Half way through the erotic snooze fest (no seriously, the woman next to me was snoring 10 minutes in!!), Fifty Shades of Grey (FSOG), our eponymous hero presents his lover to be with an offer she can’t refuse in the form of a multi page contract. While conventional courting material used to include roses and chocolates, in our neo-liberal world order, romance is now filed under “C” for “consent” or “contractual” depending upon your location. The contract that our heroine receives in FSOG, lists the sexual activities that Mr. Grey proposes for them to undertake along with check boxes in which she can indicate her preferences and disinclinations. Lawyers and bureaucrats might be salivating at this point, but for the rest of us, this seems like an emphatically decent proposal with very little frisson.
The heroine of FSOG, Anastasia Steele played by a winsome if vacant Dakota Johnson, goes over the contract line by line while biting her lip—her signature (and only) sexy move—and, after putting her newly earned English literature degree to work in decoding the document in front of her, surface reading it if you like, she gives her suitor his answers. Yes, she will agree to light whipping, some bondage, the use of slings and even the use of some designated sex toys. But, and our respect for her is supposed to grow at this point, she has some very clear limits. Thinking back to readings from her Gender Studies classes, she remembers that in all negotiations around sex, there are trespassers and line drawers. She will draw the line, she tells Mr. Grey, at “anal fisting.” How about “vaginal fisting?” he counters. Heroine bites lips and makes her decision. No, that is also off limits, and she scratches the item off the list.
Somehow, of all the nasty, filthy, deliciously perverse things that human bodies can do to one another, fisting becomes the sign of going too far. Fisting, of course, has often been linked to queer sex and it indicates a phallic order that exceeds the penis and offers in its place a larger and more dexterous limb. When fisting is the furthermost limit that a sex film can imagine, you know you are in the gray zone alright – not the gray zone of limits pushed and desires tangled, but the gray zone of boredom, banality and avowedly vanilla sex. Having dispensed with the nasties – here represented, and it is worth repeating, as fisting — our sharp, shiny, heroine, Ms. Steele, has only one more question: “what is a butt plug?” What is a butt plug? Really? That is your only question here? Not: wait, what? Does our sex really require a contract? Or, I don’t see anything here about water sports. Or, how about, how much are you paying me? No, the lovely and newly deflowered Anastasia Steele has only one remaining, lingering concern …what …is ….a…butt…plug? A butt plug, dear lady, is a plug you put…wait for it…in your butt!
And so we are off and running in the race to drop a blockbuster smack into the middle of a long winter and a hyper commercialized valentine season (yes, it is now a season. But, Valentine, let’s not forget, was a saint who was killed for marrying Christian couples – hence our definition of romance is linked definitively to Christian marriage, not to mention male martyrdom and female subjugation!). But Fifty Shades of Grey also drops smack into the center of a highly charged national conversation about sexual assaults on campus, on which, more in a moment.
The movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey promised dynamic sex, the subjugation of a feisty if inexperienced woman, the allure of a dominant man, but it delivers only a series of pre-queer theory lectures on BDSM and has less effect, I am willing to bet, on the libidinal urges of its audience than an episode of The Golden Girls – and I mean no disrespect here to that glorious and lusty project of octogenarian girl power.
By the time Mr. Grey, played less winsomely and way too wholesomely, by Jamie Dornan, finally gets Ms. Steele into a kneeling position in his play room awaiting her punishment, we have dispensed with contractual foreplay, we have been teased with silk ties, perfectly laundered shirts and sex toy shopping in a hardware shop, and we feel as an audience that we too by now deserve something – pleasure, punishment, light torture, whatever it is, get on with it! But alas we get nothing close to the Pasolini style torture we have been promised. All that transpires…trigger and spoiler alerts in full affect…is a little spanking, a lot more lip biting, a few feathers, six (count them) pats with a paddle and a whole lot of cross cutting to make the whole deal seem energetic.
Fifty Shades of Grey, one is tempted to say, is Last Tango in Paris without the butter, without the sex and without Brando and Maria Schneider…What it does have, however, are great aerial shots, lots of hard torsos and soft core lenses, some nice car porn and way too much chatter. But this is not a movie review, partly because FSOG is barely a movie! The question towards which I have inched, for anyone who cares to answer or is still reading, is this: what is the relationship between a widely shared and expressed, seemingly white, cultural fantasy of male domination and female submission, and the epidemic of sexual assault accusations on college campuses across the U.S. right now?
Of course, it is entirely possible that the two phenomena, sexual assault charges, new laws around consent in California, and fifty shades of sex play, have nothing at all to do with each other. One is, after all, about the violent and disastrously non-consensual interactions between young men and women, and the other is about fantasy and a narrative of consensual engagements between a wealthy man and his aspirational and virginal lover. And yet…And yet, there is certainly more to our odd sexual climate in which a popular romance involving BDSM and selling 100 million copies worldwide sits uncomfortably along side statistics indicating that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in college! This weird historical juncture seems made up of part sex panic, part paranoia, part patriarchy, part Peewee Herman (I am not sure which part is Peewee but I sure hope he is in there somewhere).
