Brooke Axtell, a survivor of human trafficking and domestic abuse, delivered a moving speech at the Grammy Awards that shed light on the mindset of many women who find themselves in an abusive relationship. It also inadvertently exposed the pathology of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” E.L. James’ bestselling series that involves a woman enduring sadomasochism because she wants to redeem the man she loves.
“After a year of passionate romance with a handsome, charismatic man, I was stunned when he began to abuse me,” Axtell said. “I believed he was lashing out because he was in pain and needed help. I believed my compassion could restore him and our relationship. My empathy was used against me. I was terrified of him and ashamed I was in this position. What bound me to him was my desire to heal him. My compassion was incomplete because it did not include me.”
Axtell endured pain and suffering because she wanted to redeem the handsome man she had fallen in love with. The same is true of Anastasia Steele, the young virgin who falls for the deviant and dashing Christian Grey and his obsession with sadomasochism.
Leslie Loftis recently wrote that “Fifty Shades of Grey” is palatable to regular women who don’t typically engage in deviant behavior (or even read about it) because of its happy ending. Christian is redeemed and so are the books, because Christian becomes a better man through Anastasia’s love.
While there are all kinds of erotica books available, “Fifty Shades” is set apart for the very point Loftis makes: it’s redemptive in the end. What starts out as a sordid sexual liaison—complete with whips, chains, and controlling orders Christian drafts about how Anastasia is to live every day of her life—ends with a marriage and babies. It’s a perfect “happily ever after.” Ironically, a book famous for its deviant sexuality concludes on a conservative note: What makes Ana really happy isn’t whips and chains and “deft fingers” but a husband and children.
A lot of justification for the book’s popularity has centered on this point. But, like Loftis said, it’s nonsense. It’s nonsense because this is a classic case of the ends justify the means. It also sends a horrible message to people about compromising your values, your virtues, and your very self for an unhealthy relationship.
Love Doesn’t Manipulate Or Capitulate
How many girls (and guys) find themselves in a relationship in which they’re doing things for the other person that they would never consider doing otherwise, but they do it because they don’t want to lose that person? They lose their virginity, not because they think it’s right or best—and it’s not out of love or in the context of marriage—but because they think it’s what they need to do to please that other person. Or they do drugs or worse because that’s what the other person wants, so they bail on their ethics and swallow the pills. It could even be less-serious behaviors; they start living a life that isn’t true to themselves at all. They start dressing differently, listening to music they don’t really like, hanging around people who aren’t good influences, or even adopting religious views or ideologies they don’t agree with—all to make the other person who is manipulating and controlling them happy.
This is exactly what Ana does. She compromises herself and her values (she’s a virgin at 21 for a reason)—all to please Christian and to satisfy her sexual urges. Most of the series is about her internal struggle not to do what she knows she shouldn’t. But she gives in time and again. She gives in because she can’t control her desires, because she wants to please this “hot guy,” and because she wants to change him and help him become better.
It works out for Ana and Christian, but that’s a fairy tale. How many relationships end in misery because people entered into them with the goal of “changing” the other person? I’ve heard this refrain from more than one woman who knew she was with the wrong man and doing things she shouldn’t, things that just aren’t true to who she is: “But he’ll change. I’ll be the one who makes a difference in his life. He won’t always be like this. He’ll be better one day.” But that day never comes, and they suffer in a variety of ways from divorce, to abusive marriages, to disease, unwanted pregnancies, or breakups that are devastating because so much has been invested in a flawed relationship.
The Happy Ending in ‘Fifty Shades’ Is a Lie
The happy ending James gives at the end of a dark and twisted journey is an illusion. It’s a trap. It’s a lie.
When Ana meets Christian, she’s a virgin. He’s a 27-year-old deeply troubled and psychologically scarred man who doesn’t have girlfriends; instead, he has “submissives.” He stalks Ana and obsesses over her. He’s possessive and controlling. They have sex quickly, and it’s not based on love or vows of commitment. It’s about power and desire. The attraction is immediate and physical. “Why does he have such an unnerving effect on me?” she asks herself when they first meet. “His overwhelming good looks, maybe? The way he strokes his index finger against his lower lip?” She is obviously attracted to him, but she knows from the very first that he’s controlling. “So you want to possess things?” she asks him. “I want to deserve to posses them, but yes, bottom line, I do.”
