Fifty Shades of Coercive Control

Ok, so “Helen Raisin” holds the crown for the funniest and most entertaining take down of Fifty Shades of Grey. For some people, the thing they hate most about it is the bad writing, or the badly written sex scenes, or the bland main character Anastasia, or the way it depicts users of BDSM as damaged. (Users of BDSM as perpetuating patriarchal sex roles? That’s another thing). But for me and, as I am discovering this week to my relief, for many others, the thing that I hate most about the book is the fact that the supposedly romantic relationship that it is based on is actually one of coercive control and domestic abuse.

Some people argue that it is not abuse, but they largely appear to be people with little or no in-depth knowledge of what domestic violence actually is. In weeks past there has been a growing voice of domestic violence workers and survivors who are naming the character of Christian Grey as a perpetrator and his behaviour towards Anastasia as tactics of domestic violence.

For weeks I was hearing about the book and following debates on Twitter about whether it was or was not about an abusive relationship, until reluctantly (I had read the “Raisin” review after all) I decided I would have to read it myself. I only got up to Chapter 16 because the experience of reading is too, for want of a better word, painful (and I’m referring to the writing here, not the BDSM).

But while some reviews (quite rightly) take the piss about the number of times the words “whoa” and “jeez” feature in the tome, I was more concerned about some other words that feature repeatedly in the book, mainly those used to describe the character of Christian Grey, and his effect on Anastasia. Words such as “controlling”, ‘intimidating”, “threatening”, “possessive”, “dangerous”, “apprehension”, “overbearing” and “stalking”. While I have not been as thorough as to actually count the number of times these words appear, they appear often. The fact that they also regularly feature in the NSW Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 and the feminist domestic violence literature should be concerning to others also. These words are regularly used in the book to describe Christian Grey, not to mention his actual behaviour towards Anastasia of stalking her, harassing her, tracking her, intimidating her, threatening her, emotionally abusing her and controlling her. This is all before the terms of the BDSM contract are even broached.

People who say that Fifty Shades is not abuse think that those who say it is are basing that on the BDSM. They are mistaken. The abusive and coercive behaviour by the character of Christian Grey starts right at the beginning of the book. He uses these tactics to get Anastasia to agree to the contract and to make her feel like she is special. He says it is consensual, but she has been coerced into signing it. The contract itself reads like any domestic violence relationship you’ve ever heard about, not only for the physical and sexual violence, but for the controlling of the victim’s eating and exercising habits, what she wears, what she says, where she goes and even what she thinks. Christian Grey is perhaps the ultimate perpetrator, going one step beyond the sophistication of most (albeit very sophisticated) perpetrators, in that he not only convinces Anastasia to consent to her own ongoing abuse, but he convinces her to actually sign a contract to that effect. Many women in DV can feel like they are trapped in the relationship against their will, but Anastasia has been convinced that she has chosen the situation willingly.

The fact that the book is selling so wildly and appears to be being devoured by women around the world is rather bewildering for myself and other specialists in domestic violence. As Gail Dines wrote in her review on the book where she somehow read my mind and wrote it better than I ever could have, the popularity of the book “speaks to the appalling lack of any public consciousness as to the reality of violence against women”. And I have to agree. The fact that so many women are buying and reading the book suggests that the myth of possessiveness and jealousy as an indicator of love is still alive and well. And the fact that some commentators have argued that the book is not about an abusive relationship, suggests that, well, maybe they should learn more about domestic violence and listen more to the expert women who work in it and have experienced it.

For those who want to take this up and/or agree with this view of the book, a new Twitter handle has been started which aims to raise awareness that the trilogy is about domestic abuse. It is @50shadesabuse.

Domestic assault: The stuff of Shakespeare

Yesterday an article appeared in the SMH detailing the sentencing hearing of Joel Betts, who pleaded guilty in February of wounding with intent to murder his ex-girlfriend Samantha Holland. Betts, who stabbed Holland 30 times, will be sentenced at a later date. His guilt did not stop Alan Jones from weighing in on the case, saying that he has known Betts “for years” and that Betts is “unbelievably emotional and regretful”, most probably about the fact that he got caught rather than the fact that he actually did it. Jones goes on to say that this type of domestic assault “just happens”, and likens it to what he has seen in Shakespearean plays.

This deplorable excusing of extreme violence and failure to hold Betts accountable perpetuates myths about domestic violence as a “crime of passion” for which perpetrators cannot be held accountable. Evidence shows that domestic violence doesn’t “just happen”, but is a deliberate and repeated use of coercive, controlling and violent tactics, usually by men against women, to control the victim and keep them in fear. This violence often escalates on separation, as in this case. A previous article about this case detailed how Ms Holland’s brother accompanied her to Betts’ apartment when she went to get her belongings, suggesting that they already had reason to fear Betts and worry for Hollands’ safety, probably based on his previous coercive, controlling and violent behaviour. Unfortunately he waited downstairs for her when Betts sent him a text message from her phone saying they were staying together.

Alan Jones needs to learn about the reality of domestic violence. And the media needs to learn how to report domestic violence properly. The second article had the headline “Love-hate romance ended in bloodshed”. Of course, headlines are designed to sell, but the term “love-hate”, along with other terms such as “tumultuous” and “tempestuous”, suggests some kind of joint responsibility or co-dependence, when we know that it is the perpetrator alone who is responsible for using coercive, controlling violence.