Abuse in Literature

I want to discuss abusive behaviours in literature, particularly in YA literature and literature intended to be romantic, intended for women in particular. You know the ones I mean- I’m talking Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight and some other books I’ve come across that romanticise abuse in its many forms.

Abuse doesn’t mean you have to be being beaten up. No one has to hit you, stab you or physically intimidate you for it to constitute abuse. You don’t need to be sexually abused, though that is also a huge, huge issue in relationships, despite the general idea that sexual assaults by partners are rare. Abuse also comes in mental and emotional forms. It astounds me how many educated women I know have fallen into emotionally abusive relationships and convinced themselves that the behaviour of their partners is okay. I’m sure there are equal amounts of men who fall into this trap as well, but I can’t speak for their experience.qTI0O38

It’s not necessarily the pseudo S&M in Fifty Shades of Grey that constitutes abuse, though there are incidents where he doesn’t get Ana’s full consent, or continues when she tells him to stop- those incidents constitute sexual assault. It’s Christian’s controlling behaviour that is the true, overarching abuse. Ana wouldn’t have even consented to the S&M if he hadn’t coerced and bullied her into it anyway. From what I understand of S&M, full consent is a requirement and the Dom is supposed to monitor the Sub constantly to make sure they aren’t in real pain or distress, which Christian does not do. No sub would be expected to fulfil the requirements of Christian’s contract, which controls EVERY aspect of Ana’s existence, from what she eats to what medications she takes. If she had signed the contract, he would have complete control over her life. It’s every abuser’s dream situation. Even though she doesn’t agree to sign, he still exercises much of this control over her anyway- he forces her onto the pill, chooses what she eats in restaurants, tells her she can’t see her friends, buys her workplace to have control over her there. He threatens to hit her when she doesn’t call him. He threatens violence when she admits to having had coffee with her male friend, Jose. He threatens to hit her when she doesn’t let him masturbate her at his parent’s dinner table. I’m sorry, but on what planet is that behaviour acceptable or romantic. ROMANTIC.  There is absolutely NOTHING romantic about that level of control, or threatening to hit your girlfriend. NOTHING.

Having escaped a relationship like the ones described, I find this dynamic in literature worrisome, especially in books intended for young men and women. I worry about it being portrayed as appropriate behaviour. I use the word “escaped” to describe my experience, because it really feels like I escaped. Though my ex never threatened or carried out physical abuse, it is SO easy to fall into thinking that your partner is telling you what to do for your own good, that you’re always in the wrong and that they only do it because they care about you…. but it’s not true. It’s about power. It’s incredibly unhealthy and emotionally draining. I’m not a stupid or weak woman either, it’s not just “silly” or Mary Sue types who fall into this trap. It’s so, so easy, which is really scary.

It comes on slow and builds up, much like Edward and Christian’s behaviour towards their respective partners. To romanticise this kind of behaviour contributes to the problem and normalises abuse… because that’s exactly what it is- Abuse.

From my experience, I definitely see it as emotional abuse and blackmail. Edward threatened to walk into the sun, because it’s “better” that way. My ex threatened to commit suicide if I left him or if he felt I was disagreeing with him… it’s the same thing. It’s a means to get what they want from the girl. They make that power call and the woman goes along with it; because you feel like you need to “fix” him, make him happy, you blame yourself, surely you’re the one at fault…

I escaped when he decided that he wouldn’t allow me to further my education. That was my final straw. This goes along with three years of telling me what to wear, who I should vote for, what opinions I was allowed to have, how to do my hair, what to talk about, what career I should get into, what shops I could go into, who I could go out with… sound familiar? It’s all in YA and women’s lit of the Fifty Shades variety! And this is portrayed as okay. Even with E.L. James’ new novel from Christian’s perspective, it’s obvious that she has absolutely no awareness of how destructive and wrong the situation between her characters is. It’s sickening, and I think it does impact how young girls accept this kind of behaviour, and young men learn that it’s “romantic” or okay for them to behave in this manner. I read a Mills and Boon novel where the woman literally gets plastic surgery on her face and gets liposuction to make the man stop belittling her appearance and fall in love with her. She loved him, despite him constantly calling her names and using her sexually, because she thought he knew best and loved her. That is not love, it is abuse. Again, this is supposedly a romance novel. Needless to say, I absolutely raged over that and threw it in the bin so it wouldn’t be read again.

