Guest post from…Katie Kevorkian recently received a Master of Arts from Claremont School of Theology in Interreligious Education. She is the Director of Children’s and Youth Ministries at Northridge United Methodist Church in Northridge, California.
This post is the fourth in a series on sexual violence and the church.
I admit it – I’ve read 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve even read 50 Shades Darker and I’m halfway through 50 Shades Freed. It is difficult to pinpoint what it is about these books that makes me want to continue reading them; they are notorious for the poor writing, underdeveloped characters and weak plot. They do, however, feature a female protagonist who becomes deeply involved in a dangerous situation. And I want so badly for her to walk away from it. So much that I keep reading in hopes that she will.
The 50 Shades trilogy is the story of a naive young woman who is physically beaten, punished, and verbally abused by a controlling, emotionally disturbed boyfriend. And he loves her… and she loves him… so she should keep trying to make it work, right? She should keep on believing that he will change because he loves her, right?
Of course. Because true love conquers all.
When we talk about sexual violence, we often speak of isolated incidents: women who are attacked by strangers, date rape, etc. Often we talk about women and children who are assaulted against their will by people who are familiar and close to them, like relatives, teachers or clergy. These tragedies deserve our attention and the women (and men) who have survived attacks deserve the support of the community to find justice, safety and peace. We often forget, though, that much sexual violence happens in the privacy of one’s own home, behind closed doors, within a committed relationship.
50 Shades of Grey effectively turns sexual abuse into something to be desired. To the protagonist, Ana Steele, it is hot and sexy, something that turns her on and makes her want more. Christian Grey, her love interest, has a troubled past, which he has learned to deal with by adopting a BDSM lifestyle, and outfitting a torture chamber and sex lair in his home, referred to as the “playroom,” or the “red room of pain.” In addition to the alternative lifestyle choice, Christian is unpredictable and quick to anger. Ana admits that she is afraid of him – afraid of his mood swings, jealousy and anger, yet she perseveres, hoping he will change. She puts up with physical pain, even admitting fault when he injures her while he is physically punishing her: she did not use the “safe word” while being beaten, thus causing her own injury. She requests that he hit her in order to ease the tension after an argument and tells him often that believes that she deserves to be punished. She enjoys the punishment, and becomes what he wants her to be: a girlfriend and punching bag.
If this sounds a little bit familiar, it’s because you’ve heard the story before. The 50 Shades trilogy by E L James began life as Twilight fan fiction. The Twilight Saga introduced similar themes into teen literature, including the notion that sex was accompanied by pain, and that this pain intensifies the sexual experience in a positive way. The pain in these stories is always inflicted by the man at his discretion and experienced by the woman. It is not cooperative (which wouldn’t be any less scary), but involves a dominant and submissive partner, one who completely controls the other and the situation.
These messages are dangerous, especially because these books culminate in (spoiler alert!) marriage: a contract that binds the couple together, making it much more difficult for the abused partner to remove herself from the situation. The stories suggest that a young woman should stay with a person who hurts them, because it doesn’t get better than that. If true love is in the mix, then the abuse is a non-issue, or will solve itself.
No one should have to learn to deal with abuse or to put up with violence, including verbal abuse and controlling behavior, ever. Especially not in a quest to find true love! We assume that this message is accepted by our communities, our friends, relatives, siblings and daughters – it seems so logical. However, ideas to the contrary are propagated in our favorite literature. Twilight is absorbed at an alarming rate by teenage girls, and housewives and young adult women seem to be under the spell of 50 Shades. Women of all ages are receiving the message that these kind of relationships are not only excusable, but normal and desirable.
We need to send a new message to women of all ages about love and violence: if your romantic relationship includes controlling or possessive behavior, extreme paranoia or physical or emotional abuse, then you can do better. There is no such thing as love so powerful that makes an abusive situation worth it. Not for the moment, and especially not for the rest of one’s life.