Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Points to Ponder Concerning the 50 Shades Buzz

Even before I became a reviewer of books and films, I operated under a general, albeit unofficial policy that I would refuse the temptation to condemn a book I had not read (or a film I had not seen) based on what I had heard about it from the media or others*. As you read, please remember that. 
*Sadly, the term 'others', as referred to above, most often means Christians, the church, and those who have been placed--or have placed themselves--in the spotlight as a mouthpiece for the Christian community as a whole--but that is a topic for another day.

I have not, nor do I plan to read the Fifty Shades of Grey book series; neither do I intend to see the film. Therefore, I will not comment directly about either, because I do not consider myself qualified to do so. 

However, as a media professional, I do feel qualified to comment on the buzz surrounding these books and the film based upon them.

Before I began working in the romance fiction industry, I was not even aware the BDSM subgenre of romance fiction existed. It wasn't until I came across the term "BDSM" as central to a book review that I Googled the definition and . . . my jaw dropped. "Okee-dokey, then," I thought, shocked. "So... that's a thing. A real thing? And there are people really into it? Empowered by it? Turned on by it? Living it?" 

Well, color me innocent. And surprised. And . . . sad.

Although Fifty Shades of Grey might be the bestselling book of this subgenre, it is far from alone. Still, those who criticize the series based on perceived content seem to believe it shockingly unique. It is not. (I say 'perceived' because, let's face it: most of this book's negative critics have NOT read it.) Author E.L. James is hardly a trail-blazer. BDSM fiction existed well before Fifty Shades of Grey and more titles are releasing every day. For every person who purchases one of James's Grey books electronically, a slew of like titles by other authors will be set before their eyes, tempting them to purchase . . .

. . . while critics snarl and hiss and judge, using only that one as reference.

It makes me wonder . . . do they not know there is a whole world of that stuff out there? 

Why I don't read Erotica or BDSM books
I accepted Christ when I was eleven years old, but there were times in my younger adult years when I was not bothered by graphic sex scenes in novels. Several years ago, however, I decided those scenes were not something I needed in my life and I made a faith-based choice to skip through the pages of those I came across accidentally in my reading; moreover, I now choose to avoid reading books I know will lead toward graphic sex scenes. 

My definition of 'graphic' may not be the same as yours. And my idea of what constitutes a 'graphic sex scene' does not necessarily place a book in the category of 'Erotica' in the official categories of Romance Fiction, as I have come to discover. BDSM fiction is, technically, a subgenre of the subgenre of Erotica, which falls under the larger genre umbrella of Romance Fiction. Erotica, by definition, is literature or entertainment created with the intent of inducing sexual arousal. Since I do not read for that reason (I am quite happy to leave the inducement of that state to my husband, thank you very much), I do not read erotica. 

I consider erotic content in fiction (that written with the intent of inducing sexual arousal) akin to that destructive beast, Pornography--a thing that worms its way into an imagination only to become an obsessive habit, intent upon soiling the sexual expression of or appreciation for true, relational love. Therefore, I find the concept of BDSM behavior, whether in fictional form or as a lifestyle choice, a grievously sad comment on the status of modern romantic expression and psychological health. 

How our hearts ache when we learn someone we love is a 'cutter', someone who purposefully damages herself (or himself), using self-mutilation as a means of coping with stress or depression, or as a way to deal with past abuse or other psychological trauma. When an individual seeks a form of violence to give himself or herself a sense of control, it evidences deeply unmet spiritual, emotional, and psychological needs--and perhaps reveals that this person has suffered other forms of past abuse, which still inform his or her self-image. To me, BDSM, by definition, regardless of which combination of words used to form that acronym, is cutting's more glamorous cousin. 

We were not created to derive pleasure from the receiving or administration of pain--not even second hand through the fictional depiction of those sorts of sexual/physical encounters. We were created to form meaningful relationships, to emulate hope and love that, when met in marriage, can express itself beautifully through the safe, secure, and fearless joining of our bodies as one.  It breaks my heart that there are people so broken, so damaged, that they would be willing to be hurt--or to inflict hurt upon someone else--to escape numbness, to feel worthy, loved, or even alive. The concept of BDSM directly conflicts with my definition of what healthy, fearless, safe, loving, and partner-honoring sexuality is. That is why I do not read BDSM books.

And yet...
That being said, the growing popularity of this subgenre should serve as a wake-up call for mental health professionals and spiritual leaders; a call to provide a safe environment, free of judgment, where those who have fallen victim to the BDSM lure--either by choice or as a result of ongoing abuse--can find hope and healing (even if the only lure to which they have succumbed is that taking up space in their mind.) It should also encourage us to be honest with our teens and young adults who have access to these forms of entertainment. 

How we are entertained can color our perception of true expressions of love and desire (vs. what is abuse) in future relationships. Imagine, if you will, a generation of boys and girls who go into adulthood and marriage believing that instigating or submitting to psychological and sexual abuse is just another night in the bedroom. 

A Warning Concering the Negative Impact of Anti-50 Shades Proselytizing
What are the implications of BDSM entertainment's popularity... if handled with only judgment and censure by its opposition? The obvious answer is: curiosity and rebellion. Think on that.

If the prevalent opposing message the public receives is, "It's bad! And if you like it, so are you, Perv!" all we do is promote shame at the expense of truth, inflicting new wounds upon the likely already-existing ones a more compassionate approach might soothe.

