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POV: Fifty Shades of Grey Reflects Continuing Inequality for Women

Is this the best our culture can do on sexuality?

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There is no denying the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. With more than 100 million copies of the book sold and more than $486 million globally since the movie opened February 15, Fifty Shades has catapulted into the public discourse.

And, therefore, into the realm of public health. I have spent years talking to young people, college students, school administrators, youth program staff, and parents about sexual health in this country. So what does it mean that Fifty Shades is now selling bath oil, vibrating love rings, lubricant, and blindfolds at Target? Is this the dawn of improved sexual discourse in the United States? If we have mainstream acceptance of bondage, sexual contracts, and the like, are we going to see an overall improvement in the sexual health and satisfaction of Americans? Or does Fifty Shades just reflect the current state of inequality in the bedroom between men and women? Is it the ultimate elevation of dating abuse, sexual violence, and other gloomy realities about human (hetero)sexual behavior? Unfortunately, I think it is more of the latter.

The first thing that struck me while reading Fifty Shades is this: wow, people are really not kidding about the terrible writing. Just how badly written is the trilogy? It makes the Twilight series—the origin of Fifty Shades, as it was first created as fan fiction—look like Pulitzer material. As Salman Rushdie put it in 2012, “I’ve never read anything so badly written that got published. It made Twilight look like War and Peace.”

Nor is there much new about Fifty Shades, especially sexually. Is there really anything edgy or brave about a dominant man and a naïve girl with big eyes? It is just an R-rated version of a Disney movie.

It is incredibly depressing that badly written erotica acting out very old sexual scripts for women and men has become so popular. People can debate the meanings, symbolism, and impact, and they have (with thanks to the fabulous sexuality educator Aida Manduley for the link—and don’t miss her hilarious live- tweeting of reading Fifty Shades), but the bottom line is that the trilogy’s popularity is a deeply discouraging insight into our current state of sexual health. And frankly, it is not a surprise.

With recent generations raised on abstinence-only, shame-based sexuality “education,” is it any wonder that we now are offered a sexual fantasy that insists on a female character who is clueless, uninitiated, and in fact has never even masturbated? What did we expect the natural progression of abstinence-only would bring us? Don’t forget that the origins of abstinence-only programs moved from preventing teen pregnancy—a worthy and evidence-based public health goal—to promoting heterosexual marriage as the only accepted form of human sexual behavior, an unscientific, moralistic treatise that has proven completely ineffective at changing outcomes. But abstinence-only education has undoubtedly changed our culture. It has brought us more sexual shame, more fear of our desires—particularly female ones—and less knowledge about our bodies and physiology.

Now we have Christian and Anastasia, the bad boy driving an Audi and the good girl driving a beat-up VW Beetle (instead of Edward’s Volvo and Bella’s 1950s Chevy truck in the Twilight series). Christian is bad and knows he is bad, and Anastasia is a literal and figurative virgin, and has to be “taken” in order to allow herself any feelings of genuine sexuality. The consent is flimsy or nonexistent (“Yes,” “No,” “I don’t know,” “Oh okay, take me”); the relentless materialism revolting (for spanking, you get a NEW CAR!); the sex is, frankly, boring (she literally yells “argh” at reaching orgasm. Argh. I tend to use “argh” when I stub my toe); and the message is clear: women who want sex still need to be “taken,” so they don’t have responsibility for their feelings, and men want to dominate and not be touched. I am sorry, but it is 2015, and that is just pathetic. And it is also, unfortunately, the natural conclusion of raising generations of children without genuine, authentic sexuality education. Our desires and sexual scripts are as influenced by our culture as our appetites, our clothing choices, what we listen to, and what we read. Why wouldn’t we expect repression, complete lack of self-knowledge, and a secret room full of naughty things locked away, to become popular and glorified? As Tracy Clark-Flory, sex and relationships writer for Salon, tweeted: “The Fifty Shades movie could not be more clueless about consent, which makes it exactly the sex movie that America deserves.”

