The motion picture “Fifty Shades of Grey” will open February 13, the eve of St. Valentine's Day. Trailers have been posted online for several months, and have already been viewed by millions; there are even parody trailers. There was a Super Bowl ad, and each day the hype grows, and more news stories are published about the movie. In one story, the lead actress, Dakota Johnson, was quoted as saying that she does not want her parents to see the R-rated movie, some 20 minutes of which are devoted to sex scenes.
The film is based on a book written by “E.L. James,” a pen name of British author Erika Mitchell (b. 1963), and tells the story of a romance between a university student on the cusp of graduation, Anastasia Steele, and a billionaire entrepreneur, Christian Grey. Their unconventional relationship eventually includes, and comes to revolve around sexual activity known as BDSM, an acronym for bondage, domination, and sadomasochism.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” was first published in May, 2011, as an electronic book, or e-book, and a “print on demand” paperback by a small Australian virtual publisher. Through viral marketing and word of mouth, the book became a publishing phenomenon. It was picked up by a larger publisher Vintage Books in 2012, translated into 52 languages, and has sold over 100 million copies world wide. Mitchell has written two sequels, “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed.”
The book's astonishing success is attributed in part to the rise of e-books, and e-book readers like the Kindle and Nook, which make it possible to purchase and download a sexually-oriented book without ever having to face a sales clerk or hide a physical book from family members. As of 2011, Amazon.com reported that it was selling more e-books than printed books.
Anything successful will be copied, and the success of “Fifty Shades of Grey” has spawned an entire genre of chick-lit: erotic romances written by women for women and containing light BDSM. There are now thousands of these books and scores, perhaps hundreds, of women writing them. The basic elements of this genre are a wealthy, confident, assertive man—an “alpha male”—who becomes the dominant (“dom”) or master, a girl who is not particularly beautiful or confident who becomes his willing submissive (“sub”), light BDSM, and a happy ending in which two tormented yet attractive people fall in love. (Although “Fifty Shades of Grey” does not have a happy ending, most books in this genre do.) I say “light BDSM,” because the male doms in this literature are carefully solicitous of their female subs' physical and psychological well being, even as they are spanking them, or pushing their boundaries. Typically the sub has “safe words” she can speak to terminate the “scene” if she wants it to stop. (By contrast, BDSM written by men for men is often non-consensual and much rougher.)
The “Fifty Shades” phenomenon has already drawn the attention of social scientists. A study published last year in the Journal of Women's Health surveyed a group of women, aged 24 or below, who had read the books, then compared them to a control group of the same age who had not read the books. The results showed a correlation between having read at least the first book in the trilogy and (1) exhibiting signs of an eating disorder, (2) having romantic partners who were emotionally abusive and/or engaged in stalking behavior, (3) binge drinking, and (4) promiscuity, defined as having had 5 or more sexual partners before age 24. The study showed only correlation, not causation, because there was no way to tell whether the books appealed to young women who already had these problems, or whether reading the books contributed to the problems. A further weakness was that the study made no distinction between women who enjoyed the books and those who did not. Nevertheless, the study's lead researcher contends that the books romanticize dangerous behavior and perpetuate abuse.
So what accounts for the unexpected popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey”? It is not the quality of the writing; literary critics have found that the prose ranges from undistinguished to embarrassingly amateurish. The book's success is due to its thematic elements: Mitchell tapped into an under-served vein of female fantasy. My friend and fellow ADvindicate writer David Read has a theory that women are unsatisfied with today's anti-patriarchal regime of equal responsibility and authority in the workplace and at home, and secretly yearn for the male leadership and protection of patriarchy; they react by seeking out an exaggerated expression of male dominance in the bedroom, or at least in their fantasies. I'm not sure I agree with David's theory, but clearly “Fifty Shades” contains thematic elements that strongly appeal to many women.
One of these is a woman's deep-seated need for security, including financial security. This explains why there are so many male billionaires in the “Fifty Shades” genre: a billionaire can easily meet any woman's need for financial security, lavishly supplying her needs, wants, desires, and wildest dreams. Women also have a strong need for physical security, and they look to their men to provide that. In the book, there is a scene in which Christian Grey pulls Ana Steele out of the path of an oncoming cyclist; in a later scene, Ana “drunk dials” Christian, who tells her that he will come and get her because she is in no condition to drive herself home. A woman wants her man to be concerned for her safety. Husbands, your wife expects you to be her protector, so be sure you are. Let her know you're concerned for her safety, and are taking steps to secure it. Do this without being asked; if she has to ask, it counts against you.
The level of communication between Christian and Anastasia is another aspect of this novel that appeals to women. A few sex scenes are scattered around a 550 page novel; the rest is talking, emailing, texting, and endless negotiation over a “contract” that specifies what sex acts Anastasia will agree to. That level of communication is absent in most relationships, and women yearn for it. Also attractive is the amount of time spent on the relationship. Most couples should spend more time planning for great marital sex: read Song of Solomon, buy a seductive belly dancing outfit and take some lessons, invest in a music system and music to set the mood, buy the right lighting, fragrances, candles, silk sheets, lubricants, toys or whatever. In the context of marriage, Ellen White stated, “Continue the early attentions. . . . Study to advance the happiness of each other” (Adventist Home 106). It isn't so much the sex in “Fifty Shades” that appeals to women, but the time and effort spent talking and planning for the sex.