This wasn’t just a red flag—it was a howling siren. If Ana had any sense, she’d have left and not looked back.
I’ve always believed that when you first get to know a man, he tells you the truth about himself in subtle ways. You just have to listen and believe what he’s telling you. Too often we deny the truth and believe what we want to believe. Christian is all about darkness, possession, and control. But Ana is swept up in him, in his good looks, his wealth, his power. Everything. She dreams of “smoky gray eyes, long legs, long fingers, and dark, dark unexplored places.” He tells her, “I don’t do the girlfriend thing.” He also warns her: “I’m not the man for you.” She refers to him as a control freak a lot. And a stalker. He wants her to “willingly surrender herself in all things.” Why? “To please me,” he whispers. And that’s what she wants to do. She wants to please him, whatever it takes. He wants her to want to please him. It’s all about taking (he’s the dominant, after all).
Lust Will Ultimately Betray You
To be fair, Ana does see good in him—that he can be caring and that he “rescues” her when she’s drunk. But she knows he’s dangerous, that she’s a “moth to the flame and that she’ll probably get burned,” but she wants him. She wants to please him sexually. When he gives her his list of requirements, one of them is that she has to exercise four times a week. Why? “I need you supple, strong, and with stamina,” he says. A healthy woman would have told him to go jump off a cliff, but Ana stays because she is weak. She is a slave to her emotions and she’s deluded about what love really is.
She knows the BDSM Christian wants her to do is unhealthy and not normal (her words)—it’s not what she really wants. She never feels comfortable with it, but she sees it as a means to an end: gratifying her own desires and drawing him closer so she can change him, make him truly love and be in a healthy relationship.
Ana’s reactions to Christian’s darkness and the way she’s drawn into it are distressing to anyone with common sense (and a conscience). She’s a confused, manipulated girl who is repelled by what Christian is. Her “inner goddess” delights in deviant behavior, but her reason knows the truth. She’s horrified and perplexed by the contract Christian wants her to sign. It makes demands like the following: “She accepts the Dominant as her master, with the understanding that she is now the property of the Dominant, to be dealt with as the Dominant pleases.” And “The Submissive shall accept whippings, floggings, spankings, caning, paddlings, or any other discipline the Dominant should decide to administer, without hesitation, inquiry, or complaint. The Submissive shall not look directly into the eyes of the Dominant except when specifically instructed to do so. The Submissive shall keep her eyes cast down and maintain a quiet and respectful bearing in the presence of the Dominant.”
Christian says he’s learned a lot from the Bible. You can’t help but assume he’s talking about the “women must submit” and the “gentle and quiet spirit” parts that he has twisted into a controlling knot. But it sounds more like Sharia. It’s a wonder he doesn’t put Ana in a burka.
Everything’s Shaded, Alright, But There’s No Grey Area
Regardless, Ana doesn’t like it. “How can I possibly agree to all this?” she asks herself. “And apparently it’s for my benefit, to explore my sensuality, my limits—safely—oh please!…. Serve and obey all things! All things! I shake my head in disbelief.”
Ana knows the truth: this is not good. That her abuser twists everything around to convince her that this is for her own benefit and well-being. Ana recoils—as she should: “I shudder at the thought of being flogged or whipped. Spanking probably wouldn’t be so bad; humiliating, though.”
It is humiliating, but she gives in to it.
“She stares at herself in the bathroom mirror. You can’t seriously be considering this… My subconscious sounds sane and rational, not her usually snarky self.” (That’s called a conscience, dear.) But, “My inner goddess is jumping up and down, clapping her hands like a five-year-old. Please, let’s do this… otherwise we’ll end up alone with lots of cat and your classic novels to keep you company.”
I have a name for her inner goddess—Screwtape.
What we have here is the classic flesh-spirit battle. Her immature, foolish sinful nature (the pagan goddess within) is lustfully waging a war against reason, goodness, self-respect, and dignity. Dignity loses. The angel falls and the demon rises.
