50 Shades of Controversy: My and A Sex Educator’s Take on “Shades”

Before its opening weekend, I’d planned to see Fifty Shades of Grey, namely out of duty. As a sex-positive activist and radio host, I couldn’t justify not seeing it, even though I, admittedly, haven’t read the books.

Once reviews started flooding social media, I knew I had to see it pronto. How could the same story bring fun and empowerment to some, and sheer anger and hurt to others?

I suppose I shouldn’t have been that surprised, given the fact that the way sexuality is dealt with and viewed in our culture tends to promote such dichotomy, and stir up more negativity than anyone deserves.

But it’s a movie, I figured. A fictitious story. A writer’s fantasy, played out on the screen. How bad could it be? It might be boring, I thought, or weak in plot, or offensive, based on many people’s reactions.

I was surprised when I actually—brace yourself—enjoyed it. With respect for people who’ve seen it and disagree, and compassion for anyone who’s felt hurt by the film, I found it to be entertaining and yes, in some ways, empowering. (Some of the previews before the movie, on the other hand, not so much.) While I’ll be one of the first to assert that the way women and sexuality are portrayed in the media and entertainment can and do damage how we feel about ourselves and relationships, this film didn’t raise red flags for me.

To me it seemed like an erotic thriller with strong characters, one of whom is a controlling, turmoiled stalker, both of whom, while conflicted, enjoy some BDSM. I can’t help but wonder if some of the angst over the film derives from the fact that Anastasia, the leading lady, takes pleasure in unconventional (but consensual) sex. I personally wasn’t turned on by the BDSM activity, but I found her enticement extremely hot. And beautiful.

I knew I had to explore Shades with someone who knows the world of BDSM far better than I, so I asked my favorite expert, Jean Franzblau, to join me in the studio. A celebrated sex educator, coach and activist who tours the country, Jean leads workshops geared toward cultivating sexual self-esteem.  She also wrote, produced and performs the educational one-woman show, Coming Out Kinky, about her own journey to sexual embracement.

I had no idea what Jean thought of the film before we chatted, and have heard mixed reviews from other experts. But I knew she would bring a sensible, compassionate viewpoint and offer keen, practical insight. And did she ever.

We discussed our thoughts on the movie, the surrounding controversies and some common myths about BDSM. (Who knew handcuffs aren’t common?) She also addressed the vital issue of abuse disguised as BDSM, which is an exception, but horrendous—like all abuse, when it happens, how to tell the difference and how the film might be triggering for some.

I’m so grateful for the important conversations Shades is bringing to the surface, and for the chance to have a respectful, informed one with a woman who seems to who understands all sides. I also hope the film’s success means great things for female erotic writers.

To learn more, listen to our chat on iTunes.  

Jean Franzblau Girl Boner Radio

I suspect this is to-be-continued!

I also had the pleasure of chatting with Garren James, the owner of Cowboys4Angels, the world’s large straight male escort agency, which you may recognize from the Showtime series, Gigolos. His stories about helping make women’s fantasies come into fruition amid difficulty were truly touching.

For another take on Shades, check out I Watched 50 Shades of Grey and I Liked it. Sort of. by Chloe Jeffries. I loved what she had to say about consent and who’s in control of the relationship, and found her comparison to the book intriguing.

As a side note, if you’re seeking some incredible fiction that steps outside of conventional sexual boundaries, I highly recommend Roni Loren’s books. She’s such a talent!

What did you think of our interview? Or the movie? Did you agree with Jean’s points, or mine? What’s your take on the controversies? I love hearing your respectful thoughts. ♥

Psst! The Beauty of a Woman BlogFest kicks off on Monday! If you haven’t yet signed up and would like to, visit this post.

Leave a comment


  1. The issue people are having with it is not that she enjoys BDSM. In fact the people I know to be most prude are the ones most in love with the story. It’s the critical thinkers who are offended.
    Not because it’s BDSM, but because this is abuse. I haven’t seen the movie, but the book … damn! If Ana isn’t one slap-stick will-less jelly-toy to be thrown around at Grey’s pleasure (totally intended). The problem is that this stalkerish, abusive, manipulative behavior is labeled as romance instead of horror. And the problem is that some people yearn for their own Christian Grey instead of realizing that he only works in fantasy. Many women have experienced Christian Grey (And written great blog posts about how they escaped him) and it’s not a pleasurable encounter.

