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50 Shades and Abusive Relationships

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Kel over at Coffee and Prozac sent me some very interesting .pdfs. These documents put a fine point on everything that bothers me about the popularity of 50 Shades (okay, not everything… they don’t cover the blatant plagiarism everyone seems to be giving a pass). They were hand outs that would help a person determine if they are in a relationship with an abuser, or if someone has the potential to be an abuser.

Now, when the publicity first started snowballing out of control for this book, Dr. Drew took a lot of heat by saying that 50 Shades was “actual violence against women.” He then went on to state that people who are abused as kids are into BDSM, which sent any validity in that first statement straight down the toilet. One thing he did have right was 50 Shades of Grey‘s glorification of abusive relationships. Unfortunately, because of the size of the ass he showed to Romancelandia, you can barely bring up the abuse components of Ana and Christian’s relationship without someone shouting over you that BDSM is not abuse, and you’re a small-minded person if you conflate the two. Hardly anyone will enter into a discussion of the abusive relationship in this book without the focus shifting to the characters’ sex lives. So, you know, thanks, Dr. Drew. You just made this discussion a fucking minefield.

BDSM is not abuse. I have never, nor would I ever, claim that safe, consensual BDSM is abuse. But these handouts Kel sent me really help pinpoint what is so wrong with the relationship that is the plot of 50 Shades, without confusing spankings with beating. Let’s go through one of them, point by point, shall we?

The following “red flags” are from a hand out entitled “Universal Red Flags” taken from a book called How To Spot A Dangerous Man. The instructions read: “Check all the following that apply even if only remotely”. Let me share the ones I checked on Ana’s behalf:

You feel uncomfortable about something he has said or done, and the feeling remains. I don’t think we need to cite any one particular incident where Ana has been made uncomfortable by Christian Grey. This is prevalent throughout the book.

You wish he would go away, you want to cry, and you want to run away from him. Ana often thinks about how she can “escape” Christian, how she needs to find an exit, how she can’t handle being around him because she can’t trust herself to think clearly. In just the portion of the book we’ve reviewed so far, Ana has ended three of her encounters with Christian as a sobbing mess.

You have the urge to “love him into emotional wellness,” if that were possible. Again, based on the chapters we’ve reviewed here so far, Ana does seem to believe that she can change him, or that he has psychological wounds that need to be healed.

You feel bad about yourself when you are around him. One of the clearest indicators, to me, anyway, that there is a power imbalance in their relationship is the fact that Ana constantly compares herself – how she looks, how she acts, how she’s dressed – to Christian and his very wealthy lifestyle, and she always finds herself lacking. She often wonders why he’s interested in her.

You only feel good about yourself when you are with him. Conversely, Ana doesn’t have a nice word to say about herself unless it is confirmed by Christian. When her roommate tells her that she’s pretty, Ana interprets it as a patronizing compliment Kate can’t possibly mean, but when Christian Grey calls Ana beautiful, she suddenly believes that she is. In fact, the only time she believes anything good about herself is when it’s Christian pointing it out.

You feel that he wants too much from you. I think this one requires very little explanation. Not only does he want more than she wishes to give, he constantly pressures her to give him what he wants.

You are emotionally tired from him; you feel he “sucks the life out of you. Now, Ana never says, “he sucks the life out of me.” But again, even if we just look at the first half of this book, she’s doing a lot of crying herself to sleep, needing to get away from him because he’s too intense, etc.

Your value system and his are very different, and it’s problematic. I have this phrase I trot out from time to time with my friends who are dating: If you have to “work on” the relationship within the first month, it’s not going to work out. Sometimes, people are simply incompatible. Ana and Christian have spent most of their relationship with Ana trying to find ways around giving Christian what he wants, and Christian refusing to bend on his expectations. This is not going to clear up in a few more dates.

