Why I’m Not Shocked by Fifty Shades of Grey

Well, this book has created quite a stir. From blogs to backyard barbecues, from Saturday Night Live to moms sitting by the pool this summer, it seems everyone is talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. Many people have written Christian responses to the popularity of this title, reflecting disgust and sadness over the idea that the book’s female audience is so eager to play voyeur to the cheap and violent brand of sex portrayed in the book.

Why the fuss? Because the book might be classified as BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism) erotica? Probably not—such literature has been around for a long time. Because people are privately reading sexually titillating books? That’s nothing new. Are we surprised by the reminder that there’s a lot of money to be made in publishing works that tease people’s sexual appetites? Surely not.

It seems the real shocker is the audience. Women are reading this book. And not just “bad girls.” These are respectable ladies, moms, moral pillars of the community. These are the people our culture romanticizes as pure and good and naturally attracted to more goodness. They’re not supposed to have dirty minds.

Our collective sense of shock reflects a pervasive cultural misunderstanding about the total depravity of women.

That’s right, Hallmark. I used “depravity” and “women” in the same sentence.

A historical view shows great confusion over the nature of women. At various times and places, women have lived in Eve’s shadow, one-dimensionally viewed as temptresses, naturally corrupt and embodiments of willful temptation. In other times and places, they have been revered as daughters of Mary, the mother of Jesus—pure, naturally good, and full of grace. In our culture, it seems we have both: good girls and bad girls. And good girls are generally considered morally superior to men.

I hate this conception of women because it serves as undergirding for so many ways we disrespect and hurt women. It underlies the dichotomy and boundary of suspicion between nice girls and bad girls, and it supports the lifelong branding that comes with earning the “bad” label through one unwise choice. It perpetuates the desperation “nice girls” feel to pretend they’re perfect. It feeds the control issues many women struggle with because they feel it’s all up to them to keep society from collapsing. It serves to justify treating women as one-dimensional creatures, pinning women on the wrong end of so many double standards, and holding women responsible for men’s sexual behavior.

I also hate it because it’s simply not true.

Here’s the truth about women: We are good people with bad ideas, incredible potential, and an appetite for self-destruction. We’re created by God and pronounced very good, fallen from grace, and utterly hopeless on our own. We are sinners who sometimes act like saints, with varying desires to do the right thing and widely divergent ideas about what is the right thing. We are flawed in every way, rotten to the core, beautiful, lustful, sincerely good, willfully bad, loving, and utterly depraved. Sometimes when we think we can’t do anything right, we do something great. And even when we do our very best, we get it wrong. We are in desperate need of God’s grace—just as desperate as men.

For anyone who likes to believe women don’t have sexual desires, let me break it to you: we do! For anyone clinging to the hope that women are above the base appetites we’ve come to expect men to indulge, let me shatter that myth as well.

So what does the popularity of Fifty Shades reflect? Probably several forces. Women’s secret desires to be dominated and abused? Not universally, but maybe for some people. Plain old curiosity? For many, I suspect. Is it just the titillating voyeuristic appeal of a sexual fantasy most of us would not want to actually experience in real life? Probably. The arrival of a new medium (the eReader) that allows “nice ladies” to indulge a part of themselves they’re supposed to pretend doesn’t exist? Definitely. But perhaps more than anything, it’s just the basic self-destructive human pattern of warping the good that God gives us (like mutually loving, tender sexual relationships within marriage), settling for so much less than we could have, willfully poisoning our own wells, and digging our own—cracked cisterns that don’t hold water (Jeremiah 2:13). This is just what we do.

Let me be clear about this: I am disgusted by the sexual violence this book apparently portrays. And I’m saddened that so many people are filling their time reading it. Plus, to be honest, as a writer it’s discouraging to see more evidence of what it really takes to make a living in this business. I don’t plan to indulge my own curiosity and read it for myself. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying it’s OK.

But I am not shocked. I respect myself and other women enough to know we are not one-dimensional vessels of goodness and warm cookies. I’ve been aware of my own depravity since I was about 4 years old. Apart from God’s grace, there’s very little sweetness and light in me. And acknowledging that truth is the first step in letting him change us.

17 Comments
  1. Thank you so much for this beautifully written and constructive piece. Instead of drawing me to Fifty Shades of Grey it took me into Jeremiah 2:13 and the cistern reference which I had not heard of. Yesterday’s cracked cisterns are today’s cracked suburban swimming pools, but the word of the Lord endures forever. I’ll take that any day, thanks for pointing me to it. Don’t be discouraged by all the people reading this book. God knows what he is doing.

  2. Connie Jakab says:

    I love how you describe women. “An appetite for self destruction” etc. We are a walking, living paradox. This post was beautifully written, Amy. I always enjoy your insights.

  3. LOVE this post, Amy! You’ve cut right to the heart of our culture’s confusing views about women. Stereotypes–even positive stereotypes–only diminish everyone involved.

  4. Dave says:

    I thought you made some great points until I got to the end where you said you haven’t read the book. I don’t really care what you read or don’t read, but it’s unprofessional, ignorant, foolish, and a little pathetic to discuss a book you haven’t read.

    • Amy says:

      Wow, those are strong words, Dave. I’m glad you appreciated my points and didn’t find them ignorant, foolish, or pathetic. I agree with you, of course, that it’s foolish to discuss in detail a book you haven’t read. That’s why I didn’t discuss any details from the book, besides the widely known general premise. I discussed a cultural phenomenon that I feel perfectly qualified to comment on.

