

And ultimately Anastasia has to negotiate and agree to these rules and thus is in control of the whole relationship, as beautifully illustrated by the scene where she discusses the BDSM contract Christian has written up.  He suggests they discuss it over dinner; she insists that the meeting is conducted formally in a meeting room.  She goes through the contract clause by clause, rewording any clauses she dislikes and making it clear which activities she is comfortable with and which ones she will not accept: “Genital clamps: absolutely not!”  So the bits about not drinking to excess and dressing how he wants her to dress?  Anastasia accepts finds these to be acceptable and agrees to them.

Make no mistake: this is not a good movie.  There is much about it which is preposterous, laughable and just plain bad – Christian is a 27-year-old billionaire head of a business empire; a plane, glider and helicopter pilot, and an accomplished pianist, for pity’s sake.  The portrayal of BDSM is not as awful as it could be, but there are some pretty terrible aspects.  Christian insists that he “has” to be a dominant because he is such a damaged fuck-up (“The woman who gave birth to me was a crack addict… and a prostitute,” he intones sombrely to the sleeping Anastasia, and the theatre bursts out laughing).  Also, kids, don’t use cable ties for bondage, be REALLY REALLY careful when using a flogger on the front of someone’s body, and six whacks with a leather belt is only slightly more intense than a kitten jumping on you.

I think the movie will be read completely differently by those with an understanding of BDSM than by those without, and it would have been more responsible of the film-makers to be clearer about the structure of Anastasia and Christian’s relationship – for instance, by clarifying that Anastasia finds the psychological aspects of their relationship as agreeable as the physical.

So, yeah, I’m not going to recommend 50 Shades as an awesome movie that everyone should rush out and see, but I find myself basically in agreement with those who say that it doesn’t portray abuse.

Penitence (Mary Magdalene is my Homegirl)

As far back as I can remember, Mary Magdalene has been an important figure to me*.  If I was going to do a moment of pocket psychology… I wasn’t actively raised Catholic, but my mother was.  So I consider that I was raised culturally Catholic, if not religiously so.  When my spirituality and my sexuality were emerging, the only figure I came across who was a woman – and an independent and sexual woman – was Mary Magdalene.  And so she became central to my developing spirituality.  But not Mary Magdalene as she’s traditionally portrayed.  We create our goddesses and gods; we create our mythologies.  Without this entry devolving into a vast thesis, the Mary Magdalene of my mythology is a powerful woman, a sexual being, a temple priestess, the archetypal prostitute, consort of Jesus – his equal.

Some of this is bourne out in other mythologies and theories – see the novels “The Moon Under Her Feet” by Clysta Kinstler and “The Wild Girl” by Michele Roberts, and Starbird’s book on the spirituality of Mary Magdalene, “The Woman with the Alabaster Jar”.  Some of it is from my own imaginings and meditations.  Of course, I rejected one of the major aspects Mary Magdalene is traditionally associated with – penitence.  I read that as weakness, as the church wanting to cow a powerful woman.

I’m older now and I guess a bit wiser.  More importantly, I’m out the other side of some fairly wild years.  And I’m slowly realising that there’s room for penitence in my life.  I am still realising and coming to terms with this, so this entry is part of my journey; not a destination.

Not everything I did in the years where Wild Leena reigned was bad by any stretch of the imagination.  On the contrary, those years delighted me.  They formed me and bettered me.  I did a lot of great stuff.  I helped a lot of people through sex work, and I had a world of fun.

It was (forgive me if this sounds weird) Mary Magdalene who inspired me into sex work.  She was with me as I considered it (and I to-ed and fro-ed for a long time on that), with me when I walked into that massage parlour, with me with that first client.  She was also the guardian of my wider sexual exploration.  But at a certain point, things changed and eventually crossed the line. I became a thorough hedonist – I thought only of my own pleasure in any given moment, not of any consequences to myself or others. And that’s no way to live.

And so I did some damage – to myself and to others.  I lost control of the sex work at times and wound up doing some things I’m not proud of.  I manipulated people who didn’t derserve to be manipulated.  When I was taking a lot of P, I often forgot that other things were important.  I lied to friends and I hurt people who were important to me.  I had affairs with married men – most notably a four-year-long love affair.  And in the course of that, I did some things so awful that I can’t even bring myself to write them down.  Although we were secretive as all get-out, and as far as I know his family is still unaware of our affair, I caused so much hurt to his family in subtle, insidious ways.

