Nothing Grey

Marjorie Murphy Campbell

The reason to read – and the reason not to read – 50 Shades of Grey are identical:  it isn’t real. 

It’s a fantasy.  It’s a dark, erotic tale about a guy named Christian and his domination of Anastasia, a tale that includes spankings and beatings.  Not surprisingly, the people who seem most to like this book relate the unreal, disturbing fantasy of Ana and Christian’s relationship to reality:  “I started reading it and almost instantly fell in love with Christian, he can be over bearing at times but really he just needs the love and attention a good woman can give him.”  People who know better, who know that these fantasies have no relation to reality, call Ana and Christian’s relationship “domestic abuse.”

Women have long indulged sexual domination fantasies – just as they have criticized these fantasies as immoral and politically objectionable.  Women’s conflict over fantasies featuring their own subjugation as a source of sexual pleasure began the moment women admitted to having sex drive in the first place.  Sexual domination fantasies make (some) women crazy:  some with desire, others with repulsion.  For some women, the push-pull conflict itself causes interest, like sneaking Godiva chocolate during a diet. 

Consider Nora Ephron’s typically witty 1975 essay “Fantasies” from the aptly named collection Crazy Salad.  Here was a woman admittedly conflicted. 

I have never told anyone the exact details of my particular sex fantasy.  I once told almost all of it to my former therapist; he died last year, and when I saw his obituary I felt a great sense of relief.  Anyway, without giving away any of the juicy parts, I can tell you that in its broad outlines it has largely to do with being dominated by faceless males who rip my clothes off.  It’s terrific.  

Ephron shared her fantasy to argue that women should reject domination ideation and give “sexual behavior and relations between the sexes” a chance of changing favorably in the wake of modern feminism.  “It is possible,” Ephron pled, “through sheer willpower, to stop having unhealthy sex fantasies.”  (Crazy Salad, p. 16).

Others, like Camille Paglia, have rationalized women’s indulging in subjugation fantasy on the theory that aggression, eroticism and power inequities are intimately and biologically linked.  The Roman Catholic Church would concur that, by virtue of man’s fallen nature, disorders of desire and fantasy are gravely tempting, but, like Ephron, the Catholic Church and many other religions favor the discipline of self control and rejection of unhealthy sexual thoughts and practices. 

While both politically and religiously incorrect, female domination fantasies have the added problem of being totally unhinged from reality.  Rape fantasies may be captivating and thrilling, but rape never, ever comports to the fantasy.  To the contrary, in the real world, sex by domination – that is any form of sexual interaction that occurs against the will of another person – is no fun at all:  it strays naturally toward violence, self absorbed pursuit and complete objectification of the victim.  In realty, sexual domination is not fantasy play – it’s physical abuse.

Ask Kim Basinger who turned a book similar to 50 Shades of Grey into the 1986 film 9 ½ Weeks with Mickey Rourke.  Filming that movie – characterized by its “none-too-subtle overtones of sado-masochism” – was reportedly “terrifying” for Basinger who found acting her role as Rourke’s sex slave anything but sexy. 

Or read up on the nasty scandal being covered by within the sadomasochistic-bondage communities where participants self-identified as “submissives” find themselves in the awkward position of publicly complaining of being raped:  not pretend rape (which is “fun”) but real rape (which is not fun).   Grasping at credibility, the women being really raped insist that “we’re talking about real abuse here, not . . . ‘consensual non-consent’ that the scene is built around.”  While the fine line may seem foolish to outsiders, the difference between pretend nonconsensual sex – called “play” – and real nonconsensual sex – called “assault” – demonstrates the dramatic and fundamental difference between the fantasy of it all and the abusive, decidedly unsexy reality.  The two cannot co-exist in real time. 

These woes of “kink and bondage” women bring us back to 50 Shades of Grey:  to read or not to read? 

I think not.  Material featuring the humiliation and subjugation of a woman, while tempting in the dark corners of the mind, is ultimately dangerous simply because we are so easily tricked into relating its abusive content to reality.  When both secular and religious figures are in agreement on the unhealthiness of a course of behavior, when even the people who try to convert the fantasy to reality admit complete failure, there’s nothing grey about it.  I’m not going to read 50 Shades of Grey. 

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