The Christian online community is blowing up, and this time it’s about 50 Shades of Grey. As usual, I have come to the same conclusion (don’t read or watch it), but for very different reasons. I’m always this close to fitting in. Most of the concern I see is directed at either 1) the erotica or 2) the BDSM. With some caveats, I don’t really see these issues as all that significant. What bothers me about the story is, instead, the abuse.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey. This makes me that absolutely annoying person who has an uneducated opinion. I’m sorry! I have, however, had many conversations with readers, and I have been devouring any and all information about the series, positive or negative. If that still doesn’t count as good enough for you, I don’t blame you. But I encourage you to keep reading, and if I’ve missed something important, please let me know!
The biggest complaint about 50 Shades of Grey has always been the fact that an erotic book has become hugely popular. Where’s the shame, women who read 50 Shades on the subway? Read that filth in the privacy of your own home! Just kidding. To be honest, part of me is really excited that the indisputable popularity of the book is forcing people to confront the fact that women are sexual. For too long purity has equaled sexless, and I am very tired of pretending I am not interested in sex.
Christian culture almost always portrays sex as something dirty, whether explicitly or implicitly. You shouldn’t think about it, want it, talk about it, or especially do it….unless you’re married. Unfortunately, this extreme emotional leap from seeing sex as Disgusting to Beautiful is hard to make on one’s wedding night. The disproportional pressure on women to police men (we are told, after all, that it is our job to keep men from lusting by dressing modestly) means that this transition is especially hard for women. How are we meant to go from virginal innocent to sexy seductress as soon as “Mrs” is added to our name?
I think the answer is to accept our sexuality and our sexual desires, teaching healthy boundaries rather than trying to turn the whole thing off (which, by the way, doesn’t always work–a sizeable amount of Christian women struggle with pornography in a desperate search to express their sexuality somehow). 50 Shades has made people aware of women as sexual beings, and I hope this awareness leads to a change in how the Church talks about sexuality.
If it’s not erotica that distresses Christians, then it is definitely BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism). These sexual practices are just violent enough to make most Christians (and most people, actually) uncomfortable. I will partly agree. If someone needs to be humiliated in order to experience orgasm, the counselor in me wonders if there is some kind of past trauma that has linked emotional pain and physical pleasure. But let’s be totally honest here. The same nerve endings that send messages of pain can also send messages of pleasure. There may be no childhood trauma–some people genuinely enjoy pain.
I hesitate to say any sexual practice between two married people is inherently and always wrong, provided that it is done with full understanding and consent between both partners. This is exactly what the BDSM community teaches, and it is why they have publicly stated that although they appreciate the free press, they do not support 50 Shades of Grey. Why?
The sex scenes in 50 Shades are not healthy BDSM. The relationship between Anastasia and Christian is abusive, and this is my concern with the popularity of this “romance.” A wealthy, experienced, older man has an impressionable, ignorant young woman sign a contract between Dominant and Submissive. Although the language of consent is there, in reality that kind of power difference skirts the line of rape. The fact that he ignores her using their safe word–a BDSM practice that is supposed to instantly shut everything down because it means someone feels unsafe–is despicable. And the control he has over her, both in the bedroom and in public, aligns very neatly with the practice of abusers.
The fact that they wind up married and “healed” just makes this message all the more horrifying. If we teach women that love will “cure” their abusive man, then too many women will stay in abusive relationships. After all, promising to change is also a hallmark of abusers. Real life is not a novel, and when a woman stays with an abusive man because she hopes love will change him, she is almost always disappointed. And when you’re disappointed in an abusive relationship, this means you’re suffering an increasing amount of emotional, verbal, sexual and physical abuse that could end in your murder.
So that’s what bothers me, and that is why I urge women and men not to read or watch 50 Shades of Grey. A story in which abuse is romanticized coaches women to be victims and men not to take “no” seriously. In a world in which 1 out of 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, I think it is very unhealthy to internalize a message that says this is normal, okay, and sexy.