I have carried a lot of guilt and shame because of some aspects of my history, and it has hurt my present.  For a long time, when my life was really out of control, I truly believed my life would be a cautionary tale.  I thought I would do something fucking stupid while on P and get arrested (I did do some fucking stupid things while on P, but thankfully managed to avoid doing any lasting damage to anyone or anything).  I thought I’d be killed by some random guy I inadvisedly hooked up with (we’re not talking your average bar hook-up – I was hanging around gang members, criminals, the sort of people who have handguns in their bedside cabinets).  I thought I’d catch a billion STDs.  I thought I’d be some sad old lady at 40, shagging anyone who’d have me for the drugs they had.

But that’s not how things turned out.  I sorted out my life.  I gave up drugs.  I stopped indulging my poisoned, desperate sexuality.  And then I met the man who is now my fiance, and we have a beautiful life together.  We love each other, we have fun together, we have lovely friends, we live in a great house, we can take fabulous holidays together and there’s really not too much we have to worry about.

Except that for the longest time, I didn’t feel like I deserved it.  I had so expected my life to be shit because of my actions that it felt like the universe had done some massive miscalculation.  I was supposed to be PUNISHED!  I wasn’t supposed to live a great life with a man who loves me!  I genuinely struggled in the early days of our relationship, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for the punishment to kick in.  My wonderful man was so patient with me through those times, just being with me and maintaining, whether I wanted to believe it or not, that he wasn’t going anywhere.  Eventually, I came to accept that it was true, that some bizarro roll of the dice had landed me here.  I still felt like the columns didn’t add up, though; like I didn’t deserve the life I’d found myself in.  I still felt that I ought to be punished.

And then the image of the penitent Mary Magdalene came to me.  Slowly, slowly, and I’m still learning to understand what it means.  But I’m figuring out that maybe there is power in penitence after all.  That I can acknowledge that SOME of the things I done in the past have been wrong, without writing off my entire past.  That I can accept their wrongness and accept the things learnt from that and move on from it.  That there isn’t some divine scoreboard, wherein this much wrong-doing equals this much punishment.  That someone can do wrong and still be a worthy person.

Penitence is self-reflection and self-forgiveness, as well as acknowledged the wrongs.  Penitence is truth, and truth is powerful.

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* Though I label myself Wiccan, Gnosticism is another important string in my spirituality. Jesus is also an important spiritual figure to me, though not Christ and he’s not as central to me as Mary Magdalene. But that’s a story for another time.

Fairytales of Prostitution – Hookers are Forced into Prostitution

The first question I often get asked when someone finds out that I used to be a prostitute is “Why?”  There is an assumption that there must have been some terrible underlying circumstance which forced me into hooking.  Was I addicted to drugs?  Was I burdened by debt?  Was I forced into it by an abusive boyfriend?  Was I unable to find other work?

No, no, no and no.  When I entered prostitution, I already had a perfectly good and respectable job.  I had no addiction issues.  I had no debt, aside from student loans.  I had a girlfriend at the time who most certainly didn’t force me into prostitution but was very supportive of my decision (and I’ll forever be thankful to her for that).  I just decided that I wanted to be a prostitute.  OK, that is a bald-faced lie.  But the reasons that led me to that decision are long and complex and for another fairytale altogether.  Certainly, there were no circumstances forcing me.  But to me, it was like deciding to study or deciding to move to Auckland – a notion that I’d thought about for a while that had reached its time for fruition.  I did meet some women* who were more or less forced into the industry by one or more of the above factors, but they were in the minority.  I also met some women who, like me, were genuinely drawn to prostitution – also something of a minority.  The majority of women I met in prostitution were there because “I need to earn money somehow, and this pays better/has more flexible hours/is more fun than waitressing/call centre work/being a shop assistant.”  Some found it to be perfectly good and acceptable work, others tried it for a short while and decided that it wasn’t for them.

Having made my decision, I rang up and made an appointment at a massage parlour.  It was a place that ran lovely welcoming ads for prospective workers, promising that it was a friendly place and women who wanted to work should come in for a “chat” with their female manager.  I was shown in, put in one of the “bedrooms” (a tiny room with a vinyl bed and mirrors everywhere) and left there for about half an hour.  Then a bloke came to get me and I was led into a tiny office where he and another big burly guy asked me a series of very blunt questions.  The whole time I was wondering how I was going to extricate myself should they ask to “test my skills”.  Thankfully, they didn’t (it would be illegal for them to do so, by the way).