We all have work to do to improve our sexual health: increasing communication with our partners; beefing up our birth control; getting tested and treated for sexually transmitted infections; speaking up early and often about the critical importance of active, engaged consent; and working on undoing the shame and misinformation so many of us learned or absorbed growing up in a sexually repressed yet sex-sells-everything, misogynist, homophobic culture. There is so much work to be done. Let us not get distracted by a book or a movie, and instead focus on creating our own genuine and authentic sexual selves. We deserve nothing less.

Sophie Godley (SPH’15), a School of Public Health clinical assistant professor of community health sciences, can be reached at sgodley@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

27 Comments

27 Comments on POV: Fifty Shades of Grey Reflects Continuing Inequality for Women

  • L on 03.03.2015 at 7:20 am

    This article is ironically incredibly demeaning to women. Yes, there are themes in 50 shades of grey that can be seen as not empowering to women and mysoginistic. As far as sexual health goes, please do your research on this issue before promoting your ideas. Here is a great article (that contains REAL research and facts):
    http://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/news/a31879/rough-sex-november-2014/
    Essentially it is saying women who are comfortable being dominated are actually more confident and healthy in their everyday lives.
    I understand this is an opinion article but your opinion is so incredibly narrow-minded. Articles like these only contribute to the entire reason women still are not comfortable talking about sex and their sexual preferences.

    • really? on 03.03.2015 at 10:15 am

      Please, tell me more about your sound fact checking from the very reputable Cosmo. BDSM can be very healthy and rewarding if done correctly, but the lack of clear definition of consent in the books is problematic at best. No one is saying sadomasochism is bad, the author is pointing out the poor writing and lack of human understanding in this glorified fan fiction can give people the wrong idea about healthy, adventurous sex.

    • K on 03.03.2015 at 10:27 am

      Ok, tell the well respected sexual health educator with 20+ years of experience to “do her research” and then link to an article from Cosmo. An article that, for the record, briefly mentions only one study and does not link to it.

    • REAL researcher on 03.03.2015 at 12:31 pm

      Thank you, ‘L’, for demonstrating clearly just how research-challenged most BU students are. Try citing Cosmo in a paper and see what reaction you get from your Instructor.
      Sigh.

  • Patriarchysmasher on 03.03.2015 at 8:14 am

    I’d love to see the response if the genders were reversed. The movie would have been blackballed faster than you could say “rape culture”.

  • Patriarchysmasher on 03.03.2015 at 8:19 am

    I’m also quite impressed that once again this has been made into an issue all about women when it is clearly an objectification of men.

  • BU Mom 2 on 03.03.2015 at 9:24 am

    Bravo.

  • M on 03.03.2015 at 9:46 am

    Unfortunately people have always enjoyed lousy movies and there is nothing that anyone can do about that. I think that the real cultural problem that needs to be discussed is why do we as a society feel the need to regulate an individual’s sexual decisions and preferences?

  • ab on 03.03.2015 at 10:27 am

    The real problem is education. I hope BU faculty can enlighten and enrich their students’ lives by actually trying to educate rather than just pat lip service. BU is increasingly moving into a research first education later type of school. Leave that to the MITs. Please take your mission of education seriously. And reward your adjuncts and affiliates and post docs and Ra’s.

    • Jose Artigas on 03.03.2015 at 5:17 pm

      While ab’s comment is off topic regarding the article, it hits the mark where BU is concerned. BU was among the first universities to embrace the business model. They still hold it in their clammy embrace.

  • ruguyssrs on 03.03.2015 at 10:31 am

    In todays edition of BU Today, we pick the low hanging fruit!
    For real, M above me is right. It’s an erotic novel. It’s for people to masturbate to. In bed, people like what they like. It’s not up to you to decide. It’s a personal preference, the same as liking marinara sauce on your pasta over olive oil.
    On top of that, your argument is weak to the point of nonexistent. You go on for a long time about abstinence-only sex ed, and then somehow link that to dom sex (without any sources or even a basic explanation of this strange link), and then take dom sex as literally as humanly possible and say it’s a man “repressing” a woman. And all of this somehow means the Patriarchy is in full swing. Are you people even trying any more?
    Pointing at something and saying that you’re offended doesn’t make the thing evil and it doesn’t make it a women’s issue. It makes you oversensitive.

