Being a Christian feminist, I navigate a minefield of issues. I often find myself in this weird state where I’m not really accepted in either circle, so it makes life difficult. On the rare occasion that Christians and feminists agree on something, you think I’d be the first to start cheering. However, it seems sometimes even when these two groups agree with each other, they really don’t. Case in point: the recent and growing popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, the Twilight fanfic turned popular movie franchise. While many people, both Christian and feminist, hated the book, the movie is sure to bring the story to a wider audience, causing both groups to worry about how this popular piece of geek culture is going to affect our society.
Even though both groups agree that Fifty Shades is a problem, many Christians are now using it both as an opportunity to kink-shame and slut-shame, and as an attempt to bring back archaic and sexist notions of chivalry.
Both the pictures in this post and the frank discussion of BDSM are NSFW.
When I was in high school, I was a very conservative Catholic woman. About the only progressive view I had was my belief in equal rights for LGBTQ+ people. I did not consider myself a feminist and I truly felt that if people just took the time to understand Catholicism that they would agree with the Catholic Church. Yeah, I was an idiot. I was also insistent that I would remain a virgin until marriage, but despite these beliefs, I never had any aversion to BDSM. I figured as long as you were married and everything was consensual it didn’t matter what kind of sex you had. I even remember saying, in front of my whole class and my adult male religion teachers, that I would remain a virgin until marriage, but after marriage I was going to have the wildest kinkiest sex ever! My teachers never really addressed my comment. This might partly have been because they didn’t want to discuss kinky sex with a high schooler for fear of losing their jobs, but the other part was that the Catholic Church has no official condemnation of it. That doesn’t mean that some bishops or theologians might claim that kinky sex is awful and not a part of God’s plan. The Catholic Church tends to only address issues with sex and sexuality as they become more mainstream and discussed. BDSM is not something most people talked about (until recently) so it was never officially approved or condemned. So in a lot of ways, my young self was right in that regard.
For other Christians, opinions on BDSM aren’t controlled by some governing church body, and opinions can change depending on what denomination or church you go to. But chances are, once again, that many preachers and ministers were not discussing anything like in Fifty Shades of Grey, because again, it wasn’t something most people were talking about. In my experience, there are some Christians who might argue that the only correct way to have sex is in the missionary position, and that anything else is wrong, so this could exclude anything like BDSM and most other kinds of sex as well. However, for the most part Christians draw their understanding of the world from the Bible, and obviously while the Bible has a lot to say, even on matters of sex, nothing like BDSM is discussed there either. So you’d think as long as things are safe, sane, consensual, and happy after marriage that Christians wouldn’t care what kind of sex anyone is having. Okay yes, admittedly Christians do have a lot of hang ups about sex so they’d also have to be heterosexual and married, but while I don’t agree with those limitations you can have that and a BDSM relationship so it really shouldn’t be a big deal. But alas, patriarchy is sadly a strong force in most Christian circles, causing archaic notions of chivalry and modesty to make sex and especially female enjoyment of sex extremely taboo and even sinful.
I’m not trying to argue that Fifty Shades of Grey is a good story or that it is a good example of BDSM; it’s not. The only thing real about Fifty Shades of Grey is that it accurately portrays what an abusive and manipulative Dominant looks like. However, due to a lack of understanding of what BDSM is, author E. L. James portrays this as a beautiful romantic relationship, and not an abusive one. There are some feminists who are simply anti-pornography and even anti-BDSM, claiming that it is all just violence against women. But I have seen far more feminists complain that the movie and the book glorify abuse by not portraying BDSM correctly. Fifty Shades of Grey could be a great romance if not for that! Christians suffer from the same lack of understanding of BDSM, but their condemnation of Fifty Shades of Grey comes not from the idea that Christian Grey is abusive, but from the belief that BDSM itself is abuse. Kim Gaines Eckert, a writer for Christianity Today, shows this in her recent article:
Powerful men have been using women for sex, and women have been using sex to attain power from men since the beginning of time. Fifty Shades is not breaking any new ground here, although the explicit use of violence adds a problematic association. Not only does the man use the woman for sex, he associates her pain with his own sexual arousal. When we connect physiological sexual arousal with violent images or experiences, we forge neural pathways that ask to be repeated. This is the foundation of sexual violence, and it is frightening and perplexing to observe how millions of women have been willing to learn this lesson.
Sometimes couples ask me whether it is healthy to experiment sexually with BDSM in marriage. As a psychologist and a Christian, I encourage them to shift the focus from what is acceptable to what brings good to the other (1 Cor. 10:23-24). If my husband, Jeff, is going to reflect God’s love in our marriage, then he will be for me – seeking my good in all things. Likewise, I will be for him. Being for me means that Jeff wants me to experience physical pleasure and joy in our sexual relationship, without degrading or hurting me in any way.
This article makes it very clear that the issue is not Christian Grey being abusive, but rather that BDSM at its core is abusive and contrary to God’s plan. The assertion is clearly made that participating in BDSM is psychologically unhealthy and not something that could possibly be a part of a loving relationship. Another Christian article takes kink-shaming to another level by asking the question, as the title of the article states, “Would Jesus Christ Go See 50 Shades of Grey This Weekend?” In said article, many Christian bloggers and writers state what Jesus would “actually think” about such disgraceful acts. The worst quote, in my opinion, comes from Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest whom I usually respect, who writes:
First of all, I’ve not seen the movie or read the book. But, as I understand it, the plot centers on a relationship that includes some S&M. Jesus was certainly not anti-sex: after all, many of his disciples were married. On the other hand, Jesus himself was a victim of violence (including beatings and torture) and so he probably experienced enough violence in his own life that he wouldn’t be so eager to see it onscreen.
