A Letter to All Parents Regarding 50 Shades of Grey

To:  All the Parents in America

From:  A very concerned, somewhat feminist, Christian mom

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I heard something very disturbing yesterday.  I was sitting in a coffee shop when a group of high school students (wearing uniforms from a local private Christian school) walked in and sat at a table near me.  They were talking loudly and I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation as they made plans to sneak out and go see the 50 Shades of Grey movie on Valentine’s Day.  My heart dropped when I heard this.  I have no idea who these students are, but I am terrified for them.

Let me give you a little background:  About a year ago, my friend Kathi Lipp asked if I would consider co-authoring a book about sex, women and modern Christian culture.  The book idea stemmed from a blog post that Kathi wrote about 50 Shades of Grey.  Kathi felt that 50 Shades of Grey was not only demeaning towards women and demonizing towards men, but it also was greatly affecting the state of Christian marriage in our country.  She also believed that sadistic, erotic literature led to the normalization of violence in marriage.

The response to Kathi’s blog post was… shocking.  Christian women defended the book, saying it was “a love story” and it was “just a way for women to start thinking about sex.”  They even went as far as accusing Kathi of being “prude” or “boring” because she felt God intended more for marriage and that women’s emotional and physical health was at risk.

Fast forward a year and Kathi and I have spent hours researching not only the cultural connotations surrounding 50 Shades of Grey but also the affects the book has on both women and men.  And we’ve learned some scary things.  And while much of the media surrounding the book has to do with erotica and mental pornography– which are rampant in the book–but there has been little discussion about another major facet of the book:  Abuse.

To prepare for a radio interview I did last week, my publisher asked me to read at least part of the book.  I understood where they were coming from:  I hadn’t read the book and couldn’t honestly speak against it if I didn’t know what it was about.  I prepared myself to encounter erotic descriptions and sex.  Interestingly, I never got that far.  The first few chapters of the book are about a young, innocent woman and a powerful, rich man who meet.  There is nothing erotic in their relationship at all, and the book is actually pretty benign when the man invites the woman to his apartment.  Once there, he shows her a room full of whips, canes and chains.  Then, he asks her to sign a contract that gives him permission to dominate her in any way he chooses– and punish her physically if she fails to submit.  He explains to her that she can walk away before signing, but if she wants a relationship with him, she must do things his way.  Which that meant submitting herself to physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

Now here’s the thing that really upset me:  When he pulls out this contract, she doesn’t run away as quickly as she can. She doesn’t call the police.  She doesn’t call a therapist.  She stays.  And that is the moment that I knew I had to put the book down. I couldn’t read another word where this kind of abuse was normalized.  Accepted.  Condoned.

Now, I haven’t read beyond that point in the book, but I know from the online reviews that she does sign the contract.  And that the rest of the book goes on to detail explicit sexual encounters including many that are abusive, violent and degrading.

Parents, the thought of my daughter (and the girls in the coffee shop) being exposed to this and being told it is a love story is so disturbing to me that I feel physically ill.  Because while this book and movie have been normalized and even praised in our media, I really believe they are incredibly damaging.  And I think as women– Christian women, feminist women, any women—we have to stop for a moment and consider the implications of this.

Do we really want our daughters even considering the idea that an abusive relationship could “end well” if they give it time?

Do we want our sons to even consider the idea that violence could be “okay” or “allowed” as long as the woman supposedly agrees to it?

Do we really want our kids to learn that there are shades of grey when it comes to love and that these shades can involve domestic violence?

I don’t.

And so I have to warn all of the parents in America:  This isn’t okay.  I can’t imagine why our culture has allowed abuse to be normalized.  I refuse to accept that for myself or my kids.  I refuse to accept that a damaging, abusive relationship is being celebrated and that kids and adults alike are flocking to watch the drama unfold.

We can stop this.  We can stand up and say we want more for our sons and our daughters.  That we want women to be safe, protected, supported, loved and we want men to be empowered and respected.  We can seek help for women who are trapped in abusive relationships, stuck in the place where there seems to be no escape.  We can seek therapy for men who struggle with control and power.  And we can say these things are wrong.  Dangerous and wrong.

The first step is not going to see the movie.  And not letting your kids see it.

But there are more steps.  Talk to your kids about domestic violence and abuse.  Explain the pain it causes both the abused and the abuser.  Tell them where they can go if they ever feel like they are being abused.

And then find a way to help others.  There are women around the world who are enslaved in dangerous relationships, marginalized, abused.  Instead of watching this abuse, do something about it.

Together, we can change the world for our kids.

Edit:  I want to make it very clear that I feel no feelings of judgement or animosity towards anyone who has read the book or will go watch the movie.  I get that we all have different opinions and trigger points and that each of us looks at this with a different perspective.  Even after reading the comments and emails, I still believe that this book is abusive.  That said, I do not wish to judge any of my readers, nor wish to isolate them or make them feel attacked.  I hope that through this we can bring forth honest dialogue  that is both uplifting and thought-provoking to all.  And so, with that, let’s talk.  Let’s converse.  Let’s hear your opinion.  But let’s not be mean.  We are all in this together.

