Nicknamed "mommy porn" because of its popularity among middle-aged women, 50 Shades of Grey was written by a London TV executive named E. L. James who was trying to mimic the success of the Twilight series when she wrote the first of the three-book series. Self-published as an e-book at first, it caught the attention of an Australian publisher when it hit 250,000 downloads. Shortly thereafter, New York publisher Vintage bought the American publishing rights and now movie companies are vying for the rights to bring it to the silver screen.
In case you haven't heard, these books are about a male character named Christian Grey, a rich, handsome young entrepreneur who sweeps a young virgin named Anastasia Steele off her feet. Steele, who is just graduated from college, is shown his "playroom" full of whips, ropes, and sex toys. He then asks her to begin a relationship in which she's asked to sign a contract to become his slave. “The Dominant accepts the submissive as his, to own, control dominate and discipline,” the two agree, "for purpose of discipline [and]…for his own personal enjoyment.”
Both critics and supporters of the racy novels appear to agree on just two things - the books are poorly written and they're chock full of porn.
One of the book's most outspoken critics, relationship expert Dr. Drew Pinsky of HLN, says the treatment of Anastasia in these books is "abusive" and gave stern warnings to women who might get caught up in unrealistic fantasies about being dominated by a sexual sadist. These books are not about a love story between two consenting adults, he says, but are all about Christian exercising mind-control over his naive playmate.
The doctor explains that the bondage and sado-masochism in the book is not nearly as worrisome to him as the idea that women will think this kind of treatment is romantic rather than the rape that it is.
"Why women would pick this up as any sort of substitute for intimacy or any sort of model for a reasonable relationship, I find just sort of disturbing," Pinsky told WTOP.com.
"Maybe I have no business commenting on how women massage their fantasy life. Indeed I don't. But as I look at this as a clinician, the idea that women look at this relationship as anything other than absolute, categorical, profound pathology is more than I can imagine."
He points out that in the course of the book, it is discovered that Christian was indeed sexually abused. “And this is all him acting out his pathology as opposed to it being two consensual adults,” Pinsky says.
"I can't emphasize enough the disturbing quality of this," Pinsky says. "This is a woman who is naïve to these issues, and then is manipulated and exploited by a man who has a severe personality disorder and a sex addiction who is violent with her, it is just too much to be understood."
One would think feminists would be outraged by this plotline, but they're hailing the book as "empowering."
"Though I understand, and deeply respect, the feminist threads of mistrust towards the erotica and porn industries (women are reduced to product, mistreated, objectified), I've always stood firmly on the 'sex-positive feminist' side of things," writes Emile Spiegel, a feminist grad student, on Indiewire.com. "Sex is, of course, a fact of life-- and any series whose very existence attests to the fact that women also have desires (desires that deserve to be serviced, no less!) is a step in the right direction."
She prefers to focus on what the series represents rather than what it actually is - porn.
"Ultimately, the subject matter is potentially less interesting here than the fact of what this series represents-- erotica for women that is now gone fairly mainstream. Yes, we need to think about the how and why and each work out for ourselves how we feel about the story, but can't we first take a minute to be proud and happy that a female writer is having massive success forcing the world to reckon with female desire?"
Women such as author Laura Berman don't like what the popularity of these novels is saying about the women's movement.
“We had the women’s movement which really was about empowering women not to be submissive to men anymore. Now we’ve moved onto a new generation where women are more empowered than ever before, the glass ceiling has been broken and we have as much control as we want. And what are we longing for? A little bodice ripping,” Berman told NBC.
From a Christian point of view, Julia Stronks J.D. Ph.D. of Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington says she teaches her students that sex, like everything else in the world, was created by God as a gift, but then was subject to the Fall.
"Through Christ’s sacrifice, though, we live in the knowledge that our sexuality has been redeemed, and we are free to explore it within the bounds of what God intends for human creatures," Dr. Stronks writes.
Within this framework, there are three things that should trouble us about these books.
"First, the woman in the story agrees to the man’s rules of dominance in the relationship in part because she believes she will eventually be able to reach him and heal his troubled psyche. Friends who have suffered in abusive relationships tell me that this fantasy - that with sufficient love one can heal the abuser - is more damaging than we know. It shields abusers and keeps the abused in a bad situation.
"Second, the story depicts sex as something that men do to women: real men dominate and women crave it. Christians who believe that males and females both reflect God’s image have to talk more openly about what God’s design for sexual partnership might look like. . .
"Third, the dominance fantasy is dangerous when we only understand part of the picture. A fantasy can be benign - it is not reality. But if people are reading these books to determine what women want then we have a serious problem. The submissive character in the book consents to the treatment she receives, but historically and legally the nature of consent has always been a complicated issue. When government statistics tell us that one in five American women has been or will be sexually assaulted, we do ourselves no favor by insisting that dominance fantasy and violence have no relationship to each other. We must at least explore the possibility."
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In The Pornography Epidemic: A Catholic Approach, Dr. Peter Kleponis explains how this "simple entertainment" can quickly turn into a dangerous and destructive addiction.