When I first stepped into the world of feminism; from what was a very antifeminist stance, I was stunned by the sense of community that I had entered. Women who were not only encouraged to find their own tribe and their own voice, but who had a responsibility to listen to those who, for so many reason, experienced the world in a way they never would. To form; from near or far, a deep sense of solidarity with each other no matter how different our, inequitable, oppressive experience of the world were. We had each other’s back and made decisions, especially in regards to the words we chose to speak about each other, that would let others know we’ve got this.
Of course this utopian nirvana I thought I had found has lost its shine over the last decade. Feminism is imperfect, complicated, diverse and sometimes down and out infuriating. But it is, and will always be, the one choice I will always make. To not only be a feminist but to deliberately use my space in this world to smash the status quo.
But, to me, the almost universal premise that brings feminism from the world of theory and academia and into the ways that women, right here right now, make and experience their bodies in this patriarchal world is the curiosity and respect for each other’s voice. And right at the heart of this idea (or is that ideal) is that no other person, feminist or not, is not in any position to tell women what they should or shouldn’t do. While this new vouge feminism centred in choice is deeply problematic; choice, not just the ability but the permission to, engage or disengage with the world in informed ways, has to mean something.
One of the things I’m learning about being a submissive woman, is that I now exist in this cultural paradox. Within BDSM, when a woman tells her story and she says that her experiences of submission are negative, that she has been harmed. That she is living with trauma. She is called a liar. She is shamed. She is blamed. Outside of BDSM, when a woman tells her story and she says that her experiences of submission are positive, that she feels safe, that she is experiencing pleasure. She is called a liar. She is shamed. She is blamed.
It doesn’t matter what we are saying; our voice is ignored, ridiculed and rejected.
I’m not arrogant enough to tell women what they should be doing. So it was no surprise that Caitlin Roper’s latest account of her angst surrounding the newest Fifty Shades release was something that I was going to find hard to read. To me it is deeply paternalistic, her words and those like her are founded in the genuine belief that they know what is best. Rejecting the experiences of women who genuinely enjoy the franchise and intentionally subjugating the dozens if not hundreds of reasons why they are going to see the movie.
So when I see women like Caitlin Roper jumping from the clichéd volley of platitudes usually directed at the franchise (I’m surprised that the condescending mummy porn portrayal wasn’t front and centre in her piece) into the position that tells the readers of the Sydney Morning Herald that “these are the services where women like Anastasia end up” I have to stop and really think hard about what the overall intention of this piece was.
Did Caitlin want to add something to the numerous conversations about the structural and cultural barriers to women freely engaging with frontline services? Was she writing this because she has a genuine concern for women “like Anastasia” and a desire to make sure that we too have access to relevant interventions and services?
Call me sceptical, but I’m going to say it’s a sure bet that neither of these were part of the reason why she wrote this piece. Nor why the Sydney Morning Herald chose to take it to publication.
Because the reality is that women like Caitlin Roper have little to no concern about women like me. The women that they choose to cast as presumptive victims while choosing to ignore our voices and our stories. Women like me, who are safe in our intimate spaces even though the behaviours, language, attitudes and community commonly associated with BDSM and dominance and submission are at the core of our relationships. While people will jump to read the narratives of our sexploits when it is all about the whips and chains and orgasms; it’s getting harder and harder to get others to actually take the time to sit down, shut up and listen to us. Well they have no reason to right?
For all of the pieces about “women like Anastasia” I have not yet encountered one which actively seeks out what we need in frontline services; especially with regard to mental health care. And from the hour or so of searching on the website of those organisations behind this campaign, I can safely assume that not one of them has any dedicated service or counsellor informed about or directed to meeting the needs of submissive women.
But beyond “these services” that she has so carefully promoted in her piece not actually being services that would be responsive to who I am and what I would need if in fact I did ever need to access their services; I want to question the dominant narrative of her piece.