20 Comments

  1. There is a VERY big difference between a consentual ADULT sexual relationship that may or may not involve role playing, and abuse. If you had bothered to continue to read the book, you would have found that this was the first, not the last. There was no abuse in the book. But I see you would rather pass judgment on something before you have all the facts. How very Christian of you. SMH!

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    • I agree with Brie. This is a very strongly worded post, but you seem to have missed the mark in your feverish crusade to save innocent young girls from walking into abusive relationships.

      Kids should not be watching an R rated movie or reading erotica of any kind. Plain and simple. Parent your kids.

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      • Hi Emily-

        I do agree that kids shouldn’t be watching an R rated movie or reading erotica of any kind. And let’s hope that most parents are with us on that! Thanks for coming by to share your opinion and I apologize if my words came across as feverish.

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    • Brie, do you not consider the contract that “The Dominant” made “The Submissive” sign abuse? Being told that she would be punished for not following the contract. Being told what to eat, what to wear, when to sleep. I realize that she consented, but still, that’s abuse. To say otherwise is ridiculous. And perpetuates the idea that abuse can’t happen within a “consensual” relationship. Because it can and it does. Any time someone is harmed/mistreated emotionally and physically it is in fact abuse by it’s very definition.

      Erin is acting very Christian (SYH) in the fact that she’s calling BS on this book. Perhaps you don’t see that, or perhaps you choose to overlook it. When it’s all said and done, 50 Shades isn’t about two consentual adults, it’s about a man preying on a woman. That’s straight up abuse.

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      • Thank You! You took the words right out of my mouth.

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        • Thanks for dropping by, Dava! Appreciate the comment.

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  2. I agree with this post. With the thousands of books out there in the world, 50 Shades is the one women are turning to for a good love story?? Yikes.
    She stays with Gray because she thinks she can save him? That is covered in Interpersonal Relationships 101: once a beast, always a beast. How many women give their lives to prove this every year?
    Plus, by signing a contract she is giving up her rights as a human; she becomes his slave. Thousands of voices across the world are speaking out for justice and freedom. To turn around and applaud human trafficking is just mind boggling.

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  3. Clearly the 3rd comment was made by someone that has not been in an abusive relationship. If you had been, you would know that there is a clear difference between what is going on in this book and what happens in an actual abusive relationship. When someone is controlling – there is no choice. No options given. No consent.
    The female character in this book is absolutely in as much control over what is going on & happening to her – and sometimes even more so – as he is.

    Do you agree with that lifestyle? Maybe not. Are you & others entitled to your opinion? Absolutely.
    However, by you saying that lifestyle is abusive is offensive to people like me, who have been through an actual abusive relationship.
    Don’t speak about things you have no personal knowledge about.

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    • Kris, I’m sorry that you have personally dealt with an abusive relationship. Despite what you think/wrote, I actually know that pain all too well. I was in a very abusive relationship for four years. And that is why I am so adamantly against Christian Grey. In reading the book, there are so many red flags that are raised. It actually made my skin crawl, which is why I didn’t finish reading it.

      In my opinion, the book deals far less with a true BDSM relationship and far more on an older man preying on a naive virgin. Sure, I realize that Anna is legally an adult. And I realize Christian isn’t that much older. But them seem in completely separate worlds to me. Because of that, I can’t see past an underlining tone of abuse.

      At the end of the day, I realize we will disagree. I’m burdened by the fact that you seem to think that I could possible not have suffered at the hands of an abusive man because I don’t actually enjoy 50 Shades. It comes across as though having suffered abuse should actually make the book more enjoyable to read. Perhaps that is not the intent you meant to portray, but it is what I perceived.

      If nothing else, 50 Shades has brought sexual abuse to the foreground and allowed people to start having open discussions about abuse/abusive relationships.

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    • Hi Kris- Thanks for stopping by to share your opinion. I do agree with you that many women– probably more than I realize– are in relationships where they have no choice, no options and no consent. That is so sad. I still believe that there are shades of grey to this (pun intended, sadly) and that even when there is consent, it can be abusive. That said, thanks for dialoging with us and I hope these conversations will make the world safer for all women in the future.

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  4. I just want to clarify something about the book. Anastasia does NOT sign the contract. She feels concerned with some of the points in it (being told what to eat and wear and the punishment for whatever, whenever clauses) and so she edits it and sends it back. This opens a door for Anastasia and Mr. Grey to talk about their relationship. Which they do. They talk about what they want out of the relationship and where their personal boundaries are and then, they respect those boundaries. Now maybe these boundaries are further than most people’s and that makes us uncomfortable but I think the key idea is that they are respected.
    This does not sound like an abusive relationship to me. Christian does not spend the rest of the book beating Anastasia, he spends it doting on her and trying to push his own boundaries about opening up about his past (in which he was actually abused) because he loves her and wants to share everything with her, including the bad stuff.

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    • Hi Kat- Thanks for taking the time to comment– I appreciate it. And, I didn’t realize what happened after I put the book down. I’m glad this has opened up an opportunity for us all to dialogue about this topic and while we may disagree, I am glad that people are willing to share their perspective.

