A student at the University of Illinois has been charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman in an incident that allegedly involved tying the victim to a bed, blindfolding her, stuffing a necktie in her mouth, and beating her with a belt. But he maintains that it was consensual. He told authorities that he was acting out scenes from Fifty Shades of Grey — the wildly popular book about a college virgin’s relationship with a kinky billionaire that was recently adapted for the big screen.
According to local reports, the attack occurred after college freshman Mohammad Hossain invited one of his female classmate to come over to his dorm room. The two had previously had a physical relationship, and the woman agreed to remove her clothes. But, according to the police report, the encounter quickly turned violent.
The police report states that Hossain started striking the woman with a belt, and continued hitting her even after she said no,” “stop,” and “you’re hurting me.” A spokesperson for the state’s attorney told the Washington Post that Hossain also hit her with his fists. Then, he allegedly sexually assaulted her, holding her hands behind her back as she cried and attempted to break free. As soon as she was able to leave the room, she called the police, who arrested Hossain in his dorm room.
Hossain reportedly told the cops that the two were simply inspired by the sexual encounters in Fifty Shades of Grey. His attorneys relied on that argument as their primary defense. When the judge asked how a movie could possibly persuade Hossain to “do something like this,” his lawyer replied, “He would say that it was consensual.”
The dramatic headlines about Hossain’s case further complicate the conversation over Fifty Shades of Grey, which is already pretty fraught. There are a lot of strong opinions on all sides about what exactly E.L. James’ series is saying about gender roles, sexuality, and violence. The franchise has been criticized for its depiction of a relationship that could be construed as abusive, scorned by members of the BDSM community for misrepresenting kink, and praised as a healthy outlet for uptight American women to explore erotica.
And there’s a darker question lurking in the dozens of think pieces that have dedicated space to the new movie over the past several weeks: It possible that the themes in Fifty Shades could actually foster unhealthy attitudes toward sex and power?
Some people definitely think so. Researchers are trying to study people who have read the book to see whether they’re more likely to have abusive partners. Domestic violence groups are protesting the movie and urging people to donate to women’s shelters instead. Right-wing opponents of porn have declared the movie will “put the health and happiness of untold women in jeopardy.” But it’s not exactly clear cut: Other commentators are more skeptical that Fifty Shades could have a simple cause-and-effect relationship with domestic abuse, and suggest the movie might actually help open up some productive conversations between couples about what they’re willing to try.
The news about Hossain’s case, however, is an important reminder that the reality is probably somewhere in the messy middle.
Writing in the Atlantic earlier this month, Emma Green pointed out that Fifty Shades of Grey became a smash hit at the same time as the concept of “rape culture” became more mainstream. And when you put those two ideas in conversation with each other, it gets really complicated really quickly. Americans are just starting to have deeper conversations about healthy sexual encounters, meaningful consent, and the societal scripts that influence the different ways that men and women approach sex. At the same time, Fifty Shades is hinting at a much more complicated and much more advanced level of sexual activity: The world of BDSM, which is predicated upon very explicit rules of engagement and verbal consent totally foreign to many Americans.
Green concluded that many Americans probably aren’t ready to apply the concepts of BDSM to their own sex lives — especially if they’re first being introduced to those practices through Fifty Shades, which has been roundly criticized for its inaccurate portrayal of the kink community. As sex therapist Esther Perel told her: “I find it amazing that this country at this point is going to spill quantities of ink talking about Fifty Shades, when it doesn’t even have a basic education on sex. It’s like you’re introducing alcohol to people who haven’t had any water in years.”
Americans are already confused about what exactly constitutes consent, and it’s possible that Fifty Shades of Grey won’t help clarify anything for them. Maybe Hossain really did think he was having a consensual sexual encounter in which his partner happened to be crying, objecting, and resisting. Maybe he thought the woman’s clearly visible distress was just part of the kink.
More likely, Fifty Shades is poised to become a convenient excuse.
Most sexual assaults aren’t a case of miscommunication about where the line of consent is; instead, according to research conducted into rapists’ behavior, the people who perpetrate sexual assaults typically make calculated moves in an attempt to control their victims’ behavior. In that context, it’s highly unlikely that Fifty Shades of Grey will inspire hordes of well-meaning boyfriends to beat their partners during sex because they’re unclear about whether it’s okay. But it may help provide a new cover for the rapists who already want to find a way to hurt women.
Maybe they’ll cajole their partners into going further than they would have wanted by saying that it will be as romantic as what Christian and Anastasia do together. Maybe they’ll tell the cops that of course she has bruises on her body because she wanted to be hit, because it was all part of her kinky fantasy straight out of the book. Maybe more defense attorneys will start using the Fifty Shades argument. It’s not hard to imagine the next page right out of the “she was drunk” or “she came onto him first” playbook — “she just wanted to act out the movie.”
Fifty Shades of Grey is not responsible for rape. Men and women who enjoy reading the book or watching the movie aren’t bad people. But that doesn’t mean the franchise can’t interact with rape culture — which, at its basic level, is defined as a set of cultural norms that allow rape to flourish by making it easier for rapists to get away with their crimes — in subtle ways.