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The luxurious Damson Dene Hotel in northern England made international news back in 2012 when it replaced in-room Bibles with copies of the runaway bestseller 50 Shades of Grey. Owner Jonathan Denby said he thought it "a hospitable thing to do," religious books being a "wholly inappropriate" choice for private bedrooms in a modern, secular society. About the same time, several hotels in the U.S. were cashing in on the 50 Shades sensation by offering "50 Shades of Grey" romance packages so that, as Karla Cripps of CNN.com put it, "fans of that sizzling, steamy, saucy, sexy, sensational novel . . . can now plan their own erotic romps . . . with a domineering billionaire." Two-night getaways ranged from $900–$2,750. But "you'll have to bring your own whips and chains," she added. Presumably you'll have to bring your own billionaire, too.
Welcome to the new age of women's literature. Dubbed "Mommy porn" because of all the women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s reading it, 50 Shades of Grey has sold more than 100 million copies after only three years in print, having outpaced Harry Potter to become the fastest-selling paperback of all time.
The story centers on the bizarre relationship between Ana, a naïve 21-year-old virgin, and Christian, an intense, 27-year-old self-made billionaire. They're attracted at first sight, but before getting involved sexually, Christian wants Ana to sign a written consent form for a BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission, masochism) arrangement. He presents her with a multi-page document outlining the terms by which he will completely dominate her and she will fully submit. "The Submissive shall accept whippings, floggings, spankings, canings, paddlings, or any other discipline the Dominant should decide to administer, without hesitation, inquiry, or complaint." This is a shocking new concept to Ana, but Christian has had fifteen such contractual relationships before.
Ana never signs, but she effectively becomes number sixteen anyway. There are multiple trysts in Christian's "playroom," which Ana calls the Red Room of Pain, and Christian's hyper-controlling personality drives the whole affair. Ana would like more of a romance with some conventional boyfriend-girlfriend affection, but Christian says he doesn't know any other way to have a relationship. "Because I'm fifty shades of f***ed up."
This is no doubt true, but he's not the only one. The question thinking people should be asking is, What is the appeal here? Why are millions of grown women—both independent, modern, and secular ones and married, conservative, and religious ones—reading this, presumably identifying with a timid girl who willingly becomes a controlling sadist's sexual plaything?
The Female Heart Exposed
Humorist Dave Barry interprets the 50 Shades phenomenon as a clear signal that women are indeed interested in sex. As clueless as he may otherwise be about the female gender, he's right about that. But erotica isn't just about sex. It's about sex in a particular context, and this is key to understanding its appeal for women. Dannah Gresh, a sexuality expert, and Dr. Juli Slattery, a clinical psychologist specializing in women and intimacy, address this in Pulling Back the Shades: Erotica, Intimacy, and the Longings of a Woman's Heart.
Like all good researchers, they started with observation. Slattery read the 50 Shades series and identified five longings of the female heart, based on the roller-coaster ride of emotions she felt as she read. Meanwhile, Gresh listened to stories of women who read this mushrooming genre and consulted the guidelines for its authors. She then identified five characteristics of popular erotica. Though the two women worked independently, their lists matched up remarkably. Take a look:
This is quite illuminating. If the inferences are correct, they explain a lot of the appeal. Erotica pulls a woman in by exploiting the desires of her heart.
The Female Heart Disappointed
The next question, then, becomes, Is reading erotica an effective means of satisfying them? Based on responses from readers, the answer would be no. Here's what one 25-year-old, ten-year erotica addict said:
I am single and erotica has ruined my life. . . . No one knows that I have lived an isolated life because I have found more solace in fantasies aroused in my mind by erotica than in real relationships. Erotica seems harmless because it's just words on a page, but it brands your mind, creates false expectations for future relationships. I can't even maintain real relationships because I feel like a shallow pretender hiding one of the biggest parts of my life.
While readers' stories differed, two of the most common themes were disillusionment and isolation. Slattery nails the reason for this: "you cannot pursue the kinds of relationships you read about in erotica without an outcome very different from the ones in the books." Erotica is deceptive fantasy because it twists and distorts the effects of violating moral and relational laws.
The best way to understand this is to reset sexual activity in its biblical context. The Hebrew word for sexual intimacy is yada. It means "to know, to be known, to be deeply respected." Yada entails more than just the physical. It speaks of deep emotional connection, an intimacy of hearts, minds, and souls. The physical is only the outward manifestation of what was intended to be ongoing between two souls. King David used the same word to express this profound knowing between himself and God.
Sex, in the biblical view, then, is a picture of covenantal love. Yes, it applies to the marriage relationship (or at least it should), but it also applies to God's love for his people. The Bible speaks the language of marital intimacy when it refers to Christ as the Bridegroom, with God's people as his Bride, and to idolatry as spiritual adultery or prostitution. "There is no shame in [women's] longings," Gresh writes. "In fact, we cannot ignore them." Commitment, fidelity, and a relationship of unveiled nakedness and vulnerability—yada—are what God intends to have with all his people. And marriage is the context he created for extravagant man-woman yada.
Dave Barry couldn't see why 50 Shades wasted readers' time with all the words describing Ana's and Christian's relationship. Why not just get straight to the sex, he wanted to know, like regular porn does? Here's why: women want the whole connection, whole-life intimacy. Though 50 Shades debases it with its degradations and violence, it does portray the intense soul connection. Driven by a force that transcends the physical, Christian and Ana are magnetically coupled despite Christian's deep brokenness and Ana's obvious pain.
According to Catholic history, in the late third century a.d., Emperor Claudius II, out of an imperious desire for absolute allegiance, forbade priests to perform marriages for his soldiers. The Roman priest St. Valentine, however, understood the holiness of marriage in the eyes of God and defied the order. For this high regard for covenantal love, he was martyred on February 14th.
Sadly, 50 Shades of Grey, the film, will hit theaters on February 13, 2015, just in time for Valentine's Day—this distorted saga apparently representing the best pop culture can come up with to portray love. Somebody should tell Hollywood to consult church history, and the hotels to keep their Bibles. The better love stories are being told there. •
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