If books inspire rape threats...

When sensitive topics such as sex and relationships are being discussed in books, authors need to exercise caution, says Radhika Sanghani.

Fifty Shades of Grey’s extraordinary success has been countered with constant criticism ever since its 2011 release. While millions of women maintained it was the sexiest novel they’d ever read, others spoke up against the troubling depictions of sex and consent.

Women like myself maintained that the central love story read more like an abusive relationship. That Anastasia Steele signing a sexual contract granting Christian Grey power over her body was one of the most chilling scenes in recent literature. That some of their sexual encounters were so uncomfortable it felt like reading rape scenes.

We weren’t criticising E L James’ bestsellers for no reason — the point we were trying to make was that her abuse-like descriptions of sex could have damaging effects on real-life readers. Recently, we were sadly proved right. It came out that an Oxford University PhD student assaulted a 19-year-old in a club in a Fifty Shades-inspired gesture. Jack Fitzsimons, 23, squeezed his hands around a 19-year-old women’s throat and told her: “I want to take you home and abuse you and rape you.”

He admitted the assault and has been handed an 18-month conditional discharge, but he also said he didn’t mean to hurt her. “He feels that a joke has been misunderstood and taken the wrong way and landed him in the crown court,” explained his lawyer. “He did not appreciate that he was causing offence. He thought the two of them were enjoying some sort of joke along the lines of the Fifty Shades of Grey book.”

Impressionable content
This is exactly what women like myself were afraid of when we spoke out against the blurred lines of consent in the book — impressionable readers getting
confused about healthy bondage sadomasochism (BDSM), where both parties have full consent and safe words, and the unhealthy relationship of Fifty Shades, where Christian tells Anastasia: “If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you.”

None of this means that Fifty Shades is to blame for Jack’s actions — as an adult the responsibility lies squarely at his own feet. Even if he thought he was displaying acceptable Christian Grey-style behaviour, he must recognise that you cannot go up to women and start squeezing their throats without their consent.

But this case does show just how powerful books can be. It’s unlikely E L James ever intended anything like this to happen, or predicted it ever would, but her words have still inspired at least one known case of assault.

As an author, this is something I’m very aware of. Yes, there are always going to be people who commit crimes in the world for reasons we can’t control, but there are also going to be those who are encouraged by the content they come across in their daily lives — like the books we write.

It means that we writers have a responsibility to not deliberately send out negative messages. Like James, I write novels for young women and though the sexual content in mine is more comic than erotic, there are still graphic scenes. In my debut books Virgin and Not That Easy, the sex is always consensual but there are times when the protagonist Ellie feels pressured.

She doesn’t always realise this until it’s too late, but by the end of the novel, it’s clear there is a difference between her doing what’s right for her, and what ‘society’ or her peers say is right. It’s a moral message that I deliberately clarified in the book.
Not everyone agrees that novels need ‘messages’ — they can just be works of art open to multiple interpretations — but when sensitive topics such as sex and relationships are being discussed, I think it’s irresponsible of authors to not send out a clear message.

But by turning Christian’s creepy controlling behaviour into the peak of sexiness, James did the exact opposite. She suggested that the biggest turn on for women was letting men take all control — even without explicit consent at times. Worryingly, it now seems that message is being interpreted too literally by young men today. Let’s hope that James — and any other authors penning BDSM novels — are taking note.

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