Do women really want 50 Shades of Grey?

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?

 

Comments (19)

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It's important to remember that 50 Shades of Grey was originally sold as Twilight fanfic (fiction written by fans further exploring favorite narratives).

The seeds of inspiration for this corrosive (and badly written) text come from the more subtle (though hardly subtle) dominance issues in Twilight.

These books celebrating the innocent girl who tries to save a controlling boyfriend with her pure love despite his ill-treatment seem to be among the worst models for young women exploring (and idealizing) relationships through fiction.

While I don't think these books are worth the time they take to read, I do think parents and adult friends should read them (or at least really detailed summaries) if they are being selected by the adolescents in their lives.
On a critical level, the book's root in fan fiction is easily seen- it reads like a cheap monthly romance novel. Granted, I've only read the free previews on Amazon of the 3 books, because I'm not masochistic enough to purchase this drivel. Even in the little I read, there are major issues involving domination in public (what consensual things that happen in the bedroom is between your marriage and God) and general abusiveness. If the girl were my friend, I would have told her she was crazy for being in this relationship, and would have been taking evidence for the day he finally kills her.

One thing that really struck me, just in the little I read, was Christian's relentless pursuit of the girl, and then his coveting of her, even after marriage. I think think people are missing that aspect of the story, the idea that a woman can be special enough to chase. In modern romance, IMHO, women are no longer made to feel truly special, truly worthwhile. There are so many images and pictures of perfect women in media and pornography to tempt our lovers, and we know that they do, based on the stats for porn use across the masculine board, including Christians. To be made to feel like she is the only woman on the planet in the eyes of her man is a special gift, and something many never feel.

People, including Christians, seems to think that because we believe in chastity( used in the Catholic sense to mean respect for the entirety of the person, not just no sex outside of marriage,) it means we can't talk about it all, lest we all become inflamed with lust. God created sex, so why should we be unable to talk about it in an appropriate manner?

The account of the Fall in Genesis speaks that the man will work hard for his living, and that woman would be under his shadow. The Fall destroyed the original partnership that God intended for us, and we are suffering in so many ways, even in little ways, like my husband and me arguing nightly over picking up clutter from the floor. We get glimpses of what Eden was like every once in awhile, but until the final redemption, we will continue to deal with the ramifications of Adam and Eve.

Thankfully, we've grown enough in our understanding of God and His world to be able to pinpoint the Fall in our lives, and to try to work beyond it.
Nice thought-provoker here, Julia. I particular like the question "Should Christians read these books?"

The answer here is the same as for any book: if the book is something I see myself discussing with another Christian (my wife, a friend, one of the pastors at church, a book club), then the book is likely fair game for my reading list. If I would not feel comfortable even acknowledging reading a book (let alone discussing its contents) with another Christian, then I probably should keep it off my list.

Cheers,
Tim
Appreciated the comments thus far. There is a solid book on marriage, relationships, roles and generally what we are doing as Christians in these places called, "Forever and Always: The Art of Intimacy" by Steve and Celestia Tracy. Much of what was covered in this article about what we as Christians should perhaps think about in regards to 50 Shades can be further supported in their book. It's worth everyone's time. Thanks for the solid thoughts here.
I appreciate Julia's three points on the 50 Shades phenomenon. I read and responded to 50 Shades a few weeks ago on my personal blog (http://hgscott.com/lets-talk-about-sex-and-sadism/). I especially appreciated Julia's point about fantasy. In regard to that point, I think it's safe to say that this isn't harmless fantasy because fantasy involves desire and what we desire either moves us towards or away from God.

A desire for a BDSM relationship is harmful in several ways: First, it diminishes the personhood of both men and women. Second, as Julia mentioned, it is a lie about sexuality that distorts what a healthy and holy sexuality looks like. Third, it dulls our conscience to real acts of violence against women. Fourth, since "Christian Gray" is a wounded individual and Ana tries to "fix" him, it allows women to fantasize (again) that ultimately, *she* is the savior that will "fix" an otherwise appealing man.

