50 Shades: Is “Mommy Porn” Really Okay With You?

Let me begin by telling you that, on principle, I am always skeptical of the “everybody’s doing it” philosophy of life.  I tend to be incredibly suspect of the masses.  I find myself asking why I would be interested in doing what everyone else is when I see the results of common choices.

So, given my bias that following the crowd is often unwise, I have chosen to address my concerns about the current cultural obsession with British author E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey.

I might be assuming too much here, but I suspect that many readers of this book have never before purchased or read erotic novels.  I feel fairly confident in this supposition because, until now, erotica has rarely, if ever, made the best-sellers list. And, if it has, it was minus all the hype because I never heard about it.

For most readers, James’s novel is likely a first encounter with this genre and I’m wondering why people (specifically women) are justifying it this time-particularly given the extreme emphasis on bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism that has caused such controversy?

As a Christian I could simply object on the basis of immoral content and as an English teacher I could take serious issue with the miserably written prose but I’d rather add some perspective to the discussion than dismiss the book without consideration.

My friends are all talking about it and, since I am confident that (for the most part) my blog appeals to the same target demographic as the novel, I am choosing to make this my first official book review.

Unlike most of the books I intend to review, this may be the first and last time that I actually write about a book that I have not read.

That’s right.  It is not on my bookshelf or my bedside table and I seriously doubt it ever will be.  But, before you consider dismissing my opinion on the “how-can-you-have-anything-to-say-about-it-if-you-haven’t-read-it” objection, consider hearing me out.

The novel has been dubbed “Mommy Porn” primarily because of the target demographic:  you and me.  These books are flying off the shelves and into the hands of women just like us.

First, let me say that I understand why it is drawing people in.  Temptation is driven by curiosity and the wide-spread media coverage is enough to make anyone wonder what all the fuss is about.  The truth is, though, the content is morally reprehensible and I don’t have to read it to know that.  Most of the conversations I have been a part of begin with hesitance, some embarrassment about reading it, promptly followed by an elaborate but unconvincing justification for the choice.  I think the shame factor is an indication of what is going on: think Eve, people.  Why are you hiding your actions if they are morally sound?  That instinct should be a clue to you that perhaps time should be spent reading something else.  Unfortunately, the mass readership is dulling those initial instincts and many people are being drawn in based on a skewed sort of peer pressure:  it can’t be that bad if  <insert name here> is reading it, can it?

E.L. James is clever, though.  Her writing feeds the lust of the flesh in a way that particularly appeals to women.  It is a new level of enticement that trumps soap operas and prime time because what is written on the page is left to the imagination to interpret and visualize.  Although, in my opinion, there is very little censorship left in the media, it would still be a stretch to display the content of this novel on the screen.  I think most would consider it horrific to watch.  Certainly, it would be released as an X-rated film, not suitable for most audiences. And most of the people I know are not in the habit of keeping this genre in their home DVD collection.  So, why are our bookshelves any different? I don’t think they should be.

Let’s break down this nickname and address the “Mommy” part first.  Feminist groups are opposing this novel on the basis that it is degrading to women and shows an abused and extremely weak female protagonist.  I agree with this criticism but I don’t think we have to go that far to see the problem.

Are we really okay with material that objectifies women in this blatantly sexual way?   What about the abusive aspects to the “intimacy”:  do we think Ana really wishes to be treated this way?  Is that the type of relationship that we believe is healthy?  My understanding is that the author promotes the idea that their behaviour is okay in the context of their relationship. But, is it?  I wonder if we would be okay with our sons-in-law treating our daughters in a similar fashion.

I will interject here with my general level of concern about how we amuse ourselves with media.  We rationalize so many things in the name of “entertainment” but what does that say about us?  We have become so desensitized to violence and brutality and perversion that we pay money to view it.  We are convinced that we would never behave in accordance with what we see and that may indeed be true.  But what kind of person spends time watching or reading this type of material and filling her mind with such “amusements”.  Don’t you think that it is problematic that someone would like it?  That s/he found it entertaining?

