50 Shades of Dysfunctional Womanhood

I’ve been sitting back, surveying the blogosphere from a number of angles, since Fifty Shades took off running. For one, it has a number of traits interesting only to people in publishing.

It’s Twilight fan fiction in an erotic “alternate universe” setting. That means it could have fallen in a grey area with copyright infringement if the adaptation were not original enough. (Apparently it is, and that horse isn’t running news-wise.)

It started out small, first on a free online forum, then with a small Australian publisher, and became big, finally signing on at Knopf. There’s a lot of attention on this reverse route to traditional publishing right now, as self-publishers are making readership connections that large houses aren’t well-adapted to achieve with their business model.

And of course, people are arguing about it. What’s somewhat surprising is who, and how.

Religious and Secular Objections Intersect

Over at TrueWoman.com, Dannah Gresh took a shredding from religious readers defending Fifty Shades. More on that in a minute.

What’s interesting to me is that where a religious writer uses the descriptive term “sin,” intelligent secular contacts–women who gave the book a chance on friends’ recommendations–use the descriptive term a work of woman-hating misogyny perpetrated by one of our own.

I’m paraphrasing from something on a personal social media feed here. In the discussion that ensued, I saw a remark (and I’ve seen similar in blog comments also) that the book is not true to the BDSM paradigm because of its dysfunctional portrayal of sex and power. The Fifty Shades story is not, they say, a true consensual relationship as they understand such things, and it presents a dangerous example of sexual and psychological abuse.

With fair warning for foul language and/or explicit subject matter, more on this at:

Since I’m against porn in an absolutist way, both because I was raised on secular feminism and because I later became part of a redemptive faith community, I’m tackling this without apology for my presuppositional bias. This is not me being a church girl. This is not me being a feminazi. This is me being a girl who cares about stuff that isn’t good for people in the bigger picture.

Without picking on any one commenter or blogger in particular, I will now proceed to pick on the general ideas which have been put forth publicly by the public. You can feel free to Google around and locate those arguments for yourself, for the most part. Any blog post questioning Fifty Shades will almost certainly have at least some of the following in the comments.

1. You Can’t Critique It If You Haven’t Read It

Let’s talk about a little thing called “independent verification by contemporary sources.” It’s used to determine the context and reliability of ancient writings. One of the strongest points of verification is when dissenting viewpoints present the same analysis of a work’s content. Famously, this has been used to defend the historicity of the Bible during time periods when the prevailing writers of history referenced it and events surrounding it in giving their reasons for disapprobation of Christian beliefs.

Much less eternally, we have that on Fifty Shades. As previously noted, thinking people across a spectrum of lifestyles and beliefs are challenging the books’ negative message about women and their sexuality.

2. Who Cares, It’s Just a Book

This objection flies in the face of both art and science.

I mentioned in a moms’ forum discussion that, as a fiction editor, most everything I do is about teaching writers to create a vicarious experience in the reader’s mind. And that the brain processes the imagined experience in a way that mirrors how it processes real-life experiences.

Neuroscientists are fascinated by this. Here’s an academic article, and here’s the New York Times. Also, for bonus fun, here’s Science Daily on the phenomenon of “experience-taking” and reading.

3. Stop Judging Me, You Judgmental Judger

The flaws with this one should be obvious. First: it’s ineffective reasoning to bait-and-switch a person for an idea, an ethic or an opinion. Second: log, eye, pot, kettle, et cetera.

4. It Helped My Marriage

What helped the marriage? The gist I’ve encountered is that women actually talked to their husbands about sex, when they hadn’t before. Sometimes because they read the book(s) alone, sometimes because they read them together.

In that case, my dear, the book didn’t help your marriage. You did. And it doesn’t require any book for you to do so. Not torture porn, not holy-toned religious self-help. All it takes is honesty.

You can communicate anytime you choose. And if you did, that’s your success to claim. Stop handing your personal power away to a novel.