Whatever the explanation for the “Fifty Shades” phenomenon, there can be no good reason for a Christian to read these books. This stuff is pornography. Because it is known to appeal primarily to women over the age of 30, it has been called “mommy porn,” but porn it clearly is. By now, everyone should be aware of the problem that visual pornography poses for our society. Even Hollywood, in three recent films, has seriously addressed the social problems caused by the ubiquity of Internet porn:
- “Thanks for Sharing” (2012, Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Gwyneth Paltrow) follows three men who are struggling with sexual addiction. The Mark Ruffalo character cannot be trusted alone with a laptop, tablet, or smart phone (he carries an older flip-phone), or his life soon dissolves into an uncontrolled tempest of destructive sexual acting out.
- In the film “Don Jon” (2013, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore), the title character is a fit, handsome, and very religious young man who has no difficulty attracting and bedding beautiful women, but he has come to prefer masturbating to internet porn over relations with real women.
- “Men, Women and Children” (2014, Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner) explores the changes to our society brought about by the fact that we are all—men, women and children—constantly connected to the Internet. Many issues are explored, including websites specifically designed to facilitate extra-marital affairs, but the most poignant story is that of a teenage boy who has so perverted his sexuality with extreme, bizarre Internet porn that, when every boy's teenage dream girl throws herself at him, he is unable to have normal relations with her.
Hollywood has little use for Christian mores and values, and has consistently promoted adultery, promiscuity, homosexuality, and every form of gender confusion. Most filmmakers are not Christians. In fact, “Men, Women and Children,” adopts, in Emma Thompson's voice-over narration, an explicitly atheistic and even nihilistic philosophy. So when even the atheistic movie-makers in anti-Christian Hollywood are telling us that porn is causing serious problems, you know that things are very bad indeed.
Some assert that the Bible does not address pornography, but it does. The word pornography is derived from the same root as the biblical word porneia, which is often, as in the KJV, transliterated as “fornication.” We've come to think of fornication narrowly, as sexual relations between unmarried people, but the term rightly encompasses any sexual expression outside of marriage, including viewing or reading pornography and masturbating (and these days people typically masturbate while viewing or reading porn). So understood, pornography is condemned by all those biblical passages that condemn porneia (See, e.g., Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25; 1 Cor. 5:1; 6:13, 18; 7:2; 2 Cor. 12:21; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:3; Rev. 9:21).
Men are visual, hence pornographic images appeal to men much more than to women. Jesus warned men of the danger posed to their spiritual health by their eyes, and told them to take drastic action if necessary. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Mat. 5:28-29; 18:9). Read also 1 John 2:16, “For everything in the world--the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life--comes not from the Father but from the world.”
Porn is not good for marriages. Studies conducted in the 1980s by Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant found that repeated exposure to typical, non-violent pornography results in increased callousness toward women, a devaluation of the importance of monogamy, decreased satisfaction with a wife's appearance and sexual performance, and increased doubts about the value of marriage. Not unreasonably, wives tend to view their husband's viewing of porn as a form of infidelity; it hurts them and makes them feel inadequate, as though their body and their sexual performance isn't good enough.
While men are visual, women are verbal. With women, the portal to sexual temptation is usually not the eye, but the word, whether written or spoken. I would suggest that the written “mommy porn” of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” genre is just as bad as the visual porn to which men so often fall prey, and just as corrosive to marriage. First, the characters in these novels are never married, hence, they cannot but devalue the importance of monogamy and of confining sex within marriage.
Second, your real-life husband will appear very inadequate by comparison with a super-wealthy, super-handsome, super-dominant, super-solicitous fantasy lover. Real-life husbands are usually not billionaires, nor do they sport “six-pack” abs, nor do they anticipate, understand and meet your every emotional need, and your deepest fantasies. Remember that these fantasy men are created in the minds of women; naturally they are written to appeal to women in a way that real life men often fail to appeal. So reading this literature cannot but decrease your satisfaction with your husband, in much the same way that your husband's viewing of 20-year-old, silicone-enhanced barbie-doll blonde having wild, well lighted sex in multiple positions will reduce his appreciation for your appearance and his satisfaction with your flesh-and-blood marital sex life.
Third, these novels encourage women to experiment with extreme and potentially dangerous or abusive sexual practices. Along with spanking, whipping, caning, hot wax, blindfolds, handcuffs, spreader bars, sensory deprivation, and even diet control, these books often encourage anal penetration and other anal play. Although there is no anal in “50 Shades of Grey,” Christian and Ana do discuss it (“I'd really like to claim your ass, Anastasia. . . . Anal intercourse can be very pleasurable, trust me”), and according to some reports, it appears in the second book, “50 Shades Darker.” Moreover, many other books in this genre encourage anal sex. I am afraid that the explosive popularity of this literature will put pressure on women to accede to this degrading practice.
In Scripture, Paul frequently condemned “uncleanness” (Greek = akatharsia) (See, e.g., Rom. 1:24; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 4:19; 5:3; Col. 3:5), and, as I explained, “uncleanness” was Paul's euphemism for anal intercourse; this conclusion is based upon his use of the term, and its use by other First Century writers such as Livy, a Roman historian. Anal intercourse is typically painful, carries a risk of disease (a vastly heightened risk of HIV transmission as compared with normal intercourse, heightened risk of transmission of HPV, hepatitis A and C, urinary tract infections, and E. Coli infections), and a risk of physical damage to the anatomy. I would like to see the General Conference develop a position paper against anal sex, as well a condemnation of bondage, domination and sado-masochism.
As Christians, we should not be putting pornography, whether verbal or visual, into our minds. Paul has given us good guidelines for our leisure-time reading:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Philippians 4:8
Clearly, “Fifty Shades of Grey” does not meet this standard.