Friday, 6 February 2015

50 Shades of Abuse

This post is not suitable for minors.

To recap: on Facebook I shared an article suggesting that the novel 50 Shades of Grey had the potential to mislead young people into thinking that abusive relationships were erotic.

Here's the article:

And here's the gist of it:

The book and movie perpetuate the idea that the abuse and sexual control of women is sexy.

Not for the first time, the topic of BDSM arose in the conversation. I personally think that's a red herring, and I'll explain why in a bit.

First, if we're going to talk about this, then we have to look at what consent is.

The dictionary says it is permission given to do something. Tacitly, I believe, this implies permission given freely with all available information. So, if I give you permission to walk on my lawn, I do so without any pressure or coercion on your part, and with an understanding that "walk on" does not mean drive on it, or dig it up, or pour salt on it. Plus, that permission was only given to you, not 200 others, that it applies only for the time we have agreed upon, and that I can withdraw that permission at whim.

One of the things that is so wonderful about humans is that out of politeness, respect, and good upbringing, most of us cope just fine with this sort of thing. We tend not to overstep the mark. When invited into somebody's home we don't rummage through their cupboards or jump on the beds, despite not being told how to behave. We know what's acceptable and what isn't.

But before any of that, we have a few other understandings. Normally, you don't just walk into somebody's home without invitation, even if the door is wide open. And you don't invite yourself to dinner, you wait to be asked.

My dog Sirius has no boundaries like that. If your door was open, he'd wander in, help himself to any food that wasn't being watched over, tip out your garbage, and try to have sex with your cat.

So, when humans have no boundaries we tend to call them animals, and this distinction comes from the rules we have come up with in human society to get along peacefully.

Boundaries and consent are particularly important in matters of sexual activity, and even in the simplest concepts of personal space. You may have heard of the girl who shamed a man who touched her on an airplane by putting his photo on the internet. He said it was a mistake. It sure was. But it wasn't an accident.

He overstepped boundaries, and he did not have her consent. 

The boundaries are not marked. They are not mapped. This is something we have to learn as we grow up. It's part of our culture, and it does vary a bit, but generally speaking in modern society people know when and where they can touch another person. Without consent to go beyond that, there will be objection, and it's a totally justified objection.

Now, I'm famous among those who know me well for saying that in my opinion sexual acts of any kind between any two consenting parties are entirely their business, and you won't hear a word of objection from me. This statement is considered quite shocking by some people, and I have even been called immoral for it. But think about it for a moment. Unless there is betrayal of a third party, which is a whole other matter, this mutual consent harms nobody. It doesn't matter what this couple do, it's between them and it's nobody else's business.

My husband and I (OH GOD I SOUND LIKE THE QUEEN!) have a running joke about ear sex. We don't actually DO IT, because neither of us actually gets anything out of it. We are just very silly people, and quite often very inappropriate, and probably not the best people to invite to dinner when your church lady aunt comes over. But the reason we joke about ear sex is that some people have tried it. And while I don't have any data here (maybe you do?) I guarantee that some of them liked it. Because humans vary enormously in what turns them on.

I use this example simply because on a scale of 0-100 in erotic appeal, ear sex scores a zero, as far as I'm concerned. I imagine that's a fairly common score. Probably ranking around the same as sex with the Eiffel tower (oh yes, somebody did).

On the other hand foot fetishes are quite common, and China even had a long-standing fetish over deformed feet. Still a zero for me, but in this example there are many people who'd rate it higher, some much higher.

Now I'm going to say something that will cause a wide variety of reactions. What is 100% for me? Bet you've often wondered! Well, I'll be honest, it's how my husband smells, and I'm not talking about his cologne (although some of those rank quite high). I am, in this respect, a bit of an animal. He's a clean man, showers a lot, but he has a warm musky smell that goes straight to my hormones.

For some people THAT would be a zero. I can see their "ewwwwww" faces from here. But that's the thing you see, we're all different, and it's all OK.

Moreover, he is not offended by being sniffed. Well, not by me anyway. If the sheep do it he's not so keen.