Your past and his are very different, and the two of you have conflicts over it. Spoiler alert, Christian is obsessive and controlling about food because he went hungry as a child. I know we haven’t gotten to that part of the book in the review yet, but it fits in here. And that’s just one of the ways their pasts differ in problematic ways. While Ana sees his earlier relationship with a much older woman as statutory rape, Christian believes that it was appropriate and has a continuing friendship with the woman, which makes Ana uncomfortable. Ana doesn’t even want the type of relationship Christian is after, they both are aware of this fact, and he continues to pursue her.

You tell your friends you are “unsure about the relationship” Ana has already had this conversation with Kate in the part we’ve reviewed.

You feel isolated from other relationships with friends and family. Ana doesn’t just feel isolated, she is isolated, by the nondisclosure agreement Christian asked her to sign. She finds herself living a double life in order to please Christian and still maintain her relationships with her loved ones.

You feel in the wrong because he is always right and goes to great lengths to show you he is right. This was most obviously displayed in chapter fourteen, where Christian responds to all of Ana’s concerns and questions with long explanations that dance around actual answers.

You are uncomfortable because he continually says he knows what is best for you. He isn’t pressuring her into signing a contract that allows him to act out his sexual fantasies on her for him. It’s all about her, and her happiness. He just wants what’s best for her, just like when he showed up at the bar when she asked him not to, and his concerns about her car.

You notice he needs you too frequently, too much, or too intensely. Christian goes so far as to say that he wants her too much, or that he can’t control himself in her presence because of the intensity of his passion for her.

You notice he quickly discloses information about his past or present or his emotional pain. After they go out for coffee, their first encounter that is not tied to the interview, he warns her off from him with cryptic, tortured statements like, “I’m not the man for you.”

You sense he is pushing too quickly for an emotional connection with you. Okay, this one, Ana wouldn’t check off, but I would. From an outside observer standpoint, Christian is running a very good game of  “pull her in, push her away,” which is forcing an emotional connection with Ana. After having coffee with the guy once, she’s on the floor of a parking garage sobbing. This isn’t just Ana being emotionally immature, it’s Ana being emotionally manipulated by Christian.

You find yourself accepting him “for now” even though you have plenty of red flags that would help you to terminate the relationship if you paid attention to them. Ana is already aware that what she wants from the relationship and what Christian wants are two vastly different, completely incompatible things, but she commits to the relationship despite knowing it has no hope of a future.

These weren’t all the entries on the list, but some of the questions regarding previous children or substance abuse obviously don’t apply to Mr. Grey. Looking over what we have here, is this a healthy relationship? Can we even consider this to be a romance novel, with all of these elements in place?

However, we’ve seen ample evidence of women saying they would prefer their husbands to behave more like Christian Grey. Others say that obviously, they wouldn’t want Christian Grey in real life, but it’s the fantasy they’re enjoying. What fantasy? I fully support fantasizing about a man who takes control in the bedroom. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how it would be enjoyable to fantasize about a man who takes control in all aspects of your life. And remember, I’m not talking about just a BDSM lifestyle here. I’m talking about the measures Christian takes to control Ana’s life before they even enter into a relationship together.

The more I think about it, the more I am depressed by the message of this book, a message that so many women have embraced as a romantic ideal. While in the end, Ana does not stay with Christian (spoiler alert), there are two more books in the series. I do not have enough faith that those books will rectify the glorification of emotional-abuse-as-love in the first book enough to read them. The more I delve into this book, the more disturbing I find it, and its popularity.

You may have noticed that the recaps have become fewer in the past two weeks. This is not because I am bowing to pressure or discontinuing them. I just need to maintain a balance between talking about 50 Shades and talking about other things. This is, after all, my author blog and not a blog about 50 Shades of Grey exclusively. The recaps will still go up, just not the five a week that I started with. That way, I will have time to concentrate on what I really want to blog about. INTERPRETIVE MOVEMENT!

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Here for the first time because you’re in quarantine and someone on Reddit recommended my Fifty Shades of Grey recaps? Welcome! Consider checking out my own take on the Billionaire BDSM genre, The Boss. Find it on AmazonB&NSmashwords, iBooks, and Radish!