When I ended it, I felt a mixture of sadness and joy. I felt sad for what could have been- he wasn’t always so controlling, it didn’t begin that way. We did have good times, then we had really, really bad times. I was angry about his behaviour through those bad times. It had got to the point that I was cherishing any good time we had, because they were becoming so few and far between. I also felt absolute joy, because I was free. He had no power over me anymore. I could do what I wanted, go where I wanted and I could make all these plans for my future… plans from dreams I knew he wouldn’t allow to become a reality. I wish the women who write these novels and even the characters within them could understand  and experience this level of freedom. It’s liberating as hell.

This behaviour should never, ever be condoned in literature. The women cannot “change” him. He will not change unless he recognises he is in the wrong, which many refuse to do. While you’re fangirling over these characters, take a step back and think critically about their behaviour. If the main character was your best friend, would you tell her to run like the wind? Yes? Then this is not an okay situation. This mentality needs to change, and it needs to change NOW.

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6 thoughts on “Abuse in Literature

  1. Thank you for writing such a honest post. I completely agree that this trend for controlling relationships in literature is deeply worrying. Our societies tends to figure love in co-dependent terms anyway “I can’t live without you/I’m nothing without you” etc, these recent novels take it a step further.

    As you say, its not about love or desire for a person, its about desiring to control that person.If young people internalise these messages, we’re going to have a real problem with escalating abuse in relationships. You’ve contributed to the discussion of just how damaging this is & the more people do this, the more chance we have of preventing abuse.

    • You’re so right about co-dependency. It’s all fine and dandy to love your partner to the moon and back, but you still need to be your own person as well!
      Absolutely… I’m worried about the extent to which it already has been happening. I know far too many women who have been in this space with a previous partner, who just didn’t notice or wrote it off as “oh, he really truly loves me and just wants me all to himself!”

  2. Great post and I totally agree! And it’s not just in ‘erotic’ fiction either – there’s a growing tendency towards the macho controlling hero in crime too, a thing I thought had gone out of style. I don’t mind fiction portraying men like this – they exist after all. But when they show it as something acceptable, admirable even, it makes my blood boil. I’m glad you got out of your relationship in the end – these things are easier to slide into than get out of unfortunately.

    • Absolutely, it’s a worrying trend. I noticed it in a few crime novels, but not to the extent that I’ve seen it in romance. I thought all that went out with James Bond, sadly. Oh absolutely, let them represent these men, but we as a global community really need to stop and analyse how we see relationships and “romance”; what is admirable, acceptable, atrocious or just plain abuse.
      Thank you ❤ I'm thrilled to be out and with a man who absolutely adores me in the way a relationship should be. =)

  3. Wonderful post! I know of someone who’s had to deal with a controlling boyfriend who had bad habits and I think that a lot of times, girls stick with the relationship because they think they can change said boyfriend and I see this theme a lot in literature where the girl is the “special” one because she can see past the male love interest’s jerky exterior. But the problem is the boyfriend is still abusive and a jerk no matter how sweet his interior is.
    I saw an interview with EL James once and she was talking about how it’s nice once in a while to feel like someone is taking care of you when she was talking about Christian in the book and I thought that thought was really toxic because girls are feeling obligated to stick to a harmful relationship because they feel like their boyfriends can be different or because their boyfriends give half-assed grand gestures on Valentine’s Day and then go back to being abusive..

    • *Stands and claps* You’re exactly right!! It’s so toxic and frankly terrifying. I’ve been talking to so many girls that I know personally who have been through hell with boyfriends, and it’s all the same story once you break it down. I know it in myself that it got me too. There’s been such a drive here against domestic violence, but so much of the discussion has been about physical abuse and murder than mental abuse and control, so it just goes under the radar. Thank you so much for your comment!

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