As she struggles through this, she asks herself at one point, “Is this really me?” Does she want to give in to her base appetites that make her feel so “alive”? Is that who she is? Is she someone who gets into this kind of thing? Or is she someone else, someone who wants a normal life, normal love? She realizes she wants normal. But she doesn’t want to give up Christian either—or the hot sex. So the goal shifts—she wants to make him normal. That’s her quest.
I Wanted Marriage and a Family—So How Did I Get Nipple Clamps?
But do the ends justify the means? She doubts it, and at one point she even considers telling her friend, Kate, about what’s happening so she’ll talk her out of it. “Oh Kate….I wish I could tell you everything, everything about this strange, sad, kinky guy, and you could tell me to forget about him. Stop me from being a fool.”
So she knows. She knows this isn’t good. She knows she’s a fool. She doesn’t like that Christian is into fisting and nipple and genital clamps. She knows he’s sick. While agreeing to it makes it consensual, it doesn’t make it good or normal. It’s still about power, not about love—the kind of love that is nourished best when there is real commitment (like marriage, the kind that comes with a promise, a vow, not a mere contract). That’s what she really wants—marriage, a family, a normal life. She and Christian haven’t even spoken of love and they’ve had sex and talked about how he is going to control what she eats and how much exercise she gets. They’ve discussed spanking and whippings, but never love.
Yet that’s what she wants—love. She wants the hearts and the flowers. She says in the second book that she “cannot be with someone who takes pleasure in inflicting pain on me, someone who can’t love me.” She wants normal. That’s her. And she enters his world of demeaning and humiliating behavior (again, her words) hoping to make him normal. After a time when he spanks her and hurts her, she calls her mom for comfort (without telling her what happened). She’s hurting because this isn’t what she really wants. But she does it because the goddess of desire within wants it. Her sinful nature, her flesh, longs for it—even if it humiliates her. Her desire to please him and change him drives her forward like a slave in chains.
Christian doesn’t care about humiliating her. It’s about power and control and twisting her into a submissive: “I like the control it gives me, Anastasia. I want you to behave in a particular way, and if you don’t, I shall punish you, and you will learn to behave the way I desire. I enjoy punishing you.”
In a conversation about control and punishment, he says, “It’s the way I’m made, Anastasia. I need to control you. I need you to behave in a certain way, and if you don’t—I love to watch your beautiful alabaster skin pink and warm up under my hands. It turns me on.”
The sad thing is, this isn’t how Christian was made. Christian was created to be noble and to love and to show himself dignity and show others respect. He was made to love, not to exercise power over others. But he doesn’t see it, all he thinks is real is his sin and the persona that developed because of his own abuse.
Obsession Is Not Love
He is afraid of love. Ana recognizes this, but she doesn’t even really know what love is. In a way, she’s as lost as Christian. He tells her, “I’m a selfish man. I’ve wanted you since you fell into my office. You are exquisite, honest, warm, strong, witty, beguilingly innocent; the list is endless. I’m in awe of you. I want you, and the thought of anyone else having you is like a knife twisting in my dark soul.” Her response? “If that isn’t a declaration of love, I don’t know what is.” She doesn’t know what love is; she doesn’t realize, as Axtell said in her speech, that “authentic love does not devalue another human being.” Ana can’t see the difference between obsession and love. Most of the time, what starts out as obsession doesn’t transform into love. Those who walk these twisted paths don’t experience the happy ending they long for; they don’t walk hand-in-hand into the sunset. They suffer. They end up alone in darkness.
Ana’s case is pure fiction. Real life is very different. Real life is more tragic, more like Romeo and Juliet than Anastasia and Christian. When we compromise our beliefs and abandon our morals just to feed our desires or to please and ultimately change someone else, we lose.
The story of “Fifty Shades” is a corrupting influence on our culture, not because of the sexual explicitness of it or the twisted depictions of BDSM. It’s more insidious than that. It whispers in the ears of vulnerable, romantically minded people that the ends justify the means and that it’s all right to demean yourself and abandon your values in the name of love and of “saving someone else.” “Humiliate yourself! It’s okay. There’s redemption in the end!” But for most, redemption doesn’t come. Only grief.