“I wouldn’t drive my Envoy into the front of an oncoming semi-truck any more than I would open the pages of Fifty Shades of Grey,” writes Christian author Dannah Gresh. She’s urging her readers to avoid E.L. James’s bestselling erotic novel, and she’s not alone. While secular critics have focused on the book’s questionable literary merit (or what it says about women’s fantasies), in recent weeks there’s been something of a movement among female Christian bloggers who say the book is sinful, twisted, and even dangerous.
Gresh says reading the novel is a form of adultery: “anything other than my husband creating arousal in me would be missing the mark of God’s intention.” She also argues that over time, reading 50 Shades and books like it will render women unable to enjoy sex with their husbands, because “erotica robs you of real sex.”
This is much the same argument many have used against Internet pornography — and indeed, Crystal Renaud, who founded Dirty Girls Ministries and has made something of a name for herself advocating that Christian women stay away from porn, has also spoken out against 50 Shades. She told BuzzFeed Shift she believes Christian and non-Christian women seek out the book for the same reason: they want “the passion that exudes from the pages to happen in their real lives, especially if their emotional needs and even sexual needs are not being met in their real life relationships.” But she says women should turn to God instead: “without a genuine relationship with Christ, it’s our belief that women will continue to seek satisfaction for their emotional needs in places that just won’t ever fully satisfy.”
But its similarities to more conventional porn aren’t the only complaint against the book — there’s also the BDSM element. Christian blogger and professor Mary Kassian writes that “the relationship between a man and wife is to mirror Christ’s relationship to His Bride” and “Christ is not into domination, control, abuse, and humiliation.” She also objects to heroine Anastasia Steele’s submissive role: “the Lord doesn’t want His daughters to be wilting, weak-willed, wimpy women who welcome and enjoy abuse.”
Julia Stronks, a professor of political science at Whitworth University who has written about Fifty Shades of Grey, says the backlash is no surprise: writers who have criticized the book tend to come from “denominations that believe that faith impacts all of life,” and when anything becomes as popular as Fifty Shades, members of these denominations tend to examine what it might have to do with their religion. She likens the book not just to porn but to romance novels, which she says normalize relationships in which “women resist and men overcome” and thus can contribute to sexual violence.
Not everyone agrees that Christian women must avoid Fifty Shades. Christian blogger Jonalyn Fincher says what really matters is why they read it — if they’re doing so to escape their marriages, that may be “unhealthy.” But she also believes the book can help women think about important issues, like sexual abuse. She adds that she read the book as a “cultural exploration” into something that’s extremely popular, which she says is also a valid reason: “it’s like walking in the shoes of your neighbor.”
Kassian might take a dim view of such exploration — she writes, “‘curiosity’ has led to the downfall of multitudes who have been trapped in the destructive, downward vortex of sexual sin.” Numerous commenters on her post agree and pledge to spread her anti-Shades message. Says one, “my heart breaks that young women can get so engrossed in such horrible entertainment. I will certainly forward this on to many many others.”
Some Christian women, though, don’t need special prodding to avoid Fifty Shades. Writes one of Gresh’s readers, “A few years ago, God asked me to give up all fiction reading. To this day I have had no regrets.”
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