The world probably doesn’t need yet another discussion point inspired by Fifty Shades of Grey, especially from someone who hasn’t read the book or seen the movie.
What I have seen, however, is some of the online conversations about it, though probably a tiny fraction relative to the whole. And naturally, we tend to gravitate toward people we have things in common with, so what I read isn’t necessarily representative of the broad picture.
While another take on the phenomenon of the moment will probably cease to be relevant in a week or so, it can still function as a springboard toward addressing in more depth one of the subjects I touched on last week—analyzing and contextualizing nested sources—as well as the topic of primary vs. secondary sources.
I’m not deliberately avoiding Fifty Shades so much as putting my time into activities that interest me a whole lot more. Because I haven’t read it, however, I had to be very careful about how I discussed it when taking part in a recent conversation on a social media site about it, and I think it makes a good example of how to appropriately discuss a topic that one is not a firsthand expert on.
Here’s a version of the reply I posted to a social media site as part of a discussion about whether or not the relationship depicted in Fifty Shades is abusive. I have edited it somewhat, in part to read more smoothly and in part to obscure other participants’ identities. What is shown here is not the entire conversation but just the relevant parts:
The original poster wrote: “Has anyone actually read Fifty Shades of Grey? I have not. My Facebook feed is blowing up with how this is domestic violence and a horrible example of a relationship for young girls. Are these people right, or are they judging a lifestyle they don’t know about or understand?”
After I wrote this as a reply to a comment in one of those online conversations I mentioned above, it occurred to me that it could be recycled to highlight the process of using a nested source responsibly, one of last week's subtopics, and to include some discussion of primary and secondary sources.
Had I written the above for an academic paper, I’d have provided a lot more backup for most of these claims about BDSM, domestic violence, and the concept of consent. As it is, I’m leaning on my own background as a sexuality researcher, domestic violence/sexual assault worker, and violence theorist to establish a cohesive point that pulls in all the elements of the discussion topic.
You’ll notice, though, that the post isn’t really about Fifty Shades of Grey, though it uses the franchise as a background. It’s actually about 1) abuse, 2) the difference between abuse and BDSM, and 3) someone else’s internet post about Fifty Shades.
Students may be asked to write a paper about someone else’s take on a film or work of fiction or to “compare and contrast” the writings of two or more writers on a single topic. Plus, there’s also the case covered in my previous blog post in which you’re writing about a piece of material quoted/cited by an intermediary source. In all of these situations, it’s important to clearly distinguish among a) the primary source, b) your secondary source(s), and c) your original points and arguments.
In the above discussion, the primary source is, of course, Fifty Shades of Grey. The fact that my experience of the book and movie is secondhand is a setback for me in making my arguments, but that’s mostly because it’s so accessible right now as to be hard to avoid. In the academic world, it’s very common that your primary source isn’t immediately accessible. It might be a historical event or a distant indigenous people. It might be a psychological study performed 50 years ago that would be completely unethical by today’s standards. It might be the result of a physics experiment performed on a unique and expensive piece of equipment that you won’t have access to until well into your professional career. Using primary sources is dandy when possible, but there are often times when we have to rely on secondary sources for our research.
And sometimes, secondary sources are the point. There are two types of secondary sources I use in the Fifty Shades discussion. The main one is the “Fifty Abusive Moments” post, written by (if I’m reading the page right) one Emma Tofi. The other secondary source consists of the online discussions that have taken place around the infamous franchise, e.g., on Facebook, Twitter, and any number of blogs.
Let’s talk about the second one first. I actually think that it would make a fascinating research project to do a wide-ranging analysis of the types of discussions taking place in social media about Fifty Shades. That would take a lot more time, work, and initiative than I was about to put into an off-the-cuff reply to an online comment. But public online conversation is a great resource for those who study just about anything social, cultural, or sociocultural. Since I wasn’t conducting a research study but just characterizing what I’d seen of online discussions, it was important that I not overstate my experience or present it as representative. So instead of “no one’s saying that it’s that kind of abusive,” I said (essentially), “I haven’t seen much of that, but I suppose it’s probably there.” I focused instead on the type of discussion I had seen.
The main secondary source I used was this fantastic “Fifty Abusive Moments” post that someone else had shared early in the discussion but that didn’t seem to be getting much attention in the conversation that followed. It’s really long, and it was unlikely everyone in the conversation had read it the whole way through (though I know the original poster did). For each point I made in my comment, I made sure to point to specific paragraphs in the post so that others could easily find what I was talking about. However, I also acknowledged repeatedly that I was taking Tofi’s word for it, that I was using not the primary text but her interpretation of it.
This latter writing technique is very important when you’re discussing a source that is discussing a different source—in distinguishing between the “innie” and the “outie,” as I termed it in last week’s blog post. I could have assumed that Tofi’s interpretation is spot-on (it sure sounds good to me and rings true within the broader discussions) and simply passed all her points on without disclaimer, but then even if I were citing her as my source, I’d have been presenting myself as someone who’d read the books, and I could’ve been held accountable for defending those views in parts of the books that Tofi doesn’t describe.
This is actually one reason among so many others to cite your sources. I had a student once years ago who characterized an author in a paper as a “Feminist Existentialist Philosopher,” which didn’t ring true to me. When I questioned the characterization, the student pointed out to me where she’d gotten the text from: the intro blurb preceding the author’s essay in the textbook I’d compiled. Naturally, I had to point out that she should have put quotation marks around that text and cited it (even though it was only three words). This wasn’t just about lifting someone else’s text, though; it was about owning it. If the text had been in quotes to begin with, I’d have known it wasn’t the student’s words, and I wouldn’t have held her as accountable for them. Proper attribution of sources defines your relationship to them and tells the reader where in the conversation about this topic you fit in.
The strongest arguments are also not the ones most loudly or aggressively argued or the ones with the broadest apparent reach but the ones that hold up to scrutiny. Being specific about your sources and your relationship to them will always work to your advantage.
 What I mean by this is that the dom/sub values never verge into abuse or anything uncaring. I’ve known some people in passing (e.g., on internet forums) who said they made their BDSM relationship full-time, sometimes by abandoning their safeword voluntarily. Although they experience their dom/sub roles 24/7, I’d maintain they’re still roles by virtue of the fact that the sub can say at any point, “This isn’t working for me anymore. We should really revisit our situation,” without fear of abuse. While in some cases, stepping out of the role might also mean stepping out of the relationship, the point is that if they do so, they can do so safely. A dominant isn't an abuser: any power and control being exhibited is part of a voluntary role dynamic and not part of an unsafe environment.
 There are women and men stuck in relationships that truly are physically abusive almost constantly. I struggled with the wording of this sentence because I didn’t want to erase that experience. It’s important that abuse not become defined as solely physical, but it’s also important that no alternative definition precludes outside or extreme examples.
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