So that's the first part of this, the turn on. It's different for everyone and it's absolutely nobody else's business, and it can't be helped anyway. Even if you have some sort of disorder where you are turned on by watching a beheading, so long as you don't act it out, it doesn't matter. (I would recommend therapy though, seriously). What goes on in our heads is private and harmless. It is a fantasy.

Where do these fantasies come from? They have to come from somewhere. Hold that thought.

So, what if you have a fantasy that you want to act out? Well, you find somebody willing to join in. This is where the problems start. These days it's probably easier, I daresay there's a website where you fill out a questionnaire, checking off your own list of kinks, and the system matches you with someone with the same kinks. Perfect. You arrange a meet. Etc etc. But otherwise you have to find a partner who is attracted to you, and THEN drop the bombshell that you want to do X. It could be the end of the relationship right there and then. The horrified look on their face, the slamming door, the refusal to return calls. The restraining order. Well, let's hope it doesn't go that far.

As I mentioned earlier, one popular bit of sex play, to the point of becoming a lifestyle in some couples, is BDSM. It's so popular in fact that I don't need to explain it to you. I've spoken to many people who engage in this, and I think I get the picture. I do understand that it's quite safe, and totally consensual. Which makes it perfectly OK. It doesn't appeal to me, but I don't disapprove, because I don't see the harm in it. Simple as that.

If you two enjoy it, my friends, anything goes.

Let's go back to consent. The law of the land says that there are limits to consent, and one of these is age. The age of consent differs quite dramatically around the world, but here are the ages in the countries my main blog readers live:

Canada - 16
USA - 16 to 18, depending on state
UK - 16
France - 15
India - 18
Australia - 16 (17 in Tasmania)
Ireland -17

There are provisos with this age around the world, for example, in Italy it's 14, but 16 if the older person is in a position of trust, such as a teacher or priest. Other provisos depend on the age of the older party, and the type of sex. For example in countries where homosexual acts are permitted by law they often require a higher age of consent.

While we're here I may as well give the extremes:

Angola - 12
Bahrain - 21

Why do we have a legal age of consent? Well, because it is considered that under that age the consent cannot be freely given. In fact while the high ages in some countries looks like it's protecting young people, and this is the reason given, if you look closely the real reason behind it is different. These are countries where homosexuality is forbidden (so these are only ages of consent for WOMEN), and in some cases so is any sex outside marriage. So, in fact, this is more to do with control over women's choices than protection.

Nevertheless there has to be protection of the young and vulnerable, the question is what is the appropriate age for consent? The variation suggests there's no real consensus here. Clearly it is going to vary from individual to individual, and the law cannot possibly deal with that in advance, so most countries err on the side of caution. While many 14 or 15 year old women are ready to make an informed choice, having 16 as the line in the sand covers those who are not. (Some are not ready at 35, but that's another matter.)

Can young people be persuaded to perform sexual acts against their will? Certainly. In fact this is not restricted to the young. "Grooming", which is normally a speciality of pedophiles, can be achieved with any person who is naive enough not to see what's happening.

Grooming is only a malicious extension of customary behaviour, and this is why these things are so difficult to deal with. A harmless version of grooming is called social norms. Think about it. In a culture where the age of consent is 12, those involved see this as normal. There may be physical problems associated with it (a 12-year-old body is really NOT equipped to deal with pregnancy) but culturally there would be no shame, and no repercussions.

But in a culture where 12 is considered OK, 11 is not. They still have limits. There is always a limit, even when we think the limit is way off.

As I mentioned earlier, some countries have limits regarding the type of sex. If you live in a culture where homosexual activity is forbidden by law, as it was once in most of the world, it changes the attitudes of the masses. In the 1950s if you asked the average person what they thought about gay sex, they would say they disapproved. If you asked why, they'd simply tell you it was wrong. They probably hadn't given it a lot of thought. It was just not the done thing. The broader minded would have giggled about it. They may disapprove less, but still "feel" it was wrong, it was "naughty", hence the humour. Only those who took part would approve, and even many of those felt very ashamed of it, not just because it was illegal, but because it felt wrong.

