Consent in Fifty Shades of Grey

I like to think that Macalester is a place where sexual consent is taken seriously. ‘Consent Is Mac’ is plastered on shirts and posters all around campus. This fact makes Macalester students especially conscious of cultural events where the lines of consent are foggy. The recent release of the film adaptation of E.L. James’ erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey is this sort of cultural event. Many of my peers decided to boycott the movie because of its implications of sexual violence, and with good reason. The relationship between the main characters of Fifty Shades shows sexual violence in a positive light. Yet the fact remains that the movie made an astounding $85 million dollars during its opening weekend.

I think this is partially because society at large isn’t particularly conscious of the boundaries of consent. Macalester students, as well as students from other schools who have had conversations about sexual consent, will be more aware of the meaning behind a film like Fifty Shades. Because I am aware of the definition of consent, I saw the movie during its opening weekend. I wanted to see if it was really as blatantly violent as people told me it was — could a movie with such a horrifying message really be so popular?

Consent was rarely given or asked for throughout the movie. During the story, Christian Grey is Ana Steele’s sexual dominant, and he exerts his dominance through the use of chains, belts and riding crops. The problem with this behavior is that Christian Grey never got the necessary enthusiastic “yes,” but only the absence of a “no.” Everything I learned throughout orientation’s sexual assault modules and during my first year at Macalester told me that this relationship was wrong. The only time Ana gives any consent in either direction is the very end of the movie, where (spoiler alert) she decides that Christian has gone too far after savagely whipping her with his belt. She gives him a firm “no” and leaves his apartment before the screen fades to black and the credits roll.

So, do I think that Fifty Shades’ message was as bad as people warned me it would be? The lack of consent is definitely alarming. This absence moves the acts committed in the movie away from BDSM and towards sexual violence. The fact that consent was barely given throughout the sexual acts that occurred in the movie tells all its viewers that consent is not necessary, but rather a lack of protest is what makes sex okay. I know this to be untrue, but many people might not look at Ana’s and Christian’s relationship with a critical eye. This is a bit frightening — will movie-goers leave thinking that sexual relationships like the one portrayed in the movie are acceptable?

Yes, because the absence of consent throughout the film tells viewers that consent is unnecessary and un-sexy. The sex scenes in the movie move smoothly and without interruption, and Christian’s asking for consent would halt the idealistic chronology of intercourse. This notion might make viewers think that undisturbed sex is more important than safe sex. They will believe that, as long as their partner does not explicitly say “no” to what is happening, they are saying “yes.” In this way, the impressions made by the movie could go directly from the screen to the bedroom, a possibility which should alarm anyone.

I understand why lots of my peers refuse to spend money on a ticket to see the movie in theaters. But once the movie appears on the internet’s various free viewing sources, I recommend that everyone, even the boycotters, watch it through. This way, we can make educated and informed opinions about the movie’s message and help others understand what Ana and Christian’s relationship says about consent.