So I did it. I read 50 Shades of Grey. Or rather, I read about as much as I could stomach, which was about 200 of the 514 (5! 1! 4!) pages in my edition. I read enough to get a sense of where the book was headed and who and what the characters were.
There’s been plenty of commentary on this topic. I mean, plenty. So much so that every time I open Facebook, there’s a new article about it, either from Christians condemning it as too sexual and pornographic, or from feminists condemning it as abusive and a portrayal of a BDSM relationship that engages in abuse and crosses lines. Even anti-capitalists got in their punches this last week.
And here I am, hopefully not just adding to the noise.
The reason 50 Shades is so important is because so many people have consumed it. It broke records, it hit nerves, it generated years-long debate about everything from romance to the nature of fanfiction. It is, regardless of its (lack of) literary merit, an important book in the popular culture realm.
And I think I know why it hit such a nerve with so many people. It’s not because it empowers women to be sexual and to be okay with their own sexual drives – though there is some of that to be praised in the wake of this popular erotic work. But despite the empowerment many women feel as a result of recognizing and exploring sexual drives from reading this work, it can only function as empowering because it plays directly into patriarchal fantasies about what women are allowed to experience.
50 Shades of Grey is not a female-empowerment fantasy – not wholly. It is a fantasy of male power, based out of pre-existing patriarchal concepts of female sexuality. Any empowered sexual exploration happening as a result of this book is happening in a patriarchy-approved, male gaze context.
One of the most important facts we learn about Anastasia Steele early on in the book is the fact that she is a virgin. And not only is she a virgin, but she’s never really experienced sexual desire or sexual wants before she meets Mr. Christian Grey.
She is purity culture’s ideal woman.
Ana knows nothing of lust or love. She is a blank canvas upon which Christian Grey can act. She doesn’t know anything about sex, despite being twenty years old and having a roommate who is very sexually active. She knows that sex has bad consequences, judging by how often she mentions having to comfort her roommate after a one-night stand or a break up. The overriding voice in the book is not that of a woman liberated by her sexual awakening but instead one who has a particularly puritanical vision of sexual activity, naïve though it is.
Once you enter into the purity culture mindset, the punishment endured by Ana becomes obvious, even predictable. When you’re raised in the world of Christian courtship and dating books, such stories become quickly identifiable. I cite several of them in Damaged Goods. But here’s a brief framework for the story.
A virgin, a “pure” lady, begins seeing a man. She likes him, she wants to see more of him. He doesn’t particularly believe in love (because MAN) and he’s just after That One Thing. So she gives it up, because she wants to keep him around. She wants to pursue a romance, he doesn’t, and now she’s broken and bruised and hurt because she gave him her source of worth.
It’s a common story – the purity culture morality tale, in fact. We’re warned away from dating men who don’t respect our virginity, who only want to use us for sex. We’re told that if we give in, if we commit this “ultimate sin,” then we basically deserve the hurt and pain that follow.
In the purity culture world, Ana’s punishment at the hands of Christian Grey is a predictable outcome for her sin of lust and premarital sex. Abusive relationships, then, are what can be expected if you step out of line as a woman.
Don’t believe me?
When I was in seventh grade, I went through what must have been my school district’s version of “abstinence plus” education. We learned about condoms (without even seeing even a picture of one), and watched a series of videos about various consequences for failing to remain abstinent. The videos followed a few different (fake) teenage couples through their decision to have sex. One couple experiences a pregnancy scare. One couple gets worried about STDs. And, in the last couple, the boyfriend becomes extremely jealous, sees the woman as someone he owns now, and the relationship becomes abusive.
The message to my 12 year old mind was clear: premarital sex is a major factor of abusive relationships because it signals to men that they own you now. When you give someone sex, they are allowed to own you, and if done in the wrong context (ie, outside of marriage), that ownership will turn toxic and bloody. We see this ideology reflected throughout evangelical concepts on dating and sex, outlined best in my friend Sarah Moon’s “You Are Not Your Own” series.
50 Shades of Grey, then, is not necessarily a threat to the purity of evangelical women. Read “correctly,” it functions as a tale warning women away from the “sin” of having sex – something that fits directly into the evangelical purity movement’s narrative of the world.
Or, perhaps, sex is far more complicated than the simple equations evangelicalism offers us. Perhaps things are far more than just one thing or another. Perhaps, like everything, 50 Shades of Grey has multiple meanings and multiple interpretations, making it a cultural phenomenon worth engaging.