This is the real me: I seek out doughnuts the size of my face.
"Real life" is a funny concept. Sometimes, we talk about celebrities and what they might be like in "real life." It's a reasonable phrase to use, seeing as we're talking about people we don't know, some of whom play fictional characters as part of their job, but it's also always struck me as being a little odd. After all, whilst we don't know them personally, those celebrities are just...Well, living. Every day is their real life. We're just not a part of it.
The concept of "real life" is often brought up when we talk about celebrities being misrepresented in the press. "Oh, I know she said a bad thing, but she's lovely in real life!" It's an unfortunate fact that if a person is in the public eye, one wrong sentence, or one dodgy behaviour captured on camera can become their undoing. Doesn't matter what they're like in "real life." If the media wants to put someone into a box, then they will - whether that person fits or not.
Now obviously, sometimes a celebrity is labelled correctly by the press as a result of some horrible behaviour or views espoused when they thought nobody was listening. No amount of "I'm not like that in real life" can really save them then and rightly so. We have a duty to call out the things we see as wrong. But when we do make a public declaration that something or someone is wrong, we really ought to do so having listened to the other side of the argument before making our final judgement.
All of which brings me neatly on to the subject of - you guessed it - Fifty Shades. I know, I know. I'm as tired of having to make these points as you are of hearing them, I'm sure...
Most regular readers of this blog know that I'm one half of the Fifty Shades Is Abuse campaign. I say "one half," because it's run by two people (myself and the wonderful Natalie Collins), but truthfully, it's supported and perpetuated by thousands of people. Far too many to list, here. That said, Natalie and I are the ones who give the interviews. The ones who put our names to the campaign. The ones who are then quoted when articles are written. As a result, we accept that people are likely to have something to say in response. After all, we're criticising something that has sold a hundred million copies. We're questioning one of the most hotly anticipated films of the year.
The trouble is, whilst we understand that there'll be many people who disagree with us, it doesn't really stop at mere disagreement. It crosses a line into judgement. Sometimes, into abuse.
Real-life me has an issue with fake ice. That's the smile of a woman about to fall down.
Yes, since speaking publicly to the media about Fifty Shades Is Abuse, Natalie and I have been alarmed to check the campaign's Twitter account and find death threats, rape threats, accusations of being anti BDSM (particularly hilarious when you consider that a great number of our supporters are members of that community), accusations of being pro-censorship (something we've refuted in every interview we've given) and pleas from Fifty Shades fans to do the world a favour and kill ourselves. It's kind of ironic that people feel the need to defend a book that we've said features abuse, by sending us... Abuse.
It's at this point that I'd like to suggest a little further reading once you've finished this, because if you click here, you'll find the Fifty Shades Is Abuse campaign's "Myth-Busting" or FAQ blog. It's a link we often send in response to criticism from people who don't know much about the campaign and have made quick - and indeed, false - judgements.
So as sad as it is, I've become depressingly used to clicking on the Fifty Shades Is Abuse twitter page and finding that someone has sent a tweet wrongly telling us that we're dictating what women can read and demonising BDSM. And I've become used to sending them the FAQ, which helpfully explains that we're absolutely doing neither. And I've become used to far too many people responding by telling us they'd never read anything written by an anti-kink prude, so we can shove our FAQ where the sun doesn't shine. Repeat ad nauseum.
Of course, there's something of a safety switch involved, in as much as although it's hard to take the insults and trolling anything but personally, it's not being directed to us as individuals. It's not reaching our personal Twitter accounts. Or at least it wasn't...
In the immortal words of Kenneth Wolstenholme, it is now.
This appeared on the Telegraph website, yesterday. The link appeared this morning in my personal Twitter notifications. Along with (you guessed it) accusations of being anti-kink (ironically, I only wrote a piece on freedom of sexual expression yesterday), accusations of being pro-censorship, judgements from people I'd never even spoken to before, countless misogynistic comments about my desperate need to "get fucked" and the odd threat of physical assault. A fun way to start the day, I'm sure you'll agree.
Firstly - and bizarrely - the piece refers to Fifty Shades Is Abuse as a "ring." That's interesting, because what we actually are is a campaign run by two women. There was a "Fifty Shades Is Abuse Web Ring," which was set up purely so that people could easily access links from various writers who'd tackled the subject of romanticised abuse in the books, but it wasn't set up by us (although we were listed as a resource on information, due to the wealth of writing we've accumulated on the subject). Anyway, the article suggests that I'm a member of the Fifty Shades Is Abuse "ring." Nope, just co-runner of an ever-growing Internet campaign, backed by hundreds from the BDSM community and several leading abuse charities.
