I recently watched the “Saturday Night Live” spoof of 50 Shades of Grey, the E.L. James book that millions of women all over the world are claiming has rejuvenated their sex lives. The spoof made me laugh, but it also made me sad.
Because I teach a course on gender to hundreds of Christian college students, I pay attention to cultural phenomena like the Twilight series and other novels that shape many female fantasies of love and sexuality. Generally, my students are disdainful of romance novels, but the 50 Shades discussion is unique in the way it has captured our culture’s attention. “Ellen,” “Dr. Oz,” “SNL” and nearly every talk show on TV references women’s obsession with these novels, and they also talk about the number of married men who are looking to these books to determine the answer to the age-old question, “What do women want?” This is a frightening thing.
Some argue, “It’s only fantasy. Lighten up. If it sparks the sex life of married couples what harm can it do?” Others point out that the subtext of the books, often referred to as “mommy porn,” can be dangerous.
Should Christians read these books? I think Christians who choose to read the books should start talking openly about their responses to 50 Shades. If we believe that Christ’s redemption shapes our response to culture, we cannot be afraid of what our culture is talking about.
When students ask me questions about sexuality I emphasize to them that sex, like everything else in our world, was created by God as a gift, but then was subject to the Fall. Through Christ’s sacrifice, though, we live in the knowledge that our sexuality has been redeemed, and we are free to explore it within the bounds of what God intends for human creatures. Within this framework, there are three things that should trouble us about these books.
First, the woman in the story agrees to the man’s rules of dominance in the relationship in part because she believes she will eventually be able to reach him and heal his troubled psyche. Friends who have suffered in abusive relationships tell me that this fantasy - that with sufficient love one can heal the abuser - is more damaging than we know. It shields abusers and keeps the abused in a bad situation.
Second, the story depicts sex as something that men do to women: real men dominate and women crave it. Christians who believe that males and females both reflect God’s image have to talk more openly about what God’s design for sexual partnership might look like. Sadly, there are few scholars that have taken up this topic well, but I think Lewis Smedes’ Sex for Christians remains one of the most thoughtful commentaries available. Students tell me that his theological discussion prepares them for engaging culture better than anything else out there.
Third, the dominance fantasy is dangerous when we only understand part of the picture. A fantasy can be benign - it is not reality. But if people are reading these books to determine what women want then we have a serious problem. The submissive character in the book consents to the treatment she receives, but historically and legally the nature of consent has always been a complicated issue. When government statistics tell us that one in five American women has been or will be sexually assaulted, we do ourselves no favor by insisting that dominance fantasy and violence have no relationship to each other. We must at least explore the possibility.
Sex can be complicated. We owe it to men and women to be more honest about sexuality, desire, the nature of the Fall and the blessing of God’s redemptive power. Christians should be leading the way on this discussion, not shying away from it.
What Do You Think?
- Is 50 Shades of Grey harmless fantasy or something more problematic?
- Should Christians spend more time discussing how sexuality relates to faith?
- How do you understand the Fall’s effect on human sexuality?