And these average people who just dismissed it as wrong, were not bigots. This was not hate. This was normal, cultural attitudes, based on very little information and lots of peer pressure to disapprove. They can be forgiven for not knowing any better.

These days it's a bit different. In the liberal parts of the western world, where homosexuality is legal, in some cases gay marriage is legal, and where we are all used to having openly gay friends, it becomes an informed choice to disapprove. It's now a controversial issue, and you can be looked down upon if you say it's wrong. Older people who remember how it used to be, have a much harder time adjusting to this new cultural norm, and some never will. Young people with no memory of the days of illegality and disapproval tend to be far more tolerant, because they just see it as normal. That's how cultural norms work.

Essentially, if you want to change how society feels about something, it takes a generation or two.

I want you to think about our attitudes towards how we dress. I've talked about this many time before, but I always think it's a good example about our attitudes and how they can be manipulated. Everyone wears clothes, so we can all relate to it.

If you grow up in a culture where the majority of people think you should cover as much of your body as possible, you will likely think that too. There will be rebels, there are always freethinkers, but they are the minority. To make change you need secondary rebels. These are the people who are influenced by the freethinkers, they are effectively imitators. If you are trying to bring about social change you need to influence others, you need support. And your first supporters will come to you willingly. They are very keen, they just aren't quite as innovative. They needed that catalyst.

So, in our example, the rebels refuse to wear the all-over covering. They may show an ankle here or there, and chances are they'll be ridiculed, or in certain places, punished by law. They will be frowned upon by the majority, regardless. When there are enough secondary rebels supporting the cause, it becomes easier for more to join, until there's a critical mass effect. This is done by a very subtle persuasion, not force, but peer pressure. Fashion.

What happens at some point is that even those who aren't too sure about covering themselves less, get swept along by the tide. If you've ever been on a topless beach you'll have seen the phenomenon. First day out some girls are shy, but eventually wearing a top feels awkward, and off it comes.

In the 1880s in the western world it was daring to show an ankle. In the 1960s mini skirts caused a stir. Now the limit of controversy in most circles is whether nipples should show through a top. Nudity itself is acceptable in some situations, and we have gone to an extreme. I guarantee that the pendulum will slowly swing back the other way at some point, hopefully not too far.

It has already swung to the other extreme in other parts of the world. In some cultures women even cover their eyes and hands. This is linked to Islam, but it's not actually a religious requirement. It is a political and cultural phenomenon.

Strangely enough, in the 1960s in some of these places, women were wearing mini skirts. How did they get from that to the burqa? It wasn't rebellion within their own ranks. It wasn't their choice. It came from male authority. BUT, once that was established and some time passed a strange thing happened. Young women started wearing this garment in places where it wasn't compulsory. In fact, even in places where it is disapproved of or actually banned, some fight for the right to wear it. There are several reasons for this, in some cases it's an identity statement, a feminist statement, or a political statement. In some cases it is ideological brainwashing, and it can come from other women.

(On that topic, read this:

But the vast majority of women who wear the burqa where it is not new, do so simply because they are accustomed to it. It feels normal and comfortable. They would no more feel themselves if forced to walk down the street in jeans and a t-shirt, than most western women would fel if forced to walk down the street naked. So, do they want to wear a burqa? Yes, they do. But not by free, informed choice. It's consent and's not. This is fashion in extremis.

Now, we have a similar phenomenon that occurs here in the west with make-up. Yes, really. Most men do not wear make-up (more's the pity, I love a man in eyeliner). They used to, long ago, but currently, outside of TV/stage/movies men don't. Women frequently do wear make-up, especially for work or formal occasions, and some just put it on when they get up in the morning even if they are not going out. And this is considered normal. A single gender habit. What's more, most of the women who do so, will tell you they do it not just willingly, but with relish. If you took away their right to wear make-up they'd feel naked or cheated. They'd fight for it. As a result of understanding this, some women refuse to wear make-up. They go to the other extreme. Some won't even wear it on TV, and look quite sick under those lights, but it's a statement. Some women have fun with make-up and wear it "wrong". On purpose. Because there are unwritten fashion rules here.

