By Ellen Romer
I read 50 Shades of Grey right after my first year of grad school. I felt intellectually exhausted and wanted something lazy to read as I headed into summer. I tore through the three books in maybe a week. It was garbage. Delightfully vapid garbage. I will state here that they are poorly written books and leave it at that. However, this isn’t the first smutty romance novel to be written (terribly). But the amount of attention it has garnered, especially since it has been made into a film, creates a huge audience absorbing the themes. Dakota Johnson, who starred in the film, even hosted Saturday Night Live this past weekend with a plethora of awkward sexual jokes. With so much attention, these themes require a response. I have seen a lot of feminist critiques and a lot of Catholic ones, so here are just a couple of my (hopefully) integrated responses as both a Catholic and a feminist.
CONSENT CONSENT CONSENT Three times in bold ought to do it, right? It cannot be stated enough that consent is important – and intricate. This is where traditionalists and stronger liberals seem to agree – that consent issues undermine human dignity. Consent plays a strong and important role in any relationship and forms the basis for how real mutuality acts in a relationship. There are many shades of consent – not because sometimes it isn’t clear but because it is an ongoing part of a relationship. There is never just a one time yes to anything. The pressure put on Ana in the books from Christian from his badgering and his gifts and his back and forth with his own emotional struggles manipulates her consent. Neither of these characters exercises the patience and honesty to respect their own limitations let alone the limitations of the other. This is where lust becomes a problem – when it overrides the emotional and spiritual needs of the people in the relationship. Consent is always an ongoing conversation, whether it’s deciding what to watch on television or expressing concern mid-coitus. Limiting consent to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ ignores the complexity of human relationships and the stages in which persons grow in relationship. Putting pressure on another’s person’s consent makes it about that person and what they want without much consideration of the other.
Exploring sexuality should be awesome. God created human beings who are sexual and that sexuality is complex. A healthy sex life requires maturity, honesty and emotional intimacy. It takes a lot of trust and intimacy to express sexual fantasies to a partner without fear of shame or judgment. It takes a lot of love and trust to then explore them together. Some of the Catholic pushback has been on how Christian and Ana engage in their sexual relationship. The characters definitely engage in what many would consider to be ‘outside of the box’ sex and many have labeled as BDSM (for further explanation, the Wiki page and more resources can be found here). Many critics of spoke up that there has been a misrepresentation of persons who engage in BDSM leading to a real misunderstanding of what such a relationship entails. That kind of a relationship is not abusive in itself but relies on a great deal of mature, mutual, and ongoing consent. It requires patient listening to understand that BDSM and other decisions made privately between a couple isn’t necessarily ‘weird’ or ‘bad.’ Exploring sexuality as a couple, discovering likes and dislikes, is an always ongoing opportunity to grow together.
In 50 Shades, that opportunity is muddied up by their refusal to be fully honest with one another and to fully respect the other person as they are and where they are in their life. It makes for trashy drama in a trashy novel, but real life and mature relationships don’t work that way. It takes a much stronger relationship to explore sexuality in a healthy way. God gave us our wonderful and complex sexuality. Exploring it with someone who is truly a partner – mutually committed to be honest, patient and trusting in all aspects of the relationship – can be a beautiful discovery of an incredible gift.
Don’t review it unless you’ve read/seen it. My last main concern comes from the number of critiques – especially Catholic ones – where the writer has not read the books or seen the film. Making assumptions and demonizing persons based on what you have heard from others is just as dehumanizing as anything that takes place in 50 Shades. One blog I found called it ‘sick stuff’ and suggested the Hunger Games as a better alternative – apparently unable to see problematic themes present in that triology. Thoughtful critiques contribute greatly to ongoing tensions in navigating secular culture as a person of faith. But any critiques of anything need to involve real listening and a desire to understand. The Church needs to lead in this aspect instead of discrediting itself through uninformed opinions that are lacking in compassion.
There are plenty more issues to take up and flesh out, but we will leave this corner of the Internet as it is for now. While plenty of strong opinions are floating around, raising another voice felt important to me. I can’t help but think of how difficult it is, as an adolescent and as an adult, to navigate sexuality in a culture saturated with sex. We have enough issues with valuing consent and actually opposing rape, both as a society and as a Church. I think of my junior high students in Confirmation and how many voices they have to sift through as they sift through their own growing identity as a sexual being. The loudest voices tend to be Church ones saying ‘ABSTINENCE ONLY!’ Or they are the kind of message 50 Shades gives, that manipulative emotions and lavish expensive gifts make any kind of sex worth it. We can’t ignore 50 Shades and its impact on those who read/see it. We have to respond in a way that helps anyone see that their sexuality is a gift to be explored. But, like all things, how we live that out in relationship with others and with God, matters the most.