The Sex Trade and Fifty Shades of Shame

by Sarah J. Harris

Nothing says romance like a disturbing “love” story that celebrates bondage and abuse in a pornographic format.  Even though it may seem like seventy steps back from the early feminist movement, E.L. James’s book, Fifty Shades of Grey, has been so well received that its cinematic rendition was released on Valentine’s Day, taking in $85.17 million during its first three days. Culturally speaking, American men are accustomed to the poison of porn, but James’s book isn’t meant for them. No, this persuasion is meant for and embraced by millions of women worldwide.

Over the last few decades our culture has pushed the boundaries of sexual freedom and exploration, and audiences have grown accustomed to scandalous sex scenes and graphic nudity.  We have finally landed here, with the controversial story chock-full of the glaring lies society has come to accept, ranging from the somewhat easily digestible—men don’t care how smart women are, they just want them to shut up and be sexy, to the alarming—women should be sexually submissive, even to the point of physical pain and fear in order to secure love. 


The protagonist of the story is Anastasia Steele, a plain, introverted, girl-next-door British Lit student, whose virginity at the beginning of the franchise is a point of contention. Of course, Ana’s academic intellect is glossed over; instead, her level of sexual experience defines how smart she is or in this case, how dumb she is. “Well, I haven’t had sex before, so I don’t know.” 

The ironically named villain/billionaire love interest, Christian Grey, is appalled by Ana’s purity and admonishes her for not revealing this fact sooner. Although confused, defiled, and debased, she is bound by contract to submit to Christian, and any signs of regret are met with his manipulation, “Do you think you could just embrace these feelings, deal with them for me?”  The story concludes with Christian finally proposing to Ana, though an arrangement like this one never, realistically would result in wedding bells.  Ana, the whipped and worn out cow that has been giving milk for free, would typically be put out to pasture.


After interviewing a group of teenage girls who have been rescued from the sex-trade industry, the consensus was simple: Fifty Shades is dangerously similar to what happens in the realm of human trafficking.   Films like this are “promoting violence toward women” and glorifying a “twisted way of showing love.” This is precisely how many pimps and their facilitators lure young women into what they refer to as “the game.”

According to information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “The themes of trauma, abandonment, and disruption, begun in childhood, are central to the narratives of adolescent girls trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation.  Girls describe having had a profound sense of being alone felt that their isolation, lack of connectedness, and separation were the single most important factors in making them vulnerable to prostitution to begin with.” 

Not surprisingly, Ana portrays several of the characteristics that are associated with girls who fall prey to prostitution.  She is from a broken home, her mother seems unreliable, and with the cost of college tuition, she is struggling financially.  Ana is exactly the kind of girl who gets swept up in the wave of a successful man, no matter how demoralizing he may be.  The conclusion is that Ana’s successful relationship is secured with sex. 

Even more alarming is that Christian’s behavior resembles the “seasoning” practices of a pimp.  A brief overview of sex-trafficking terms puts the Gucci-clad Christian right in line with a corrupt street thug: “Seasoning is a combination of psychological manipulation, intimidation, gang rape, sodomy, beatings, deprivation of food or sleep, isolation from friends or family and other sources of support…it is designed to break down a victim’s resistance to ensure compliance.”  Sound familiar?

Throughout the book, Ana is genuinely afraid of Christian.  Terms like “threateningly” or “commanding” are used in every chapter. Scenes involve moments of terrifying rage, “He bangs his fist on the table, making me jump, and stands so abruptly he almost knocks the dining chair over.” Regardless of her frightened internal dialogue, this tale claims that having the daylights beaten out of her and other bondage escapades results in Ana’s physical pleasure even though she simultaneously admits to the reader, “And he hits me again and again, from somewhere deep inside, I want to beg him to stop, but I don’t.”


It’s bad enough that young girls think they need to look like porn stars in order to gain male attention; apparently, now they need to act like them too.  In this day and age, that means being the recipient of some form of abuse. Visit one porn site, and without actually watching a single video, you can readily deduce that women enjoy physical mistreatment, general disrespect, and verbal cruelty because it is sexually exciting.  Men learn that this is the kind of sex they should be having, and women learn this is the kind of sex they should be providing.

A 2010 study by the University of Arkansas analyzes the content of popular pornographic videos with the objective of updating depictions of aggression, degradation, and sexual practices. “Findings indicate high levels of aggression in pornography in both verbal and physical forms. Of the 304 scenes analyzed, 88.2% contained physical aggression, principally spanking, gagging, and slapping, while 48.7% of scenes contained verbal aggression, primarily name-calling. Perpetrators of aggression were usually male, whereas targets of aggression were overwhelmingly female. Targets most often showed pleasure or responded neutrally to the aggression.”  The message to women is clear: Be willing to get weird and possibly wounded. Oh yeah, then pretend to like it.


This lie is becoming a possible future truth due to the prolific reach of porn and our cultural acceptance of it. In 2004, Internet Pornography Statistics showed that the largest consumers of Internet pornography were between the ages of 12-17. Subsequently, the current majority of monthly viewers is 70% of American men ages 18-24. Do the math. The 13-year-old kid who was secretly watching X-rated videos on his parent’s computer back then is the 24-year-old man with a link to PornHub bookmarked on his iPhone now.  Most modern men are already brainwashed while Fifty Shades is indoctrination for the dames.  

Today, 35% of all Internet downloads are pornographic and 94% of that material highlights violence toward women.  That is an incredible amount of people who think that beatings in the bedroom are perfectly benign. Those folks are foolishly mistaken. Researchers at the Center for Innovative Public Health Research (CiPHR) in San Clemente, Calif., found that youths who watched violent pornography were six times more likely to engage in sexually aggressive behavior compared to non-viewers. These behaviors include in-person sexual assault, or technology-based sexual harassment or solicitation. This connection persisted even when other important factors like substance abuse, prior sexual victimization, and aggressive behavior in general were taken into account. It is no wonder that bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, or sadism and masochism have helped us redefine what we call the “intimate relationship.”

Physically rough encounters and sexually painful interactions have been muddled with emotional connection, and arousal at someone else’s expense confused for affection. James’s work fits into this category easily: “If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you.” Happy Valentine’s Day, I guess.


As a book and a film, Fifty Shades is definitely fiction and, like its pornographic counterparts, entirely unrealistic. Relationships are not based on who signed up for the submissive or dominant roles.  Mature, healthy relationships are based on communication, compassion, and mutual respect. Being intimate should suggest sensitivity and openness. There should be a sense of security that comes from this bond, not forced bonds that require someone to trust that he or she won’t be strangled to death.

 Clearly, loving your partner because you love who he or who she is has become an antiquated notion.  As one review put it, “This is the central tension of the books: Ana loves Christian, but she doesn’t want to be his submissive; Christian loves Ana, but he’s turned on by violent sex.” Being in love with someone in modern terms means that you must be sexually insane, unabashedly provocative, and brazenly uninhibited in every possible way.  That is not the kind of love that makes a person feel complete and happy.  This is not the kind of message we should send to any woman.  Fifty Shades makes me ashamed and afraid for women today. Perhaps Anastasia Steele summarizes it best:

“Now I feel like a receptacle—an empty vessel to be filled at his whim. I have an overwhelming urge to cry, a sad and lonely melancholy grips and tightens round my heart. Dashing back to my bedroom, I close the door and lean against it trying to rationalize my feelings. I can’t. Sliding to the floor, I put my head in my hands as my tears begin to flow.”
— E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey


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