True Obscenity: The Contract Language in “Fifty Shades of Grey”

*This isn’t an April Fools’ prank!*

I had been vaguely aware of the “Fifty Shades” trilogy, described in this Maureen Dowd column as “bondage-themed romanticas that have evoked hysteria, whipping up a frenzy with the housewives of Long Island and rippling out from there.” They feature a dashing mogul, Christian Grey, and the object of his stern affections, the winsome Anastasia Steele. (The names alone scream “Crushingly banal!”)

Even though I apparently live in the epicenter of this phenomenon, I had been prepared to ignore it. After all, I’m hardly in the target demographic. But I saw in Dowd’s column that the first volume, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” contains a contract, so of course in the name of art I had to check it out.

Five minutes later and $9.99 poorer, there before me on my Kindle was the contract in question, in chapter 11. If I could be bothered to read the book itself, I might end up with a more rounded view of the Mr. Grey. But based on the ponderous and mealy-mouthed prose of his contract, he’s no hunka hunka burning S&M love. Ms. Steele might be at risk of falling asleep before the first thwack of a riding crop, or whatever.

Grey is a telecommunications mogul, and he has evidently absorbed the semi-literate contract verbiage regurgitated by his high-priced lawyers. Let’s consider just a few of the contract’s failings:

  • Section 3 says  “The Dominant and the Submissive agree and acknowledge.” Hmm—two categories of contract language, neither of them appropriate. And what do they agree and acknowledge? That “all that occurs under the terms of this contract will be consensual.” That’s language of policy, suggesting that all acts will automatically be consensual. I don’t think so.
  • Section 3 also says that “all that occurs under the terms of the contract … will be subject to the agreed limits and safety procedures set out in this contract.” Redundant!
  • According to section 4, “The Dominant and the Submissive each warrant that they suffer from no … illnesses.” Great—there’s nothing like inappropriate sales-contract jargon to dampen ardor. It goes on, “… including but not limited to HIV, herpes, and hepatitis.” Grey really is a fan of the knee-jerk traditional usages.
  • Section 4 also addresses what happens “If during the Term (as defined below) or any extended term of this contract either party should be diagnosed with” specified illnesses. The term references are redundant. And the “should” is archaic.
  • Section 5 says “Adherence to the above warranties, agreements, and undertakings … are fundamental to this contract. Any breach shall render it void with immediate effect and each party agrees to be fully responsible to the other for the consequence of any breach.” I’m not familiar with the notion of “fundamental provisions,” except perhaps for purposes of severability provisions. And I’m not sure that in this context rendering a provision void on breach serves any purpose. And the parties agree to be fully (rhetorical emphasis!) responsible for breach? Is that somehow different to what applies elsewhere in the contract?
  • Section 7 says that Grey “shall take responsibility for the well-being and proper training, guidance, and discipline of the Submissive.” It was inevitable that Grey would overuse “shall,” here and elsewhere. Section 7 also says that Grey “shall decide the nature of such training,” but presumably this should be language of discretion, not obligation.
  • Section 9 uses “is to” to convey an obligation of the Submissive. How many different usages does Gray need to use to convey obligations?
  • Section 10 refers to “expiry” of the Term. Hmm, an English usage. The first book is ostensibly set in the U.S., but perhaps Grey spent some of his formative years in an English boarding school, regularly administering “six of the best” with enthusiasm.
  • Section 15.3 says that “The Dominant shall provide the Submissive with all necessary training and guidance in how to properly serve the Dominant.” Hey, wasn’t that covered in section 7, as noted above?
  • Section 15.10 says “The Dominant shall not loan his Submissive to another Dominant.” Abuse of defined terms! Steele is defined as “the Submissive,” so there can be no other “Submissive.” Similarly, Grey is defined as “the Dominant,” so there can be no other “Dominant.”
  • Appendix 1 says that Steele has to keep herself “shaved and/or waxed at all times.” Does she really want to be both waxed and shaved at any given time? Sounds painful.

Enough! I can’t take any more. If I were Ms. Steele, I would clap Mr. Grey in irons and vigorously administer to him, for his contract-drafting sins, a taste of his own medicine.


About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.