    • ithinktheyrebeingsrs on 03.03.2015 at 1:17 pm

      Agreed. It’s common knowledge that the book’s writing is crap. We know it’s not supposed to teach us any profound lessons about sexuality, it’s literally just one woman writing about her fantasy. It got published, and a lot of people happened to like it.

  • Don on 03.03.2015 at 10:53 am

    I don’t watch TV so I don’t know what ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is.

  • subbie on 03.03.2015 at 10:55 am

    I agree to some extent with L. Yes, women who are comfortable being dominated are potentially more confident in their lives. But when I read the book, it didn’t feel like a consensual BDSM relationship. She didn’t really know what she was getting herself into and he didn’t introduce her to it in the proper fashion. I mean, she leaves him because she thinks it is abusive after he spanks her really hard. I am a submissive and I don’t think that what they were doing was at all something to feel good about.

  • Untimely Meditations on 03.03.2015 at 11:36 am

    Everyone always talks about “education” when this issue comes up. What would that even consist of? Abstinence got us nowhere, and I don’t think the opposite practice (the thoughtless pleasure-seeking you see too often today) is in any way superior. Real freedom does not exist divorced from responsibility. When people (all people) finally come to realize that sex is something other than a transaction, a mere exchange of pleasure, and so stop using other people and pursuing it for entirely selfish purposes, then maybe we’ll see some results. This issue transcends mere sexuality: this self-destructive, pleasure-seeker attitude reduces all others to mere objects of utility and will come to destroy us a la “Brave New World” if left unchecked. People who know a lot about the how-to of sex as an act are too often, ironically, the least suited to educate about this. There’s got to be so much more involved in any “education” on this issue than the idea of consent and methods of birth control.

    • M on 03.03.2015 at 5:03 pm

      At a personal level, I agree with many of these sentiments but there are entire philosophical works that attempt to achieve a definition of “freedom” to no avail. I think when it comes to sex, individuals need to be left alone to decide what sex means for them. I don’t see how sex could ever come to destroy us all (war does this), and I rue the day that we are forced to experience sex on any other terms but our own. I think we should all agree that this is an integral part of consent!

  • S on 03.03.2015 at 12:51 pm

    But I don’t think she was criticizing the BDSM part of the book/movie. What concerns her, and also concerns me, is the apparent lack of consent. Say what as you may about BDSM, consensus is important nonetheless. She even didn’t get to choose her own safe word.

  • Nancy on 03.03.2015 at 4:57 pm

    The book is pure fantasy and shouldn’t be taken seriously. That being said, anyone who read the books knows that the real villain in the piece is the older woman and dominatrix and pedifile who corrupted the 15 year old boy who was Christian.

  • C on 03.03.2015 at 7:17 pm

    Oh jeez, take it easy you don’t have to like everything out there at the movies or very popular books, if that would be the case we would have nothing to compare but with that being said the millions of readers that did love the book have been excited about the movie. At least people want to go the theatre, which piracy has token over according to the film industry. The best thing for haters is probably not go see these types of movies and leave it to the real fans of the book because the fact is women everywhere enjoyed the fantasy.

  • Eh on 03.03.2015 at 8:23 pm

    BDSM is great. The only problem I have with the movie was how corny the scenes were. If you want real BDSM, check out the Secretary. Some women love getting dominated. DEAL WITH IT.

  • ordinary_guy on 03.04.2015 at 12:30 am

    What a hypocrite a person should be if one enjoys watching the game of thrones and all other popular TV shows and movies, which just happen to be filled with sexual scenes, and at the same time judges the movie and the book 50 Shades of Grey for its sexual content? The book itself and the movie does not picture something bad. It just pictures the love from different angle. The characters are extremely well developed and the storyline itself is beautyful. I have one live motto, which I like to follow: “First understand, then seek to be understood.” The things that may seem weird, are only present because people lack the understanding and appreciation of them.