My view to make-up is that if you enjoy it, ENJOY IT! If you don't, then don't wear it. But if you don't enjoy it, and wear it because you feel a pressure to do so, even if it's only female peer pressure, or you feel naked or ugly without it, then you know why women wear burqas.

Basically ladies, you've been tricked.

Female peer pressure, fashion, and the pressure to look "right" (attractive or following the rules) are powerful in all sorts of other ways. How we present ourselves to the rest of society takes up our time, our money, and our energy. There is a lot of stress involved. Some employers insist on women wearing make-up, or heels, or skirts, or whatever, even if they don't meet the public, and despite this being an infringement of personal rights, they find ways to justify it. It is an expectation, part of the dress code (which is usually already ridiculous) with dire consequences for rebellion. It's bollocks, but it's a reality.

And frankly, most people think about it very little. Men hardly at all. We are so used to these sort of norms that unless a stirrer like me mentions them, we forget we even have choices.

I'll never forget the occasion when I said much of this to a girl on a forum, and she told me sharply "you make it sound as if it's wrong to want to look pretty". I told her to define pretty, and she couldn't. Which upset her, confused her, bothered her. I couldn't see her face obviously, but I think I can guess how it looked. I challenged her to actually give this some thought, and when she was ready to discuss it (took a while) she said she had had some sort of personal epiphany which dragged up all sorts of baggage about criticism by her sister and so on. I think...maybe...I changed her life a little. I am that primary rebel, and I do influence people, but I don't pressure them. I just make them think.

Now I want you to think about propaganda, and how it works. It's very similar.

Propaganda is a deliberate attempt to convince people (plural) that something is good or bad, true or false, just or unjust, in order to reach your own aims. It is not just a lie, but a whole system of lying. It works in the same way fashion works, but with a real agenda. Governments do it to their own people, and also to the people in "enemy" nations. Employers do it to the workforce. The wealthy and powerful do it to increase their wealth and power, via politicians or media. Advertising is part of the arsenal, but nowadays propaganda can spread though social media faster, and for free, if you get the right starting point. It's powerful stuff. You can win wars with the right propaganda.

Goes without saying, it's sometimes also a false accusation. The whole vaccination thing comes to mind. Apparently vaccinations are the government trying to kill us all, and the diseases don't really exist, it's just propaganda. And variations on that. This is conspiracy theory stuff, and really quite "out there". But lots of people believe it. Because people are easy to trick, easy to convince, easy to manipulate.

At that level, be it advertising, or viral propaganda, or a religious cult, or whatever, we have help. We are not alone. We have wise people around us to point out the flaws, and pull us back from the brink. Even if we are hopelessly credulous ourselves, we can usually be saved from falling for this stuff by people who care about us. I spend a lot of time pointing out the ridiculousness of the latest woo-woo on the net. Whether I bother or not often depends on the age of the credulous person, and I worry most about the young. They just don't have the life experience to recognize bullshit.

My kids have been raised to be very questioning, very suspicious really. I'm huge on critical thinking, largely because I was never taught it and had to figure it out by myself, so I've given them every weapon I could. And yet occasionally, they get caught. All my efforts, and all their subsequent efforts with one another, sometimes fail. Tom is especially vulnerable and we all work even harder on him, but he got screwed over online once from being too naive (just once mind, nobody tricks a Boxall twice). They are young. They are innocent. It takes time and a few mistakes, and none of us are ever con-proof, but gradually we learn to smell when something isn't right.

When I was young I made a lot of mistakes from being young. Things nobody told me. Warnings I never had. Thankfully none of them did any lasting damage, but that was sheer luck. I wasn't stupid either, I was considered one of the brightest in my grade at school, so that helped, but I made young person mistakes because I was a young person.