The quote attributed to me in the piece comes from an open letter I wrote to the papers after I first read the books and had been massively triggered by them. I wrote it not as a Representative of Fifty Shades Is Abuse, but simply as a survivor of domestic abuse. So to have my words thrown back at me by someone who is essentially tying the campaign to their own idea that we must be prudish types, trying to censor women's reading material is particularly hurtful. With all of the hype regarding the Fifty Shades films, would it really have been so hard to have found a quote from either Natalie or I in which we're talking from the campaign's perspective, not discussing our own, painful experiences of abuse? The rest of the media seems to have managed it...
And interestingly, my letter was published anonymously, too.
The author of the piece, Rebecca Reid, goes on to compare the Fifty Shades Is Abuse campaign to the furore over Lady Chatterly's Lover, reminding her readers that back then, people were trying to control what women were entitled to read. The comparison is absurd and actually, massively offensive. The writer claims to have done research before writing her piece, yet she seems to have missed the fact that in every single print, radio and TV interview Natalie or I have done, we have made two points clear right off the bat:
1. We are not anti safe, consensual BDSM.
2. We are in no way pro-censorship.
From our FAQ.
So the idea that we're being equated to those who, decades before we were born, were trying to clamp down on what women were allowed to read in their own time is just ludicrous. I was interviewed on the radio recently and one point I raised was that we had no intention of controlling what anyone was or wasn't allowed to read. To lump us into that pro-censorship, prudish category is to undo any claims of "research" into the campaign. The author suggests that we're implying that women need to be "protected" from Fifty Shades and she describes this idea as "patronising, offensive and utterly ridiculous." Which, being anti censorship, we would agree with. Which is why we've never said it.
Unfortunately, the author then goes straight for the "it's fiction" argument. And yes, it is fiction. And no, that does not make romanticising abusive behaviour okay.
I'm bored of having to break this down, so I'll do it as briefly as possible:
1. It may be "fiction." But stalking, coercion, manipulation, unwanted control and threats are the reality for 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men. Were it fiction that featured these things and depicted them as being bad, there would be no problem. Instead, these things are depicted as excusable due to Christian's past (there is no excuse to abuse) and even desirable, as a result of simply calling Fifty Shades "a love story." Or, in Rebecca's words: "sexy and beautiful." When you take such inexcusable behaviours and you write them as excusable, perpetuating dangerous abuse myths in the process, you're going to find that it does more than simply "chime with abuse survivors," as Rebecca puts it. It glamorises our experiences. Imagine the worst thing that has ever happened to you. Now imagine that thing has been fictionalised and people are saying what a beautiful, wonderful thing it is and how they wish it would happen to them. Wouldn't you want a voice? Wouldn't you want more than to be dismissed by the author of the fiction, as well as fans (and now journalists)?
2. It may be "fiction," but it's globally successful and has been accepted into popular culture almost without question. This normalises the behaviour within the books.
3. "It's just fiction" is a really handy way of utterly dismissing the views of hundreds of abuse survivors who were deeply upset by the way their experiences had been romanticised in this novel. It's an easy method of not listening to the abuse charities who've expressed concerns. It's a convenient way of ignoring the many members of the BDSM community who are warning that the behaviour in the books is abuse, rather than a representation of their lifestyle. Imagine you're one of those survivors, or charity workers, or Dom(me)s/subs. You've been trying to speak out for the past two and a half years or more. And every time you're put back in your box with "oh, it's only a book." They may as well be saying "oh shut up and stop spoiling our fun."
Rebecca asks where the women who supposedly want their own Christian Grey are. Well... They're on Twitter in their thousands.
Literally the most depressing thing I've seen today.
They're the people buying the "Property of Christian Grey" t-shirts. The fans who see nothing wrong in dressing their children in "Mummy wishes Daddy was Christian Grey" babygrows. They're the writers in glossy magazines, selling Fifty Shades to readers with constant references to how "hot" it all is. Seriously, one of the main comments I've had from friends (and other journalists!) who've read the Telegraph piece is: "Has this writer not thought to look at how many women are openly saying that they want their own Christian Grey?!"
Rebecca then makes the incredibly tired connection between us saying there's abuse in Fifty Shades and people who say horror movies inspire killings etc. She claims we're putting women in the roles of children and it's "aggressively patronising and frightening." Except, the teensiest bit of research would have found this, also from our FAQ:
So inconvenient when people don't fit the box you're trying to squeeze them into...
