50 Shades of Grey and the Dangers of Soundbite Sexual Ethics

A reflection by Sarah

This is a difficult post for me to write. It’s hard enough to talk about sexual violence and abusive relationships as a gay Christian, and sometimes I think it’s even harder as a celibate person. There’s no way out of controversy when there are people on one side telling you that you’re celibate because of your abuse history and people on the other side telling you that your abuse is what caused your sexual orientation. I’ve sat on this post for almost a week, but I’ve decided to write it because I believe we need to have more meaningful conversations about sexual ethics. The new 50 Shades of Grey movie has ignited conversation in diverse internet communities. Christians, feminists, survivors of sexual abuse, liberals, conservatives, and people at the intersections of different communities have used the movie’s release as a springboard for conversations about abusive relationships. While I’m grateful for everyone who is writing to raise awareness of any kind of abuse, I’m saddened that the resulting conversation in Christian circles does not include more critical discussions of pitfalls in both progressive and traditional sexual ethics.

I think this issue hits me in the heart because I was once in a relationship with a woman whose personality bore considerable resemblance to that of Christian Grey. This relationship was one of the many non-celibate relationships I was involved in before meeting Lindsey. I have neither been in an intentional BDSM relationship nor participated in the broader BDSM culture, but after reading 50 Shades of Grey I began to see frightening similarities between the titular character and this woman from my past. She was obsessively controlling, used manipulative tactics to fashion my “consent” around her own desires, focused entirely on meeting her needs in the relationship with very little mutuality, and viewed my role in the relationship as satisfying her sexual cravings. She was so charming with all of her friends, colleagues, and associates that no one would have suspected the depths of what was happening between us. This person knew how to manipulate my emotions such that my heart would play easily into her hand. At times I felt so drawn in that it was nearly impossible for me to see I was not being loved. She had a way of whittling down my emotional defenses to the point where she could convince me that I actually did consent to sexual activities that would terrify me. At times we would lie in bed talking, and the next thing I realized was that I was being blindfolded and having my wrists tied together with rope. Of course she told me that she would respect my limits. Of course she told me that we could stop at any time. Sometimes my fear would overtake me and I would begin to cry. She would respond with, “What the hell is wrong with you? Let go of your childish nonsense!” before asking me if I wanted to continue. Everything about how the question was asked told me that there was only one acceptable answer: yes, I want to continue. Yes, I give you my consent. If I tried to test alternative answers, the berating would continue until I gave in. She made it abundantly clear to me that the purpose of our sexual interactions was to meet her needs and I was not in the driver’s seat. That was the price I had to pay if I wanted to continue to be with her.

Time and again, she asserted that no one would ever want to be with someone like me and incorporated litanies of my real and perceived failings as a person. I was a total loser if I was unable to meet the goals that she had set for me. At every turn, she found ways to criticize me. I recall a time when I picked her up from the airport and she spent the entire drive yelling at me for being 15 minutes late and not finishing enough work during the days she had been away. There was constant critical commentary about my body size, my clothes, and what I did or did not eat. I distinctly remember her denouncing one of my favorite summer dress as being too childish and babydoll-like, especially on a body that had recently put on weight. One evening we were planning to go out to ice cream after eating dinner, and she declared that I didn’t deserve any ice cream until I could figure out how to make myself look like a “real adult with a real job” rather than a “fat child in a sundress.” If she discovered that I had a friendship or a meaningful relationship with any other person that she didn’t know every last detail about, she would accuse me of engaging in an emotional affair and shame me for desiring emotional intimacy with any person other than her. She was effective at isolating me from my friends despite her regular complaints about my never introducing her to them. On rare occasions when friends would express concern about my relationship with her and she found out about those conversations, she would bark, “You have no business saying a damn thing about our relationship to anyone!” Often at these times, she would offer me a monologue that I had practically memorized by the time our relationship ended: she was the one who had worked through all of the issues in her past, I was clearly full of red flags, she should have known better than to get involved with me, and I was lucky that she even wanted to look at me.