5. It’s Not About the Sex, It’s About the Power of Loooove

And men read Playboy for the articles. But no, wait, let’s examine this notion.

Under no circumstances is it acceptable to manipulate and abuse another in order to “work out one’s issues.” Two wrongs don’t make a right.

As others have pointed out, to believe that someone who chooses to abuse will heal if only they are loved enough, or the right way, or unconditionally, perpetuates a dangerous state of denial common to abuse victims.

Let’s put that together with the aforementioned science on reading and “experience-taking.” Is that toxic fantasy and denial what we want to perpetuate? Is it what we wish on our daughters? Our friends?

This, more than anything, concerns me about the response from professedly religious readers of the books. There seems to be little to no discernment on the issue of unhealthy submission in women. I’m left wondering how these readers can stand blind to the misogynistic issues readily perceived by thoughtful secular women.

The Odd Phenomenon of Religious Readers

The first I read anything related to BDSM, it had cropped up as a potential intersecting influence in the No Greater Joy child abuse travesties of 2010-2011 (see WhyNotTrainAChild.com for a wide variety of online commentary and resources). It showed up under the moniker of “Christian Domestic Discipline,” a mentally sick practice of wife-dominance outlined on several websites and merely a hop, skip and jump by the hyperlinks to the BDSM community.

The attitudes sported by BDSM roleplaying (“I need him to control me and I feel righter when I submit”) are in fact taught and caught in a very serious sense in the hyper-patriarchal movement, and also–so I am given to understand by other reviewers–in the Pearls’ marriage literature. In some communities, they are a matter of religious requirement as much as or more than sexual lifestyle preference.

Does that seem right to you?

This leaves me to question how much and how often the doctrines of complementarianism are shifted off their biblical basis and used to justify Victorianism, misogyny, and outright abuse.

Karen at ThatMom has some insight on that.

An Untrustworthy Failure of Understanding

What drives us to participate in the betrayal of fellow womankind’s human worth for the sake of our gratuitous titillation? What drives us to vicariously betray ourselves in this way? How did we get to here:

And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper…without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.

Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. (Rom. 1:28-2:1)

Has the faith community so badly dropped the ball in discipling women on their God-given dignity and value? Or have we simply dropped the ball on discipleship as a lifestyle practice?

Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women… (Titus 2:3-4a)

More than any opinion–yours, mine or the mom next door’s–I believe we have an opportunity and responsibility to make a careful examination of the discussion generated by this topic, and re-ask these questions about how we in the Christian faith communicate and advocate human sanctity to women.



  1. Very good thoughts, my friend. In particular your point about “independent verification by contemporary sources” was poignant to me for two reasons: 1) In the last year I was forced to abandon a ministry I once supported whole heartedly because the leader refused to admit to lying about the contents of a book he had never read and cited only one side of the “contemporary resources”. Now I have vocabulary for my framing of the problem. And 2) I have women friends who call themselves Christian who have read this book with not a prick of conscience. I am completely baffled at how they can “glorify God and enjoy Him forever” in the reading of this book for many reasons, but as usual you bring out even more thoughtful facets of the problem.

    1. Thanks, Esther. I’ve seen a lot of women asking questions about how to deal with this and what, if anything, to think about it. Amazing how many people have professing Christian friends who want to read it.

    1. If this were a scholarly matter, I’d absolutely agree. Currently I’m slogging through a personal study of 1 Cor. 11 and the current-day, Westernized gender rhetoric surrounding it. Which includes examining the claim that “shaven head” refers to prostitutes, versus the claim that this is urban myth, based on extant (pornographic) art from brothels of the time period. I have to say I’m preferring the “kephale” word study, but I feel strongly that it’s intellectually responsible to find out whatever I can from primary sources.

      But I’d suggest 50 Shades is not on the same order of complexity. :) To me it’s a simple commonsense issue that’s gotten overcomplicated by emotional reactions and, frankly, the generic desire to justify sin.