Yes, I realize that it is fiction, but fiction still promotes ideologies and frameworks that inform our understanding of life.  Novels have the power to shape a culture, just consider To Kill a Mockingbird’s wide-spread influence.  Harper Lee’s inspirational novel has sold more than 30 million copies since 1960.   Don’t misunderstand me, there is no comparison between E.L. James and Harper Lee in writing ability (in fact, reputable book reviewers are consistently highlighting how the book was torturous to read, and not in the intended way) but her book has sold more than 31 million copies since 2011! What? Yes, even more than Harry Potter.

How would we feel if our daughters read this novel?  Because, some of them are or will be in the near future. I, for one, want my daughter to read about Scout Finch not Ana Steele and I don’t want her to have to show ID at the bookstore even if she is over 18.  I mean, what the heck is happening here?

Essentially, what we read is another indication to our children about what we believe is important.  And we have the potential to purchase and read literature that can shape our culture in positive ways.  We all know actions speak louder than words and so, as mothers, we need to be aware of our activism and choose to model what is good.

This brings me to the “porn” designation:  wives, are you really okay with porn in your marriage?

I’m not.

I don’t want my husband frequenting strip clubs or renting XXX films but he shouldn’t have a problem if I read this novel?

Sorry, glaring double standard here.

James has tapped into some of the basics of our human nature:  she understands how to prey on women and feed their lust with her writing in the same way that porn preys on men’s primarily visual arousal.

But here’s the problem for marriages: if you are wanting truly satisfying intimacy with your spouse, you have to make him the object of your fantasy.  Many women are justifying the novel as a way of enhancing their sex life.  Reading about Christian Grey is awakening your arousal but your husband is not.  This is not how to build a physical partnership.

In fact, relying on something or someone outside your spouse to “turn you on” is dangerous territory.  Would you be okay if your husband used the same excuse to justify his internet porn addiction?  But, honey, if I watch it, it will put me in the mood!  Somehow, I doubt that would go over too well.

Reading erotic material is by no means good for your marriage.  As soon as your arousal depends on an external fantasy life you jeopardize the authenticity of your relationship.  By inviting someone else (like Christian Grey or J.Lo) into your mind, you invite him or her into your bed.  Your focus on your spouse has been displaced by another (real or fictional) person and you actually move further away from the person with whom you are looking to connect.  If your mind is elsewhere when you are physically engaged with your partner it is a type of betrayal, don’t you think?

You also run the risk of potentially establishing standards that are totally unrealistic for the bedroom.  No woman can live up to the images or moves portrayed by the porn industry nor can your husband perform like an erotic protagonist.  A recent article from Maclean’s entitled Guess Who’s Watching Porn articulates the extreme cause for concern when men, particularly young men, are introduced to pornography:   “The danger with pornography in general is that it encourages users to isolate sexuality from emotional intimacy.” It is my contention that erotica is affecting women in a similar fashion.  It becomes addictive (betcha can’t read just one…) and these sexual addictions can destroy healthy relationships or the potential for them.  (Read the article and let me know if you see the similarities.)

Some of you may be reading this thinking I am some sort of prude.  Quite the contrary:  I am very much in favour of a healthy active sex life for married couples and would strongly encourage couples to pursue resources that help build intimacy and sexual performance.  But the focus of those resources should be specifically on one another and not other people.  There are great books, articles and conferences out there.  Please spend your money on them.  (Perhaps, I could review a few for you?)

I realize that this is more of a rant than a review, so thanks for hearing me out.  I sincerely hope I have challenged you to rethink the status quo.  At the end of all my pondering, I have come to this conclusion:  because I value my daughter, my sex life, and quality literature, I will not be purchasing or reading any of James’s novels.  I will, however, continue to spend my money and my time on good reads.

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