I don't think, as others have mentioned elsewhere, that Christian Gray is a "desirable" man. Take away his money and he is a weird guy working the counter at the local Pizza Hut. You know, the kind you'd run away from in a dark parking lot. Take away his looks, and he's Dominique Strauss-Kahn. If we look at it that way, it's not really the guy, or even the BDSM that women find so appealing; its the benjamins and the Abercrombie-Fitch appeal.
I think if it's opening up a conversation then yes, it's ok to read the book. You can't have the conversation without reading the book. That doesn't mean you have to read the book, but you can't make assumptions based on what is on TV, in newspapers and in a few lines of the book. Also, this is not the first or last book to bring up these issues.

There is a very clear line between wanting a Christian Grey in your fantasy and wanting him in your real life. This book alone is not going to confuse woman, woman who are already confused may continue down that path. BUT, this book might also open up the opportunity to have a conversation about controlling men and abuse in a place where they're not trying to defend their boyfriend.
Maybe we need to continue to totter from one extreme to another until we each find a balance.
* Lots of spoiler alerts *

First of all, I can tell that most of the responses here are from mere opinions and not people who really read the series.
There's 3 books - and a continuance of delving into the Male's character more deeply that is being currently written.

I'm a Christian female, married and am in the demographic of the age group for this book. I'm an avid reader, and go through anywhere from 4 - 6 novels a month. That being said, I think E.L. James is humble enough to admit what her tough critics say about her writing; remember people, she's fresh at this.

I think there's positive highlights. Mentions of prayer, Ana praying to God for Christian's safety, her suggestion of their attendance in Church, their marriage, and ultimately Christian's redemption from a tortured life.

The story, I think plays out excellently. It's a smooth, hard to put down read (I did all 3 novels in 1 week; Thursday - Thursday) The lifestyle Christian Grey (male character) has is ultimately linked to a life as a foster child, and from sexual abuse as a minor that lasted around 10 years. He's actively seeking therapy the entirety of the series. The 'submission' that is so controversial, I didn't find offensive because at any given time, the female character 'Ana' was warned that she needs to know, er, 'safe words' - or things she could verbally say to designate an ending of an activity. There's no oppression, or dominance that wasn't just erotic, really.

Christian Grey, ends up completely challenged and forced to change from a woman he's falling in love with - that's really frightened by the parameters of this relationship and what it holds for the future. He willingly, but it's very difficult, does so.

The negatives, are obviously what offends me in any text, film or ballad, and that's when they use Christ's name in vain. Unfortunately, there's a load of this and it's a little unforgiving in my book, and that's why I wouldn't ever recommend it. I defend it, purely out of people's ignorance when they bash the story, and ignorantly criticize it (in fairness) but have a struggle because I also know it stirs up trouble.

Christian Grey, is just, too perfect. Billionaire, Philanthropist, Sexy, Witty, Chivalrous, Single & attracted to your A-typical pale brunette. These things just aren't a reality, and I know psychologically we have issues differentiating what are real human characteristics and what aren't once we start getting so intimately involved with fictional characters and their 'lives'.
After reading the books, I do feel like I had to detox a little from this fantasy world.



I'm not sure what you mean 'It's important to remember that 50 Shades of Grey was originally sold as Twilight fanfic (fiction written by fans further exploring favorite narratives).'

- I think you mean, it's important to 'know'. However, this doesn't need to be said for people to understand the 50 Shades series, at all.
It's a thing of it's own genre, and just like everything else, is influenced by another.

Out of curiosity, I have a feeling you haven't read the series due to your 3rd paragraph about their relationship; the main conflict arises in the book when the female character leaves the male due to an encounter that pushed her too far and she realized she couldn't live the lifestyle. From there on out, mentally the male character is falling apart for the loss - and he changes. It's a long process (3 books) but - SPOILER alert, he changes. He's the way he was from sexual abuse, and I think the book brings to light a particular issue we have of sexual abuse in adolescents not only in the U.S., but everywhere.


 

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