Heaping shame on those who have read books glamorizing BDSM--and/or those who will watch movies based upon them--is not speaking the truth in love. (see Ephesians 4:14-16)

Positive Things About the 50 Shades Buzz 

  • Even though the Fifty Shades of Grey promotional blitz is slapping you upside the face every time you turn on your TV, not all the buzz is pro-Fifty Shades or pro-BDSM. (Obviously.) Perhaps you've seen #50ShadesIsAbuse on Twitter or other social media networks. Have you noticed the diverse mix of people tweeting, blogging, and otherwise posting that hashtag? I have seen it quite a bit this week, as well as many other hashtags promoting a similar message. Because I have not read the books to justify that comment as fact, I have not personally participated in the movement--to do so would violate my personal policy (see the first paragraph); but that such a hashtag exists and is being promoted by people of such historically ideologically diverse platforms, leads me to my next point:
  • For the first time in my recollection--perhaps in the history of the WORLD--many feminists and Christians are on the same pageBDSM entertainment glorifies abuse. (The message might be portrayed a little differently depending on who is touting it, but at its heart, it is the same.) Although the general focus of social media hashtags and whatnot is on this one book/movie, it cannot be denied that these two, oft-head-butting factions are, in fact, mingling toward the same cause. (Those of us who consider ourselves 'Christian Feminists' are nodding our heads, thinking 'finally!') 
  • But that brings up another point to ponder: women are not the only victims of BDSM-driven abuse. Whether by choice or not, men, too, suffer physical, sexual, and psychological abuse when the person with whom they are involved derives pleasure from the giving or receiving of pain. 
  • We have been given an opportunity and a stage on which we can speak the truth in love, encourage intelligent discussion, and raise awareness of how to help people trapped in an abusive relationship, lifestyle, or pattern of thinking.

  • Kindness, compassion, and love--real, Christ-like love--are the only proactive expressions that will ultimately succeed in helping people overcome an obsession with or addiction to destructive behaviors.
  • Regardless of the labels some loud naysayers may wish to assign, the fact that someone has read erotica or plans to see the Fifty Shades of Grey movie does not make them a pervert; it only proves them to be a consumer of pop culture.

If you are surprised I would write something like this, well... so am I. At least a little bit. I generally prefer to tell stories, to avoid controversy, and to hang out in my writing cave, playing with my imaginary friends. But because I have been personally victimized in the past by people within the church who have judged me and my faith by the sorts of books I read and promote (again, another post for another day), books they would never even CONSIDER reading because another Christian (who also likely did not read them) pronounced them 'evil' -- I felt called to share my heart on this subject. 

I leave you with this advice... a tiny, and yet rather immense gem of wisdom I came across this past week in, of all things, a romance novel:

"Love well."
(from To Catch a Prince by Rachel Hauck -- available February 24, 2015)


  1. So glad you posted this. I *did* read Fifty Shades because when it first released people were constantly asking my comment on it and I felt personally that I couldn't comment without being aware, so I read it to be informed. What bothered me post was the abusive and submissive pressure. As a Christian feminist ( I do believer there is a thing) I am, like you, so satisfied that the darker shades of this book are uniting two groups that don't always see eye to eye :)

  2. Thank you! *huge sigh of relief* This is the perfect post for such a time as this!

  3. Excellent post Serena! Thank you :)

    1. Thanks, Julie... I can't say that I wasn't a little bit (okay, a lot bit) nervous as I pushed 'publish' -- I may have closed my eyes and cringed, but... since I woke up with this on my mind and felt I had to express it, this seemed the most logical place. Logical, if a bit cowardly, since no one really ever sees this blog! ;)

  4. Beautifully said. What ought to happen is that conversations about what love really is should be sparked left and right. This is a chance to engage, to build bridges, to talk about emotional needs and where true satisfaction can be found. I think a lot of people who haven't read it hesitate to say anything, though, and that's just as sad. I don't have to read it to decry sexual abuse and domestic violence. I don't have to know the details to shout out that Real Love, the gift from the Greatest Giver, a selfless love, merciful and tender and passionate and powerful is possible. If more Christians spent more time on that--instead of on seeing sex as a completely taboo topic--what an opportunity we'd have. I'll be sharing this post!

    1. Thanks, Bethany! The more negativity we drape over a topic, the more titillating it can become. Positive, edifying engagement is so important!

  5. Excellent article, one of the best I've read on this topic. Thank you, Serena!

    1. Thanks, Morgan! Hope the move to CA is going well!

  6. Such a powerful post. I do not apologize for the books I read. I've long been a fan of mainstream historical romance whether sweet or spicy. However, I've shifted toward reading more CBA romance over the last 5 years because the books I was reading were adding too many spicy scenes that detracted from the plot, and, like you, I didn't want that in my life. Thank you for addressing such a tough topic!

    1. Thanks Jill.

      It took a while to put my thoughts together, and I'm still not sure I'm glad I did. But... it's out there. :)

  7. As an afterward...

    I deleted my social media promos of this post. Why?

    It occurred to me that, even though my intentions for writing it were founded in the idea that we should not judge and hurt others, the very fact that I wrote this could hurt people who had confided in me that they had read these books or had seen/planned to see this movie--especially those who did so BECAUSE they felt guilty for liking it. Therefore, although I have decided to leave the post up on this rarely-seen-by-anyone blog, I am not going to promote it and risk further wounding hurting people.


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