  1. Anonymous

    I was married for 16 years to a Christian Grey. No BDSM, but all the possessiveness, isolation, authoritativeness, and psychological abuse which runs rampant in this series.

    I had no idea when I married that the highly intelligent, attractive, funny, and well-respected man I knew would want to pick out my clothes, tell me how and when to do everything, and put me down constantly. We couldn't have people over and I was not permitted to visit friends. After turning down invitation after invitation, people stopped calling and I was cut off. He was also right about everything and got tremendously defensive if I questioned him. If I tried to defy him, he stopped talking to me for days. He wouldn't say a word. During these periods of cold shoulder, he would still want to have cold, unromantic sex with me after which he would remain icily silent. I was being punished. Finally, after days of this, I would give in and agree to do or not do whatever he wanted. After about 10 years of marriage he asked me to sign a document stating that I would not divulge any personal information about him or my marriage to my parents or anyone else. I never figured out what specific incident caused him to do that. I signed it because I didn't know what else to do.

    Looking back, I'm puzzled by my own actions. I'm an intelligent, outgoing woman and I've always been independent and opinionated. The almost constant barrage of put downs and build ups kept me confused and unsure of myself. He broke me down.

    He was damaged himself and after years of depression and prescription narcotic addiction brought on by an injury and that depression, he became suicidal. Knowing his attitude toward the world and my daughter and I, I knew if he took his own life, he'd take us with him. I finally left him and he killed himself a few weeks later. It's been five years since his death and I'm just emerging from the shadow of those terrible years.

    The idea that women are reading these books and idolizing this abusive, manipulative man and James' weird idea of a relationship makes me sick. I hope if they're reading Fifty Shades, or the Trilogy of Terror as I refer to it, they're thinking of it as a cautionary tale, a mildly erotic bit of nonsense, or a call for people to read The Elements of Style again.

    March 19, 2013
  2. Anonymous

    I dated a Mr Gray for 2 1/2 year.
    I am absolutely not a naive woman, plenty of experience instead but what is described in this book is a sociopat and it is really hard to identify one. Once you are there is even harder to get rid of him. And yes, when you are there, in that terrible relationship you romantize it and try to understand that misteious person because you cannot time that beast.

    My selfsteem was absolutely destroyed I am still trying to recover it .
    I would consider this book as dangerous. There are women that would fantasize with this book and if they end up to this situation for real would not know what to do.

    Women that have not experienced this kind of treat do not know how dangerous it is.
    A sociopat will persuade you until you get yourself locked with a beast that does brain damage you rather than only give you orgasms, then you dont feel the right for complain or leave because you were never forced, did you? your curiosity and your stupid heart telling you that man has feelings put yourself in that situation.

    I repeat, this book in hands of women that have appetite for sex and do not know what a sociopat abusive is, can be really dangerous.

    My story ended fortunatelly with my Mr Grey going back to his love affair who is a better target for SM, she is married with children and tired of her nice but boring husband.
    So he has more space to fantasize and punish her than me .
    This is when you really do not feel sorry or regret that your partner goes away.
    Now there is the same Mr. Grey and another Ana, who by the way , is a big fan of this book. She must be the real naive one believing he loves her. As he told me so many times ” I express love throughout sex”…

    June 15, 2013
  3. love this sooooo much!!! finally somebody gets it! i just wrote a blog about the impact this book has had on the bdsm amateur community and how all of the “dominants” now days are like mini-greys so its great to see that someone else has seen through the hype to the massive pile of festering carcass that lies within.

    July 8, 2013
  4. Kalasyn

    One good thing about these books, which I admit I have never read, only what you’ve posted here and what I’ve heard other friends talk about, is they seem to be a gateway for abused women to open up and say “This is not okay”. I too had a Mr. Grey, back when I was just out of high school. It was the standard controlling relationship and everything you posted above (only there as no physical contact ever- not even holding hands). It took 2 years and him breaking my foot before I would leave him. Now, as a high school teacher, I am actually able to use popular yet bad relationship examples (cough cough Twilight) books to help other girls recognize/avoid/end/ abusive relationships.