Rarely, I experienced moments of clarity about the abusiveness of this relationship. There was a time (actually, there were several) when I tried to reach out to clergy and other spiritual directors for some help with regard to this situation, and it always made matters far worse. On one occasion I sought the advice of a spiritual director I had been seeing temporarily after my previous spiritual director had moved away. This person’s counsel boiled down to, “Everything that has happened to you is evidence of the depravity of gayness and of same-sex relationships.” From his point of view, the situation I was in was my own fault because I had chosen to be a lesbian and I had chosen a way of life that “everybody knows” is totally hedonistic and abusive. There was no focus on connecting me with resources or help. The focus was on importance of seeing my sexual identity as “that of a woman” because in his mind I was confused about God’s plan for womanhood and was too hard-hearted to admit it. He refused to help me any further unless I would assure him that I would make every effort to stop being a lesbian. Knowing it would be impossible to change my sexual orientation and highly unlikely to find theologically sound advice on this problem from other potential spiritual directors I had access to at the time, I gave up on the notion that leaving the relationship was even possible. I left spiritual direction that day with a heavy heart, feeling like a wretched human being unworthy of love from God or another human being.

I chose to tell this story because ever since I first summoned the courage to read the book, it has been painfully obvious to me that in many ways, this past relationship of mine was only marginally different from the relationship dynamic between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. Yet, no one — not even the most traditional and theologically conservative of spiritual directors — would use this book to denounce the total depravity of heterosexual relationships as a broad category. One can find counter-examples aplenty of wholesome heterosexual relationships yet remain blissfully and willfully unaware of similar counter-examples in the LGBTQ community. For so many people on the Christian Right, any problem, any emotional unhealthiness, any instance of abuse in an LGBTQ relationship can be traced to the presence of homosexuality within that relationship. This is low-hanging fruit and ignores a host of relevant sexual ethics (and general Christian ethics) issues. I have yet to see a person who identifies strongly with the Christian Right address this hypocrisy. If my former temporary spiritual director’s attitude is any indication, I’m guessing that most would not find it important to engage in critical discussion about consent, psychologically healthy relationship dynamics, etc. in LGBTQ relationships. I hope I’m wrong about that. Please, take this as an invitation to prove me wrong about that.

Looking beyond LGBTQ-related topics that would be good for discussion in light of the 50 Shades of Grey movie release, several additional issues in sexual ethics also remain insufficiently explored in the Christian blogosphere. Some Christians discussing 50 Shades of Grey zoom in on the observation that the sex occurring in the book and movie happens outside of marriage, leaving the distressing question of “Would the sexual relationship between Christian and Anastasia be morally acceptable if they were married?” wide open. I wonder if those claiming that any kind of sexual activity is acceptable within the confines of marriage actually believe what they are saying. If “anything goes in marriage” is your sexual ethic, are you willing to give your stamp of approval to a relationship in which one spouse disrespects the other’s limits or fails to stop when asked? I also wonder about the acceptability of BDSM activities from the vantage point of “rightly ordered sexual activity is open to procreation.” If your sexual ethic can be summarized as “sex must be intercourse that is open to children and between a husband and wife only,” is that inclusive of married heterosexual couples who are part of the BDSM community? If a BDSM experience between a particular husband and wife always ends in intercourse that is open to life, is that couple practicing a traditional sexual ethic? Then there are all sorts of questions about  wisdom that has made its way into broader discussions about consent partly because BDSM exists. Concepts like limits and safe words are used in “vanilla” relationships as well as BDSM relationships. If your sexual ethic does not include space for BDSM practices, can it rightly include elements that have been heavily influenced by the BDSM subculture?

It’s critically important to discuss matters of sexual ethics beyond when sex is permissible. Sex can be a great gift. However, giving blanket moral approval to “sex within marriage” or “sex that is open to life” hides ways sex can be misused. People living in diverse situations are puzzling through questions of sexual ethics. When discussions of sexual ethics among Christians are entirely restricted to the importance of being married before having sex or the importance of sexual behaviors being open to the creation of new life, people are guaranteed to have unresolved questions. There’s also a huge risk for dismissing (or in some cases, justifying) abusive behavior inadvertently, especially in relationships that are easy for some people to write off as sinful and unworthy of discussion related to abuse. I’m left wondering: how can Christians create spaces for people to discuss sexual ethics holistically, receive support for dealing with abuse in relationships of all kinds, appreciate how sexuality manifests in diverse vocations, and acknowledge how major contributions to our collective thinking about sexual ethics have come from unexpected places?

