sex, dating, & relationships

Unconventional sex ed lessons from 50 Shades of Grey


In August, I entered the “So You Think You Can Blog” contest. Two blog posts were required for the first round: I submitted a queer identity, and I wrote the post below on 50 Shades of Grey. Enjoy!
When I read 50 Shades of Grey last week, I expected to be disappointed and dismayed. However, I was pleasantly surprised. I found the book to be quite a welcome interruption of the dominant script for sex and romance that I see in the media: boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy gets girl to have sex with him without ever discussing sex as an activity or checking for her enthusiastic verbal consent. There are many reasons this dominant script is problematic.
I like 50 Shades of Grey because they actually talk about sex. They talk about sex before, during, and after they have sex. As a sex educator, when I sit with a group of teenagers and encourage them to talk before, during, and after sexual activity, they protest. Why? Maybe because that’s not how they see it happening in the media. Ever. So, thank you E.L. James for providing us with this opportunity to explore these all-too-unconventional sex ed lessons:
Spoiler alert: I will speak specifically about the sexual and romantic relationship between Ana and Grey as portrayed in the first book, but I will not give away any major plot details.
  1. Consent. Except for that first kiss, Grey checks in with Ana before they have sex. Sometimes he does it by telling her exactly what he plans on doing. Sometimes he simply asks, “Trust me?” His words and actions clearly demonstrate that he cares whether or not he has her enthusiastic consent to be sexual with her. And when she says no, he stops.
  2. Safewords. Used in kinksafewords can be helpful to all kinds of sexual partners for the maintenance of sexual consent. Grey suggests two safewords: yellow (“I’m reaching my limit”) and red (“I need you to stop now no questions asked”). By using these safewords, Ana can effectively withdraw her consent, and Grey will stop. The implementation of safewords demonstrates that consent is an ongoing process. Even if a person consents to sex at the beginning of a sexual encounter, that person ALWAYS has a right to withdraw consent at any time.
  3. Toys. All kinds of sexual toys and props can be found to enhance all kinds of sexual pleasure. Check out some feminist toy stores like Good Vibrations and Babeland. While they used toys within a BDSM framework, toys can add pleasure and fun to lots of sexual scenarios.
  4. Protection. They talk about preventing unwanted pregnancy, and they also talk about avoiding the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. All sexual partners should discuss these issues (when relevant). I wish that television and movies gave more of their precious screen time to modeling different ways to navigate and negotiate protection.
  5. Power. I particularly appreciate that the book was originally developed as Twilight fan fiction. In Twilight, we see a man with exceptional power (for example, he’s a super-rich vampire and has lived for over a century). He falls for a clumsy, quiet teenage girl and overpowers her. In contrast, Grey is much closer in age to Ana (27 and 22, respectively) although he has similar “stalker tendencies” (as Ana dubs them) and is also extremely wealthy. Here’s the key difference: Grey knows he has these advantages over Ana. He cannot get rid of them and does not want to. But he writes up a contract, explains specifically what he wants, and asks Ana for her feedback. Then, he acknowledges that his responsibility is to attend to what she wants. He is not perfect. He does not do it perfectly. But the fact that Grey and Ana are directly negotiating power is important. Other couples with complex power dynamics may find other ways to negotiate that power and maintain a healthy relationship. The key lesson is the need to acknowledge the potential for abuse of power and to follow through with a plan regarding how to manage the power dynamics.
  6. Honesty. As Grey says, “This isn’t going to work unless we are honest with each other.” And he doesn’t just say it, either. He actively prioritizes honest and open communication. He pays attention to what helps Ana be the most honest and what does not. And Ana, in turn, pushes him to be more honest with her, as well. They hold each other accountable.
  7. Relationship diversity. What’s the difference between a friend, a girlfriend, and a sex slave? No, that’s not a setup for a bad joke (sounds pretty offensive, if it is). But it is a question that gets raised by this book. Sexual and romantic relationships are more diverse than we can give them credit for if we’re just trying to figure out whether someone is a girlfriend or a boyfriend or not. In this book, we get to see Grey and Ana exploring the terms of their relationship, both what it means between the two of them and what they communicate to others.
  8. Emotions. Ugh, so messy. No matter what the relationship label, when two people are involved with each other sexually and/or romantically, their emotions matter. While Grey demonstrates attentiveness and responsiveness to Ana’s feelings, he falls short of consistently communicating his own feelings. Ana senses that his moods impact their interactions. If Grey could check in about his own emotional state, Ana wouldn’t be left guessing, and it could feel better and be safer for both of them.
  9. Female sexual desire. Ana wants him. The substance of her desire has physical, genital, mental, and emotional components. She wants kisses. She wants touch. She wants sex. There are other people who want her, but she doesn’t want them, so she turns them down. But she wants sex with Grey, and she knows it, and she’s not afraid to show it.
  10. Female sexual pleasure. I wonder how many people are reading this book and learning about their own capacity for pleasure in a new way. The explicit sex scenes include many different ways of stimulating the female body—nipples, clitoris, vagina—different ways to please her, to make her “wet” and thus more physically prepared for penetration, different ways for her to climax, to orgasm. Vivid descriptions of her inner experience while being aroused, stimulated, while climaxing. The emotions and exhaustion that flows through her after her orgasms. More, please! More popular fiction that shows different ways for females to experience different kinds of sexual pleasure. And more diverse depictions, please!
I don’t think this book shows a perfect model of sexual health, by any means. And I don’t mean to suggest as such. I could write another list of ten moments or themes I found totally problematic from a feminist perspective. However, I think it’s valuable, in this cultural moment, to start a conversation about what we can learn from this book. Ask your friend what they thought about Grey and Ana’s communication. Share with your friend how Ana’s description of sexual desire and sexual pleasure relates or fails to relate to your own experience. Ask teenager in your life if they’ve heard of safewords before. And then go search for more novels and other media that show positive examples of sexuality and relationships, and let me know what you find!

Published by Mimi Arbeit

applied developmental scientist, antifascist community organizer, sexuality educator

One thought on “Unconventional sex ed lessons from 50 Shades of Grey”

  1. Desh says:

    Thank you for this post! I feel like I've learned a lot just be reading insightful analyses of 50 Shades, both pro and con, and I still haven't read the book!

    One thing I'd like to push back on a bit, based on something I read recently, is your use of the term "enthusiastic consent". Maybe it's accurate in the context of the book, but I'm starting to dislike it as the term describing the kind of consent one should seek, and I think I prefer "real consent" instead. What do you think?

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