    Thanks for posting the recaps.

    And as a member of my local BDSM community (and a fairly new one at that, only a year experience), from what I’ve read here and fellow members have said, this does not accurately represent the community. Contracts I agree to are easy to read (I skimmed over the quoted text in the recaps) and are discussed together, not sent home. I hate that readers use these books as their informative source on the subject. My Dominant, as *most* Dominants do, gets his enjoyment from seeing me pleasured and leaving with a smile. Very few Dominants are in it only for their own enjoyment, and those who are very quickly run out of submissives or bottoms who will play with them.

    July 24, 2013
  5. RickR

    I think the fact that Christian’s sexual kinks are labeled as “BDSM” in these books clouds the abuse issue. It’s not the specifics of what goes on in the red room of pain that makes the Ana/ Christian relationship an abusive one (and it clearly is).
    It’s the emotional interactions between them outside of sex that are abusive. I know many people active in the BDSM community who would not (and do not) condone what goes on in these books, and are offended by having their lifestyle portrayed in such a clueless and insulting manner in a popular work of fiction (soon to be a major motion picture!).

    September 5, 2013
  6. RickR

    Aaaaaaand I just read your post “Why BDSM doesn’t need 50 Shades defenders”, so I’d like to edit my comment above and say instead “Yeah. What Jen said.”

    September 5, 2013
  7. I’d like to really thank you for posting this. I am a survivor of an abusive relationship. Interestingly enough, my abuser is named Chris. When I first read the book (which I did very shortly after it became popular, before there were a lot of discussions about the book and abuse), I found the book extremely disturbing, and very reminiscent of what I had been through with Chris. A lot of scenes in the book were incredibly triggering for me, and I legitimately thought that the book was intended to portray abuse, and that the trilogy would end with Ana breaking up with Christian and finding a non-abusive Dom. It really bothers me that people are looking at the sort of thing that I went through, and thinking that it’s romantic. Blech.
    So anyway, thanks for posting this.

    September 29, 2013
  8. […] any interest (especially after reading Jenny Trout’s recaps/teardowns here and especially this link about abusive relationships) nor do either of the lead actors, so I’m able to watch the train wreck without feeling […]

    October 17, 2013
  9. Katherine

    I really wish more people were aware that is book is NOT about BDSM, no one I know in the BDSM community thinks it is an accurate depiction of the lifestyle. The people making the intolerance comments are generally the vanilla house wives who are reading this trash. BDSM relationships come in many varieties, the most extreme being 24/7 power exchange. I am a very dominate person in my day to day life and no one tells me what to do, but I’m submissive in the bedroom. I am fortunate enough to have a wonderful husband who is fine with having a wife that does all the wage earning and makes most of the financial decision, but when the door closes on our bedroom he is completely in charge.

    January 22, 2015
  10. Shae

    I’m so glad this was written.
    Honestly, I have so many friends and friends’ moms that love 50 Shades, and every time I try to explain this, they dismiss me.

    If you want good, realistic BDSM, the Internet is full of it!

    Personally, I really like Anne Rice’s “Beauty” trilogy.

    January 23, 2015
  11. […] to domestic violence, there’s a long list of links available here. It’s interesting to see how Christian Grey measures up against a red flags checklist (Spoiler: not well at all). Or hey, how about some legally defined […]

    February 16, 2015
  12. Liza

    I’ve had my own Mr.Grey for more than six months. He was ok at first, and I was what, 18, A bloody adult as I though. yeah. So, it was alright, but then, gradually, he started to act as if I was his property – ban on meeting friends without him, daily routine that had to be approved FIRst, and kinds of shit. And that puzzled me the most – some of my relatives just called it “taking care”. Well, thank f*ck I figured that this was not ok and left him. After he cried on my kitchen every day for a WEEK. WTF. And now, when people say something like ” Oooooh, 50SoG is so cool!” I throw up im my mouth a little bit.