      • I certainly agree with you here, Amy. One does not have to read a book in order to comment on its general premise, as you have done. In a culture where sex and perverse notions are THE bestsellers, of course there is no need to expose yourself to the immorality of the images it provokes in order to stand up for truth against it.

        • frances cano says:

          you can have an opinion on the stir a book is making – you can not have an opinion on the book if you haven’t read it . . .

  5. Ruthie Dean says:

    You are dead on with this post! We really shouldn’t be shocked by people reading erotic ficiton. The fascination with the book shows the true ‘group think’ mentality.

  6. In college, I majored in Literature. My intent was to make a career out of reading and someday writing best-selling fiction. The day God gave me sight to see through the saving power of Jesus Christ, I stopped reading fiction. This book and the so-called success of its sale is a blatant illustration as to why I changed so drastically in this regard. I will be sharing this link with others, because many people seem clueless when I tell them vehemently that I no longer read fiction. May the Lord Jesus Christ continue to bless you as you stand up for His truth.

    • Gina says:

      MomOnAMission — I think that’s terribly sad. If all Christians thought as you do, then literature would be totally devoid of a Christian presence. Why would God desire that something He created in His people — the ability to write works of fiction that can provide an important spiritual and cultural influence — be stifled and shut up inside us? To quench a God-given gift like that is unequivocally wrong.

      Thanks for a great post, Amy!

  7. britfan789 says:

    I enjoyed the insightful comments about women. I think most of what you said is true. However, I think you should have read the book for yourself before writing about it. As an English teacher, I have read all kinds of things that have swept our culture so that I can have an informed opinion, especially among Christians. I recommend you read the book and then post again.

  8. Shauna says:

    Saying you must read this book to write a review about it- in my opinion- is the same as saying you must experience something to have an opinion about it. I have never had food poisoning but I know it’s a horrible thing and don’t need to go eat under-cooked chicken to find out just how bad it is. I can read about it. I can talk to others who have read about it.

    Read any review of Fifty Shades of Grey and you’ll get a decent picture of what the book entails. There’s no need to fill your mind with depravity to know that it isn’t of God. Amy wasn’t reviewing the book, she was reviewing the culture the book is thriving in. She’s making a point about the broken state of humanity. Why should she have to read a book proudly proclaimed to be erotic to make the statements she’s made?

  9. ThirtyWhat says:

    For what it’s worth, let me play devil’s advocate …

    I’ve read all three and yes … the protagonist enjoys violent sex. But the point of the series, for me, is that he meets someone … and subsequently falls in love with someone … who is entirely UNWILLING to live this lifestyle. She ends up, tragically, deciding to try to fit in this mold and specifically wants to see “how bad it gets” … and she is so repulsed by what happens that she leaves him. People seem to forget that there is more story after “50 Shades of Grey” … and not to spoil it for anyone, they end up married with children.

    Yes, it’s a “smutty” book … and there is quite a bit of sex in it. But the overall picture is that Christian is a scarred, flawed human being who meets someone who takes away his need to hurt others for sexual gratification. Does the means justify the ends? No, it isn’t a Christian book and there is a LOT of content that would upset Christian readers. Is it realistic? I don’t believe so … I don’t believe someone could go from “requiring” a BDSM lifestyle to wanting nothing to do with it.

    It isn’t a well written book … and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. But the series does offer redemption at the end … Just my two cents.

  10. Brie says:

    The popularity isn’t shocking – because FSOG is based on the literary recipe of the Twilight series – which was based on the literary recipe of the classics Wuthering Heights, Pride & Prejudice and even Romeo & Juliet. The Edward of Twilight and subsequently FSOG Christian Grey are reprisals of Heathcliffe meets Mr. Darcy. These romances have captivated women for centuries, and it shows us women still respond to the same stories – and the same type of man – an imperfect man with some issues but madly in love and devoted to the point of death to their woman. Now it can be debated that erotic reading is wrong – but women aren’t getting into these books based on the sex – Twilight had virtually no sex (albeit G rated references after the couple was married) and it had women swooning. There would be virtually no interest in these books without the story line. I know women who liked FSOG and wanted to find other books like it – and were disappointed with the erotica out there – being full of sex but light on story – in addition to actually highlighting real BDSM which FSOG highlights on in a light way and likens to emotional problems (the book had infuriated the BDSM community by not portraying real BDSM and implying those that like it have emotional problems) Kind of like with Twilight – readers wanted something similar – and though there were book series trying to take advantage of vampire fiction (that didn’t deliver) Wuthering Heights had its all time best year in sales in 2009. Are these books of erotic fiction wrong? Maybe for some (I won’t deny like with alcohol some people have natural tendencies for abuse of any stimulus) but can FSOG be enjoyed without the doom and gloom to your spiritual and sex life? Many women seem to think so – so as a social scientist I tend to let the results speak for themselves and I find it very telling that the only negative threatening impact to women from FSOG are written by women who have not read the books.

  11. Jenny D says:

    Amy thank you………….you draw a line in the sand and that for me is whats needed in our society. I sat with a group of young mums at my grand child’s school the other day and listened to the mom’s promoting the books and was almost convinced until they started going into detail. Having experienced all kinds of abuse in my teenage years I choose to stay away from all appearances of evil and anything that would draw me back into that circle.

  12. Dionna says:

    I absolutely love your direct and honest approach to each topic I have read on your blog so far. I just love it. Your plain spoken approach for honest life struggle is what is needed in order for a woman like myself to know that someone else is thinking the same thing she is. Enough of the perfect wife, mother, and church member and complete freedom & understanding that God’s grace can help us love each other with flaws and all. You also are a very good writer 🙂

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