Well, this book has created quite a stir. From blogs to backyard barbecues, from Saturday Night Live to moms sitting by the pool this summer, it seems everyone is talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. Many people have written Christian responses to the popularity of this title, reflecting disgust and sadness over the idea that the book’s female audience is so eager to play voyeur to the cheap and violent brand of sex portrayed in the book.
Why the fuss? Because the book might be classified as BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism) erotica? Probably not—such literature has been around for a long time. Because people are privately reading sexually titillating books? That’s nothing new. Are we surprised by the reminder that there’s a lot of money to be made in publishing works that tease people’s sexual appetites? Surely not.
It seems the real shocker is the audience. Women are reading this book. And not just “bad girls.” These are respectable ladies, moms, moral pillars of the community. These are the people our culture romanticizes as pure and good and naturally attracted to more goodness. They’re not supposed to have dirty minds.
Our collective sense of shock reflects a pervasive cultural misunderstanding about the total depravity of women.
That’s right, Hallmark. I used “depravity” and “women” in the same sentence.
A historical view shows great confusion over the nature of women. At various times and places, women have lived in Eve’s shadow, one-dimensionally viewed as temptresses, naturally corrupt and embodiments of willful temptation. In other times and places, they have been revered as daughters of Mary, the mother of Jesus—pure, naturally good, and full of grace. In our culture, it seems we have both: good girls and bad girls. And good girls are generally considered morally superior to men.
I hate this conception of women because it serves as undergirding for so many ways we disrespect and hurt women. It underlies the dichotomy and boundary of suspicion between nice girls and bad girls, and it supports the lifelong branding that comes with earning the “bad” label through one unwise choice. It perpetuates the desperation “nice girls” feel to pretend they’re perfect. It feeds the control issues many women struggle with because they feel it’s all up to them to keep society from collapsing. It serves to justify treating women as one-dimensional creatures, pinning women on the wrong end of so many double standards, and holding women responsible for men’s sexual behavior.
I also hate it because it’s simply not true.
Here’s the truth about women: We are good people with bad ideas, incredible potential, and an appetite for self-destruction. We’re created by God and pronounced very good, fallen from grace, and utterly hopeless on our own. We are sinners who sometimes act like saints, with varying desires to do the right thing and widely divergent ideas about what is the right thing. We are flawed in every way, rotten to the core, beautiful, lustful, sincerely good, willfully bad, loving, and utterly depraved. Sometimes when we think we can’t do anything right, we do something great. And even when we do our very best, we get it wrong. We are in desperate need of God’s grace—just as desperate as men.
For anyone who likes to believe women don’t have sexual desires, let me break it to you: we do! For anyone clinging to the hope that women are above the base appetites we’ve come to expect men to indulge, let me shatter that myth as well.
So what does the popularity of Fifty Shades reflect? Probably several forces. Women’s secret desires to be dominated and abused? Not universally, but maybe for some people. Plain old curiosity? For many, I suspect. Is it just the titillating voyeuristic appeal of a sexual fantasy most of us would not want to actually experience in real life? Probably. The arrival of a new medium (the eReader) that allows “nice ladies” to indulge a part of themselves they’re supposed to pretend doesn’t exist? Definitely. But perhaps more than anything, it’s just the basic self-destructive human pattern of warping the good that God gives us (like mutually loving, tender sexual relationships within marriage), settling for so much less than we could have, willfully poisoning our own wells, and digging our own—cracked cisterns that don’t hold water (Jeremiah 2:13). This is just what we do.
Let me be clear about this: I am disgusted by the sexual violence this book apparently portrays. And I’m saddened that so many people are filling their time reading it. Plus, to be honest, as a writer it’s discouraging to see more evidence of what it really takes to make a living in this business. I don’t plan to indulge my own curiosity and read it for myself. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying it’s OK.
But I am not shocked. I respect myself and other women enough to know we are not one-dimensional vessels of goodness and warm cookies. I’ve been aware of my own depravity since I was about 4 years old. Apart from God’s grace, there’s very little sweetness and light in me. And acknowledging that truth is the first step in letting him change us.
© 2012 Amy Simpson.