    February 23, 2015
  13. Elaine

    I have not, nor will I ever read this 50 Shades crap, but I realize that I worked for Mr. Grey for 6 horrific years of my life. I think I should write a book. For years working for this sadistic prick, I thought I was the one with the problem. It was my best friend who pointed out to me that Boss Man was frustrated because he wanted to fuck me and could not. The mind control this *man* used on me has taken a good year to unravel. It wasn’t until I used my friend’s advice (she was into the life) of turning the tables and playing his passive aggressive bullshit on him that things changed. I realized how this man would turn my co-workers against me when I displeased him as punishment, and to isolate me to himself? He once called me an ‘ice queen’ and always asked me why I kept him at bay (he likened my stance to the figure on the Heisman trophy.) He always wanted to know why we never had ‘Elaine and Steve’ conversations. He was fired over a year ago and I am still getting over his abuse. I always said he was a bully, but did not realize how much psychological damage I allowed him to do to me.

    I read this initially to make fun of this crap, but now I see how dangerous it is for women to buy into this schlock. Living with, loving or working for an abuser is no fun and sure as hell unromantic.

    February 28, 2015
  14. For many child abuse activists, the elephant in the room with respect to this book/movie and all the intensive discussion thereof is how inadequately protected minors are from the kind of treatment Ana receives as a consenting adult.

    It’s worth noting that if Mr. Grey were a high school principal in, say, Texas, he could routinely spank teenage girls–including those 18 or over–without breaking any laws. The only consent he might need is that of the girls’ parents.

    For illustration, look up the federal court case of Serafin v. School of Excellence in Education. See also

    March 18, 2015
  15. Carrie May Lucas
    Carrie May Lucas

    Hello, I saw your review of ’50 Shades’ not too long ago, and I couldn’t agree more with your perspective. Especially about the part where you mentioned ” glorifying abusive relationships.

    I have a personal experience with a Christian Grey type, a charming abuser, just as he is in the book. My memoir, ‘ Fifty Shades of Abuse’, is about what really happens when rich charming manipulators find naive women to con.I was wondering if you would be interested in reviewing it or if you are able to promote it on your blog? I would love to provide you with a free copy.

    Thank you , CML

    April 10, 2015
  16. Christin

    You can’t put spoiler alert after the spoiler! It is not alerting me to anything! You already gave me the info! You should have put spoiler alert above the paragraph. That way it would have worked!
    Pssshhhhh, I hate spoilers. 🙁

    May 22, 2015
  17. Eli

    When I was about nine years old or so, my mom dated and married a guy. This guy was an ass, and so much more abusive than I ever realized at the time.
    He would yell at us, he would lie to us, and if my brother and I didn’t do our chores in time he would make us stand straight against the hallway wall for half an hour. He didn’t let my brother and I go on vacation with our grandfather, although now I do realize that our grandfather wasn’t that great either. He would take my brother’s clothes away and isolate us from each other. He would take away our toys and our ability to socialize.
    He punched the wall, he broke two doors, he ripped a chair out from under me. He told my aunt to leave when she was visiting, and he insulted my grandmother. If I tried to tell him that what he told us wasn’t quite true, he would get mad. I was afraid of sharing how I felt and didn’t recover until a year after he finally left. I feel nauseous and scared when people raise their voices (normally men who are taller and bigger than I am).
    My school took a field trip to the city where he moved to, and I couldn’t go. I didn’t want to be in the same city that he was, even though the trip was probably going to be a lot of fun, I just didn’t want to be even remotely near him. I’m glad that he’s finally fucking gone and that I’ll never see him again.

    July 6, 2015
  18. Rose

    everything about Bdsm is about being safe, sane and consensual.

    When I met my domme, we had a clear talk about limits. We never drink before a scene and we never, ever play when one of us is upset or angry.

    One thing that truly bothered me was Christian’s use of playing as an outlet for anger. That is so dangerous. There is a big difference between ‘punishment’ during a scene, and using inflicting or receiving pain as a way to deal with anger.

