Christian Values vs. Christian Grey: Behind the Anti-Porn ‘Fifty Shades’ Backlash

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A healthy sex-positive feminist debate has swirled around Fifty Shades of Grey in the years between the book and the movie. Harmless fantasy or trove of harmful tropes? Escape from capitalist patriarchy or reinforcer of the same, or both at once? Porn-world equalizer, poorly executed representation of the intricacies of the BDSM community, or fluffy mainstream crap? It’s lots of fun to argue, yet it’s important to remember that college dorm-room (or journalism outlet) style theorizing about the ethics of female-driven fantasy in a world that devalues our bodies is not the only back-and forth happening here.

Yes, beyond the world of “problematic” “tropes,” there’s more than one serious moral campaign gunning for both the book and film. In fact, the most intense backlash against the upcoming film comes from people who disapprove of it simply because it depicts sex, of the BDSM and premarital variety.

Anti-pornography group the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE), formerly known as Morality in Media, has bought a website called Fiftyshadesisabuse.com and embarked upon a media campaign asking people to boycott the film and donate to domestic violence prevention instead.

Fifty Shades of Grey legitimizes and glamorizes violence against women,” NCSE Executive Director Dawn Hawkins told me in an email. “The story promotes torture as sexually gratifying and normalizes domestic violence.”

I asked Hawkins whether she was opposed to all depictions of consensual BDSM in pop culture, and she came down somewhere between evading the question and stating a position that is basically opposed to representing kink in any sort of positive light: This is not a consent issue,” she said. “Violence is violence. Sexual violence is worse and has no base to exist in any type of relationship.” As for why millions of women are obsessed with the book of their own accord, she blames the media.

Dr. Juli Slattery, a Christian therapist, had a somewhat more nuanced take. Slattery’s website, Authentic Intimacy, is running a buyback program encouraging readers to send in their copies of Fifty Shades in exchange for a copy of Pulling Back the Shades, the alternative guide for Christian ladies who are ashamed of their FSOG fetish that she co-penned.

“God designed intimacy to be about sexuality expressed within the context of lifelong commitment,” Slattery told me over the phone. “Within that commitment there’s all kinds of fun that a couple might have.” According to Slattery, Fifty Shades takes the desire to be cherished forever by a man who is “not a wimp” and other longings that are “core to femininity” (as ordained by a higher power) and “twists it with the BDSM.”

“When you have that kind of fantasy, it takes away your satisfaction in real relationships,” she said. Yet unlike the anti-porn contingent, she has a sense of humor about the whole thing, reminding me that the first chapter of her alterna-book is called, “We Know Why You Read It.” Slattery’s take is gender-essentialist and conservative on the issue of marriage, yet she’s observant enough to recognize that, in some ways, E.L. James is on the same page as she is — James’ “inner goddess” is Slattery’s inner God, and He is steering you towards a spicy lifelong relationship after the altar, where the Fifty Shades books end. “It may not be well written, but it’s well crafted. The author has taken those elements that are part of what we hunger for,” Slattery said. “I think that’s how women are designed, how God created us to be, over time and generation, across cultures.” However, her approval stops there. Slattery said she is not planning to see the movie.

It may be tempting for media-savvy sophisticates to dismiss this kind of reading. But in some ways, the difference in worldview leads to the same conclusion about the book, which is that it taps into deep female cravings, even if it’s misguided. While Slattery explains the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey as something that arises (and perverts) an essential feminine nature, many feminists interpret that appeal as coming right from the mixed messages of culture, artificial gender roles, and a society that is hostile to authentic female sexuality.

Leslie Bennetts’ EW cover story on FSOG explains the phenomenon in terms of how women have been socialized, and what we’re not getting:

in a culture that prioritizes male needs, it’s hardly surprising that many women are aroused by a hero who drives a girl who never even masturbated into a state of constant sexual ecstasy… Even for those of us who don’t fantasize about being paddled or whipped, the idea of an infinitely patient, adoring, and skillful lover may seem like the ultimate aphrodisiac, if not the impossible dream…

And for feminists, including Bennetts and Melissa Febos (a former dominatrix), socialization, from capitalism to rape culture, explains the domination and rape fantasies to which Fifty Shades of Grey panders. As Febos writes:

some women fantasise about being dominated. Of course we do! We have all been socialized by a culture that fetishises submissive women. It would be impossible to avoid internalising those unrelenting messages. Are we to boycott the fantasies of women? To tell them that these fantasies are dangerous and possibly responsible for domestic violence?

Reading the critiques from both sides, it occurred to me that the book is such a mega-sensation because of its middle-of-the road path. It is both bland and racy, both clever and dull, an equal-opportunity offender that doesn’t offend too much, and an equal-opportunity pleaser for readers with all sorts of scruples.