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Why Does the Fifty Shades Movie Look Like Domestic Abuse?

Onscreen it eerily resembles what many people put up with in real life.

rights obtained from shutterstock

I keep telling myself it's just fantasy. But it isn't working.

I enjoyed Fifty Shades the book. I liked the strength of the two characters. Sure they were more than slightly unbelievable, but they were honest about who they were. And neither of them backed down or gave up when their relationship seemed hopeless and impossible.

I poo-pooed the worries of people who thought the plot was too close to ordinary abusive heterosexual relationships—jealous, controlling men insisting on obedience from their somewhat confused female partners.

It's just fantasy, I reasoned. Fantasy doesn't follow the rules of real life. As a sex therapist, I recommended the book to many couples—and more than once women came back saying it turned them on. Men reported that it reminded them to take sex more seriously. All good.

But there I sat watching the movie, feeling uncomfortable. The people and places were of course familiar. But there was an unsettling quality to the movie that wasn't there for me in the book.

Maybe the book's silly interior monologue added a necessary layer of comedic distraction. Without all the "Holy Cows," the plot just felt darker.

My discomfort with the movie began when Christian Grey snuck into Ana Steel's apartment. Wait, I thought, that's not cool. He shouldn't have done that, sneaking inside her place without her permission.

But he gets away with it. How? By turning up the sexual magic. They kiss passionately, she gets turned on, and all of a sudden it's forgotten that he broke into her apartment.

Over and over again, it seems all he has to do is get her turned on to make everything all right. That's not good. It's too much like ordinary domestic abuse, where a woman might make use of romantic and erotic feelings in order to hide from herself how afraid and unhappy she is.

In the final scene, Ana asks him to take her into his Red Room of Pain and give her his most intense whipping. It turns out to be with a belt.

Her motivation? Apparently to understand the full extent of the darkness inside him.

So he whips her. But it's a confusing scene. She turns on him after the whipping is over, telling him it's too much, that she'll never like it, and that she can't be with him.

Then she tells him she loves him.

What? He just whipped her with a belt! What's going on?

Confusion is one of the things that ordinarily keeps people in harmful relationships. Love and lust and fear and surrender and loathing and hurt, all mixed together in the heroine's poor suffering, turned-on mind—I found it just too close to the ordinary reality of some people's lives. I didn't want my teenage kids to see it.

Sure, these are barbaric times. In the Roman Colosseum that is popular entertainment these days, you can easily see much worse. But for me the movie crossed a line. Seeing it was disturbing in a way that reading about it just wasn't.

In the theater, I realized that the idea of Fifty Shades just being fantasy and therefore innocuous doesn't completely work. Some of the fantasy on-screen in the movie struck me as too close to the things people put up with in real life.

© Stephen Snyder MD New York City 2015