    • I haven’t read the books, but in the film, there is obviously abuse — of the controlling emotional variety. Ana seemed strong to me, which I so appreciated.

      I don’t think people, over all, are consciously aware of their distaste of her enjoyment in the film. But I do think it’s an issue. I’ve also seen/heard zillions of stories in which a controlling guy is portrayed as very romantic — in many Disney fairytales, for example. In this case, I don’t think his creepiness is celebrated. On the contrary, it’s blatantly stalker-ish. BDSM and even rape fantasies are fairly common in women, however, in many cases, as a result of past abuse. Jean and I discussed the healing and trigger potential there. I doubt many women are actually longing to be stalked – though if/when they are, I don’t think it’s due to this story, but much deeper (unintentional pun! :)) societal issues. That’s one reason I perpetually recommend the book, Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. (Non-fiction, and so important!)

      Appreciate your thoughts, as always! Thanks so much for weighing in.

  2. I haven’t seen the movie, and I don’t plan to. To me, the story glamorizes emotional abuse under the guise of BDSM.

    I have nothing against BDSM or edgy sex and often include scenes that make me, personally, uncomfortable in my books. I’m a big supporter of respecting my characters’ right to get turned on by whatever turns them on, just like in the real world. So my dislike of the story has nothing to do with the sex or BDSM aspects.

    However, our society has a HUGE problem with recognizing emotional abuse as abuse. Emotional abuse victims too often wonder if it’s all in their head, and too often they’re TOLD by others that they’re just imagining the problems. Police won’t do anything for them, their own families side with the abuser, etc.

    Emotional abusers know how to manipulate and coerce to get what they want. They charm others around them so no one else sees their dark side.

    So kudos to those who say this story helped them discover their sexuality. However, for those who are–or who have been, or who will in the future be–emotional abuse victims, the marketing of an emotionally abusive relationship as the ultimate in romance and romantic behavior is horrifying and EXTREMELY damaging.

    That marketing essentially tells all those victims that it WAS all just “in their head” and that they should have looked at the abuse from a different perspective. It tells victims that they should see their abusers’ treatment as a sign of “just HOW MUCH their abuser loves them” and implies that there’s something wrong with them if they think differently. In other words, it encourages victim blaming.

    Christian purposely keeps Ana off-balance at every opportunity. He breaks into her apartment. He sells her car without her permission. He follows her to her mother’s, refusing to give her the space she asked for to be able to think straight about what SHE wanted. Is her coerced consent–given only because she fears the physical or emotional consequences if she doesn’t go along with him–really consent?

    At the end of the series, she “successfully” gets him to settle into a vanilla life. In other words, she NEVER actually wanted a BDSM relationship. She went along with it simply because in her desperate mind, ANY kind of attention is better than nothing. How many abuse victims have we heard think the same exact way?

    If Christian were a normal-looking guy working the night shift at McDonald’s, would we glamorize his behavior so much? No. We’d flat-out call his behavior stalking, dangerous, and something to run FAR away from, and we’d call him an abuser. This IS abuse, coddled by consumerist privilege (i.e., white-guy billionaire showering her with gifts to “buy” her acceptance) and the trappings of BDSM.

    From a writer’s standpoint, I see it as the author TELLING readers (and now a movie audience) that this is a romantic love story, but Christian’s behavior–manipulating and coercing Ana–SHOW readers and the audience that the description is merely the rationalizations of emotional abuse. And the author’s ongoing abuse of DV victims in social media make the point that she’s incapable of seeing his behavior as anything but romantic because that’s how she intended it in her head.

    Sorry, to me as an author, what’s SHOWN in behavior and subtext wins. 😉 Author intentions that don’t actually show up on the page don’t count. This IS abuse.