    P.S. By the way, I am a man, and I truly believe that this movie deserves appreciation and the books are exceptionally well written.

  • nadia on 03.04.2015 at 9:48 am

    WAR ON WOMEN ! Ha ha ha I wonder how many wemen will read the book about a wimpy guy and his powerful wealthy girlfriend … Most women like their man strong and masculine its basic and sexy …feminism should stay out of the bedroom

  • C on 03.04.2015 at 10:01 am

    I think people just misunderstand others who practice BDSM. Fifty Shades of Grey happens to have woman as the submissive and man as the dominant, but in BDSM world, men often choose to be submissive as well.

    And only people who practice BDSM would understand the pleasure derived from pain. I had discussions with some of my girl friends about our sex fantacies, and I admitted to them about me and BDSM and showed them video. They didn’t get it because they thought the sex act was too painful to enjoy. That moment I realized BDSM is definitely not for everyone, not event to understand the pleasure behind it.

    I’m glad that Fifty Shades of Grey inspires discussion about BDSM nationally because it is hard to come out, admitting their BDSM practice. Many compared the emotions of coming out as BDSM similar to coming out as homosexual because there may be consequences to tell others about something that is not widely acceptable. Imagine a respected, well-known governor admits about his submission in BDSM, this news can destroy his career because society hasn’t accept the notion of BDSM as a normal sex practice.

    What I’m trying to say is that… for those of you who complain about BDSM makes women lose empowerment, you don’t get it. You can only say it if you interview those who commits in submission because they are the only ones who really get it. But of course it’s hard to find them in public because our society accept all BDSM.

    I’m just to end with my favorite lines here:
    “You think the only people who are people
    Are the people who look and think like you
    But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
    You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew”

  • Lara on 03.04.2015 at 10:53 am

    Thank you for offering this refreshing perspective. There is nothing challenging, deviant, or progressive about glorifying sexual abuse and violence against women, even when sometimes that abuse is accepted or praised by some women because it’s the norm. Part of fighting misogyny and making women’s lives better is by asking ourselves tough questions, and creating solutions that are often not easy. I hope more people will take heed.

  • Skeptical Student on 03.04.2015 at 11:35 pm

    Now, I’m not an expert on this topic and I won’t pretend to be. What I would like to bring up is that I think people are a little to quick to judge this as a misogynistic and abusive book. This book isn’t some sort of attack on women or a book about “glorifying sexual abuse” -Lara. May I remind everyone that this book was not only written by a woman, but the primary consumers of both the book and the movie were women. Basically…I don’t see who’s doing the abuse here. Who’s being misogynistic? As far as I can see, the main contributors to this whole mess are women. With that in mind, I think this is less a book about misogyny and more just a shitty romance designed to be edgy. Put bluntly, I think women are bitching at women for oppressing women, and then crying patriarchy because the male in the woman’s book was dominant.

    • M on 03.05.2015 at 9:33 am

      Bravo. I don’t understand how this turned into a boys vs. girls conversation in the first place. That’s the stuff of grammar school playgrounds.

  • GL on 03.05.2015 at 10:21 pm

    Fifty Shades of Grey is a work of FICTION. It is not a how to manual for the perfect BDSM relationship- or any relationship for that matter. It is escapism-fantasy. The judgement shouldn’t be on if the content is enlightening, or even well written, but rather does it succeed at fantasy and escapism. So what if it’s a Harlequin (on steroids maybe, but still…). This is not meant to be the guide to a great relationship, and the sexual foibles Christian exhibits could have been drug abuse, or gambling, or physical abuse (unrelated to sex), or emotional abuse, and this could just have been another movie by another name. Apparently the inclusion of kinky sex (albeit between consenting adults) makes more people prone to be critical.

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