So far the church hasn’t had a lot to say on what is claimed to be the best-selling book in British history – Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic novel by EL James that has sold 5.3million copies in the UK since April.
It seems Anglicans and Catholics have spent the summer speaking about gay marriage while millions, on the underground, in book clubs and online have been discussing Anastasia Steele and her relationship with the sadomasochist Christian Grey.
Can they get together despite their incompatible sexualities?
The central issue of the easy-read book which has topped the UK best-sellers list for the past six months, is of a 22-year-old virgin who falls in love with a multi-billionaire who wants to tie her up and spank her and make her ask for more. Anastasia is looking for romance. Christian can‘t get turned on when sex is vanilla. Can they find a way of getting it together despite their seemingly incompatible sexualities?
It’s an interesting question and one that raises questions for us all about compromise within sex, going outside our comfort zones, working out what we really don’t like and what we could develop a taste for.
Confusing sadomasochism with domestic violence
Last month the discussion took a darker turn. Clare Phillipson, director of Wearside Women in Need, a charity for victims of domestic violence, called for women to burn their copies on 5 November along with an effigy of Christian Grey, on the grounds that it is “an instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman.”
Phillipson claims the story is about a domestic violence perpetrator who takes someone who is less experienced and powerful, spins her a yarn, starts doing horrific sexual things to her and makes it seem normal. She worries that teenagers will be picking the book up and thinking: “This is alright.”
The church needs a foothold in Fifty Shades debates
I think it’s important for the church to get a foothold in the discussion at this point, but it’s difficult for it to do so because historically its understanding of sexual ethics has been focussed on procreative acts – heterosexual vaginal intercourse in the context of marriage and so on. This way of thinking has nothing to offer when exploring Fifty Shades of Grey-type dilemmas.
The first thing that I would say to Phillipson is that I can understand why women who have been beaten by their partners are highly-sensitised to beatings in erotic fantasies. I have sympathy with those who are reminded, through reading Fifty Shades of Grey, of being stalked and abused and traumatised.
But I would also say that it is very important to draw a distinction between a scenario in which a woman consents to being spanked because it turns her on and in which there is an agreed safe word for her say when she wants it to stop, and one in which a chap simply beats the Hell out of her.
Christian Grey is a role-model
I think Christian Grey goes far further than your average bloke in ensuring that Anastasia really is consenting to what they do in sex. On that count, he is a role-model.
Having said that, I agree that “consent” is slippery. There is an argument that women have been socialised to be submissive to men and that the submissive/dominant dynamic has been eroticised. A woman’s desire to be submissive could be seen as evidence of her oppression rather than her liberation, even if she does consent to it.
I agree with that. Besides, we all know we can “consent” to things because we’re vulnerable, because our options are limited, because we think everybody else is doing it, because we feel we want something but when we actually do it we realise that we don’t.
Consent is tricksy
Consent is dynamic, it’s tricksy and it can take considerable skill and experience to discern when it is deep and authentic and when it is half-baked and mistaken.
This is where the church has a great deal to offer. It has a very handy tool up its sleeve for assessing the quality of consent – the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order.
Ignatius’ discernment can be used in sex
Ignatius taught about consolation and desolation. When we are consoled, he said, new energy is released and we feel closer to others. When we are desolate, we turn in on ourselves and feel drained. With practice we can evaluate our experiences according to how desolate or consoled they made us and we can choose to live more in consolation.
I think this practice is invaluable in discerning whether our sexual experiences are truly what we want or whether we are being manipulated and compromising where we shouldn’t be. If Anastasia came to me for help in her dilemma with Christian, I would offer her St Ignatius. “When you are playing with Christian, listen very carefully to your feelings, both as it’s happening and afterwards. How is it making you feel? Is it making you feel peaceful and fully alive? Is it making you withdraw and contract inside?”
In all my readings of sex manuals and feminist literature, I have found nothing as useful as this tool for improving sex. The church has so much to offer in making better lovers of us all. Come on. Let’s give it.
- This article was first published in The Church Times, 14 September 2012