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Fifty Shades’ Christian Grey: A Hero or an Abuser?

A few weeks back I wrote a post that ran on Forbes about the wildly popular book Fifty Shades of Grey, the first in the mega-hit 50 Shades series. My premise was that I find the book troubling because the main character, Christian Grey, reminds me of many of the abusers I’ve reported on over my decades as a crime writer. I’m concerned that women and men will go looking for their own Christian Grey, envisioning a romantic hero, and not be prepared for what they find.

Last week a friend sent me a link to a blog post on The Daily Beast, one that said sales of the 50 Shades books now top 20 million and publishers are in a rush to capitalize on the S&M trend by getting out similar titillating products. My friend saw the phenomenon as an interesting wrinkle in the publishing world. The article left me even more concerned.

Why? As these books and movies – there’s a film in the works for 50 Shades – romanticize bondage and S&M, I’m wondering how many men and women will put themselves in dangerous situations, assuming that the people they’re entrusting their fates to are only role playing. How many of them will realize too late that this isn’t always the case? Some, I would guess. Will it turn out to be okay in the majority of cases? Sure. After all, what consenting adults do is none of my business, and usually no one gets truly hurt. This isn’t about those situations.

But let’s be honest; there’s a percentage of the population who feeds off control and fear, who fantasizes in a very unhealthy way about mixing sex and violence. Need proof? If I could, I’d invite you to look at the autopsy reports on my desk. I’m currently working on a book on a spate of Texas serial killings, and a considerable number of the victims were bound, gagged, raped and murdered.

At their core, the 50 Shades books are a romance: worldly man falls head-over-heels in love with a beautiful but naïve young woman. After my original post ran, some argued that the love interest in the book, Christian Grey, isn’t depicted as a hero. I don’t know what else to call him. He’s portrayed as a brilliant, charismatic man, one who works to help impoverished people. He’s dashing, handsome, a billionaire with exquisite taste. He’s generous, so much so that he gifts the impressionable young college student he’s interested in, Anastasia “Ana” Steele, with expensive clothes and cars. And he’s a guardian, as when he protects her from an inebriated friend.

Please understand, I know the books are fantasy. I don’t have any problems with folks reading the books. I just want to remind everyone that in real life a person with Christian Grey’s attributes isn’t good relationship material. Disagree?

Let’s take a look. For those who haven’t read the book, here’s the setup: the mega-handsome and rich Grey meets the naive Anastasia Steele, so innocent she’s still a virgin, and sees in her someone he’s attracted to. One reason is that he judges that she’ll be willing to indulge his sexual tastes, which include bondage and the administering of physical pain. She is reluctant. Now let’s take a close look at Grey’s actions and see if the way he's depicted doesn't fit the description of an abuser:

1) Before Grey reveals his intentions/his interests to Ana, he makes her sign a nondisclosure agreement, a legally binding contract that prevents her from talking to anyone about his dark side, no exemption for her best friend or her mother, her therapist. This in effect separates Ana from anyone who could advise her, anyone she could use as a sounding board to discuss the decisions to come. This is alienation, and it’s a classic warning sign.

2) Abusers feed off control. The contract Grey asks Ana to sign regulates all aspects of her life. It covers everything from where she lives to what she wears, even a minimum amount of sleep. It lays out the ground rules, including how much pain she’s willing to tolerate. Ana never signs it in the first book, but she might as well have, since she gives in to the rules, and, when she doesn’t live by the contract’s edicts…? Let’s move on to point three.

3) In abusive relationships, it’s rare that anything is the abuser’s fault. The victim made him/her do it. If he/she had only (fill in the blank), the abuser would not have had to take action. In the book, when Ana does things Grey doesn’t approve of, things as minor as rolling her eyes, Grey warns her that there will be repercussions. “I will punish you when you require it, and it will be painful,” he tells her at one point in the book.

4) The final warning sign is the first instance of physical abuse, which is an episode involving spanking. That’s painful, but Ana finds it also sexually exciting. Yet there are indications that Grey’s desires are far darker, based on the equipment in his leather and wood playroom. Early on, Ana asks Grey if he’s ever hurt anyone, and he answers yes. In the final scene of the book, before Ana walks out on him, Grey whips her with a leather strap, hard enough to cut her flesh.

Through all of this, we’re expected to feel sympathy for Grey as Ana does, to forgive him because he’s a product of abuse. And the other assumption is that Ana will eventually prevail, that her love will “cure” him. Childhood abuse is horrible, but it’s never an excuse for more violence. My experience is that in the real world, Ana wouldn’t end up living in luxury with a new, improved Christian Grey, one her good love has refashioned into a perfect husband, but running from him, perhaps looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life.

All I tried to say in my Forbes post, all I’m saying today is that while the books are fantasy and perhaps even fun, let’s not forget that in real life some people aren’t playing when they mix sex and violence. There’s a percentage out there who, when given the opportunity to control another human being, won’t stop when the other person wants to. Someone who is intent on control, who alienates his/her partner from family and friends, who threatens, who punishes, belittles or demeans, who becomes violent, may make a good fictional character. But if you happen upon such a person in the real world, my best advice is to walk away, quickly.
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