    P.S. I can’t get iTunes, so I can’t listen to your show. Forgive me if I beat a dead subject here! I didn’t expect to rant so much, but I apparently had a lot to say. 🙂

    P.P.S. This post explains how the movie depicts emotional abuse far better than I can (and is written by someone who hasn’t read the books and is judging the story just by the movie): http://www.mamamia.com.au/rogue/fifty-shades-of-grey-review-rosie-waterland/

  3. I think women are very conflicted about this story. Millions have bought the book, and are flocking to the movies while at the same time I keep reading posts and articles about how abusive and terrible it is.

    The famous question that Freud never even tried to answer is, “What do women want?” How would we ever know what we want when we’re never given a chance to find out? Women reading these books and watching this film are attempting to explore this issue, but they are doing so under the judgment that by looking they are somehow hurting other women. Isn’t this just the same thing women are always accused of? That our sexuality is inherently wrong and selfish and needs to be controlled, either by religion, society, or peer pressure, in order to keep it contained and safe.

    Ana chooses to have her sexuality controlled by Christian. And that’s different than what? Somebody somewhere is always seeking to control our sexuality. And they most often do it under the guise of looking after our best interests. They cut off women’s clitorises too in their best interests.

    For once I’d like the world to let me have my fantasies without feeling the need to protect me from them. Fine, you [not you, August, but the yous who keep feeling the need to sound the alarm] were once in an abusive relationship that started out like the one in these books. Guess what? Me too. I was madly in love with an incredibly sex man who turned out to be a bad, bad guy. In the end I had to run for my life. And guess what? I don’t see the big threat from this story. I’m somehow able to separate fact from fantasy.

    Why in the world can’t we believe that other women can too? Why does the world constantly feel that it needs to tell women what to think, feel, and want? And that whatever it is that they are thinking, feeling and wanting for themselves is somehow wrong-headed.

  4. Well, August, as usual, you have me intrigued. I had read enough and heard enough to decide to stay away from the movie. I think I still shall until it hits Netflix or Amazon. Then I can do a controlled watching and stop it if I need to.

  5. I had low expectations going into the movie, but I enjoyed it. It was entertaining, sexy, had a great soundtrack and I liked the main characters.

  6. August, you got me to think. I was very anti this series, having read the books a few years ago when Marcia Richards and I blogged about them. She loved them, I hated them. I thought it was indeed an abusive and controlling relationship. And, I still think that. I went to the movie with the Community Educator from our women’s health clinic, and she liked it ok enough. My main argument isn’t so much the sex as the mind control Christian has over Ana. And I feared women all over the country were reading this book and believing they could change their man. I didn’t like that answer.

    What you got me to think about was the right to write. And I’m anything but censored in my writing. If E.L. James wanted to write about a fantasy relationship in this way, why not? You are absolutely right that no one should get to censor what a writer wishes to write. Do I wish a more gender positive erotica novel was mainstreamed to international success? Yes, I do. Of course I do. But, you are right, and I get no say over whether or not someone else can have this fantasy that’s in 50 shades.

    I remember stealing one of my big sister’s magazines when I was young – must’ve been Cosmo or something like that – and I read an article about rape fantasies. I didn’t know what to make of it. Of course no one WANTS to get raped. It’s a true crime. The fantasy piece comes from giving up control, which can be exciting. Your words reminded me of how I tried to wrap my brain around that concept. I can understand it, but I don’t know if I could easily discuss it because I would be too sensitive for those that have been victims of the crime. I wouldn’t want to make light of what they went through or equate it to a fantasy when for most it’s an absolute horror. Remembering that 50 shades is about control and consensually offering to give that up is just another fantasy.

    It’s still not my cup of tea – I prefer a more gender positive plot, but thank you for reminding me that there are always two ways to look at a story.

  7. laurie27wsmith

     /  February 23, 2015

    I think people need to bear in mind August that it’s a novel, a story. Okay it’s about a dominant, controlling man and a woman. Hasn’t anyone read The Story of O? Or anything by the Marquis de Sade? The one thing I have learned in life and that there’re different strokes for different folks. I know there’s abuse and violence in the world but if you have issues with this kind of thing don’t watch it.

  1. Male Escorts and 50 Shades of Controversy | August McLaughlin

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