“Christian fulfills Ana’s request, beating her with a belt, only for Ana to realize that the two of them are incompatible. Devastated, Ana leaves Christian and returns to the apartment she shares with Kate.”
This, according to Wikipedia, is how the book Fifty Shades of Grey ends. The book, now a major motion picture set for release on February 13, 2015, has gained wide popularity among women which has caused many, including me, to scratch my head in wonder of what is going on in people’s minds.
The franchise’s popularity is reaching its pinnacle at the same time one of the largest anti-domestic violence campaigns in history is being waged, thanks largely to the National Football League’s attempt to save face after embarrassing themselves over the Ray Rice situation. The NFL was rightly rebuked and ridiculed by just about everyone for its transparent lack of concern over the abuse Ray Rice’s fiancé Janay Palmer suffered, which included Rice knocking her unconscious in a hotel elevator.
And now, many of the same people outraged at the NFL’s leadership are eagerly awaiting the release of a film that glorifies a man beating a woman with a belt, among other things. Some will try to point out a distinction between the beating Janay took and the beating Ana took, as if Ana’s beating coming about by her request makes the violence acceptable.
I’m no psychologist, but I did pass through college with most of my common sense intact, and this common sense tells me that sexualizing violence against women is a bad idea. The feeble PSA’s featuring recognizable NFL personalities tearing up in front of a camera are not strong enough to combat the human sex drive, which projects like Fifty shades of Grey intertwines with violence. It turns inflicting pain on a person into foreplay.
Let’s go deeper. In addition to sexualizing violence against women, Fifty Shades of Grey presents a deeply flawed understanding of human sexuality in that it normalizes a culture of domination and subordination within the sexual relationship. Domination and subordination within the sexual act is very animalistic. This, I imagine, is part of the appeal of Fifty Shades. It seems to stoke passions, fantasies and desires deep within us that our allegedly repressive religious culture has allegedly made taboo.
The reason I, a celibate Catholic priest, am opposed to the experience of sexuality depicted in Fifty Shades of Grey is not because it presents a more exciting, more enjoyable experience of sex. Rather, I oppose it because there is so much within it that is lacking. The paradigm of domination and subordination presented in Fifty shades of Grey is beneath us. Men and women have the unique ability to enter into the sexual act as equals, becoming equally vulnerable before each other and before God.
In a truly human experience of sexuality, there is no domination and subordination. Instead of domination, each spouse offers their body, mind, and soul to the other as a gift, with the goal of obtaining pleasure for their spouse rather than themselves. On the other hand, subordination is replaced by receptivity in which each spouse freely receives their beloved’s gift of self. They are conscious of their beloved’s interior life and are uniting themselves to their joys, sorrows, victories, and failures. Thus, the experience is not merely a mingling of body parts, but a mingling of minds and emotions as well.
So I hope you don’t go see the Fifty Shades of Grey movie. Aside from the fact that it sexualizes violence against women, I hope you choose not to see it because you recognize that it presents a shallow and deficient experience of sex that is actually quite boring and unfulfilling. I hope you choose not to see it because you aspire to something much more satisfying than the story offers.
UPDATE: After publishing this post, I found this interesting article which confirms my suspicions regarding abuse. The author gave the book to several mental health professionals, who analyzed the behaviors of the characters. The money quote:
"Anastasia suffers reactions consistent with those of abused women. She feels a constant sense of threat and loss of self-identity, changes her behaviors to keep peace in the relationship such as withholding information about her whereabouts to avoid Christian’s anger, and becomes disempowered and entrapped in the relationship as her behaviors become mechanized in response to Christian’s abusive patterns."
Not only does this sexualize violence against women, but it provides an unfortunate occasion for the abused reader to identify with Ana to the point where she understands her situation as normal (and perhaps even sexy) rather than abusive. That isn't healthy.