The movie adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey by author E.L. James swept its opening weekend competition and has generated blockbuster revenues of over $133 million, making it the top grossing movie of 2015. Controversy has come with it, as would be expected from any movie breaking through traditional cultural taboos. Combine that with sex, millions of dollars would be generated on curiosity alone. But what of the substance?
On the surface, this is a film about empowerment. Scratch below the surface, and the messages and ideas are deeply disturbing and surprisingly dismissive of complex cultural problems. As a libertarian, I was hoping 50 Shades of Grey might broach unresolved issues about power in relationships, personal liberty and the true meaning of consent. Unfortunately, the movie is not particularly good and never really grapples with them. For me, the result is a far more disturbing film because it portrays the sexual relationship between the protagonists—self-made corporate billionaire Christian Grey and obviously ingenue Anastasia Steele—as an exploration of the romantic limits of intimacy.
Anastasia eventually recognizes the hopelessly dysfunctional and destructive nature of their interpersonal relationship, but the story develops showing acceptance and even joy derived from the calculated escalation of violence in their sexual relationship. It’s not that Anastasia should be surprised. As their relationship gets more intimate and personal, she asks Christian if he is going to make love to her. His reply? “I don’t make love. I f***. Hard.” But his tastes are not just for rough, physical sex; he prefers bondage and is aroused by sadistic violence inflicted on his sexual partners. Meanwhile, the story explicitly draws the viewer in to empathize with Christian, the sadist, by showing his broken nature. At another point in the movie, Anastasia asks Christian why he is trying to change her, and he replies that she is wrong, she is changing him.
That’s the nut of the problem with this movie, and I think it goes to the heart of what consent means and why it’s important to be part of any discussion of liberty. As someone who has coached college-age women in self-defense, several of whom have been raped or sexually assaulted, I see Christian Grey’s character as an example of a modern-day sexual predator who warps the meaning of consent through the conscious manipulation of the psychological weaknesses of his prey (and this is not an exclusively male tactic). He’s not what conventional wisdom classifies as a rapist or sexual abuser. He is much closer to a drug addict or physically abusive alcoholic who uses his partner’s desire to help, nurture and support him to maintain his dominant advantage in the relationship. Consent in these relationships is tricky because the partners in abusive relationships often feel they are emotionally and physically trapped. In the film 50 Shades of Grey, Anastasia is lucky because she happened to end up with an abusive partner that actually respected her decision to leave at the end of the day. Thousands of women (and many men) aren’t so lucky.
Perhaps inadvertently, the screenwriters have shaped Christian Grey’s character as the quintessential modern-day rapist and sexual abuser. He is not the stereotypical anger rapist. Rather, he’s the much more common passive opportunist, a predator who uses his soft skills and social intelligence to identify victims and lure them into situations that make escape psychologically, if not physically, difficult. Most rapes are by acquaintances and friends: Only 26% of reported rapes are by strangers. Thus, in many ways, the sexual and relationship abuse in 50 Shades of Grey is a story for our times.
Christian Grey’s predatory and manipulative nature is established in some of the earliest scenes of the movie. When Anastasia is interviewing Grey for her college newspaper, she asks Grey if he contributes to African agricultural initiatives because he cares about the poor in those countries. He responds by telling Ana he invests because the projects are profitable and, further, says he is not driven by idealism. He then asks Ana if she is an idealist. She confesses that she’s an English literature major which means, in essence, by definition she is an idealist. Grey has found his target. Her follows her to her workplace (a hardware store several hours away), and then courts her with gifts (a new laptop, new clothes after “saving” her after a drunken night out, and a new car for her college graduation). This is stalking by most conventional standards. Ana is resistant, then succumbs to his persistent, attentive advances. Their first sexual episode is passionate and very conventional, as Grey continues to seduce Ana into a psychologically dependent relationship while not revealing his true penchant for sexual violence. Finally, after he is secure in her emotional dependence on him, he shows her his “playroom,” and the journey into BDSM begins.
Throughout their affair, Grey is clear that Ana can leave at any time, but he also demonstrates a controlling nature that interferes with all of Ana’s friends and family. He hooks his brother up with her roommate, brushes off her father, charms her mother, and forces her to distance herself from old friends. This is not a normal relationship, as Ana recognizes in the film, but it mirrors the controlling relationships that keep women (and men) in abusive relationships for years before they can break free and long after they have been deeply and emotionally scarred.
Fortunately, Ana redeems herself (and the movie) by breaking her relationship off after a particularly abusive sexual episode in the playroom (albeit invited by Ana so she can “understand” Grey better). It turns out, Ana never was the submissive to Grey’s dominant despite everything he did to manipulate her into accepting the “freedom” that came with his violent sexual preferences. The scene would make any Randian egoist proud. Ana fully embraces her identity as an individual and desire for a “normal” romantic relationship, recognizes the inherently dehumanizing character of Grey’s sadistic sexual proclivities, decides to protect her individual dignity (and idealism), and walks out. Grey lets her go.
But here is where I think the conversation about interpersonal liberty should start with libertarians. In a pluralist world, one that explicitly accepts the diversity and necessity of the inherent value of human life, not everyone is wired to be a Randian egoist. Christian Greys may exist—controlling and institutionally powerful individuals who still respect the decisions of others—but thousands of other predatory opportunists exist and some of them may be our next door neighbors. They are the ones that kidnap and hold women as sex slaves for decades while helping their neighbors search for the girls they abducted and are hiding in their basement. They are the men at fraternity parties that drug women and rape them in an isolated bedroom away from friends and others who could intervene. They are the pimps that tattoo their prostitutes as proof of “ownership.” They are the alcoholics that physically and emotionally abuse their spouses and children, leaving scars that sometimes never heal and all too often lead to suicide.
What is the role of the individual in stopping these transgressions against human dignity? 50 Shades of Grey dares to broach this question, but punts the answer with an all too facile egoism that leaves narcissism intact and the bonds of family and community in tatters.
The path to restoring human dignity is not through the State. On the contrary, the legal system is far too cumbersome, and bureaucracies far too inept, to address these issues. Only 25% of reported rapes result in arrest, and perhaps fewer than 10% actually result in conviction. Survivors can’t rely on the state apparatus for justice. Moreover, banning or restricting sexual practices is misguided and wrong headed. The few studies that have examined BDSM relationships have found that participants are just as happy and content with their lives as those that engage in conventional sex.
The path forward is in restoring civil society from the ground up, empowering individuals through the bonds and responsibilities that come with friendship and family. This takes many forms, and some of them are quite subtle. As one rape survivor recounts, simply having someone intervene as her rapist was advancing on her after he had drugged her would have given her the opportunity she needed to escape. (See this video here for an illustration of how voluntary, individual actions in civil society can stop sexual battery and abuse.)
Individuals make poor decisions all the time, and these decisions often have significant consequences. Eradicating the predators like Christian Grey can’t happen in a free society, but their damage can be minimized through the voluntary actions of individuals willing to be more than bystanders. Waiting for Randian moral conversion will not.