Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey and Informed Consent

Fifty Shades of Grey-the ebook
Prior to reading the book, I thought 50 Shades of Grey had to be a middle-aged woman's lament about her hair.

Okay, that's the last joke.
Men Can Stop Rape

I bought the book months ago, needing an ebook to read while the nails dry. It could take me a year to finish just one ebook. But I lost my place, which happens when you use Kindle on multiple devices, and never found it again. Not being patient with such things, I switched to a print book,  Understanding Mass Violence: A Social Work Perspective which is pretty good, actually.

The poster above is from the Men Can Stop Rape organization. I bought a bunch of them. 

Not that Fifty Shades of Grey is about rape, but it is about hurting. And therapists deal with hurting pretty often, tend to wince when people intentionally hurt themselves. Doctors as a rule are down on self-harm, risky behavior. My father-in-law, a family doctor, called people who ride motorcycles organ donors. Knowing it is dangerous isn't a deterrent for everyone. Because you know, it looks like fun, riding that bike. So is it worth the risk? Maybe. But maybe not.

Risky behavior is expected at certain ages. There's a post on the blog about being crazy in college. Point being, we often regret what we have done in the past, might suffer shame then and in the future, even when we know, rationally, that free from the watchful eyes of parents, kids push their own limits. Forgiveness is hard because these types of moments form snapshot memories in the brain, and often, body memories. We don't forget.

That should put informed consent into context. We can consent today, woefully regret it tomorrow.*

Quick recap: The 50 Shades story finds Anastasia Steele, an average young woman interviewing a very handsome, very rich business executive, Christian Grey. She falls in love with him at first sight. He likes her, too, and offers her a contract to begin a sexual relationship. He likes bondage, whipping, and other types of torturous sex, so he wants to be sure she consents to it. Keep things kosher. No consent, let's not even begin.

Five things to consider when we speak of informed consent for sex in real life:

(1) neither party can be impaired by drugs or alcohol in the consent process
(2) both parties must be of legal age
(3) both parties must be competent, understand exactly what is going on and why
(4) neither party fears personal injury or punitive consequences for refusing to have sex (in the sexual harassment literature, this is called fearing retribution)
(5) neither party is in a position of authority over the other, i.e., a supervisory position, a teacher, an older relative, because this could be interpreted as financial, academic, or emotional coercion

If Christian Grey had been her boss he would have been guilty of sexual harassment, even with his signed contract, because that puts him in a coercive position, having the power to fire her or suspend her without pay. So if someone dates an employee or a student, it can come around to haunt. These cases cost companies, and perpetrators, millions of dollars every year.

But that's real life and this is the movies.

MamaMia reveals the ending, so if I got it right, this would be a spoiler alert:

The handsome dom, Christian, changes, probably so that he doesn't lose Anastasia, his subdom, his prized possession. He learns the meaning of true love and the hole in his heart, the one suffered as a child, begins to heal.

Because that's how it always happens in real life, right? Relationships are curative.

Let's just say, not usually. Don't marry (or date) the man to change him. That old expression, spot on.

So Anastasia, without any pressure from her boss, signs a contract and agrees to let him whip her, hurt her, in the name of "great" sex. (You will love this, he assures her). She is sober, of age, of sound mental capacity, and isn't feeling coerced. She becomes his possession, agrees to let him tell her what she will eat, what she will wear, how she should bathe, the amount of sleep she must get, how many hours she works out per day, etc. She is to be there for him, when and where tells her to be there. She must sublimate her will to this perfect stranger.

15.21 The Submissive shall accept whippings, floggings, spankings, caning, paddling or any other discipline the Dominant should decide to administer, without hesitation, enquiry or complaint.

That, if she wants him as boyfriend. There is a time-limit to the relationship and she can complain if he kills her, we suppose. She is crazy for him, so she signs on the dotted line.

So you get it what it means to be a dom, versus a subdom.

Courtesy of Relationship-Wise
Women have endured a cultural battle for equal rights. (This despite our obvious superiority.) We're criticized when we are dominant, forceful, assertive, even when we're respected in the corporate and professional world. Many of us would not want to go back to serving coffee, not when we've seen the other side of the desk. It isn't only our struggle, of course. We celebrate Martin Luther King Day, have seen 12 Years a Slave.

So being a subdom should feel bad, not good. But it does feel good to many, male and female. It is how some brains respond to abuse as children. But I'm saying we should fight it, should turn that around. One in three women, one in ten men, have suffered some type of negative experience with sexual domination. Add all of the other types of abuse (see chart in blue) and the numbers are likely to be one in two for women, one in five for men.Suffering abuse means suffering domination.

Oh, but these are loving relationships.

When I blogged about this many years ago, the dom-subdom community told me that these are loving, consensual relationships, not to worry. It is intimate, they love one another, and bondage, et al helps them work out their family of origin/childhood relationship dysfunction. Totally intimidated, I considered myself informed and dropped the conversation.

