Steamy Sex or Psychological Abuse?

The “Fifty Shades of Grey” film series proves more than a sappy romance, as it raises questions of underlying abuse and psychological desire.

By Quintara Hatten, University of South Carolina


With millions of book copies and record-breaking sales in theaters, “Fifty Shades of Grey” dominated the box office at its release.

The film showcased the sexual prowess of its main character, Christian Grey, and his relationship with Ana Steele. But, does the movie only show the interaction between pain and pleasure, or is there a deeper psychological evaluation for its viewers?

Despite the novel’s huge success, it is far from the first book to be written in such a sexual manner. Known as sensation novels, books such as “Fifty Shades” focus on themes of female rebellion from a repressive society, in hopes of being rescued from a dreary life by a wealthy man, often times wanting to explore their own sexuality.

Some may argue that this movie isn’t associated with psychology, and the film is only showing the realistic sexual desires of men and women. “Fifty Shades of Grey” has attracted criticism due to the film’s depictions of sadism and masochism through Christian Grey’s actions. The two sexual kinks are often negatively associated with physical abuse and listed as a mental disorder, and the movie shows the dangers involved with their engagement.

Although the film is presented as a way for audiences to enjoy the vicissitudes of Grey and Steele’s relationship, it can be an uncomfortable, interpersonal experience for viewers. What does this express to the normal men and women in our society? The sadistic and masochistic habits of Grey are an expression of male dominance in both society and sex.

More than a hopeless romantic in search of love, the relationship between Grey and Steele showcases what seems to be a subconscious expression of society’s anxiety for women to express their sexual desire for dominance and social freedom. The fantasy of being controlled and dominated by a man suggests, at the least, that women have strong mental conflicts around the idea of being free and being dominant.

At this point in the film series, viewers understand the clear grounds of Grey and Steele’s sexual relationship, but does it show glorification of abusive relationships? Several critics and scientists have expressed concerns that the nature of the couple’s relationship doesn’t only showcase sadism and masochism, but rather the characteristics of an abusive relationship. Although Steele’s relationship with Grey was consensual, she also exhibited classic signs of an abused woman, even though the abuse was purely sexual.

The interaction between Grey and Steele was emotionally abusive in nature, including stalking, intimidation and isolation. The depiction of Grey and Steele’s relationship doesn’t show realistic beliefs of what a sexual relationship should actually be. Between his childhood abandonment and her curiosity to explore her sexuality, both depend on each other heavily for emotional stability.

The idea behind BDSM is that by creating vulnerability, you and your partner can experience psychosexual pleasures by engaging in actions that society normally considers taboo. Throughout the book and film, Grey’s sadistic and masochistic desires transpire through his childhood memories, which impact his sexual life with Steele.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” helps you form your own opinion of Gray and Steele’s relationship. With the film series set to continue over the next few years, the underlying psychology can help you understand the story better. Viewing the film series from a psychological standpoint will change your perspective of the protagonists’ relationship. When you’re in a Grey world, life isn’t always black and white.

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