• Turning ‘Fifty Shades’ on its head

  • By Christine Galea - Secretary to the Council of Cana Movement

    This article was publishd in The Times

    I have no doubt that most people have heard of E.L. James’ best-selling erotic novels, collectively known as Fifty Shades.  This trilogy has sold over 100 million copies and the movies are attracting large crowds of viewers.  I must confess that most of what I know about Fifty Shades comes from on-line articles, but I think I have amassed enough information to conclude that this narrative focuses upon the depiction of a BDSM relationship.  Through my reading, I think it can be characterized as pornographic, because of the link that so often comes with pornography, i.e. the encouragement of sexual violence, particularly against women.  In spite of being shrouded in romance, Fifty Shades clearly depicts a deeply abusive relationship, in which its protagonist suffers emotional and physical violence at the hands of her partner – and the worst thing seems to be that she doesn’t even realize this! Indeed, this has left me wondering about how a BDSM relationship could possibly appeal to anyone at all.

    To be completely fair, the BDSM international community itself has spoken out on the issue and has distanced itself from the horrific lack of safety or consent in this fictional relationship.  In fact, BDSM practitioner Sophie Morgan, writing in ‘The Guardian’, has declared quite vehemently that, “It’s about abuse”.  But, safe or not, consensual or not, I simply cannot understand how such an abusive relationship can possibly be appealing, or even sexy, let alone empowering (as some women are saying).  In a world where domestic violence is recognized as a cardinal sin, this trilogy effectively silences the experience of several victims of abuse, and yet it is being promoted as “romance”. So much so, that the second movie in the series was marketed as an incredible love story and widely-advertised as a ‘date-night movie’, released to the public just in time for Valentine’s Day.  By setting it up as romantic, this movie sends out the toxic message that, in the end, BDSM is a sexual practice in which reprehensible threats and behaviour are legitimate, and represented as playful fun; a practice in which force is acceptable because it equals enjoyment.  But is sex really only about fun and pleasure?  Does abuse have a place in the sexual relationship of a couple? What constitutes a healthy sexual relationship?

    Ideas about what constitutes a healthy sexual partnership vary enormously, and are dependent upon differing personal and cultural perspectives on sex.  There seems to be some consensus that one of the integral aspects of a healthy relationship involves thinking about the emotional, as well as the physical aspects.  In order for the intimate relationship to come full circle, there must be good emotional connection between the partners. A couple can have sex without investing any emotions, but when they love each other, it’s a completely different story.  Couples who are in love are ready to step out of their comfort zone to please one another and make their loved-one feel cared-for and respected. This is important in all aspects of a relationship, but when it comes to sex, mutual respect must be a priority.  This includes the partners having a solid understanding of each other’s boundaries and being able to discuss them honestly and openly. Human dignity is another element that needs to be taken into consideration.  Sex and dignity are two words that seem not to belong together because dignity often implies primness and good posture.  But in this context, dignity means being aware of the human value of one’s partner; it enables a person to look upon his or her partner as a whole being, rather than just as a means to satisfy sexual desires.

    At face value, the argument may arise that Fifty Shades is just fiction, just a fantasy; but sadly, the reality is that for many women, sexual violence and brutal abuse is very much an every-day experience. Such a trilogy does not do justice to the victims and invalidates their suffering; nor does it promote the growth of healthy relationships.  So, how about turning it on its head? Rather than putting our stamp of approval on Fifty Shades, it might be a better idea to practice empathy and actively support those people who are affected by abusive relationships.  Another possibility is to battle the mentality pumped out by the culture that we live in, that sex is a commodity, an activity which is totally unrelated to love. Or, we could put forward a clear agenda to show the proper values and acceptable behaviours within a society which perpetuates seemingly justified violence. All these practices will serve to foster a spirit of love, honesty, respect and dignity in sexual relations, and help combat those factors that undermine the hard work that is at the core of building up an authentic relationship.

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