    For example, if I felt angry or wanted to punish myself, how could my domme trust me to use my safe word? And vice versa (Dominants dropping is a thing, just like subdrop, so I’d need to know my dominant is in a good frame of mind before a scene)

    From their first meeting, Christian’s behaviour is not that of a dominant. It is of an abuser. The whole trilogy is abused justified with the misuse of the label ‘Bdsm’, when Bdsm is nothing like that. (I’m not saying abuse doesn’t happen within the Bdsm community and that its all sunshine and rainbows; when I say Bdsm, I’m talking about safe, sane and consensual Bdsm.) the worst thing is that the novels justify bad Bdsm etiquette and abuse in that kind of relationship.

    When I read the trilogy, I was in sixth form (so 17-18). And I heard year nines on the bus (bearing in mind that year nines are 13-14 in age) talking about the books and gushing over Christian grey.

    It’s terrifying, because this culture can lead to young, impressionable people to enter into abusive relationships because they’ve learnt ‘Bdsm’ from these novels.

    And the author refuses to answer to that and simply says ‘they’re her own fantasies’…so therefore the books can’t be criticised and the serious ramifications of the abusive, rape culture, bad Bdsm relationship portrayed in the novels aren’t important.

    (Sorry, this doesn’t read very concisely and I feel I haven’t put my view forward eloquently, my apologies. Thank you Jenny for pushing forward how bad these novels are)

    October 6, 2015
  19. Sasha Cohen
    Sasha Cohen

    thank you for this post. I have been in many abusive relationships. I have been struggling with personal issues for 10 years and have found reaching out online to seek the advice of others has helped me through the good and bad time. I have always had relationship issues and have started to follow the advice of Dr. Robi Ludwig. I saw her on a tv show once and I really appreciated her take on current psychological issues. I have been following her twitter for updates and advice the more people share about these kinds of the things the more women will realize the situations that they are in.

    May 4, 2016
  20. lizzer

    Thank you.
    I am going to read How To Spot A Dangerous Man and get some insight on why i dated an abuser for far too long.

    I always thought it was my fault, maybe this book can give me the closure i need.

    Its not until you meet a “normal” loving partner that you truly realise what a nightmare you’ve been with , Like Ana my abuser was my first proper boyfriend.

    Ladies i know who have read 50 shades and adore it seem to skim over the abusive aspects of this book, they see what they want to see whereas it’s triggered lots of memories for me.

    November 5, 2016
  21. Anonymous

    “Others say that obviously, they wouldn’t want Christian Grey in real life, but it’s the fantasy they’re enjoying. What fantasy? I fully support fantasizing about a man who takes control in the bedroom. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how it would be enjoyable to fantasize about a man who takes control in all aspects of your life.”

    As much as I fully agree with you in the fact that these books portray an abusive relationship (and that they are awful), I have to play Devil’s Advocate here, because I *do* have those fantasies.

    In fact, in chapter twelve, there was this one bit you wrote:

    “You don’t want the reader to think that the heroine is actually super afraid of the hero, or that she has a reason to find him literally dangerous, because that’s when the fear stops being sexy.”

    That is actually exactly when the fear becomes super sexy for me.

    I don’t know why I’m like this. I haven’t had any traumatic experiences. I’ve seen the damage an emotionally abusive relationship can do via my sister. You’d think that’d change things so that I wouldn’t be turned on by things like that.

    About the only reason I can really give for why the fantasy is appealing is specifically *because* it’s a fantasy. If it gets too intense, if I don’t like how much control Mr. Imaginary Creep has, I can retroactively change that.

    Since this can’t happen in a real relationship, I definitely don’t want anything resembling this in real life.

    I’ll end this with a quote I rather like from a fanfic:

    “A fantasy is not a wish. It is a story one tells oneself for entertainment. It is self-contained. It serves its purpose by being a story. It is not a wish. It is not a desire to see something become reality.”

    April 22, 2017

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