I can’t even tell you how relieved I was to get out of there and never, ever go back.

But I was undeterred!  The next parlour I went to, I did indeed speak to a friendly female manager who didn’t ask me a single question but got me to fill in a form at the front counter and told me to come back the next day to work a shift.  Then she briefly showed me around the place.  It was hilariously tack-tastic, the stereotypical cheap brothel – neon lights, vinyl sofas, full of women in blonde wigs wearing next to nothing who didn’t so much as look at me.  I felt enormously out of place.

However, the third place I went to was just right.  I was greeting by the female co-owner, who invited me into the lounge to talk to some of the girls.  They were cool, friendly people (some of whom were to become good friends); the place was fairly classy for a brothel (I was starting to think myself something of an expert in brothel decor!) – all leather couches and plush carpet like an old-fashioned gentleman’s club; and the manager seemed lovely (and it would transpire that she genuinely was lovely – a former hooker herself who wanted to run the sort of place she would have wanted to work at).  I filled in my form and reported for duty the very next evening.

So, to recap: not only did I choose to enter into the sex industry of my own volition, I also had in mind the sort of place I wanted to work and kept looking till I found it.  No coercion here!

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*Obviously, there are plenty of male prostitutes too.  I just haven’t come across too many.

Fairytales of Prostitution – an Introduction

I was a prostitute for four and a half years, give or take.  During that time, I worked in several massage parlours, I did independent outcalls and I co-ran a SOOB (small owner-operated brothel).  I was briefly a dominatrix*, which I was rubbish at, but I was a much more successful professional submissive.

I left the industry a whiles ago now, and I think enough time has passed that I have some perspective on it.  While I was in it, I was staunchly pro-sex work to the point that I refused to see anything but positives in the industry.  Now with distance and hindsight, I see it for what it was – like anything, it had awesome aspects and it had some pretty shitty aspects.  On the whole, however, I’m really happy for the time I spent as a prostitute.  I loved most of my work, I learned new skills (not even the sort of skills you’re thinking about!) and I think it made me a better person.

So I thought I’d start writing about some of the myths that surround prostitution.  Of course, it’s all my own perspective informed by my own experiences.   Other prostitutes’ experiences will no doubt be completely different.

I use the term “prostitute” quite consciously.  “Sex worker” seems to have become a bit of a catch-all euphemism which I have heard applied to everyone from strippers to phone-sex workers to paid erotica writers!  I’d rather own the term “prostitute”, because that’s what I was.  I’ll probably also refer to myself as a hooker and a whore.  These terms, to my mind, have more poewr and more history than the bland “sex worker”.

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* The dominatrices I know will want me to mention that their line of work is not the same as prostitution and that as a rule dominatrices do not have sex with their clients.  Indeed, in my brief stint as a dominatrix, I didn’t.  I did, however, have sex with clients as a pro-sub, although only in specialised sessions.

Relax! It’s Just Chlamydia

The thing that boggles my mind One of the many things that boggle my mind is watching Marian Grossman and her ilk talk about STIs as if they are the worst possible thing that can happen to a person.  Apparently, bronchitis or glandular fever or  gastroentiritis is considered a fairly normal part of life and absolutely no cause for alarm, while a bout of chlamydia or gonerrhoea is some hideous thing that marks us for life and that we should be forever ashamed about.

Yes, of course, practise safe sex.  OF COURSE.  In the same way that we ought to cover our mouths when we sneeze, wash our hands after going to the toilet and use a fresh needle when we shoot up, we ought to wear condoms outside of committed relationships.  But if a condom slips or breaks, if in a moment of passion or stupidity or misplaced trust the condom is just plain forgotten, if we find ourselves in a position where we’re pressured or forced into unprotected sex and later it transpires that we have a bit of a case of syphilis… take a deep breath and relax!  The treatment is the same as that for pneumonia, and we shouldn’t feel any more ashamed about having it or seeking treatment for it.

Even the dreaded Big Bads, hepatitis and HIV: yep, they’re mighty unpleasant; yep, they require a lifetime of management; yep, we want to do everything we can to avoid them – but they are just diseases!  Lupus, Crohn’s disease, MS, et cetera, et cetera require a lifetime of management, but there is not the same stigma attached to them.

