50 Shades of Fun or Abuse?

You can't help but notice the release of 50 Shades of Grey. 
Its marketing is everywhere, whilst in London on Saturday, I kid you not, I must have seen over 100 adverts ranging from buses to posters in the underground to underwear branded by it in a supermarket. Even my local kids soft play area has a baby changing mat in the loo with '9 months ago mummy was reading 50 Shades of Grey' printed on it. 
So is it a bit of harmless fun or is it something else? So I was intrigued to see this on news night: 

It got me thinking and I checked out Natalie Collins' campaign. The people at 50 Shades Is Domestic Abuse have some interesting reflections on 50 Shades of Grey. This guest post on the subject of consent within a relationship particularly drew my attention as a youth worker: 
This is a guest post, by someone who wishes to remain anonymous.  
*Warning this post contains content that may cause a trigger. It is utterly not my intention to cause a trigger but I do feel that this content needs to be shared, for such a time as this. Please don’t suffer in silence get help here or here or here. You are not alone and things can change, I promise*
Valentine’s Day is a coming and this year in all its marketing genius it will also see the launch of the new 50 Shades of Grey Film (I won’t link to it!) based on the book of the same name that released in 2011 and has sold over a 100 millions copies. Named by some as ‘Erotic Romance’ and others as ‘Mummy Porn’ read by thousands of everyday women (and men) across the world. In my own community it became the talk of the staff room at the local school; primary school teachers sharing with each other what bit they were reading and normalising the contents over a skinny latte and a tuna sandwich. Even my mum read the series (she’s a 51yr old widower), I saw it being read on the bus, in the coffee shop and it was even talked about in circles of my Christian friends.
When it first came out I was having a conversation with a few women in my family of a similar age to me with them saying…
‘But secretly every woman finds it such a turn on the whole not being in control and having someone dominate you. No wonder it’s making so much money it’s what every women dreams about!’
My reply caught them a little off guard, perhaps I shouldn’t have said it but the words kinda fell out like word vomit…
‘Glad my torture and reoccurring nightmares could net millions.’
The conversation quickly changed.
As the launch of the film comes I have had many a fascinating conversation on the topic of consent. The standard throw away line when it comes to people talking about this film and normalising its contents is ‘but it’s between consenting adults’. The lofty ideal that in a relationship where two people make informed choices everything is healthy and good and as such. I have seen people openly sharing the trailer on their social media, even celebrating that they are booking tickets to see it as their Valentine’s Date.
But I think this sense of normalisation is a little distressing. As a youth worker who is passionate about seeing young people thrive I think we should consider how we discuss the issues this film presents and as a parent of a tween age girl I think its essential that we shout, “THIS IS NOT NORMAL!”
Just a few weeks ago my daughter and her friend were chased by a young man they did not know. On catching up with them he pinned my daughter’s friend to the wall and pressing his face against hers told her in an aggressive tone that he loved her. The girls are 12 yrs old and this happened on the school premises.
They were not given the option to consent.
When we talked about this later, my 12 yr old daughter normalised it. She said ‘well he didn’t really hurt her’ and ‘other people saw it and didn’t say anything so it’s ok’ and even ‘it could have been worse’. They had also decided not to tell a teacher because they didn’t know his name. My beautiful little girl said ‘we will try and stay away from him’.
They were not given an option to consent to this and by the tender age of 12 they were rationalising it and normalising it, finding strategies to alter their behavior to stop it happening to them again.
This is not what I want her to consider as a normal part of ‘consenting adult relationships’.
My experience of a consenting adult relationship may not be the same as yours but it is sadly not unique. I fell for a guy a little older than myself.  We didn’t really do the dating thing (its not a very English thing to do) so we jumped straight into a full on relationship.
Some would say that I consented to that, I guess at that initial stage I did.
We are all hard wired to be wanted and it feels good to be desired.
But what does consent really look like within the context of a relationship?
Do we really seek permission to every advance on our partner? Whilst it might be cute to ask your partner for the first time ‘is it ok to kiss you?’ When do we stop asking and start assuming?
And what happens when you add into that conversation the power dynamics that some relationships have or add in a sense of fear or obligation?
Very quickly the lines can get more and more blurry.
I know of plenty of mature, sensible women who have found themselves in situations where they have felt obliged to have sex. Most of the time consent is not explicitly asked for and even if consent is asked for, how do people say ‘no thank you’ when this may mean they are then in an even more vulnerable position.
What if you are staying at someone’s house and have no way of getting home?
What if they are your boss?
What if they hold something over you that you desperately don’t want others to find out about?
The term consenting adults can quickly become a bit of a lofty ideal that in truth presents in practice as a rather dirty muddy puddle!
So whilst I may have consented to be his girlfriend and to engage in some initial loving acts of physical affection, much of what unfolded I did not consent to.
I did not consent to be spat on.
I did not consent to being urinated on.
I did not consent to being bitten.
I did not consent to his hands round my throat strangling me .
I did not consent to a penis being forced inside of various parts of me.
I did not consent to being a punch bag.
But then again I was never asked in order that I might actually give consent, or withhold it. We have this lofty ideal of what consent looks like but in practice it is rarely exercised within a relationship. When was the last time you asked your partner ‘is it ok if I do …?’
But I didn’t scream and shout in protest against these things either. The majority of the time I silently sobbed for the duration.
Many have said that my silence and seeming lack of protest to the situation demonstrated that I was consenting; like the silence in a relationship means an implied and unwritten consent. Had he offered me up the menu choices at the start I would have politely declined, but like many I quickly learned that declining was not an option and often any protest would result in a not just an entree but a full on 3 course banquet that lasted hours and had effects for days.
When you turn up with massive bites on your face and neck people assume you have been having ‘a wildly happy consenting adult time’ they don’t stop to ask whether you wanted to be bitten.  Well not in my case anyway. Now I view bites, scratches, bruises on others a little differently.
It’s taken a long time to work though what not saying no has meant and I stand by the place I have reached now.
I was an adult.
I was in an adult relationship.
I did not consent to these things.
I did not with enthusiasm say ‘Yes please, that would make my dreams come true’.
Not all of what goes on behind closed doors is what we would traditionally consider as being between consenting adults however shiny or sparkly you package it.
Consent is a muddy dirty puddle and I do not want my daughter to grow up in a world where we normalise things such as 50 Shades of Grey and make the content of it a topic of discussion over lunch in the staff room.
So if like me you want to do something proactive to challenge the status quo why not join in with this or use your power and influence to educate others on what active consent looks like. Have the awkward conversation with people around you about what ‘consenting adults’ looks like and be bold enough to ask your partner tonight ‘are you ok with this?’
So what do you think about 50 Shades of Grey? Is it comfortable reading? Does it encourage unhealthy normalisation? What should our responses be to the young people who are discussing it? I am keen to learn from you ...