I sat in my seat in the cinema waiting for the movie to start, not paying much attention to the trailers that were being shown on the screen. However, one did made me look up.
The trailer showed a movie about a young, naive woman not yet acquainted with the way of this world, who encounters a very rich, powerful and handsome business tycoon and begins a relationship with him. As I watched this trailer I had no idea what the name of the movie was. The relationship that they enter is one that is based purely on exploring every possible dimension of the sex act. From what I could tell, the young woman allows the powerful male to control her as she becomes his possession to play with and use, as far as his imagination will take him. She is in awe of his power, skill, life experience – and a whole lot more I’m sure.
As I watched the trailer I was thinking “What is this rubbish?” “Why is this woman demeaning herself in this way?” “Why is this controlling male seen as sexy?” “Can’t we move past these tired old stereotypes in movies?” It was only towards the end of the trailer that I realised it was a promotion for the soon to be released movie based on the wildly popular book, Fifty Shades of Grey (FSoG) by E.L. James.
The book has been receiving an increasing amount of attention as it has traveled on its journey from initially being a fringe book, to becoming hugely popular, to now a much publicised and talked about movie. Debate around this book has ensued among women especially. On the one hand some find it to be simply another low-brow book in the genre of sexual fantasy. On the other hand, some say that it crosses a line by demeaning women because it portrays the female protagonist as entirely surrendered to the whims of the powerful and magnetic male business tycoon. The book has even helped to bring into our popular vernacular the term ‘Mummy porn’ and has been discussed within the context of the liberation of female sexuality and desire.
I’m completely confused by the popularity of the book.
In Australia we have high rates of violence towards women, a violence which is unfortunately given the understated label ‘domestic violence’ (1). And yet a book about a man who is violent towards a young woman to satiate his sexual urges becomes hugely popular. We fight for women to be regarded equally in society but then this book depicts a woman who enjoys being put in a submissive but also degrading posture in her relationship with her sexual partner. What is going on here? There is no room for a full blown analysis of the book here but a few questions came to mind as I reflected on all of this and as I engaged in a social media discussion around the popularity of the book. Hopefully these questions will prompt further thinking and response.
Where are the thoughtful Christian responses to this book and film?
I posted an article written by a Christian about FSoG on my facebook page. I hesitated to do so even though generally speaking, I agreed with her points (2). The hesitation for me came from my sense that often Christians are known more for what they are against rather than what they are for. Moreover, issues to do with sexuality quite often alarm Christians and we don’t know how to respond other than by being outraged. This leads us then to focus on the morality of the topic and our outrage rather than perhaps delving a little deeper to figure out what else could possibly be happening under the surface. Christians therefore have not dealt very well with and have not been comfortable in discussing the areas of sexuality, desire and sexual practice.
What does FSoG tell us about female desire?
An interesting question which arises from all of this is; “Why are women so interested in reading this book?” It’s a question that gets sidelined if the focus is all on speaking out against the immorality or degradation depicted in this book. What is the rationale behind “mummy porn”? Are women fantasising about surrendering their control to men? One of my friends said that she felt that as women enter into motherhood they feel as though they loose a sense of their sexuality and that engaging in sexual fantasy such as what is depicted in this book, “empowers” them to get that back. Should we be discussing the topic of female desire a whole lot more then? Is it a taboo topic for women yet acceptable for men? A friend wrote a blog recently about her struggle with pornography (3) which got widely circulated because it gave other women permission to talk about their struggle. We don’t talk about female desire very well in my opinion.
What about the area of sexual fantasy?
If we don’t talk about desire very well we certainly also don’t say much about sexual fantasy. One of the hot topics for discussion around the book FSoG was that it revealed the male and female protagonist engaging in BDSM practices (sexual practices involving, sadomasochism, domination, bondage and submission). So we enter into the realm of sexual fantasy here. What do Christians have to say about this? Must all sexual fantasies be dark? Can any fantasies be redeemed? A friend sent me a clip recently where a woman from the BDSM community was soberly trying to explain to people the rules in the BDSM culture and critiqued FSoG for the fact that the female protagonist quite often seems as though she is not consenting to the sexual acts being performed on her by the male. In my opinion this does indeed then get into dark territory.
Stanley Grenz in his excellent book Sexual Ethics quotes Paul Jersild and Dale Johnson who say, “As sexual beings we are capable of establishing beautiful relationships of mutual dependence and respect, but we are also capable of reducing another person to an extension of ourselves, creating excessive dependence because we need to control. It is precisely as sexual beings that we are most vulnerable to the desire to posses another person and to reduce him or her to the object of our desire.”(4) Sure, we as Christians might be shocked with the acts performed within the BDSM community and arguably depicted in FSoG, but what of issues perhaps closer to home such as control, violence, obsession and possession that occur in many of our relationships? These are dark desires which function to de-humanise us indeed.
What is a #trulyhuman perspective on this?
Finally, there are certainly aspects of FSoG which need to be repudiated and a truly human perspective coming from the beautiful realm of the kingdom of God needs to be spoken out. A perspective needs to be shared which does not shame people, especially women for their desires; a perspective which sees that sexuality, intimacy and sexual practice is a gift from God; a perspective which is outraged at the way that God’s gift has become distorted but then seeks to sensitively speak whispers from another reality, which can bring hope to a humanity that longs for restoration. Again, Grenz brings a truly human perspective to this and argues that our secular anthropology sees sexuality as an act rather than as a core aspect of who we are as humans. He calls this perspective gnostic and dualistic saying that the Christian perspective alternatively, “…differs radically from the modern secularised alternative. Because of our view of the human as a unified being, we simply cannot follow those voices which assert that the body can be indulged without affecting the essential person.”
A reign of God perspective on sexual desire sees that we are embodied beings given a gift by God which is to be used with discernment, wonder and joy. As we engage with this gift well, we become the true humans that God had always designed us to be.
Will we react to the issues around sexuality in our world with simple moral outrage or will we rather seek to engage with, relate to and speak into a world that is broken and needs restoration?
4. Stanley Grenz. Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), p53.
5. Ibid, p29,30.