Fifty Shades of Relationship Negotiation

For a poorly written book, Fifty Shades of Grey really captured my attention. And not just in that way.

I was fully prepared to hate it. Wasn't it setting back feminism by assuming that women want controlling, domineering alpha males? And that women are so hapless that they require an iron clad contract to tell them how to act, dress, speak, and fuck? It sounded like a nightmare of a book a la Twilight that promised to once again juice the agency of women into watery drivel masquerading as prose.

But Fifty Shades of Grey, though originally conceived as Twilight fan fiction, miraculously manages to offer a lot more than the standard simper-and-sex-it-up fare. I’m willing to wager my credibility on this assertion: that it provides fascinating insight into the complicated power negotiations in relationships.

Are you still with me?

Through the prism of a sadomasochistic (S&M) relationship, Fifty Shades shows how ordinary couples attempt to find balance within their relationship. Except that I’m convinced now that S&M is actually a better way to negotiate a twosome as it makes explicit exactly what most of us muddle through with half-speak, insinuation, sudden flare-ups, and passive aggressive behavior.

S&M or at least how it’s portrayed in Fifty Shades, takes away the guessing game. Each partner chooses a role: dominant or submissive. It’s understood that the dominant controls every detail of the submissive’s life, in and outside of the bedroom, as stipulated in a written contract.

But it's also understood that the submissive has the power to modify the contract a she sees fit. Thus, what she will and won’t do is decided before sexual activity occurs (although Fifty Shades' heroine jumps the gun on this one).

The submissive can has at her disposal a set of pre-determined safe words to use during sexual activity to slow or halt any activity she is not comfortable with. If the dominant breaks any of the clauses in the contract, she can cancel the contract at any time (if the relationship is simply not to her taste, she is free to cancel after a set period of time, such a month).

And of course, this is not a legally binding contract. Hence, the submissive can vamos whenever he/she darn well pleases, really.

The reality? The submissive is the one in control. She says what the dominant can and can't do and can veto any behavior outside of the agreement. The caveat is that Christian is older, richer, and more powerful than our little Ana. Still, while I don't exactly condone the level of stalker-esque behavior Christian exhibits, they're both consenting adults.

Yes Bronwyn, you say, but that man is beating that woman.

Well, yes. But as the hero Christian Grey says in Fifty Shades before flogging Ana, "It will not hurt, but it will bring your blood to the surface of your skin and make you very sensitive."

The intention is not to beat but to arouse. Serious injury is not the objective, stimulating the skin for other activity is.

But for all the hype, Fifty Shades isn't really pornographic. I realized this after finishing Fifty Shades of Grey and starting in on Bared To You. So much of the sexual titillation generated by the book doesn’t come from throbbing shafts penetrating glistening slits (ew!). It comes from the power play between Ana and Christian as they slowly explore the boundaries of their sexual comfort. Giving up control and taking control is intensely erotic.

Why? In our ordinary lives both of these things likely inspire teeth-gnashing fear. But when explored within the confines of a pre-negotiated environment I have a hunch that this risk taking becomes easier and very sexy. We all have fantasies about letting go or taking over and to do so with the promise of pleasure, well spank me and call me Sally!

Here's what else is erotic—trust. That’s right, sexy sexy trust. Don’t tell me, you’re squirming in your seat as we speak.

S&M, or at least the kind in Fifty Shades, requires a hell of a lot of trust. Christian ties up Ana, leaving her helpless and vulnerable. If you don’t trust your partner, physically and emotionally, I imagine this would be a tough scenario to act out. Putting yourself completely in your partners’ hands, either as the submissive, or as the dominant who relies on the sub to communicate her limits, requires a lot of faith.

Which brings us to communication. In such a potentially dangerous situation, you’d better darn well communicate. Christian and Ana's negotiation of their dom/sub contract captivated me, causing me to miss more than one bus stop.

Christian starts out with a contract that stipulates what clothes Ana must wear, a list of what foods are approved for her to eat (chocolate cupcakes and bonbons, we hope), and how often she should work out. Ana thinks this is crazypants (especially the eating, you know he was going to make her drink carrot juice and eat broccoli) and bargains with him so that she feels emotionally comfortable, which will in turn provide for maximum stimulation.

How often do we let our needs slide? How often do we not speak up and instead care-take and please? Far too often, I’m willing to bet.

My boyfriend and I recently went through an intense period of negotiation. He was raised by a traditionally-minded family, I’m a feminist. He’s Mexican and a product of macho culture, I’m a product of Canada, where everyone is a giant people-pleasing sissy. Kidding!

He wasn't comfortable with my male friends, walking alone at night, my need for boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. He wanted to care-take, I wanted to take care of my damn self. We had a series of tense conversations that tested both Miguel’s traditional Big Poppa role and my fuck-off-I-need-to-do-everything-myself attitude.

I was reading Fifty Shades at the same time and I often thought, wouldn't it just be easier if we wrote all this stuff down?

For example: don’t buy me things just because you think you know what I need. That's care-taking  But do celebrate my accomplishments with a little gift or thoughtful gesture. That's support.

Eliminate the confusion, write a contract.

We expect our partners to read our minds because if they really loved us then we wouldn't have to spell things out, damn it! But that just ain’t it. If I feel comfortable expressing my needs and he cares enough to fulfill them, that's all vulnerable sexy trust, baby. And I’m going to take that sexy trust right into the bedroom, you'd better believe it.


patricia said...

I see your point, but...I guess it depends upon where one is coming from. Having grown up in an abusive family, witnessed & experienced violence at home and then fallen into an abusive relationship in my 20s, I simply would not be able to stomach this book, ever. But I will agree that communication in any relationship is important.

Panic said...

It is really, really dangerous to assume anything about S&M from James' book, because she's mostly got it wrong. I'm not saying any lessons on negotiation you take away with you aren't valuable, and if it has helped you in your relationship that's great. But any and all conjecture -- and it is all conjecture -- about BDSM should really be run past people who are actually into that sort of thing.

Sean Cranbury said...

Really enjoyed this post, Bronwyn.

The real danger of venturing into the heavily political and emotional world of BDSM is that you'll never get it right for everyone. Except maybe for yourself and your partner.

Good for you for writing this. I very much relate to what you've written here and find it tremendously valuable. In fact it informs some things that I have been thinking a lot about lately. The notion of surrender in romantic/sexual relationships. Which is not the same as what you have written here.

Your voice is developing, Bronwyn. Keep going. Don't equivocate.

Elizabeth J. Neal said...

Yes, it is so important that we deal with pain in a healthy way, especially in matchmakers relationships. And so powerful to draw strength from each other. I think the tricky thing is that we can't always control when we'll meet someone special. I think you can feel pain, healing, joy, bonding, and strength all at the same time. Great discussion!

Heather Grimm said...

Even though I still believe that 50 Shades of Grey do not deserve such attention. You can look through all reviews to be sure, that people share this opinion as well.

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