Normalizing Abuse: 50 Shades of Twilight and Teen Dating Abuse Month

It’s February, and you know what that means: stores filled with chocolate and teddy bears, people rushing to send flowers and make reservations, and sappy songs on the radio.  Valentine’s Day is this weekend (and with it will come the premier of 50 Shades of Grey in theaters), and love is allegedly in the air.

But I’m not here to talk about that, because it’s February, and that means it is National Teen Dating Abuse Month.

Take a moment to let this sink in: one in three teenagers reports experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in an intimate partner relationship. 

One in three.

Think of everyone you knew in high school.  Think of everyone you currently know in high school, or early in college.  Odds are, someone you know-~-maybe even someone you love-~-is currently experiencing, has experienced, or will experience some form of dating violence.  If that’s an uncomfortable thought, it should be.

There are a lot of things that lead to abuse: entitlement, socially-derived expectations, particular aspects of an abuser’s behavior, etc.  I’m less concerned with what causes abuse, for the moment, and more concerned with why it is that we so often seem to fail to catch it.  Why is it that we keep writing off emotional abuse and sexual coercion as if they aren’t “real abuse”?  Why is it that we seem so willing to accept the idea that “meanness” is normal, that violations are love?

To be clear, I’m not blaming anyone who has been through this.  If you are a survivor of abuse, I hope you know that it is not your fault. It is the fault of the person who abused you.  This is not a post about blame.

It is a post about how we come to internalize the idea that abuse is love in the first place, so that we can begin to un-learn a lesson most of us don’t remember absorbing at all.

Let me come back to where I started: 50 Shades of Grey opens this weekend in theaters, and it is being advertised as this great love story-~-which is hugely problematic, according to a number of people.  I have refused to read the books on principle, and I won’t see the movie either, but tons of bloggers and authors have come out with their various critiques of 50 Shades, which perhaps meant to portray a BDSM relationship, but which in reality serves to fetishize abuse.  BDSM may involve some inclusion of restraint, physical pain, etc., but let’s be clear: BDSM is a practice based on the mutual consent of the participants, who set parameters such that both of them can enjoy themselves and feel safe, and who utilize hard lines and safe words to ensure that neither partner is endangered.  People who practice BDSM also utilize after-care to ensure that neither partner is left emotionally shaken or disturbed by a scene.  Is it for everyone?  Maybe not, but it’s definitely a kind of sexual practice based on consent.

Why the emphasis?  Because even without reading 50 Shades of Grey myself, I’ve read enough reviews and excerpts to know that these basic principles are violated.  Spoiler alert: Grey repeatedly threatens Anastasia, which means she cannot be freely consenting; he ignores her withdrawal of consent when she tries to articulate it; he ignores safe words; he fails to perform the appropriate after care following jarring scenes; he tracks her cell phone and violates her privacy.  In short, he’s controlling, manipulative, aggressive, uncaring, and ultimately, abusive.

And we look at this, and we say, it’s so hot.  Look at them, keeping their “relationship” fresh and exciting.  Pop culture teaches girls that they should want “bad boys”-~-the boy your dad would never want you to bring home, the boy with the tattoos and the motorcycle who skips school or smokes, the angst-y one-~-and we let that translate to wanting something dangerous and exciting.  Society takes a story like 50 Shades of Grey, and romanticizes it.  It’s opening in theaters on Valentine’s Day,being billed as the next great love story, and Anastasia even identifies in the book as feeling beaten, degraded, humiliated, and abused.  And Christian Grey essentially tells her to suck it up.

This isn’t just a problem from the perspective of women being taught what they should accept, mind you.  It’s also a problem with regards to the behaviors it validates.  It’s a problem with regards to a culture where, taken too far, masculinity tends to manifest itself as controlling, emotionally distant, and uncompromising.

But in case you think that teenagers aren’t reading things like 50 Shades of Grey-~-which, to be sure, at least some of them probably are-~-the reality is that the Twilight series, which sold a ton of books and made an absurd amount of money at the box office also features a problematic, unhealthy relationship.  Edward knowingly puts Bella in danger, but the danger is, again, exactly what’s supposed to be so attractive about him.  He’s possessive, he exhibits stalking behaviors, and he uses his vampire superpowers to “follow” her in others’ thoughts-~-something that should seem off to a reader, but is painted as romantic.  Adolescent girls were the primary consumers of the Twilight franchise, and all of the messy, problematic things incorporated into the series become absorbed and, in some cases, internalized as what romance should be.  The media, in blowing up these stories into massive franchises, does its part to underscore the idea that these relationships are incredible love stories, instead of warning signs we should look out for.

It may seem like a bit of a stretch to say that the books we read and the media we consume are desensitizing us to abuse; no one wants to believe the system works like that.  But researchers from the University of Michigan, the Group Health Research Institute, and Ohio State University published a 2014 study linking 50 Shades of Grey to elevated levels of violence in intimate partner relationships among young women.  Young women who read at least the first book were more likely to have experienced threats, yelling, or swearing from an intimate partner than young women who did not, and young women who read all three books were more likely to have engaged in other risky behaviors such as binge-drinking within the last month.  Does correlation prove causation?  Not necessarily, but the authors’ conclusion is simple: “Problematic depictions of violence against women in popular culture—such as in film, novels,music, or pornography—create a broader social narrative that normalizes these risks and behaviors in women’s lives”.

It is possible to break the cycle of abuse, but in order to do so, we need to train ourselves to recognize abuse for what it is, instead of accepting it as romance or even just as normal behavior.  Please see here and here for lists of warning signs and red flags regarding abusive behavior.  If you need support, please consider contacting the National Dating Abuse Helpline, or view Break the Cycle’s Resource Guide here.


~ by Randi Saunders on February 9, 2015.

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