50 Shades of... Relax Already!


Have you heard the outrage surrounding 50 Shades of Grey? It glamorizes and legitimizes sexual violence against women. It's coercive exploitation. It's abuse of power. Well you know what? It's all nonsense. Here's why.

First, remember where this story originated. E.L. James wrote a wildly popular book about two young lovers, offering mainstream fiction readers a peek inside the world of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism) presented in an other-worldly setting. And when any book sells like this one did, you can bet a movie will follow. Say what you will about the quality of the film (and plenty of reviewers have unloaded!) But before critiquing from a position of moral authority, understand what this movie is about and what it isn't. Here are some of the critiques we've seen floating around and our responses:

Healthy women dream about wedding gowns, not handcuffs.

Actually, sexual fantasy can be a very healthy aspect of female sexuality. As world-renowned sexuality expert, Dr. Michael Bader, explains, "Fantasy transforms the guilt of 'no' into the pleasure of 'yes.'"

This core dynamic is working behind the scenes of fantasies involving everything from mere seduction right on up to bondage and submission. This explains how Anastasia resolved her long-standing conflict about becoming sexual by allowing Christian to take the lead sexually. Finding a partner who so decisively owned his sexuality provided Ana with a way around her inner conflicts -- all she had to do was let him lead the way. Would it be healthier for her to enter a relationship from a position of equality and not need to go to such lengths to allow herself to be sexual? Probably. But we wouldn't be talking about a sales-shattering book now, would we? And one more important note about fantasies: In the majority of cases, that's all they are! In this case, of course, we see E.L. James' fantasy acted out via Ana and Christian. And the motivation behind the fantasy is about as common as they come -- finding a way to bypass the inner conflicts that bind us. Since no one nominated the book for any literary awards, perhaps that's why it resonated with over 100 million readers.

This is sexual violence against women.

No. This is a type of consensual sexual activity with which few people have any real familiarity. It is a member of a family of behaviors called sexual fetishes (or "kinks"). Fetishes do not necessarily indicate the presence of psychopathology. However, in Christian's case, we see the clear abandonment wounding and sexual abuse he suffered as a young boy and teen as the source of his sexual preferences and intimacy avoidance. He is reenacting the trauma of his sexual abuse by assuming the power position in sexual situations. However, he goes to great lengths to make sure that his sexual partners know exactly what they are agreeing to and emphasizes that they can stop the activities at any time. Ana takes her time (several weeks) carefully considering Christian's proposal to be his submissive. Once she stipulates the activities she is not OK with and reaches an agreement with Christian, it's clear that she is an excited and willing participant. Just because this type of sexual behavior is not for everyone and is uncomfortable for some to watch does not make it anything like sexual assault. Categorizing it as such is not only seriously off the mark, it demeans actual victims of sexual violence.

This film will negatively influence how young people approach their first sexual experience.

First, this movie is not Twilight -- the book was written for adults, and similarly the movie should be a tween/teen-free zone. In our theater, the 40-50-something mommy/couples demographic crowded out anyone looking remotely adolescent by about 100:1 -- just as it should be. But what about young adults? Putting aside the fact that this movie is a FANTASY, the question in response to this critique remains -- really? Ana is a 22 year old woman. She is of sound mind. Doesn't she have the right to decide how, when, where and with whom to be sexual? If 22 was the average age for first sexual experiences, teen pregnancy and STDs would be small scale problems.

In the real world, Christian would end up in jail and Ana would end up in the morgue.

This is an actual quote from a popular blog and illustrates just how misunderstood fetishes can be. There is nothing in the scientific literature to suggest that the type of fetish in the movie would escalate into any life-threatening situations. (However, there are other fetish behaviors that are extremely dangerous, and even life-threatening, such as fire-play and breath-play). But what about when one consenting adult realizes that things are going beyond one's comfort zone? The closing scene of the movie is a good example: It shows us a visibly upset Ana -- disgusted by what she just experienced with Christian -- and a visibly upset Christian, ashamed at revealing his "darkest desires" to Ana and scared at the prospect of losing her. Clearly, she is exercising her judgment and free will in leaving, and he is allowing her to do so. You could even make the case that Ana manipulated him into allowing her into his most vulnerable territory and then shaming him for it.

As parents of a tween girl and slightly younger boy, we are acutely aware of the many negative influences embedded in our culture. You know what concerns us? That Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue staring them in the face at the grocery store. The fact that most kids get their sex education from porn these days. Child sex trafficking. Kids playing video games in which women are sexualized and objectified and in which killing and other anti-social behaviors are rewarded with bonus points. How sexual assaults are handled by universities. Our ridiculously permissive gun culture. The fact that we can't watch a ballgame on TV as a family without an MMA cage fight commercial appearing out of nowhere. So yes, there are real sex/violence issues to be concerned about and you don't have to look far to find them. So let's just leave 50 Shades where it belongs -- in fantasy-land.