Um… okay, Fr. Martin, did you just compare Christ’s torture and crucifixion to BDSM? That seems way off base. Admittedly, maybe such sex acts would be triggers for Jesus and so he might not be into them, but I don’t exactly see how that is relevant here. Jesus was whipped to the point where his skin was literally peeling off him and his raw and exposed body was beaten to cause more pain and damage to the wounds already there, and that’s all before being forced to carry a heavy cross and then being nailed to it. That was Roman capital punishment at the time! It is more comparable to the death penalty and certainly not comparable to BDSM. But the message conveyed by Fr. Martin clearly seems to imply that BDSM is so evil that Christ’s own torturers used it against him. That’s incredibly insulting to those in healthy, safe, sane, and consensual BDSM relationships.
Not only are Christians claiming that Fifty Shades of Grey is abusive by arguing that BDSM is inherently abusive, they are also shaming women for their being interested in sex, especially pornographic BDSM like the type found in Fifty Shades of Grey. Pat Robertson, the ultimate in ludicrous conservative Christianity, expresses his shock in this video that women like Fifty Shades of Grey and that women enjoy pornography. Uh, yeah, news flash: women like sex! And while I don’t think Fifty Shades of Grey is very good, if the book wasn’t just abuse apologism then I would be excited to see a movie that catered to female sexual desires. There is a part of me that almost finds this funny. It’s like Christians thought women didn’t even have a sex drive before this and are shocked to discover that women too like dirty dirty porn. Furthermore, the two articles I cited earlier in on try to dismiss female sexual desires by claiming that BDSM is only something women try in order to get the spice back into their marriage, and not something they just might want to legitimately try for themselves.
And finally, Christians are using Fifty Shades of Grey as an opportunity to promote their own harmful brand of sexuality by enforcing the idea that that chivalry needs to be recovered. When I was in San Antonio attending a conference for Youth Ministers, trailers for certain “Christian movies and films” were shown. All of them were disappointing (they actually showed a trailer for Exodus: Gods and Kings!) but the one that pissed me off the most was a movie called Old Fashioned, which is being billed as a “Christian alternative” to Fifty Shades of Grey.
“I wanted to tell a love story that takes the idea of godly romance seriously,” Rik Swartzwelder, writer, director, and star, told Variety. “Opening the same weekend as Fifty Shades, there’s definitely a David v. Goliath comparison. They will have more screens, more money, more hype…but we’re hopeful that we are not alone in our belief that there are others out there who desire more from love–and the movies–than objectification or domination.” (source)
Once again we see the utter misunderstanding of BDSM but that is accompanied by this idea of “godly romance”. What is “godly romance”? It is chivalry, of course. The tagline to this movie is “Chivalry makes a comeback!” And the movie seems to lament the loss of courting and saving sex for marriage. One Christian writer gives the basic plot in their review. He writes:
Clay (played by producer/director/writer Rik Swartzwelder) runs an antique shop and cares for his aging aunt. He has made a promise to his future wife—whomever she might be—that he will not spend time alone in a room with a woman. Amber (Elizabeth Ann Roberts) drifts from town to town, carrying more baggage than can fit in the trunk of her car. Married at 19 and divorced two years later, she has repeatedly sought self-worth in the arms of lovers. Clay, a former producer of pornographic videos, also is trying to escape his past. But since his conversion to Christ, feelings of guilt and hypocrisy have pushed him away from the church.
Amber arrives in Clay’s town and rents a room from him above the antique store. She scoffs at his old fashioned rules—like no kissing until the wedding day—yet is drawn to how different he is from the men in her past. She sabotages the appliances in her apartment, just so he’ll have to come visit her. While he makes the repairs, he shares his life story, telling Amber—who must wait outside the apartment door—he’s a changed man since “Jesus found me.” (source)
Okay, wow, yeah, we did a total reversal here. How did everything go from BDSM to no kissing or even two people of the opposite sex being in the same room together (because gay people don’t exist in Christian movies)? Clay used to be a pornography producer but now he found Jesus and is trying to redeem himself of his sin, while Amber married young, divorced shortly after, and is now sleeping around. Gasp! I’m sorry; these two characters aren’t comparable. It seems like the movie is trying to portray Clay as a man who lost his way but now has found God again, while Amber is still lost and still a sinful woman, and together through their growing relationship Clay will help lead Amber back to God and Amber will help Clay forgive himself. It’s everything wrong with chivalry in a single movie. They only way it could be worse is if Clay asked Amber’s father permission to court her (he probably does). But Old Fashioned is more than just a response to Fifty Shades of Grey; it is a response to any kind of sexual agency or sex positivity. While I haven’t yet heard any Christians blaming feminists for Fifty Shades of Grey, I am sure it is either out there already or I just have yet to see it. Christians often blame feminists for the sexual revolution and for encouraging women to be their own sexual agents. So it’s no real shock that Old Fashioned would attempt to redeem a “sinful” woman who made her own choices about whom to marry or divorce, and whom to sleep with or not.
I just don’t get it. There has to be a balance between sexist chivalry which gives women no agency and is so prudish that even small acts like kissing or men and women hanging out together seems wrong, and a novel written by a woman with so little understanding of BDSM that she ends up just writing abuse apologism. There has to be a middle ground. A real Christian response to Fifty Shades of Grey would be the same as a feminist one. It would simply be a movie showing a loving couple engaging in safe, sane, and consensual BDSM. I don’t understand why people can’t see that.