What didn't happen, also thankfully, was that I didn't get led into anything by others. I devised all my trouble by myself. I was a leader, not a follower. I saw it happen enough though. Bright kids from good homes would go off the rails to try to fit in. They sought acceptance, they wanted to be "in". It led them to very bad mistakes, some of which had permanent results. So, inevitably, there were some girls who had babies at 14.

It's easy to look down on those girls. Call them names. Assume they are "bad" girls. Some of them really don't know any better, their mother was also very young when they were born. But most are just normal girls whose brains and bodies are growing fast. She's a good girl really. He's not a bad boy either. Her parents probably TOLD her not to get pregnant at that age, but they weren't present at the time, when the boy she was crazy about suggested sex. Her support system weren't around to remind her it was risky. There was nobody there to say "it's a bad idea". No, she had to make that decision all by herself, and she was probably every bit as keen as he was at that moment. As much as we like to pretend teenage girls don't have raging hormones too, they do.

This is why there were, and often still are, chaperones. Never give them the chance to make that mistake, right? The idea is sound, but as with so many of these arrangements, it is used, again, to control the lives of women. Chaperoning always goes right along with interfering in many other choices.

Until such time as we perfect the art of educating young people in the ways of the world without controlling them, mistakes will happen, and such is life. As in all other ways we can never give up all freedom for a false sense of security, because that way lies madness (see burqa, above).

But that education is important. All education is important. This type of education is every bit as important as the three Rs.

So let's go right back to the beginning, to that book. No, not the first or last book of its kind, but an excellent example. Twilight was another example. The difference being that in Twilight the damage was purely emotional control. Edward never hurt Bella physically. Nevertheless, many mothers shared with me their concern that girls reading this could be carried away by the romance, and completely miss the dysfunctional relationship, yes, even in a supernatural setting. There are plenty of young men who behave like Edward without being vampires.

This book is different because the control is both mental and physical. It extends to rape and other physical abuse. And this is promoted as romance.

If you are 40 years old, and that floats your boat it's none of my business. I think you need counselling, frankly, but that's your problem and not mine.

No, there are several problems here.

1. Young people are reading this. We don't know how young. Imagine if that is the FIRST book they read on the subject of relationships, or the subject of sex. Think about the damage that could do.

2. Men who behave in this way have just been vindicated. They'll point to the success of this book as proof that women really like it rough, really want to be controlled. They'll tell women who object to their preferences that they are misguided/frigid/faulty/unfair, you name it. They will see Christian Grey as a hero, they will admire him, quote him, and copy him. Some young ones who've not thought of it before will be inspired by him.

3. People will associate this abuse with BDSM. That may demonize BDSM in some critical eyes, but that's not my concern. My concern is that this abuse will masquerade as BDSM. That women will be tricked into thinking they are getting classic safe BDSM, and get abuse instead. As has been stated by many people, this isn't BDSM, this is abuse, pure and simple.

I oppose censorship. There are far, far worse things being written, but there are also many others which are just as enjoyable without the abuse angle. Plenty of other things to read. Leave this one for those who are experienced enough in life to understand what it is. Think of it in the same category as a psychological thriller, or a horror story. Because that's what it is. If you enjoy it, hey, none of my business. But for pity's sake, try to get a clue on why some of us are concerned about it.

OK, at this point you may well be saying "But Melanie, you haven't read it how, so do you know?" Thankfully others have done that for me. I don't want to read it because once you've read something disturbing you can't unread it. I am willing to do that for historical or sociological purposes. I'll pass on this one.

And you don't have to go through that either. This spells it out just fine. 50 examples of abuse from the book.

This book is not an introduction to BDSM, it is a glorification of abusive relationships dressed up as erotica. I would not want this getting into the hands of an impressionable teenage girl. This was the reason for my original post - essentially, mothers, teach your daughters this is not a normal relationship. This is not romance. Use it as an opportunity to explain about manipulation, coercion, and so on. Go through the list of abuses I just posted. Explain, explain, explain.

Oh, and finally.


  1. Oh, and when it comes to making a buck, mindfulness tends to go out the window. That is all. ~ Blessings!