After a year of incredibly romantic dates and the hottest sex ever, in my mid-20s, I awoke to find myself married to a man I loved who pushed me down the stairs of our house, held a loaded gun to my head, called me “retard” for kicks and strangled me while he climaxed.
I did not find being an abuse victim even remotely erotic. So it surprised me years later when a new boyfriend asked, while we were between the sheets, if the violence I suffered meant that I liked being dominated in bed, and presumably elsewhere.
With hype surrounding today’s release of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie, that question has moved out of my bedroom into our culture at large. If you are a woman who finds “Fifty Shades of Grey” erotic (as I did), perhaps you are interested in domination. But while sexual domination and abuse can sometimes look similar, they are very, very different. As a survivor of relationship violence, there is not one thing about real abuse that is sexy.
Nothing in my years of being manipulated, humiliated and psychologically broken by a man I once adored translated to sexual pleasure — or even an appetite for playing a submissive role. “The difference between playing a voluntary dominant or submissive role vs. being an abuse victim is simple,” explains Melissa Febos, a former dominatrix and author of the memoir “Whip Smart.” “It all boils down to consent.”
Erotic subservience requires mutual agreement and trust between partners. The “Fifty Shades” plot includes a contract between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, outlining the types of BDSM that are, and are not, acceptable to her. In abusive relationships, real trust is impossible; consent is never given, either implicitly or explicitly. Thus the pain is never voluntary, as it is in BDSM relationships. The idea that women find non-consensual abuse erotic is a myth reinforced by fantasy porn and by a widespread misunderstanding of relationship abuse.
There’s a hard line between fantasy and reality for most people. Pretending to appease a lover to heighten sexual pleasure is vastly different from silently submitting to your husband because he threatened to hurt your children if you refused him sex. Having a man’s fingers around my neck, squeezing so I could not scream for help or breathe, had a toxic impact on my libido — afterward I was never able to look at my husband’s hands as gentle or arousing. So when that beau asked whether I like to be dominated, my response was nothing more than laughter. How could anyone oversimplify the psychological complexity of relationship abuse? Why would anyone presume that victims of violence find violence erogenous?
Well, first off, many people wonder why women stay in abusive relationships; therefore, they might think we stay because we like it. Since we, as a society, don’t know what women actually do find erotic, this theory becomes somewhat plausible. Adding to the confusion is the disturbing truth that violent relationships are so common. On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States — more than 12 million women and men a year. More than 60 percent of female homicide victims are killed by people they know.
The second, even more confusing truth that “Fifty Shades of Grey” highlights is the way some women harbor stubborn fantasies about their power to heal a damaged man. It’s not Christian Grey’s good looks, his garage full of Audis, or his personal helicopter that seduces Ana. It’s his raw emotional vulnerability that catches her attention initially. As their relationship deepens, his confessions of early physical and sexual abuse, along with an almost child-like willingness to open up his painful past to her and her alone, keep her hooked. The deeper, more dangerous fairy tale of “Fifty Shades of Grey” is that a strong, independent-minded woman such as Anastasia Steele can reach inside a troubled adult like Grey and heal the damaged boy inside.
Unfortunately, warped pity for a broken man can be potent and soul-crushing. It’s no coincidence that, after months of indecision, I decided to sleep with my future abuser the same night he confessed that his stepfather had starved and beaten him as a child. I remember a flood of passion intermingled with sympathy. I wanted to show that sweet boy what true love was all about and make him mine forever. His pain and his need to be healed turned me on emotionally – in ways that his need to control me never could sexually.
This emotional fantasy – not the sexual one – explains the 100 million copies the Fifty Shades franchise has sold and the buzz over the movie. For some victims, the intoxication of healing a damaged partner is the root of how love blindfolds us while delivering us into danger. We cling fiercely to the seductive idea that we are powerful, smart women who can fix hurt men; perhaps nobly, perhaps idiotically, we refuse to abandon these men when so many others already wisely have.
Neither the “Fifty Shades” books nor the movie ever get to the most vexing relationship conundrum: How do you find yourself again after losing your identity in a romantic relationship? And how do you avoid losing yourself in the first place? For survivors of psychological and physical exploitation, life after abuse is all about learning to trust yourself again. It took me years to let myself off the hook for marrying a man who, before we even got engaged, established limits for my skirt lengths and makeup application. To trust yourself that you’ll never get into an abusive relationship again, you need complete self-acceptance to admit you ignored the warning signs of abuse and voluntarily participated in the dance of repeat betrayal.
Consistent with its unusual mix of erotic and idiotic, the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy ends with Ana and Christian’s happily-every-after marriage and vanilla sex – unlike real life, where most abusive relationships end with protective orders, blocked cellphone numbers, drawn-out court battles over children, or in the worst cases, death. The one thing the “Fifty Shades” plot has most in common with real-life abuse is its ability to present a psychological con as true love. Some viewers, like some abuse victims, have trouble discerning between delusional passion and reality. In order to end relationship violence, all of us – victims, perpetrators, parents, bystanders, lawmakers and moviemakers – have an obligation to destroy the myth that physical or psychological abuse ever plays a legitimate role in romantic or sexual realities.
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