So today we're going to talk about 50 Shades of Grey.
Oh yes, we are.
In case you weren't aware, the book is controversial, provocative...and wildly successful.
50 Shades of Grey has already sold millions of copies and doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon. It is, in fact, the fastest selling paperback to date in the UK--flying off the shelves quicker than even Harry Potter. And just to bring you up to speed, the book tells the story of a relationship between a woman who loses her virginity to a man who employs elements of sadomasochism in the bedroom--as the result of prior abuse.
Interestingly, the primary fan-base reading the novel is married women over the age of 30.
While I personally have not read the book (and will not be doing so), I've actually given a fair amount of thought to this most recent of literary phenomenons, from two distinct--but definitely interrelated--angles.
The first is the personal. Women are devouring this book, not only drawn to the story and the plotline but also unashamed to admit it. What is it about the novel that captivates us ladies so, that compels us to purchase sexually explicit material to enjoy with a glass of wine before bed? What might this say about our personal morality, beliefs about marriage, and our understanding of the human condition?
The second is the societal. What does it indicate about the culture when this is deemed acceptable summer reading? What can we glean about womanhood today from the fact that this is what women, married and single, are so eagerly embracing? When book clubs and communities rally around a novel dedicated to what are still considered by many to be taboo sexual behaviors, in this case stemming from past abuse?
The answers to these questions are on the one hand complex, and yet on the other quite simple.
Book sales indicate, to me, that because women are living in a post-modern world devoid of a cohesive and healthy sexual ethic, they move toward a false embodiment of womanhood and sexuality, by default.
When God made the world, He made people--and created them male and female. Men are human through their maleness, women through their femaleness. God of course also created marriage, community between spouses. It's rather miraculous, really, and incredibly beautiful to consider womanhood as purpose-filled and life-giving and distinct. Everything I do, I approach as a woman, because I am a woman. Body and soul.
Yet we have traded the above, God-given vision for a most sad counterfeit. We seek to suppress, at all costs, our very womanly nature. We strive to assure people (most of all ourselves) that we are really no different from men, and that we have no unique gift to offer the world--which ironically diminishes our value and influence on the global stage.
And yet still we are sexual beings. Which means we will live out our sexuality somehow. But we don't want to be tethered to any sort of prescribed moral code, and we don't want to be limited in how we use or experience sex. One need only scan the cover of Cosmo at the grocery store to discover the paradox that is reducing sexuality to personal pleasure, in spite of the diminishing returns it brings. Thus the hamster wheel of "spicing up your marriage" and "keeping things exciting" is alive and well, in virtually all corners of society that don't acknowledge the traditional Christian view on marriage (which teaches that sexuality has both unitive and procreative elements, and is part of a much bigger and more magnificent picture). And even if Cosmo is considered too trashy for your particular circle, you can dress those ideas up a bit and tack the word "Christian" onto the title. It's really no different.
Because it all reflects the same truth: we are a culture seeking meaning in sexuality, and we are seeking that meaning in all the wrong places.
Enter 50 Shades of Grey.
And this is a problem. A big one. God's intention for women is not compatible with the culture's present narrative. Because God says we're truly free when we give ourselves away, totally, all of ourselves, in a fully-integrated sort of way, and society says we're only liberated when we take what we want, when we want it. And that we can isolate our sexuality from our core being, and bend and twist it to our personal tastes. Mutually exclusive ideas, no? The fall-out from this exchange is far-reaching and disastrous for many reasons, not the least of which is the obsolescence of the virtue chastity.
Consider this from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2337):
Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man's belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.
The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift.
The Catechism then goes on to say that chastity is "opposed to any behavior that would impair it. It tolerates neither a double life nor duplicity in speech." It shouldn't take a doctorate to discern that the pornography passing as a legitimate beach read in 50 Shades of Gray is not conducive to the living of a chaste life. There is no reason to read such a book, as far as I can tell. And that goes for us married ladies just as much as for our single friends.
There is, of course, more to it than mere personal morality (although that is of paramount importance, obviously). Because it is simply a fact that our community does not go unaffected by our respective individual choices. The Catechism states that chastity "also involves a cultural effort, for there is an 'interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society.'" We must therefore work towards a society that affirms the dignity of the person, that rejects the objectivication of women and that supports the base of society, the family. We must pursue standards that promote true womanhood and true manhood, while jettisoning anything that does not.
And lest you think I'm saying otherwise, allow me to assure you that the Christian's life is not primarily comprised of avoiding this or that. Abstinence and self-control are certainly a necessary part of it, but only insofar as they serve the greater end. And the greater end in this case is to faithfully live our vocation--whichever it is--in holiness and charity. We don't need pornographic novels or seedy sex-advice columns to maintain a beautiful, fulfilling, God-honoring sexuality. We must instead fight against the lie that those things can somehow enhance our marriage, because they are nothing more than a disordered counterfeit and a dangerous substitute for true, pure, and chaste spousal love.
Before closing I do want to address one last thing, the idea that it is married women of child-bearing age most enamored with (and likely to buy) the novel. Some of this can be attributed to the desire for escape, which we mothers all experience from time to time. But could it also be further evidence that married women simply happen to be the ones most affected by the culture's false premise of sexuality?
We give ourselves away in marriage, perhaps without truly embracing what Pope John Paul II brilliantly referred to as "the feminine genius". Our self-giving in every area is mediated by an acceptance of society's promise that the complete giving of self in a womanly way is oppressive, impractical, and even obscene. (It's Adam and Eve in the garden all over again, right? Our way must be better than God's original plan.) So we live in the tension of a marriage not necessarily ordered towards wholeness, losing our grasp on the very meaning of the sacrament. Our sexuality is separated and locked away into its own category and is reduced to, exclusively, whatever makes us feel good. Marriage itself is presumed to be nothing more--and nothing less--than the means to a happy and carefree existence.
Therefore any book, magazine, product or film that we claim makes our sexual relationship with our husband "better", is considered good--no matter how illicit or pornographic it might be.
But the Sacrament of Marriage was not created in this way--nor is it always particularly happy and carefree. Because if we are indeed called to this particular vocation, we are called to oneness with our spouse. Men and women are undeniably equal, and yet fabulously complementary. Therefore we must work together towards union with God, and with one another. This joining is not easily won, this integration between body and soul. It must be fought for, nurtured, and protected. So that we can, simply, be whole.
If you're planning to read the novel, I would beg you to please think again! We women are made for so much more than dimestore romance and disordered, two-dimensional sexuality. We are sexual creatures, yes, but the glorious miracle of womanhood and femininity is too great a good to sacrifice on the altar of cheap thrills and fleeting pleasure. And it will be fleeting, truly it will be, because the counterfeit-version never satisfies over the long-term. Ever. Nor is "feeling good" a proper goal for the Christian life, as it's simply not high enough.
I don't know about you ladies, but I long to cultivate faith, hope, and charity in my heart, and in my home. I want to enjoy--and thrive in!--a relationship with my husband that is chaste and life-giving, and to grow in holiness and love through my marriage. Which is ultimately a picture of Jesus and His Church. His pure and spotless Bride.
And so our marriages are, for this reason alone, worth protecting from the stain of best-selling books like 50 Shades of Grey.