Maybe you’ve seen a meme that started going around Facebook after various celebrities and public figures (especially one) began having their sexual abuses exposed.
The “meme’s” message is this: people in a culture are outraged at this behavior from a public figure, yet this culture also bought millions of copies of the book Fifty Shades of Grey.
I re-posted the meme, along with my thoughts on the matter. I said the public figure’s actions are without excuse. But why then do we as women swoon over and idolize characters like Christian Grey? We reinforce exactly what that person said about being “allowed” to do whatever you want to women if you’re rich and famous. We quietly enable the notion that a woman’s only purpose is to be beautiful and sexy and give pleasure to men. We allow men to get away with being predators because we perpetuate the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale idea, that somewhere inside is a really good man who only needs our love in order to be not an abusive jerk.
Thus, instead of having good women bringing out the best in these men, we end up with public figures who use their power and position. They coerce and even force women into bed, but they get away with it because they are rich and famous.
My comments were met with significant backlash. Some said the comparison was stupid. They made snide comments such as:
- I couldn’t tell the difference between reality and fiction.
- What a person chooses to read and indulge in as a fantasy is not the same as perpetuating this behavior in real life.
- In the book it was all “consensual,” so this makes it okay.
- This isn’t like how it happens in real life.
- If I suggest otherwise, I’m victim-blaming and victim-shaming.
This attitude troubles me greatly.
My point is not to victim-shame women who have been abused. I have seen the devastation that happens when women fall into this trap. This is precisely why I need to address the problem.
For the record, I do know Christian Grey is not a real person. I am well aware that Fifty Shades is just a story about made-up people in made-up situations. I also know plenty of people do enjoy dominant/submissive relationships. Some enjoy kinky, even violent (consensual) sex.
So the problem I have with Fifty Shades is not the sex. To each his own—I’m not trying to get in anyone else’s bedroom.
Instead, I’m talking about how media shapes culture, and vice versa, and how we as a culture have perpetuated an environment in which abuse is not only tolerated but glorified.
Fifty Shades and faux ‘consent’
In Fifty Shades, Christian Grey seduces young Anastasia. He ultimately convinces her to sign a contract that allows him henceforth to do whatever he wants to her sexually.
Thus, she technically “consents” by signing the contract.
But what about the manipulation and control that Christian Grey exerts? What about the way he uses his status and position to coerce her? What about the way he stalks her and rapes her, but convinces her it’s romantic and that he does it because he just loves her so much? And anyway, she “consented” when she signed the contract, so everything he does is acceptable, right?
I write fiction. I have no problem with a strong, powerful alpha male hero.
That’s not what Christian Grey is. He is an abuser. He draws her in and makes her feel special, then abuses her, getting worse as the relationship progresses.
Here’s the heart of the problem: This is what actual abusers do. They systematically prey on their victims’ insecurities, build them up and draw them in, cut them off from those around them who would provide wise counsel and healthy balance, and then they escalate.
From ‘Fifty Shades’ to reality
Fifty Shades perpetuates the lie that this behavior is “consensual” love.
For many people, this doesn’t stay in the confines of a fantasy—a guilty pleasure between the pages of a book.
A real woman who reads Fifty Shades and gets turned on by Christian Grey’s dominance, then meets a man who is strong and powerful and flatters her with attention, can conclude it’s romantic because he’s an alpha male, just like Christian Grey. He makes her feel beautiful and selected out of a million others. Special. Loved. And when the power and control begins (which is inevitable, because that’s what abusers are looking for), she believes the lie that it is because he loves her.
And then it escalates.
Because that’s how abusers work.
And little by little, the lie changes from “he just loves me too much” to “he didn’t mean to do it, he can’t help it,” to “I shouldn’t have have done this or that to provoke him,” to “I deserve it.” This can lead to, “If only I were skinnier/prettier/sexier, he wouldn’t look at other women/porn/whatever,” and “If only I were a better cook/more receptive in the bedroom/more attentive to his needs/didn’t do whatever it is that makes him mad, then he wouldn’t do those things.”