There are lots of things wrong with the character of Christian Grey. He is materialistic and status driven. He believes that his philanthropic endeavours account for the business choices he makes. He has acquired so many unhealthy and dysfunctional approaches to and behaviours within both his relationships with women and in his sex life (it’s interesting that, of all the pieces written about his behaviours not one piece has tried to explore the correlation between child abuse and the attachment disorder that Christian so clearly has). He has unresolved trauma. And most importantly connected to BDSM his sexual identity has stalled in its infancy stage, the only way he can feel safe engaging with sex in a mutually satisfying way is my having a signed piece of paper kept in the bedside table; or wherever a billionaire would keep his important documents. Christian Grey also embodies a lot of the fragile yet toxic masculinity that has created the realm of the pickup artist; and, unfortunately, has begun to infect BDSM. It’s egocentric, entitled and dangerous for women, because, amongst other problems it schedules women as passive in their own bodies and as characters that men create through their own sexual prowess. So I am not defending the character that is Christian Grey. And let’s be honest he and the world that he commands is one walking, talking product placement.
Christian is not the absolute everything of FSOG. And while he clearly exhibits problematic behaviours he is a fictional character that is a cluster of everything unlikable and unacceptable. And women are allowed to like him.
And this, as far as I’m concerned, brings to a head the idea that the franchise is glamourising intimate partner violence.
Finding something alluring about a fictional character; even one as dysfunctional as Christian Grey. Finding points of reference in fiction that you connect to, that resemble the story of your own sexual realities. Does not, in anyway, negate the way you perceive intimate partner violence! And to consider the audience of Fifty Shades Darker as ignorant about the realities of intimate partner violence., is quite arrogant!
And that is just not how I choose to approach the millions of women, throughout the world who have gone and will go and see Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. I see them, as I see myself as women entitled to make their own decisions regarding how they spend their disposable incomes. But more than that, I am not so isolated from the community of women who either enjoy the Fifty Shades franchise or who choose to bring behaviours commonly associated with dominance and submission into their erotic space, to see these women as ignorant about the realities of intimate partner violence. We see the same news headlines as you. We read the same reports that tell us the attitudes regarding women, violence and sexual behaviours is repulsive. We know that intimate partner violence kills at least 1 woman a week in Australia and costs our economy billions of dollars in lost wages, first responders, health care and our legal system We see the same shallow and pathetic attempts at awareness, band aid solutions, funding cuts and inadequate structural and institutional action as every other woman. We see the casual and often inadequate ways that the media engage with the complexity of gendered violence. We understand that domestic and family violence has, over generations, has been relegated to behind closed doors, assigned to the too hard or not our problem basket. We may enjoy a movie that some see as problematic, be we, as individuals and a collective group of women are neither the cause of intimate partner violence not blatantly ignorant of it.
I think that there is a lot wrong with infantilising women’s consumer choices. The women who are seeing this movie found something interesting to see; and dare I say it something that turned them on. I know I did! And I will unapologetically, defend the right for a woman to watch a movie and, when well informed by complete understanding, motivated by mutual satisfaction and framed by affirmative consent, defend the choice to be “like Anastasia” in her boudoir.
So while I have to agree with her proposition that we (although I have no doubt that her “we” does not include women like myself) need to begin to really interrogate the way that intimate partner violence is discussed and represented I will not be actively supporting anything that intentionally creates and us and them divide. As a woman “like Anastasia” I will let other women just like her make their own choices about what they watch at the cinema and how they come to understand what intimate partner violence is.
And if that contribution to creating a better understanding of women’s experiences of intimate partner violence involves actively boycotting one book/movie franchise than, by all means, actively boycott Fifty Shades Darker; and in a years’ time when Fifty Shades Freed is released, make the same choice. But the choice to watch the movie is no more or less a choice.
But please, understand the services and the political/social ideology that you are really supporting. Spend 5 minutes Googling the individuals and organisations behind it and where exactly your money will go. Because, as a feminist, I unequivocally stand behind the idea that it is only through education; both as a social institution and self-driven, that women will be able to make the best choices for themselves.
I’m not asking you to change your opinions about the FSOG franchise; love it, hate it, it’s your decision. But what I am asking of you is that, before advocating for a particular campaign or position, you choose to understand the realities of those women “like Anastasia”. The women like me, like dozens of friends of mine – women and men alike. To stop and listen to our voices and our stories.
Being able to write and to write well is a privilege. Being given a public platform is an entitlement. Those who are gifted this public space are entitled to their own words and their own agendas. But doesn’t someone with this privilege have a responsibility to, at least consider, their potential audience? The Sydney Morning Herald is not some niche blog or sub forum. It is a mainstream media platform, and one that has a diverse audience; an audience that includes women “like Anastasia”.