The thing that marks chlamydia or HIV as different from MS or pneumonia is one thing: sex.  If we have chlamydia or HIV, people will assume we’ve probably had sex at least once in our lives*.  Oh, the horror!  Us and the vast majority of the post-pubescent population.  It doesn’t mean we’re sluts (and not that there’s a damned thing wrong with being a slut), it doesn’t mean we’re dirty, it doesn’t mean that we’re reckless.  We just have a bit of an ailment.

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* Oh, yes, there are certainly other ways to catch them, but these are the assumptions that are made.

Robot Hookers from Mars!!!

OK, not from Mars*, but this entry is indeed about robot hookers.  No, I can’t believe it, either.  A couple of researchers at Victoria University have suggested that the future of the sex industry is all about robots.  There’ll be robot strippers, robot lap-dancers, robot massages and, yep, robot hookers. Now, I can’t access the full paper in the Futures journal (why must all academic work be concealed behind a paywall?), so sadly I don’t know the nitty-gritty of this theory – just what’s in their abstract and on the Stuff website.  Moreover, I don’t know if their theory is entirely serious or if it’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek academia.  But because I’ve got nothing better to do today, I’m going to engage with it completely po-faced.  Superficially, the idea has some awesome benefits.  OK, one awesome non-debatable benefit: zero risk of sexually transmitted diseases with no need of condoms.

However, there are some glaring assumptions inherent to their theory; the major one being that consumers of the sex industry are just looking to get their rocks off.  In my experience as a hooker, yes, the vast majority of clients wanted to get their rocks off (although some notably didn’t), but as a rule that was only part of their decision to hire a hooker.  Here are some of the other reasons, good and bad, why clients came to see me when I was a hooker:  for conversation, for therapy, to feel power over another human being, to feel ashamed, to shame someone else, to cry, to snuggle, to read someone their poetry (OK, that only happened once), to confess, to feel skin on skin, for the smell of a woman, to fantasise about how things might have been, to fall in love, to be listened to, to feel the thrill of being naughty, to discuss philosophy, to argue politics, to get revenge on their partner, to laugh, to share their worries, to scandalise the neighbours, to learn, for compassion.  In fact, I’d hazard to say that for most clients I saw, feeling a human connection in one form or another was at least as important as getting their rocks off.  Robots have a very long way to go to be capable of fulfilling half of these things.

Which is why, although the authors believe that a robot-based sex industry would put an end to sex slavery**, I believe that unless in some dark and distant future we are able to create robots which are absolutely indistinguishable from living, breathing, flesh-and-blood humans, there will always be a call for the real thing – at the very least from the power junkies who get off on purchasing another human being (assuming that robots are able to fake conversation, laughter, scents, etc before then).

Of course, ending sex slavery is a fantastic goal to have and I totally applaud any ideas which might work towards that.  And so I had a brief moment of thinking myself selfish.  If robots can take over the sex industry and eliminate trafficking of sex slaves, isn’t it a bit selfish to go “Nuh-uh, some of us real people still want to do it”?  But, like I say, even if that theory was enacted in the science fiction future and the official, legal sex industry consisted of robots, I’m convinced that there would still be a black market of “real” men and women providing sexual services.  Anyway, surely a better (and much, much simpler!) way of working towards ending sex slavery is to provide support for those who do want to be sex workers, and making the industry a safer place to work and an easier place to leave?  Sci fi stuff indeed!

A final word: the title of their paper – Robots, Men And Sex Tourism – betrays their assumption that all consumers of the sex industry are men, which is patently untrue.  Sure, women are a smaller percentage of the market base in the sex industry, but they’re most certainly there!  (Indeed, I’ve been a consumer before, as well as a provider).  I really dislike being reductionistic about things (“Men are like this, while women are like that!”), but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that female consumers of the sex would be far more resistant to the idea of robot hookers than men.

And on that note, I’ll leave you with The Dresden Dolls’ “Coin Operated Boy” playing on your head radio.

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* I was, however, tickled to note that one of the authors of the paper is named Michelle Mars.

** I really have to come up with a better term than “sex slavery”, which has positive connotations of consensual BDSM-related slavery in my mind.  Any ideas?