What I didn't say, but can say now, is that as a first year graduate student, one of the very first treatment modalities presented to us happened to be Joseph Moreno's psychodrama. In psychodrama, families act out what has happened in the family of origin, or what is still happening in the home today. They do this in the confines of the office. There isn't any real hitting, only shadow-boxing. This is play-acting. It feels good, too, very healing, and I sometimes still use it. So, if the purpose of the dom-subdom relationship is to master what happened in the past, we could say that it is overkill.

Remember styro-foam baseball bats? People whacked our sofas to their hearts content until expressing anger lost status. We also talk about things in therapy. Talking heals.

There are two things that bother me, both related to the act of consensual relationship violence.
(1) We have laws that prevent corporal punishment with children, laws against child abuse. It isn't called child abuse because children are irreparably damaged from a spanking. They aren't. But because we never know when we'll lose control, when we'll hit too hard, send the child reeling, crashing into the wall (we've all heard this story too often), it is against the law. When a kid sees stars, it is too late to say you're sorry. Ditto when the symptoms of a concussion become apparent.

And here, in a dom/subdom relationship, definitive "corporal punishment" there are no boundaries except, perhaps murder. It might feel right to want it to become progressively more punitive, too, to both partners.

(2) We've learned much from treating people who externalize their psychic pain by cutting. It is a relief, a coping strategy, as strange as that might seem. (This may be upsetting to the squeamish, so you might want to skip the next paragraph.)

Some started with picking, or scratching, which feels good. Then they scratch harder, because that feels even better. The nails dig deeper, even more satisfying. Then a knife is introduced. The cutting with the knife starts with light cuts, which get progressively harder, and deeper, then deeper, and pretty soon we see ( therapists see, because few cutters showoff their scars to other people, hide beneath long sleeves and pants), but therapists are privy to seeing deep, red, ugly, keloid scars that run up and down a person's arms or legs. It is the stuff of secondary trauma.

That's what some of us worry that not only will the memories of this type of relationship be snapshots, difficult to erase, and that the shame of what happened will damage self-esteem, but that the need to be hurt will become a deeper need.

And the dom? He isn't getting hurt, and he's likely not a Jeffrey Daumer, a psychopath who murdered children as an adult, drowned cats, the starter drug. 

More likely it just feels good to play the master, empowering. But is that good for his identity? Is this the person he wants to be? A master over another human being?

What I really want to know, is the answer to this: Is sex that important? If it potentially damages identity, dings emotionally (those memories) and literally scars us physically, is it worth it?

In therapy we're all about loving our bodies, loving ourselves, being cautious and kind to others, respectful, independent, and growing into the people we want to be..

So do I hate this stuff? You bet I do.


PS. Two more thoughts and I'll let you go.

(1) This is a system based upon fear. Fear arouses, for better or for worse, and what makes us afraid today, won't make us afraid tomorrow. 

(2) Low-self esteem is often from child abuse, as is the feeling one deserves to be treated badly, wants to be treated badly. Negative self-messages, inhaled with mother's milk, can program a person to want and accept punishment, to seek out partners who, like our parents, will comply. The dom.

Low self-esteem, friends, isn't a life sentence. It doesn't have to be.

* Just a reminder that well over ninety percent of all sexual assault is between acquaintances.


Anonymous said...

I'm afraid that you have a minor or not so minor detail wrong on this one - Anastasia isn't his employee. Not even close. Her roomate was supposed to interview Christian and was sick so at the last minute she asked Ana to do it. She isn't reliant upon him financially or otherwise. He doesn't have the power to get her fired (she works at a home improvement store), etc.

therapydoc said...

Thanks for the correction! When I have time I'll re-edit the post.

Valerie said...

50 Shades of Gray is certainly popular these days, but everyone should realize what the movie is actually about. It may be a "good" movie, but Christian and Ana's relationship is definitely not a healthy one.

Mound Builder said...

Thanks for your article, for explaining. I haven't read the book, haven't felt tempted to, nor to see the movie.

One thing that I've thought for some time about the dom/sub (BDSM stuff) thing is that to me it often sounds like role playing between people who have agreed to role play. It's not a kind of role play I would be interested in, either. But it seems to me that it's different from being involved with someone who is sadistic. I've had the thought that someone sadistic enjoys harming people--emotionally, physically, sexually--and that such a person would enjoy knowing that the victim was not consensual in the relationship, that the things the victim (a term that to me makes more sense than subdom) experiences when it's really against his/her will and/or without really understanding what the other person is doing, that's what a sadistic person would find titillating. I'm sure there are doms/subdoms who really do get involved in harming behaviors and it's difficult to me to understand how that really helps a person heal from past trauma. But it seems different from someone who has not consented, has not signed a contract.

I'm with you, therapydoc, that it seems better to deal with past traumas in a healthy therapeutic relationship.

Anonymous said...

Are you aware of the wealth of peer - reviewed studies that indicate that BDSM is healthy and positive for people to consensually engage in, and also that BDSM practitioners are no more likely to have mental health issues or past trauma than the general population? Your condemnation of it here is based on your opinion, not on the research

therapydoc said...

Thank you. It isn't a condemnation, just a reminder that consent is something to talk about in every physical encounter.

If I implied otherwise, I apologize. Similarly, a similar type of overgeneralization is that homosexuality is associated with pedophilia. Also unfounded.