In September 2014, California became the first state to adopt a law that requires college students to confirm that they have consent for sexual interaction. This law has been dubbed the “yes means yes” act counteracting the date rape rule of thumb that “no means yes and yes means anal” as some fraternity brothers have it. I would like to amend the nickname into “no means no, yes means yes, and maybe means pass the butt plug.” I would also like to designate February as the month for “inviting your fraternity boyfriend to provide oral sex on demand” and March as “take your boyfriend to your gender studies class” month. And as for April, the cruelest month, maybe in April we can begin the Anus Monologues and all think about why “anal” anything and everything has become short hand for punishment, pain and the yuck factor.
No, but seriously, what do we make of the trend for (misrepresented) BDSM in romance fiction and the multiplying charges of sexual assault among college women? As many letter writers to the New York Times Magazine noted in their responses a few weeks ago to a long article about a soured relationship between a male instructor and a female student at Stanford University, the article appeared online with ads for FSOG popping up in the margins. The article in question tells of a relationship that was once completely standard on college campuses (and I am not saying this approvingly necessarily), that of a young female student and a slightly older instructor/TA/professor. Many of those relationships in the past were quickly legitimized through marriage and whatever impropriety may have presented itself in the early moments of the relationship were swept to one side with the explanation of “true love” and so on. Until, that is, the professor replaces his once-student-now-wife with another student-soon to become-wife. In the NYT’s piece,The Stanford Undergraduate and the Mentor a 21 year old junior got involved with her 29 year old mentor, dated him on and off over the course of a year and then, when the relationship soured, she accused him of forcing her to have sex with him. The case, which involves lots of romantic texting, lots of he said/she said back and forth, and lots of accusations and counter-accusations (he assaulted me/she is mentally unstable) is still in the courts.
The New York Times’ piece, like the much ballyhooed Rolling Stone piece, “A Rape on Campus,” before it about accusations of sexual assault on the University of Virginia campus has no answers about sexual assault on campus, only more questions. I am willing to bet that the real problem in the US at any rate in relation to sex on campus has everything to do with limited sex education for high school students, lots of alcohol, and lots of very bad sex. No doubt there are guys who just don’t care whether the woman they are with actually wants to have sex with them, and no doubt there are women who consent and then regret their decision and make assault charges. But ultimately, the problem cannot be legislated one lawsuit at a time. What we need, IMHO, is a robust model of feminism for all genders, a clear program for sex education in high school and some kind of national discussion about what’s wrong with heterosexuality!
So, before wrapping up this rambling attempt to make sense of the confusing and treacherous terrain of sex in college, romantic fantasies and realities and the heterosexual fear of and fascination with the anus, let me just close with three arguments, ok, people always say three, so I will go for four:
1. We should really be asking not what would I do under these circumstances, as either the accused or the accuser, but more importantly, what would James Franco do? I am surprised in fact that, despite his rumored homosex proclivities, his time spent taking queer theory courses at Yale and his role in many a Judd Apatow film, that Franco has not become the designated spokesperson for what’s up with college students and sex. No doubt once he is finished restoring sex scenes to various queer classic films, he will step up and offer us a book, a poem, an installation or even a film on Fifty Shades of Ass Play.
2. Could the real problem be not just bad people taking advantage of naïve people but sheltered people having lots of bad sex with lots of cheap alcohol thrown in for good measure? Can it really be true, as some have asked, that college women are the most vulnerable population when it comes to sexual assault? What do we leave out of the picture when we focus on college campus scenarios to the exclusion of say sexual assault in the home, sexual assault of sex workers, sexual assault of queers? I don’t know the answer to these questions but I think Professor Amy Adler, a law professor at NYU and a smart and creative commentator on sex and the law might – ask her!
3. What is a “butt plug”?
4. And finally, because four questions/conclusions are a bare minimum, can we all stop the violence now – no more horrendous clichés about virgins and powerful, rich, young and handsome men; stop propping up the worn out narratives of heterosexual love and sex; someone shut James Franco up or down; and next time, if you want me to pay lots of money for a two hour snooze fest, please let there by fisting.
By the way folks, there is actually a pretty good BDSM film out there by Peter Strickland involving two women who play out a series of erotic fantasies of control, domination and submission. The Duke of Burgundy (2015) is beautifully shot and has a credit for the “lingerie manager” so you know it is on the right track. With scenes involving constraint, coffins, golden showers, stilettos, stockings, punishment and delay, the film makes BDSM less of a party trick, less about the equipment and more about repetition, waiting, suspense and reward. Ditch the hen parties on their way to FSOG and take your date to a real film.
And that’s all I have: no haters, just laters baby!