So no, we've never said that we think women who read Fifty Shades are in danger of rushing headlong into relationships with abusive men. We've never patronised fans or insulted their intelligence. But what does the truth matter, eh? There are people out there insulting a series of books and a film! We must put them firmly in their place, without listening to a word they're actually saying! DOWN WITH CENSORSHIP!
EL James herself has a tactic of blocking and ignoring anyone who criticises her books as portraying abuse. The Internet equivalent of sticking her fingers in her ears and singing "la la la..." She's ignoring criticism from the very lifestyle she claims to be representing, too. Of course she does; her books have made her a zillionnaire! Who cares about the critics; they're only on about the sex scenes, anyway, right?! Even the Telegraph article which inspired this blog was sent to EL James by a fan, with the words "you can use this as ammo." Which she then retweeted to her millions of followers. "Ammo," short for ammunition. Ammunition against abuse charities, survivors and members of the BDSM community. Because we're not allowed a voice. It's inconvenient. It's ironic that Rebecca Reid's article does the whole "take this away, lest women get dangerous ideas" scaremongering, when in fact, it's those who speak against EL James' books who are getting the "shut them up at once!" treatment. And despite arguments to the contrary, most criticisms of our campaign (and seemingly me as a person) seem to centre around the idea that we're prudishly censoring women's sexual fantasies.
Fifty Shades has made erotica for women less of a taboo subject. We agree that this is a good thing - I said as much on the radio only last week. I'm a writer myself and my current novel (in the editing phase) has several graphic sex scenes. I even know the proper words for "down there" and everything... I think it's a genuinely great thing that women are embracing their sexuality. I've read erotica on and off for years and it's brilliant that we don't have to be embarassed about it anymore. More power to us ladies! I simply think it's a bit of a let-down that it was this book that has brought the subject to the fore, considering that the sex scenes are interspersed with a woman being stalked, controlled against her will, crying because she's so confused and upset at the callous way she's being treated and feeling as though she can't judge her possessive partner's behaviour because he doesn't know any better.
Which is rubbish. Fifty Shades perpetuates two major abuse myths:
1) If a person has been abused in their past, they know no better and their behaviour shouldn't be judged.
2) If you love an abusive person the "right" way, they'll change for you and you'll live happily ever after.
And yes, I'm aware that the books (and now film(s)) are supposed to be a "fantasy." But those myths have been utterly accepted and are now used against those who criticise Fifty Shades.
"You can't judge Christian, he had an awful childhood! You're fucking heartless if you call him an abuser. And maybe your ex wasn't either."
That's a genuine comment made to me on Twitter a month or two ago, by a Fifty Shades fan. I should add, it was made in response to my saying that his use of his childhood to excuse his behaviour had triggered me horribly, because that's exactly what my abuser used to say to me. Take a moment to let that sink in: a fan of a fictional character was placing the imaginary feelings of that character above the feelings of a woman who was saying she'd been abused. They were using the myth so helpfully perpetuated by EL James to tell me that maybe I hadn't actually been abused, because maybe my poor ex didn't know any better either. If it was a lone comment, I'd dismiss it. But I get comments like that - as does the Fifty Shades Is Abuse account - almost daily. Several times a week, we get comments either on our Twitter, Facebook or website, or here on my blog, such as the following (all genuine):
"Ana could leave at any time. She wants it, even when she says no. No sometimes means yes."
"Christian only stalks and controls Ana because he really loves her. Some men show it that way."
"Yes he's abusive. Yes he stalks her. Yes he manipulates her. But none of that matters because Ana loves him and so he changes for her."
"BDSM is about controlling someone, whether they want it or not. If they agree to be a sub, that's what they get."
"Are abusers not worthy of love? Just because he stalks and threatens her, should we write him off? He doesn't know any better!"
When we say that Fifty Shades normalises abuse (and abuse myths), we say it because we see it pretty much day in, day out. Remember who these people are talking to; survivors of real-life abuse. People who work professionally in the field, as Natalie does. Real members of the kink community. It doesn't matter whether it's "just a book" or not. It matters that there are real people, with genuine concerns who simply want to have their voices heard, but are being shouted down by the book's author (who once had the gall to say that seeing abuse in her books does a "disservice to the women who really go through it," as though we aren't those women), the book's fans and members of the media.