  2. You speak intelligently and intellectually about a topic that’s become completely emotional–especially for readers who choose to defend these books. “But, but . . . it’s just so gooood! But I know its bad. But you HAVE to read it!” (seriously?) Thank you for thinking.

  3. This might be kind of off topic, but I wanted to say something about your forth point. First, I haven’t read this book, so this response isn’t in regards to the book, but the essence of your point. I’m not sure I entirely agree with your statement. I agree that we can communicate anytime we choose, but some of us have a hard time communicating. My inability to communicate was the hardest thing for me to overcome. Books can offer opportunity for discussion or give us insight into what we are dealing with, or what we are wanting to say. Of course, that all depends on the books we’re reading and bunch of other variables. For me, it was a novel that opened my eyes to something more than religion during a time of despair and depression. I’ve read self-help books and the Bible and they have helped overcome many things, but it was God working in my life, bringing truth to set me free…. At this point in my journey I get what you’re saying, that all we have to be is honest and just to say it, and I can do that now, but for some of us, we haven’t been able to just do that, we don’t clue what a healthy relationship looks like, etc… although…I’m not sure I’d go looking for examples in fiction now, but God can use anything to reach us, speak to us, change us.

    anyways…thanks for a great though provoking post!

    1. Jennette, your thoughts very much touch home with me. Most of my friends know me online–this is because I’m not a talker at all unless I’m very, very comfortable with the people I’m with. And conflict or deeply emotional matters, forget it…deploy the Cone of Silence. :)

      So I very much understand what you’re saying here. It’s a hurdle I’ve had to jump repeatedly in order to maintain my marriage and raise my kids.

      And, in fact, I’m a writer because a novel Francine Rivers wrote utterly changed my life–I would go so far as to say God used it to save my life.

      But, like you, I’ve still had to make the hard choices God laid open to me, whether through books or otherwise. It’s outside the scope of the OP, but that’s ultimately why I want to encourage people to own their successes in communicating.

      Thanks for bringing that one up.

  4. I find it difficult to express the way I felt on my last trip to Costco to see a mountain of 50 Shades of Grey, hundreds upon hundreds of copies piled up at a prime high-traffic aisle.

    I’ve read quite a lot about this book, enough to know NOT to read it. I came to Christ over 7 years ago at nearly age 41. Books like these, as I’ve heard it described, were around in my pre-Christ years. Anne Rice, in fact, had a pseudonym under which she wrote S&M erotica. Without saying too much about those days, I will say that I ate that stuff up, albeit clandestinely. Also, what I’ve heard described reminds me very much of one of my favorite movies from my young 20’s. It was called 9 1/2 weeks. This book, judging by how I’ve heard it described, sounds like a drawn out version of that movie, which was nothing if not “soft” S&M porn. I don’t feel that I need, or that it would be wise for me, to read such a book. Nor do I think my reading of it is pre-requisite to my being qualified to speak about it. It is clear that this book is not aiming to be any great morality tale, any more than Anne “Rampling” intended with her erotica. It is sex for entertainment (there is another word for that), a genre I am unfortunately all too well acquainted with – a genre I put off when I put on Christ.

    I will refrain from writing what really should be my own full blog-post on the subject here in your comment thread. I’ll just say, as one who once avidly partook of such pornographic fare, I can say that it is not fit, or helpful to anyone. Period.

    1. I appreciate your transparency. To me, that’s a true example of the mature women discipling the younger women.

      I heard recently that Anne Rice has decided to re-release those books…quite a sad shift from her journey into religion and back out again.

  5. On the first point, I am reminded of the old saying, that you don’t have to eat a rotten egg to know that it is spoiled.
    I am usually a big believer in first sources myslef, but in this case–& others akin to it–I can smell the rot without ingesting the (junk) food.

    Thanks, Cat!!

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