Within the schools, communities and even justice system of South Africa more often than not sex education is vague, unclear and surrounded by taboo or negative connotations. Unless you take biology (life science) in high school your knowledge of human reproductive organs or reproduction as a whole are a self teach endeavour. The sex education part of life science is a small section of the syllabus known as the reproductive system covering:
- male and female genitalia/anatomy
- production of gametes (sex cells; ova & sperm)
- the menstrual cycle
- sexually transmitted illnesses/infections
Considering the high rates of HIV and teenage pregnancy in South Africa it is absolutely necessary to emphasize the dangers of unprotected sex. However, it is unfortunate & problematic to omit information of what a positive sexual experience is supposed to be. By also including the importance & meaning of consent growing boys and girls alike could avoid risky behaviour as well as establish healthy boundaries when it comes to their bodies & sex. Sex education should familiarize audiences with language & terminology of the kind of sex we want or expect to effectively have a consensual, safe, comfortable as well as fear free sexual experiences. Where the protection against STDs is taught as a requirement to never compromise on and not a means to deter youth against sexual curiosity. The objective should be for the youth to have adequate sex education in both the households & schools for them to make well informed & better decisions about sex.
Choice is a factor to consent & autonomy. That of which is interestingly explored in the Fifty Shades of Grey book series. However the book series will be analyzed, in a sort of review format, to illustrate healthy boundaries or the lack thereof, consent and introduce different types of sex. However, terminology is salient to the matter so here are critical words and Fifty Shades of Grey book series characters you need to know:
Salient terminology (each terms are to be continued as you read further)
- Vanilla sex refers to regular sex with just the basics & no additional tools (toys) or complex sex positions to enhance the sexual experience
- BDSM is an acronym for Bondage & Discipline/ Dominance & Submission/ Sado-Masochism (specific to the rules a couple has for certain “scenes”)
- S&M is an abbreviation for sadism and masochism
- Fetishism is the common term for what is actually called partialism which refers to emphasized sexualization of a body part, object or activity with the intent of fulfilling ‘ultimate’ sexual gratification (e.g. feet fetish)
- Tantric sex tantra,with historical links to Buddhism & Hinduism, is about transcendence into a higher being through the mind, sex & spirit. Where consent & boundaries are emphasized for healing, spiritual growth and fulfillment in its entirety not just sexually.
- Kama (desire) Sutra (thread that links beings) refers to human sexual behaviour found in Sanskrit literature where there is an emphasis of virtue & desire is the least significant. However guidelines through ritualistic sexual positions are provided to effectively be a fulfilled & fulfilling sexual partner in a couple scenario.
The Fifty Shades book series written by EL James is made up of 3 novels (Fifty shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, Fifty shades Freed) from Ana’s version of events & perspective. Then an additional novel called Grey also written by EL James tells of Christian’s version of events from his perspective.
Frequently asked question:
Q:Where does the Fifty Shades title phrase come from?
A:Christian’s insecurities of being “Fifty shades of fucked up” (he had tumultuous childhood) also fragile masculinity & loss of control are contributory factors.
Here are the characters relevant to the exploration of healthy boundaries & consent through use of examples in Fifty shades.
|Anastasia Steele (Ana)
||Protagonist & love interest of Christian Grey
|Christian Grey (Christian)
||Successful telecommunications billionaire who is interested in Ana.
||Ana’s close male friend who has a crush on her
||Introduced in Fifty shades Darker, he is Ana’s creepy boss.
The continuous themes throughout the Fifty shades book series are:
– Eros (Erotic Love)
-Philia (Friendship Love)
-Ludus (Playful love)
-“The red room of pain” (Grey’s playroom with an extensive catalogue )
Keeping with the theme of the Fifty shades of it all. I present to you my mini series write up on healthy boundaries & consent.
Fifty shades of consent
According to the Women Against Rape Association (in South Africa) when engaging in consensual sex there is to be no kind of pressure, intimidation, threat or coercion to participate in a sexual act. Participants need to be of legal consenting age & have capacity (awareness or consciousness about what is happening).
The absence of consent, in Fifty Shades Darker, was exhibited by Jack (Anna’s boss & employer) when he corners Ana in his office and attempts to force himself on her by his office door after the rest of his employees had left the office. When he was forcing himself on Ana he threatened her job & suggested he get sexual favours from her to keep her job. After Ana declines, he pins her against the door & uses violent intimidation through his rough handling of her. Fortunately Ana has muscle memory from a self defense class she was taught by her father long ago thus was able to kick him in the groin, fight him off and escape.
The emphasis of consent is evident between Christian & Ana when they initially have (vanilla) sex. He continuously asks if she is okay with everything that is happening. She nods yes & says verbal yes at several moments. Going as far as asking Christian to make love to her to which he responds…
Additionally, Christian has “singular tastes” so he introduces Ana to his S & M meets BDSM playroom filled with a diverse supply of sex toys. Including a contract that provides boundaries & rules of everything when they get intimate in the playroom. Most of which was up for negotiation, adjustment & removal depending on what Ana wanted or refused to do. According to Christian transparency & safety were essential for a productive “session” in the playroom. Christian wanted a submissive & dominant relationship with Ana where he was the dominant to Ana’s “submission to his will” in all things. Herein lies the Bondage Discipline & Sado-Masochism aspect where Christian wants to buy things for Ana, adjust her style, improve her eating habits, add frequent exercise & have her available at his choosing at all times as part of the “contract”. With the caveat that if she fails to follow instructions or allow him to spoil her with his gifts & money she is to be punished (e.g. with spanking, flogging, whipping or withholding giving Ana an orgasm) there in lies the discipline part. However, in the novel unlike the movie, Ana be like…
Fifty shades of safety & violence
There are several moments in which Ana’s safety in terms of her life being at risk occurs. Most of which revolve around the byproducts of love and sex. When philia love between José & Ana changes, from the perspective of José, to Eros love he also compromises Ana’s safety by forcing himself on her while she is drunk. When he goes in for a kiss that she did not want in an alley outside of a bar they were at.