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  5. Erin I applaud your courage in opening the conversation about sex among Christian women. This is a subject that has gone far too long without frank and honest discussion. I am a professional therapist who for many years had to listen to the stories of women who had no voice, who were being controlled by the men in their lives. They came to me to find the courage to say “no more”. Christianity set aside, I am deeply grieved by how our culture has slowly brainwashed our young and vulnerable women of today into thinking sex before marriage is acceptable, being dominated is expected not optional, and erotica is okay to read and watch.
    Sure this story 50 Shades of Grey comes off as a “love story” that is why everyone is reading it and loving it. They even marry and have children. How wonderful. But this is generally not how real life works. As a therapist, I experienced first hand real life. It can be hard, painful, even ugly and in many cases tragic. Why? Because women could not say no. Men did not have restraint. Perhaps they were not tied up or literally beaten, but they were manipulated, intimidated, or frightened. These women were not taught, empowered or honored as young girls – they did not know better. They learned they were good for sex and with sex they had power. This worked for them initially, but it later turned on them and now they lived their lives as victims. This does not describe every woman. Of course there are those who have the ability to set boundaries, to say no, to say yes, to honor. These typically are individuals who are well adjusted, have high self-esteem, are high level communicators and are assertive. Now I do not know about you but I do not know many twenty somethings that fit that description although I am sure there are some.
    I certainly do not think introducing erotica into ones mental vocabulary is going to increase his or her’s ability to strengthen any of these qualities – quite the contrary. It is a slippery slope we as a society are on. What only a generation ago was deemed unacceptable in common society is not only the “norm” today it has made its way into the acceptable culture of the church and if we as Christians speak out against it we are considered intolerant.
    Connie Hagen

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    • Thank you Connie! It’s so good to have a professional therapist weigh in… puts expertise to what I’ve been thinking.

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  6. At the beginning and end of it all, regardless of what the contract was and agreed to- if it was not a vow of marriage, it is still a dangerous door to open. If you are a Christian woman, the idea that even consensual sex outside of the Marriage Bed should not be something to pine after and to encourage the youth to aspire for.

    What that does is teaches divorce, immorality and yes, abuse. It is abuse of what sex was intended for by the creator.

    The book and movie is just another way that the world has defiled the marriage bed and turned it into a carnal desire that pulls women and men further from God’s idea of a relationship.

    The ONLY contract that is ok that has to do with sex is Matrimony.

    I love this post Erin. In this day and age, more Christian women need to stand up and out AGAINST any book or movie that glorifies pre-marital relationships, regardless of the thesis of the book.
    God has no grey areas when it comes to sex outside of the boundaries of marriage.
    Amen to you!

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    • Thanks for commenting Michelle!

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  7. As I have been reading through these comments I have been trying to be open minded to both sides being argued, as I have never read the book. And not to sound naive, I didn’t know what BDSM (or whatever the heck the acronym) was and I had no idea those were sexual practices. Being a married woman, who very much freely enjoys sex with my husband, I’m actually shocked that the word “punishment” is part of any sexual encounter. Some people may not call it abuse because this Ana girl was “consenting”, but it is unhealthy. Punishment and sex do not belong together in a healthy relationship. It’s kinky, but not in a good way. It’s dark and it’s twisted. Bottom line.

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    • Thank you Gina. I agree…. it’s so sad that women are exposed to painful relationships. Thanks for commenting.

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  8. Like you, Erin, I started the book. Honestly the huge Christian backlash is the entire reason I picked it up. I have learned that many things the church has raged against, once I read for myself became favorites (Harry Potter is the best example of that). I had many friends Christian and not who loved 50 Shades and the church was highly offended which quite honestly made me want to see what the fuss was all about.

    This book hurt my heart more than I could have ever imagined. This book was too close to my own history for my tastes. I have experienced sexual assault and I have been in an abusive relationship. For me personally, I could not handle the book and the flashbacks that it created for me. I read to about the same point you did and put it down. I tried again another day when I wasn’t tired and had time to process a little. I just couldn’t do it. I flipped to later in the book and read more but still could not do it. The bracelets he bought her to cover the bruises on her wrists, well I’ve been in that boat before and it wasn’t love. To read about her being beaten for sexual pleasure while she cries on the inside but never asks him to stop was just too much for my heart. I skipped further and read the end. I could not read it cover to cover.

    I found myself hurt every time someone insisted that anyone who didn’t love the book was just a prude and didn’t know how to loosen up in the bedroom. It took a lot of years, counseling, and trauma therapy to get to this point but I have a rocking sex life. I am far from a prude and have an amazing and adventurous sex life with my husband. We cross into areas that some find to be blurry areas and definitely things not discussed within the boundaries of good Christian girls. I could make most girls blush if I told stories from my bedroom. It isn’t because I can’t relax and have great sex that the book bothers me, it is because I know what it is like to be abused and it is not as glamorous as the book portrays.

    Thank you for this post. Thank you for the loving way you handled a very difficult subject. Thank you for leaving it out there as this is what you believe but you are not casting judgement on those who disagree. What a beautiful gift you have given. I wish that many defending the book could say the same and not judge me for not loving it.

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