Rebecca's piece then goes on to once again use horror films, suggesting that it's shocking that we've not complained about those, yet we complain about Fifty Shades. Here's the thing, Rebecca: Nobody is claiming that Saw is a love story. No glossy magazine is running featured quizzes with headlines like: "Could YOU date Leatherface?"
And yet we have Cosmo, Glamour mag and a whole host of others touting a man who stalks, manipulates, coerces, threatens and controls as some kind of romantic ideal. And we have women nodding their heads and accepting him as such. We have an author, rubbing her hands with glee as she promotes sex toys and claims that her books have saved people's marriages. When you get to that stage, it's almost laughable to wheel out the "but it's just a book, guys" line.
Rebecca ends her piece by suggesting that the "mock-shock" over Fifty Shades (having sobbed into my pillow after reading the worst experience of my life romanticised, my shock is definitely real) has nothing to do with wanting the best for women and in fact, simply shames them for having fantasies.
Except... It is about wanting the best for women. I won't say too much on the non-shaming bit, because Natalie and I have spoken about this time and again (research - it's not hard!) and we're pretty clear that if any woman wants to enjoy Fifty Shades, we're not stopping them or judging them, we're just asking them to read it with a more critical eye. All we've ever done is ask for a discourse on abuse. To raise awareness that in reality, the behaviour Grey exhibits is inexcusable and abusive. To make very clear that he is not an accurate representative of the BDSM community. To talk about why we have such high abuse statistics (that is shameful) and how we can educate young people on the warning signs to look out for.
It's not an insult to anyone's intelligence to say that emotional abuse in particular isn't easy to recognise in reality. I lived through horrendous emotional abuse and not once did I stop and think "this isn't right." I simply thought: "He doesn't know any better. If I keep trying to love him the right way, he'll change. I can fix him." And of course I couldn't. He was an abuser, choosing to manipulate and control me. He fooled not only me, but family and friends. Because abusers aren't all billionaires with private helicopters, but they are all very good at pulling the wool over people's eyes.
We say that Fifty Shades Is Abuse because stalking is abuse. Coercion (through alcohol or manipulation) is abuse. Threatening to hit someone out of anger rather than sexual arousal is abuse (NOT BDSM). Controlling someone's life when they've actively asked you not to is abuse. And yet we're being sold these things as part of a love story and it's being accepted without question. It's fine to fantasise about Christian Grey - whatever floats your boat - but real people are justifying abusive behaviour (as evidenced above) because it's been marketed and accepted as romance. Not just in the books, but in the glossy magazines, on websites and by every fan who's taken the time to tell me that I don't know what abuse is and that I need a damn good slap for being such a bitch to Christian. And by every fan who's told me that maybe I shouldn't have walked away from my "poor" ex. That? That's the normalisation of abuse in action, my friends.
Whilst we might stand in a small minority, raising our voices against this phenomenally popular franchise, we stand nonetheless. We stand because we have to. Because abuse is frighteningly common (far more frightening than people campaigning against romanticising abuse in fiction). Because we owe it to ourselves to stop blurring the lines of what is and isn't full, informed, freely given consent. Because we deserve great erotica, with fantastic sex scenes, with all the sexy, brooding billionaires you can shake a stick at - without the emotional and psychological abuse. We deserve a different narrative than the frankly tired "hey, love the damaged guy even though he treats you badly and who knows, he might turn from a frog into a prince if you try hard enough!"
All of which brings me back to the idea of "real life." Yes, most of us should be able to separate fantasy from reality. But recently, I spoke with a young woman and her words really struck a powerful chord with me. She told me that she'd read Fifty Shades and soon after, she met a man who reminded her - with his tragic back-story of abuse and his rather possessive and controlling ways - of Christian Grey. Having loved the book, she was thrilled when they entered into a relationship. He abused her. She couldn't work out where she'd gone wrong; why wasn't this turning into a "love story?" After many months of blaming herself and excusing his behaviour because of his past, she eventually left. She tried to read book 2 in the Fifty Shades trilogy, but found it so painful that she couldn't get past chapter one.
I am not - even a little bit - suggesting that all fans of EL James' novels are going to experience what this woman did. But by normalising abusive behaviour and idealising an abusive man, we're only making things that bit harder for those who do. We need to talk about abuse openly and we need to get rid of ridiculous myths about abusers not knowing any better or changing with the love of the right person, once and for all. Only when we work on the facts, will it matter less what we put in our "romantic" fiction. Until then, I will proudly speak out as part of the Fifty Shades Is Abuse campaign.
We're not prudes. We're not pro censorship.
And we're not going anywhere.