Christian interrupts & “saves the day” or night to be more accurate. There is violence in José ‘s sense of entitlement to Ana’s affection just because they have been friends for a very long time. This is also known as the friend zone complex . To be clear José, or any other man, is not entitled to a woman’s affections just because you were/are “nice” to her. Treating a woman with respect or kindness is recognition of her humanity. It is expected human decency not something to be “rewarded”. Although Christian “rescues” Ana it is very temporary. Remember Ana’s “red room of pain” or as Christian likes to call it “the playroom”. Well, the space not only occupies a diverse range of sex toys but also doubles as a private space for his dark fantasies of deviant sexual activity with women that look similar to his late biological mother. A type of fetishization, his mother was a petite brunette & all the his sexual partners have a similar if not the exact same aesthetic crucial to his ability to achieve orgasm during BDSM acts. Essentially Christian’s psyche is a cocktail of toxic masculinity at its best. A combination of a messed up Oedipal complex, sexual sadism meets fetishism. Fortunately, throughout all this contraception against unwanted pregnancy is a priority for Christian. He provides access to an expert OB-GYN for his various partners to consult for a contraception of their choice & covers all the medical costs. Even Ana has to comply as part of the contract like all the submissives before her.
According to Grey (the novel on Christian’s perspective) he basically works out his issues of childhood neglect, abandonment & abuse by his “crack whore” biological mother through inflicting, consensual, extreme pain & pleasure on women that look like her. Herein lies S & M (sadomasochism) is the enjoyment of receiving pain as a masochist or inflicting pain as the sadist to fulfill sexual gratification. Exemplified in chapter 26 of Fifty Shades of Grey when Ana bends over a leather bench to be hit, across her bare buttocks, with a belt wielded by Christian. It hurt so badly, that she left him. Albeit romanticized according to psychology’s DSM-5 Christian potentially suffers from a mental illness called the sexual sadism disorder. Characterized by “intense feelings of sexual excitement when fantasizing about or witnessing another individual undergoing physical or psychological pain. Acts of sexual sadism may occur with a consenting partner, or as assault on a non-consenting individual”. Ana basically left the frying pan with José & went head first into the inferno that is Christian Grey like…
Ana wants emotional availability & making love that of which Christian struggles to provide for obvious reasons. However, what if there was a way to achieve Ana’s needs whilst also addressing Christian’s issues in a more positive less dark manner. Take for instance tantra, a Buddhist & Hindu text involving meditation, yoga, kama sutra & mantras. With a focus on healing, growth & true intimacy sometimes involving orgasmic sex. According to a tantra Guru named Shaft Uddin it is also “embodying the tools to unlock your human potential…with the head, heart, sex & spirit” (see sources for the link). As depicted by the mapping of the sacred 7 chakras below:
The healing process in tantra provides a special focus on the 7 chakras that are said to be spiritual focal points of energy that when damaged, neglected or unaddressed appropriately create deficits in our physical health and well-being. Compromising one’s ability to love & connect with oneself or others.
In tantra the woman’s vagina (vulva) is called the Yoni meaning sacred space & the man’s phallus (penis) Lingam is called the shaft of light. Language is so significant to how we conceptualize & understand the world around us. It frames thinking & behaviour, with phrases like “sacred space” & “shaft of light”, in the context of Ana & Christian, sex would have been less about control, punishment & only Christian’s needs being met. As a reader I found that whether reading from Ana’s perspective or Christian’s it all mostly centers around Christian Grey. Ana’s happiness, sadness & cognitive dissonance with her needs at times are all affected by Christian. When the journey of a women’s sexual debut & coming of age story mostly centers a man and not herself it reads as…
However, it is called Fifty Shades of Grey & not Fifty shades of Steel. I would have loved to see more character development of Ana independent of Christian. More of how she was with her friends, more details of her time in university & more dialogue with her parents and how they impacted her. Basically not isolated fragments of her identity only made “whole” by her unhealthy association with Grey’s toxic world. Where there is a thorough investigation of what compels HER being. Refusing Christian’s expensive gifts in Fifty Shade of Grey or refusing marriage with him in Fifty Shades Darker (even when pregnant with their child) or even marrying him & having his children in Fifty Shades Freed is not remedial. Although there is something to be said about Dr. Flynn, Christian’s therapist, whom he frequents to try and address his issues. Toxic masculinity & fragile masculinity are thoroughly explored but not overtly critiqued.
My final thoughts:
The Fifty Shades book series is shady about a woman’s empowerment & self determination independent of her man. It is well written considering the problematic content but is also insightful. There is no right way to have sex but consent & healthy boundaries are a wonderful place to start. With that being said, if BDSM, tantra or plain old vanilla intercourse is your preference it is alright as long as its safe, consensual & experienced in a healthy way.
Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James
Fifty Shades Darker by EL James
Fifty Shades Freed by EL James
Grey by EL James
Consensual Sadomasochism : How to Talk About It and How to Do It by Bill Henkin & Sybil Holiday
Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance and Submission by William Brame & Gloria Brame
She Comes First by Ian Kerner
Roots of Tantra by Katherine Anne Harper & Robert L. Brown
Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion by Hugh B. Urban