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13 thoughts on “50 Shades of Grey and the Dangers of Soundbite Sexual Ethics

  1. Great post! I think your questions are completely valid. There is no conversation in Christianity, in my experience, that handles these very real issues. The only discussions seem to be lists of what is right and what is wrong on a broad basis without going any deeper into all of the psychological aspects of a sexual relationship. I think I’m not alone in saying that even once I got married, I found I felt dirty after having sex with my husband because everything I was taught about doing “it” was bad. I couldn’t let that go even after I was married. And, also as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I don’t think I ever received adequate tools from the church to deal with those scars either. As a matter of fact, the mere reason I had sex before marriage or was in a sexually adventurous relationship at one point was explained by the church as a result of the abuse I suffered earlier in my life. Lots of excuses without meaningful/helpful resources or discussions. Thanks for sharing your story and opening the dialogue.

    • I can relate to what you say about not receiving adequate tools from the Church to deal with the scars of past sexual abuse. The majority of spiritual directors I’ve worked with in the past have gone for the low-hanging fruit style of spiritual guidance on these matters. It’s usually, “This happened to you because sin exists in the world.” While that’s true, that answer is not good enough for someone who has experienced sexual trauma. What person can simply say, “Okay. I accept that this happened because of sin. God is still good. It will be fixed when all of creation has been redeemed”? I know that I can’t. -Sarah

  2. Wow. Just wanna hug you and say well done for getting out. I’ve been in a non sexual but very much manipulative relationship – always meeting the needs of the other and then having realised it ‘got out’ last year. We are still friends but on very different terms. Total respect to you Sarah. What a wonderful woman you are 🙂

    • I’m glad this post was meaningful for you. Abusive relationships are far more common than any of us probably realize. I’m very glad that you were able to leave your own abusive relationship. -Sarah

  3. Sarah,
    Thanks for sharing this. Hopefully someone who might find themselves in a similar situation will maybe recognize the same in their relationship. I do wonder and I hope this doesn’t sound insensitive but why aren’t Christians willing to reach out to secular counselors if they aren’t getting good advise from their spiritual counselor? I would encourage anyone to reach out to any one who is equipped to deal with this.
    Another point I want to make is true BDSM relationships are most often not abusive. I know religious people have issues with relationships like that but the couples I have known are loving and strong in many cases stronger because trust is of paramount importance in them.

    • Hi Tim. Excellent points. First, about BDSM: I didn’t think this post was the right place to address the fact that 50 Shades portrays the BDSM subculture very wrongly, but yes, that’s an important point to make. I am certainly not comfortable with making blanket assertions about this subculture based on 50 Shades. To your other question: I don’t think it’s a matter of Christians not wanting to seek help from secular therapists. Maybe it is for some people, but for me it is important that I am able to discuss all kinds of difficult matters in life with a spiritual director. I’ve had secular therapists before and I see one now, but there’s a difference between the kind of guidance one gets from outside one’s faith tradition and the kind of guidance one gets from within the tradition. There’s a huge cultural divide that I’m trying to bridge when explaining the spiritual component of my struggles in life to someone who doesn’t share my faith. Because of the gap in understanding, sometimes secular therapists can be prone to dismiss a client’s religious beliefs if the therapist doesn’t understand them. Example: I’ve had therapists tell me that if my celibacy has anything to do with my religion, I need to find a new religion. Not helpful. Ideally, When I have a serious problem I want to be addressing that with both a spiritual director and a therapist who respects my spirituality. -Sarah

  4. Sarah,

    I appreciate so much your transparency in this. Who knows how many will be helped by reading what you went through and perhaps seeing some of their own experience through reading yours.

    I am not in your orthodox faith tradition but ultimately we are all part of one body in Christ. So … as an ordained minister let me say that…

    – I’m sorry you received such poor advice at such a vulnerable time in your life.

