By Julia Suryakusuma
March 11 2015
Do you ever have sexual fantasies? Virtually everyone does. Don’t be shy, you can tell me!
What if they include rape fantasies? Believe it or not, rape — and submission in general — is considered the third most popular sexual fantasy for women. If it weren’t, how would you account for the runaway international success of E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey? The truth is, despite its supposed boundary pushing, as one critic puts it, “it is the distilled essence of decades worth of Harlequin [romance novels] with hyper-stereotypical gender roles pushed to the point of perversity.”
As you may know, the boy-meets-girl story revolves around 27-year-old businessman Christian Grey, who seduces Anastasia Steele, a college student ingénue. He’s older, wealthy — in fact, helicopter-owning wealthy! — experienced, controlling, the ‘strong, quiet’ type while she’s the exact opposite.
She’s young, poor (drives a VW bug); naïve, trusting, vulnerable and likes to talk (like any stereotypical female!).
So what’s wrong with a guy like him roping in a girl like her? Well, because he’s into BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism), after being abused as a child, and is in therapy for it. He tries to control everything about her life, even what she eats. Of course he wines and dines her and plies her with expensive gifts, which is also a means of control.
Amazingly, at the end of the trilogy, love conquers all — they marry, and live happily ever after.
Are you kidding me? What a load of crock! Fat chance of a woman in a real life abusive relationship winning over her man through “love”. In fact it’s pretty dangerous — even fatal — to suggest that women can fix broken men with enough patience and love.
This was Andrea Crew’s experience. In February this year, Andrea, 31, a woman from Fairfax County, Virginia, US, didn’t want Caleb, 26, her husband and father of her children, sent to jail, and dropped domestic violence charges against him.
On the way home from the court, he attacked her ferociously, strangling her to death with the tie he wore in court. He wouldn’t have happened to borrow that particular accoutrement from Christian Grey, would he?
Besides its legions of fans, 50 Shades has also been the target of protests from religious groups and feminists. They argue that the novel glamorizes domestic violence and romanticizes woman’s subordination.
While the advocates of BDSM claim that it’s just a sexual preference, the detractors of the novel (now film too) certainly have a point. It’s pop culture, which we know influences people’s personal and social behaviour.
The film adaptation of 50 Shades was released in time for Feb. 14 — Valentine’s Day. I confess I haven’t read the novel. To be quite honest, I don’t have the heart to subject myself to what I hear is pedestrian writing at best — ejaculated out, as one reviewer put it. I may watch the film — haven’t decided yet.
One film I did watch however is India’s Daughter, directed by Leslie Udwin, aired on March 5 on YouTube, three days earlier than its intended release on International Women’s Day on March 8.
This BBC documentary is about the 2012 brutal gang rape of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old paramedical student in a moving bus on the way home from watching a movie. Amazingly, considering the extent of her injuries, she died 13 days later.
New Delhi has been dubbed “the rape capital of India”, so in some ways the attack was not exceptional. What was remarkable was the widespread protests that ensued throughout the nation. Somehow the brutality of the rape really touched a nerve with Indian citizens as it had never before.
Udwin said she made the film out of a love for India, because it “had led the world by example in the unprecedented protests of its courageous men and women who came out on the streets to fight for [women’s] rights”.
But what did the Indian government do? It banned the film, saying that airing the rapist’s remarks “[created] an atmosphere of fear and tension”, and that it would affect tourism to India. The police filed a First Information Report (FIR) against Udwin, while the Home Ministry said it would take action against the BBC for broadcasting the film in the UK.
It was as if the government and the rapists were colluding with each other: the rapist by blaming the victim (for being out at night and therefore deserving to be raped) and the government by its defensive stance.
However, it is not uncommon for governments to do that. In Indonesia, the government’s reaction to the mass rapes of ethnic Chinese women in May 1998 was not just incredibly slow, but also mind-bogglingly insensitive. The then justice minister, the defence minister and the women’s minister all said there was no proof, and that the rapes were just a rumour.
Up to now, social as well as governmental attitudes in Indonesia toward gender stereotypes and violence against women have not changed significantly.
In fact, with the rise of religious and cultural conservatism, in some instances it has worsened. In the end, violence against women is a result of the gender ideology a society espouses.
As Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University said, “Violence against women and girls is the most pervasive violation of human rights in the world today. Its forms are both subtle and blatant and its impact on development profound”. So, violence against women also comes in 50 shades of grey, huh?
Violence against women is so deeply embedded in cultures around the world that it’s almost invisible. But gender ideology is a social construct. We created it, so we can un-create it, right?
Unlike 50 Shades of Grey, violence against women is not a fantasy. It’s real, and it hurts. Sometimes it even kills.
Julia Suryakusuma is the author of Sex, Power and Nation.