What is consent? How does one give consent? Where is the line between consent and coercion?
In the book Fifty Shades of Grey, billionaire Christian Grey has no direct power over graduating university student Anastasia Steele. She doesn’t work for him, she’s not going to work for him; he has no sway over her academic success. According to the power hierarchy we normally think of, he has no real social power over her.
When he approaches her to become involved in a BDSM relationship, he attempts to make sure that everything about the arrangement is 100% consensual under the law, as he perceives it. There is an entire chapter dedicated to the tedious details of Grey’s relationship contract. The problem is, Ana has already signed a nondisclosure agreement which prevents her from talking about any aspect of the relationship with anyone other than Grey himself – meaning the only way Ana can gain understanding of what she’s consenting to (the only way she can give informed consent) is by asking Christian or looking it up on the internet.
Ana’s innocence is key to Grey’s control over her. She is graduating university but has never had a boyfriend or dated at all, she gets drunk for the first time in celebration of her graduation, and she is unfamiliar with most of the terms and sexual acts in Grey’s contract. Ana’s roommate, Kate, is described as being considerably more experienced and worldly than Ana. Grey indicates that talking to Kate about him, even without naming names, would be a breach of the non-disclosure agreement. He tells Ana that she can ask him anything about the sex acts and bondage procedures listed on the contract. But is he a reliable source for information?
Ana herself questions Christian Grey’s sexual past – making an understandable association between his own initiation into a BDSM lifestyle at the very young age of 15, and emotional and sexual abuse (I feel a need to point out an important gendered double standard here – if a much older man introduced a 15 year old girl to BDSM, there would be no question as to whether or not the relationship was abusive. But in our culture we view a boy being seduced by a much older woman very differently).
Ana wonders whether Grey is capable of understanding normal emotional responses to sex and intimacy. If he has a skewed perception of the implications of the sex acts he is asking Ana to consent to, how can he even begin to provide her with reasonable explanations? Therefore, how can she give anything resembling informed consent?
In addition, Christian Grey has a level of power over Ana that makes their relationship highly unequal. Grey exerts control over her everyday life – insisting on replacing her classic Volkswagen Beetle with a brand new Audi, dictating what she can wear, telling her how much to eat, interfering in her relationship with her friend Jose, even insisting that she sees a doctor of his choosing for all of her gynecological requirements – and Ana can’t really say “no.” Grey tells her that if she refuses to adhere to the rules he set out, the relationship is off. Ana directly remarks, at several points throughout the book, how much she is intimidated by Christian Grey’s wealth, his status and his presence.
In her article, “Bill Cosby: Are We Getting It All Wrong on Sexual Assault,” Deborah King points out: “Many women and children are assaulted by men who have more power and leverage than they do, either in society or in their interpersonal dynamics. The abuser preys on the fact that the victim will be afraid to speak out and won’t be believed.”
In the case of Anastasia Steele, it is not so much that she won’t be believed, but that she has already agreed to be subject to legal action if she tells anyone.
In public discussion about where the line is between consensual BDSM and relational abuse that the definition of consent is not always clear. Canadian law requires consent to be continuous. Ana would have to say yes to engage in BDSM with Grey, and then consent to being spanked, and then consent to every act along the way. Grey cannot say “I’m going to do this to you and then, after, you tell me if it was okay.”
In essence this law protects a person from consenting to something that they don’t understand or without full disclosure. But also under Canadian law, a person cannot consent to any act that could cause them bodily harm. This makes the definition of consent in a BDSM situation especially unclear, as what will cause a person harm is open to interpretation.
The question as to whether BDSM can be regarded as abuse depends greatly on the individual situation. Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on out own point of view. My understanding of BDSM is that both (all) parties engage in mutually agreed upon physical acts. In Fifty Shades of Grey, nothing about the relationship is mutually agreed upon. Christian Grey sets out the terms of his and Ana’s relationship and she can take it or leave it. In other words Ana has to accept Grey’s terms if she wants anything to do with him at all.
Except that he does not abide by his own rules. He refuses to leave her alone. Even when Ana deliberately removes herself from the situation and flies across the country to visit her mother in Atlanta, in order to give herself the space to make a clear and rational decision about the relationship, Christian Grey pursues her there.
Social pressures and relative power between partners can make the issue of consent somewhat grey in any sexual relationship. Whether Anastasia Steele is able to say “no” to Christian Grey is open to interpretation. But the fact that this conversation is happening at all, in relation to this book and this film, is a move forward. It can only work to make the shades of grey more clear.