    -I’m sorry that leadership failed you when you needed it the most.

    -And I’m sorry the abusive situation you were in was falsely connected with your orientation.

    I believe that you (and Lindsey) are foraging a unique path that has not been traveled by many in the church. Be assured that the transparency and openness that you share here is making a difference for the kingdom of God.

    May the Lord bless you, wrap His everlasting arms around you in His comforting embrace, and grant you peace

    Dave

  5. I am so sorry that you encountered this terrible abuse both in the relationship and in the spiritual direction and ecclesial context, and so grateful that you raise these powerful issues for consideration.

    As a former RC and abuse survivor as well as priest and spiritual director serving other survivors I am very aware of how much damage the sexist and spiritually abusive, overly physical misinterpretation, of the very real and crucial values of openness to life and self-giving love–along with a heavy emphasis on marriage as the only ethical requirement for sex and the failure to ever teach the sinfulness of rape and the importance of enthusiastic consent–causes to women and male-female marriages. When abstinence is the only acceptable way to prevent pregnancy and intercourse the only way to experience sexual pleasure women have to pay a severe price for sexual pleasure that men don’t by always risking pregnancy, and are put at great risk of being pressured into sex they would rather not have at that time for their husbands’ pleasure, while the husbands delude themselves that they are being loving, Christian, and open to life. This is one reason I find the RC evaluation of even committed and generous marital sex between same sex partners as gravely sinful because it is physically not open to life so unconvincing. (This is the only serious argument against gay sex for Catholic theology, not the scriptural one for most other denominations).

    This danger of unconscious marital rape is especially strong in highly conservative circles where people are still taught it is a mortal sin to refuse to “render the marital debt” while ignoring that Paul’s words on the sacredness and mutual surrender of partners’ bodies make it just as sinful to in any way push the other person into sex they aren’t enthusiastically embracing–and affirm the holiness and generosity of self pleasure rather than pressuring a partner as well as mutual pleasure without risking pregnancy that honors spiritual and emotional openness to life as well as responsible parenting and women’s self determination. The traditional exegesis of Paul theoretically goes for both partners but was developed by men in a rape culture, like ours, where men have more social and physical power, and are never taught that rape is a sin, so sex is just one more area– along with maternal employment and pregnancy termination– where women’s” free consent” and “choice” are claimed but highly dubious. That is also a major concern for me in BDSM advocacy where I have never seen acknowledgment of the dangers of consent that is not truly free due to all the isms and/or personal issues like the abusive dynamics you describe even between same sex partners.

    • i hear you, laura. plus, considering that gay sex can actually be very beneficial for not just gays but also the community around them due to these benefits, might it also be considered fruitful too?

      • Definitely! There are so many ways to be fruitful and nurture life beyond giving life physically. I think of a dear friend and his husband who have lived in poverty because of adopting and beautifully raising his four nephews and nieces and two more children in need. And gay sex has never led to one abortion which you’d think would be a plus for the conservative side! Homophobia has though because kids who experience hate and rejection frequently experiment with unsafe and unprotected sex in an attempt to fit in.

  6. I’m so sorry that relationship happened in your life and you were so terribly abused. I found your blog through Frederika Mathews-Green, and I am drawn to read more of your thoughtful essays. So powerfully open! I want to say, in response to your statement that no one makes the same assumptions about problems in straight relationships as they do in gay ones, I’ve decided, through experience of abusive relationships, that many, many men, even if they are not practicing Christians, have internalized the notion of the wife serving as his helpmeet while completely ignoring Christ’s admonition to treat his wife as Christ treats His church. I brought that up to someone once, and he said “I can’t do that. I’m not Christ.” I think this is tacitly accepted in our culture to the point that therapists of any variety do not confront it. Every therapist I went to with my husband would say, in one way or another, that it was my “job” to adapt to him but he was not responsible for changing his own behavior. My priest was the only person to lay it out for him as he really was.

    • Paula, thanks for your comment. There are many ways the Bible can be used selectively to justify abusive relationships. It’s incredibly unfortunate that so many people in helping roles place all of the responsibility back on those who are being mistreated. We hope to see you again in the comments!

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