"Lol@ the inner goddess" was the first note I made when I downloaded Fifty Shades of Grey for work four years ago. Ana's inner goddess cavorting about was everything that is ridiculous about bad erotica. She's what got the book pegged "mommy porn" instead of just "porn." She kept shit fantastical, PG-13, silly.
But she also provided Ana's inner monologue, and—as much as a spoof-worthy inner goddess can—subtlety to a heavy-handed story. Without her, the sexy, complicated relationship in the book became the flat, disturbing relationship in the movie. Ana's inner goddess was her enthusiastic consent.
The voices shouting that Fifty Shades portrays emotional abuse are volumes louder now than they were three years ago. Fifty Shades of Grey started online in 2010 and was released as an e-book in May 2011, but didn't really start garnering press attention until early 2012 when the third book in the trilogy was released and all three were published in paperback. The coverage was largely jovial, if mocking. "E.L. James knows her S&M so well that Grey could read like a less sinister Story of O, if it weren't punctuated by the narrator's dithering inner monologue (every time Anastasia gets aroused, it seems, she announces it with a 'Holy Crap!' or 'Holy Shit!' or 'Holy Moses!')" wrote The Daily Beast's Lizzie Crocker. Jenny Colgan at The Guardian wrote, "It is jolly, eminently readable and as sweet and safe as BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) erotica can be without contravening the trade descriptions act." Julie Bosman wrote in The New York Times that "…in the cities and suburbs of New York, Denver and Minneapolis, the women who have devoured the books say they are feeling the happy effects at home." Bosman touched lightly on the trilogy's "detractors" but quickly moved on from one woman's quote about not getting the popularity of "violent" sex.
Newsweek's Katie Roiphe and Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory, both feminist writers, published dueling features on the book in 2012, neither of which once mentioned abuse or violence. Roiphe wrote of Christian: "He is also extremely solicitous and apologetic for a sadist, always asking the book's young heroine, Anastasia Steele, about every minute gradation of her feelings, and bringing her all kinds of creams and lotions to soothe her after spanking her. He is, in other words, the easiest difficult man of all time." Clark-Flory's article interviewed a handful of professional dominatrices, who were supportive of the relationships portrayed in the books. And when the Today show raised the question of whether the books portrayed abuse in 2012, respected relationship expert Logan Levkoff argued that she didn't think the book was disturbing, that it portrays a consensual relationship, and that it's "really about women using their imaginations to turn on. That's why women enjoy erotica. It's not visual. You can use your imagination."
The only two mainstream publications that discussed the books as portraying abuse at length that first year were an essay in The Guardian by a professional submissive, who outlined how in-charge she felt during her interactions with men and how clearly unhappy Anastasia is in the books, and an article by a crime reporter in Forbes that draws comparisons between Christian Grey and the criminals she frequently reported on.
Then, a couple weeks before the film's release, in January of this year, I received a press release from a campaign called "Fifty Dollars, Not Fifty Shades" that urged people to donate $50 to a battered women's shelter instead of seeing the movie because "that's where people like Ana end up." I was used to protests like this from anti-pornography groups and Christian groups like Morality in Media. But as more people started seeing advance screenings of the film, that opinion echoed.
The Twitter hashtag #50ShadesIsAbuse had only a handful of mentions until movie press and clips started ramping upon February 1 this year. On Valentine's Day, the day the movie premiered, the hashtag hit an all-time spike of more than 2,000 mentions. (It has since regressed back to under 500 per day.) Amy Bonomi, an academic who has spent years researching Fifty Shades of Grey's sexual consent, came out officially calling Christian and Ana's relationship abusive in Business Insider this week. Huffington Post blogger Soraya Chemaly wrote that the movie could have huge implications for young women learning about sex from the movie, writing: "Here's what she does do on screen for public consumption: She is tied up and blindfolded; stalked; rendered immobile and physically vulnerable; cries; is beaten with a belt several times; told that romance isn't a thing she should express; experiences pain; is constantly intimidated; feels anxiety and fear; lets her boyfriend 'spank' her for rolling her eyes and control her food and dress; and, finally, asks to find out 'how bad it can get.'"
Even the five couples who saw the movie together for Cosmopolitan.com largely felt uncomfortable with the sex and unbalanced relationship, especially the final scene in which Ana sobs while being whipped. "The part where he was punishing her was borderline rape-y for me," a woman named Shauna told Cosmopolitan.com. "After we saw it, Chris joked, 'I'm going to have to punish you,' but you can tell when it's a joke … In the movie that was different. I can see why people were upset about that."
And these opinions aren't misguided. I saw the movie on opening night with a group of colleagues, and enjoyed the cheesy erotica feel and the goofy laughs of the first half. Ana's inner goddess would've fit right in. But without her, the complexity I read in the books disappeared. I no longer knew that, despite her nerves, Ana was dancing with excited anticipation on the inside. All I saw was her tense face blankly agreeing to foreign sex acts. Her consent—almost spelled out letter by letter in the movie it's so deliberate—was flat.
In an effort to define the murky territory of sexual consent, sexual ethics advocates have been pushing a concept called "enthusiastic consent." If you can coerce or pressure a woman into uttering a bland "sure" before you have sex, it shouldn't count as consent, they argue. The woman shouldn't feel like there will be consequences if she says no. She should enthusiastically say "Yes!" to sex before you do it. The concept was the topic of feminist writer Jessica Valenti's 2008 book Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, and is now being taught at all University of California schools.
In the Fifty Shades books, Ana's inner goddess is the exclamation point on her "enlighten me then." Her inner goddess somersaults and spins. She orgasms and she smiles. But Ana is a (generically, one-dimensionally, terribly written) shy, sardonic character. She would never be so bold or earnest to do that outwardly. And in the movie, we see her sullen face give decidedly unenthusiastic consent to entering Christian's sex world. As The Huffington Post pointed out in their review of the movie, we never see Ana orgasm. We have no idea what she may or may not be feeling on the inside. The excitement I remembered from the book was gone. The joy was gone.
The health of a relationship, especially a sexual one, is pretty solidly determined by feelings. Dom/sub relationships aren't always about whips and chains. They can be about one person waiting on the other hand-and-foot, or one person dictating when the other is allowed to orgasm, with or without their partner present. If you didn't want this type of relationship, it would be deeply emotionally abusive too, but if you find it freeing, erotic, and teasing to relinquish orgasmic control or hand-feed your partner, it could be your most rewarding relationship.
Maybe the movie needed the inner goddess as a voice-over to release our sexual brakes and show us Ana's enthusiasm, show us that it's OK to be turned on by this. Instead, we found ourselves in movie theater seats uncomfortably trying to suppress the sexual anticipation we had built up from reading the books as we watched a depressed, beaten Ana weep into her pillow, goddessless and alone.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.