[content note: discussion of rape, abuse, and really politically incorrect porn][commenting note: suggesting that people choose to be abused because they like it will get you banned.]
Let’s talk about video porn.
A lot of video porn depicts, to put it lightly, poor sexual behavior. Condom use is rare. Nonconsensual sex is often depicted as sexy without an awareness that in real life this is rape (see Bangbus or Brazzers’ Porn Star Punishment series). Members of marginalized groups are treated poorly: consider “big black cock” porn, lesbian porn that is under the impression that lesbians are just waiting for a man to have sex with them, or trans porn that calls trans women slurs.
And yet in my sex-positive circles, most people are broadly okay with video porn. Critiques of the sexism within porn films are often met with “it’s just a fantasy! It’s not real life!” And I think that’s generally correct. I have met many people who appreciated porn without condoms but were careful to use condoms in real life, liked poorly labeled nonconsent porn without wanting to rape anyone, enjoyed the fantasy that lesbians were salivating for their cock while simultaneously being respectful of actually existing lesbians. Humans are capable of understanding the difference between fantasy and reality.
Of course, we should worry about vulnerable people. For a lot of teenagers, video porn is literally the only way they learn about sex, and the messages video porn teaches are often horrifying. (People who want sex education to cover this gap: please consider how much attention teenagers pay to abstinence-only sex education, and then ask yourself why they’d care more about your preferred sexual ethics.) Furthermore, things like not using condoms in porn normalize lack of condom use. It is legitimately a Hard Problem to figure out how to both accommodate people’s perfectly reasonable desire for condomless porn (and porn stars’ desire not to use condoms) and to depict condom use as a perfectly normal part of sex.
So, let’s talk about Fifty Shades of Grey.
Exactly what is different here?
If you think that most people are basically capable of understanding that James Deen pretending to rape Stoya is hot, and actual people committing actual rape is horrifying, then presumably most people are also basically capable of understanding that Christian Grey stalking and emotionally abusing Anastasia is hot, but actual stalking and emotional abuse is bad. If you think that most people are not basically capable of making this distinction, you should really get upset about video porn. If you think that people should boycott Fifty Shades of Grey because it’s abusive, then you should also be in favor of boycotting almost all video porn.
Furthermore: a lot of feminist criticism of Fifty Shades tends to be like “it is abusive! And rapey! And stalkerish! Why do women like this? It is terrible!” And of course sometimes that produces hilarious criticism (Pervocracy’s Fifty Shades review is a delight), but I feel like that is sort of… lacking.
Millions of women have read a sexy book about a man abusing a woman. It seems conceivably relevant to feminists to ask why this is sexy.
Like… it just seems to me that that might conceivably teach us interesting things about female sexuality and gender socialization! If we assume, as feminists, that women’s lived experience is the best source of information about women’s oppression– which we do– we can’t be like “except for this lived experience! This lived experience is politically inconvenient and the women who have this lived experience are Bad and probably destroying feminism forever! I don’t understand them and my lack of understanding makes me morally superior!”
The problem is that as soon as I say “many women think a book about a man abusing a woman is sexy,” some assholes will conclude that women stay in abusive relationships because they think it is sexy and that actually abusive relationships are some kind of 24/7 safewordless unnegotiated BDSM. This belief is approximately as plausible as the belief that people who enjoy Grand Theft Auto deliberately seek out gunfights because they enjoy being shot at and therefore no one should be concerned about gun violence, and we shall address it no further.
Unfortunately, I mostly can’t provide insight into why people enjoy the book, because to me Mr. Grey is approximately as attractive as a potted plant. He’s in that Uncanny Valley between where he is neither Michael Cera or Jesse Eisenberg (sexy!) or Hannibal/Darth Vader/Jack Slash (also sexy!), where I just want to give the heroine the number of a DV hotline. (I propose we call this uncanny valley the Grey Valley, due to the tendency of horrible fictional doms to be named Grey.)
One thing I do get is the stalking. Many fanfics I enjoy (cw: fanfic is about real people) include a stalking element. The thing is that fiction provides safety that real life doesn’t have. In fiction, you know the stalker is a decent person, the stalkee loves him deep down, and the two of them are going to get together, by genre convention. Even if the stalkee protests, in reality they are flattered and appreciative. In real life, none of those things are true (except in the mind of stalkers). In the safe, controlled environment of fiction, stalking works as a fantasy: “this guy loves me so much he’s willing to overcome any obstacle, including, uh, my stated objections.”
I am interested in the experiences of people who appreciate characters within the Grey Valley! Why do you think those characters work for you?