The victim believes these lies and tries harder, but the harder she tries, the more control the abuser gets, and thus the more the abuse escalates. The victim believes she deserves what she gets, and that the problem is with her if he abuses her or cheats on her or anything else.
She gives in to assault, because he “just wants to be close to her,” or, worse, she’s afraid of the consequences if she doesn’t.
The reality is that consent under duress is not consent.
If a real-life man drugs a woman’s drink, or tells her she’ll be fired if she doesn’t consent (or the opposite, that her chances of a promotion will increase), or in any other way influences a woman to engage in sexual acts that she otherwise wouldn’t consent to, it is assault.
This is exactly what happens in Fifty Shades. Christian Grey is a textbook abuser. That Anastasia is portrayed as enjoying it only muddies the waters more.1 This portrayal of enjoying rape makes women who are ashamed later feel as though there’s something wrong with them for not appreciating the strong, forceful way their man wants them. And even if the woman does enjoy the sex, the fact that it was forced upon her still makes it rape.
The real-life men who use their power and influence to coerce women into bed are enabled by books like Fifty Shades. They feel as though they are entitled to using a woman’s body however it pleases them. They have gotten away with abusive behaviors in the past, so they genuinely believe every woman in their paths wants to sleep with them, and that it’s okay—even expected—for them to assault women because of who they are.
It’s a cultural sickness, pervading many aspects of our mindsets. It is why rape culture exists.
Jesus’s solution for sexual abuse
Yes, men should be taught what consent means. Yes, we are doing our boys a disservice if we do not teach them to respect women.
Men using their influence to gain sexual favors from the women around them is, on every level, unacceptable. Men who do this are responsible for their own actions, and should be called to account for them.
However, that does not absolve women from helping to perpetuate the double standard.
We cannot glorify this behavior in our fictional heroes like Christian Grey (and the countless others that have spawned from the popularity of Fifty Shades) and at the same time expect that real men will know that it’s not actually what is acceptable in real life. We cannot glorify the “fantasy” and expect that men will not be confused into believing that is actually what we want.
This expectation that men are slaves to their lust, that women are expected to enjoy being dominated, that “that’s just how men are,” is a lie that causes untold heartache, both inside and outside of a relationship.
Again, I’m not trying to impose any strictures on a consensual relationship. Other than well-known passages against fornication and certain types of sinful behaviors, the Bible doesn’t give clear boundaries on what types of sex are okay or not okay. But the Song of Solomon makes it clear that sex is meant to be enjoyed by both parties. What a husband and wife choose to engage in is between them.
It’s a lie to suggest a man’s needs supersede a woman’s, or that a woman is inferior to a man, or that her position is one of subservience. People often point out that the patriarchs were polygamous and women in ancient cultures, even God’s chosen people, were viewed as property. They fail to recognize that those accounts are historical records, not necessarily endorsements of actions.
The Bible upholds the value of women. This begins with creation, in which God declares that both man and woman were made in His image,2. This continues with God’s establishment of his Law, when he declares that if a man forces himself on a woman, he is to be put to death, and the woman is innocent.3
In the New Testament, Jesus Himself breaks with tradition and cultural norms to affirm women repeatedly. Later, the apostle Paul instructs men to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, even to the point of dying for her.4
Sexual assault is the exact opposite of the teachings of Jesus. It is the epitome of selfishness, to violate another person in order to gratify yourself, to put your own desires above the dignity and desires of someone else. Sexual assault is something that Jesus would never condone.
And that is what it all comes back to, in the end. Jesus valued every person, man and woman, no matter their sins or struggles, enough to die on the cross in order that they might be restored. Let us love one another as Jesus loved us, and strive to treat each other with the dignity and self-sacrifice with which he has treated us.
- This is not exclusive to Fifty Shades. Even the film Gone with the Wind has the scene where Rhett sweeps Scarlett off her feet and tells her “This is one night you’re not shutting me out!” and the next morning, Scarlett is seen as sated and happy. ↩
- Gen. 1:27, Genesis 2. ↩
- Deut. 22: 25-27. ↩
- Eph. 5:22-23. ↩