By Christine Dalessio
The Catholic F Word
I have to write about it. Why? Because it's out there, seeping into the culture. Because it is most popular where I live (NY, NJ, PA, FL and MN.) Because women are collectively stating that men need not apply. Because I AM woman - hear me roar.
There is a certain need in every life for fantasy. What would Ignatian spirituality be without imagination, for example? How boring would our humanity be without it? I have been reading fantasy of some sort or another since the first time I walked through a wardrobe into a snowy wood, and the day I vanished by trying on a ring.
I understand that women work hard - at home and in the workplace. That women have been fighting the uphill battles of glass ceilings and loads of laundry for decades if not centuries. I know that fantasy provides an escape to a world of wonder that helps us deal with an uncertain, if not cruel at times, world of reality. And I know that fiction is fiction and fact is fact.
But our appetites for fiction feed our factual world. I don't believe that I am ever going to be able to put my feet in the sand and become a rooted tree. But in considering nature in this way, I perhaps respect trees a little more, embrace their gift, their shade. It makes me consider the specialness of the real world, and acknowledge what is fantastic.
When the appetites of women around the US and the world turn to bondage, sadism, masochism and punishment as a means of escape, the world must be dark indeed. This new affront to the dignity of woman and the value of the body and the well-being of the human person, this novel idea that turns sexuality into something secret and useful and a matter of contract is called 50 Shades of Grey.
I am not going to read this book (or the two to follow), primarily because I do not want to fund this book. I hate writing a response to things I have not personally explored. So I am going to say up-front that this is rumor, hearsay, and conjecture when it comes to the factual plot lines of this new book for women. But my sources are The New York Times and Fox News reviews, as well as a couple of well-placed blogs. They pretty much all share the same basic information, and that is enough. My reflections on the nature of the book, are not just hearsay, but will be based on the truth about the human person, not some fantasy.
Some women laud this book about a young woman who signs a contract with a man allowing him to stalk, rape and strike her as part of a world of sexual fantasy. One middle aged woman suggests it is "very romantic" and some feminists seem to agree that anything that helps women discuss sexuality is something they are "all for." The fact that this sexual aggression is not considered rape because the woman has signed away her sexual rights via contract is, one could argue, merely an academic point. Many, many of those commenting on the books call the sexual relationship "near rape" or "rape-ish".
The take in The New York Times review includes claims that reading the book "makes you feel sexy again" perhaps speaks more to its popularity than first blush of deviant behavior would. The reviewer makes the additional point that women are feeling more free to indulge in this written porn because tablets and hand-held readers allow for an anonymity once impossible. In other words, while you're pushing your three year old on a swing, you can be reading about a woman being sexually aroused by being tied up and hit with a riding crop. Perhaps you can even manage to pay attention to your child in the meantime...
Those who praise the book defend this "sex contract" for BDSM because it has rules which are "safe, sane, and consensual" says the Fox News reviewer. But issues of sanity aside, is this really what women want? The books are flying off the shelves and through cyberspace... what is the attraction, really?
Proposition #1: American women are so desperate for true empowerment, and encouragement, and being valued for their own sake so foreign a concept that any kind of engagement is a palatable substitute.
What I am suggesting is that the women who finally "feel sexy again" should be asking why they ever stopped feeling that way in the first place. Have we trained our men to respond only to the advances of whores and deviants, so that sexual attention, even in the marriage bed, can only happen with the aid of riding crops or demeaning words? Have women so forgotten their own feminine power that they are willing to risk their dignity to satisfy their craving for attention? As a teacher of mine once said, women sometimes prefer to be abused than ignored.
I think shows like Sex in the City have driven this idea home, teaching us that relationships are what you want to make of them, that only sex really satisfies, and that any modern woman knows that she has to put herself out there and take what she can get. Right? No kidding, folks, the seven hundred dollar shoes are a metaphor. They're shiny and pretty and what you want, but the pain and orthopedic disasters are going to be epic. We've been trying to redefine female empowerment either as a) the same as male empowerment or b)an endless stream of pretty things and STDs, where abortions are a sad necessity and children are something to add to the million dollar decor. Really?
Proposition #2: Women have become so alienated from their own bodies that they have to imagine a world of fear and pain in order to feel anything.
We know it's true- most American women couldn't begin to explain their own cycles, when they are fertile, whether their moods have anything to do with hormonal shifts or how much ice cream they ate last night. Most women are not taught that they can manage cramps with anything other than drugs that bear side effects such as clots, heart disease or infertility... and if not connected to their own bodies, then how can they understand not only what is pleasurable, but how to ask for it? (That last article is pretty strightfoward, folks...)
And in a world where women have been ridiculed for feeling, have been passed over in the workplace because they are "emotional," even in religous work, it makes some sense that this desensitization of women is so widespread that only violent sex might knock it out of us.
Proposition #3: We don't understand the beauty of sexual union.
It is possible, just possible that we still think sex is something we "have" to do to keep a spouse happy, or to keep him from cheating. Or we think sex is something that is great while it lasts, but that's just for newlyweds. Or we think that sex is fun but frivolous, or something that relieves stress, or something that brings pleasure however you can get it.
Sex is first and foremost an act of self giving love. If it isn't, you're doing it wrong. Human sexuality is more than animal instinct because we are more than animals. If we are made in the image of God, then our very bodies display this image - and as such, our bodies joined together tell a different story than one of simple give and take. Sex is really about give and give, receive and receive. This is why the clamoring for tales of use and abuse is so disturbing and, ultimately, so degrading to women in general. In this novel, sex is being twisted to satisfy, perhaps both the man and the woman's immediate psychological impulse. But the satisfaction itself is twisted. His comes through domination and aggressiveness, hers from submission and by giving up her own will.
It astonishes me that women find this attractive. I would guess many of these are the same good Christian women who balk at the Scriptural reading on "wives being submissive to their husbands"? I do not suggest their usual distain for the verses out of context is misplaced, not at all. But now we get to the heart of the matter. The call of Scripture is for men to love their wives with such reverence that they will die for them, give up their bodies for them, surrender for them. The call is for women to allow this, to receive the gift of their husband's body and to embrace his love in service to her.
The twisted folly of S&M is a meeting of unequals, who gain some kind of high from denigrating another, or in the act of being used. This submission is rightly defined as a surrender of will, as a negation of self-worth. This submission is frought with the danger of losing one's own mindfulness, one's own passions, one's own identity by being dominated by another.
Sex as it was intended is rather a uniting of wills, a reverence for the other's body, a recognition of value, a gift.
Proposition #4: Woman - you are beautifully, wonderfully made.
You have a right and a responsibility to be the image of God, to be sexually whole and live in freedom and truth. Buying books that glorify male dominance, animal behavior, or the perverse "excitement" of being beaten, raped, and overtaken decries your dignity and your value.
Your sexuality does not arise from the "inner goddess" of this novel. You are already image of God in your physical BODY as well as your everlasting soul. You have the power to choose life, to bring life, to bring pleasure, to gift love. There are no simple answers to a perfect sex life, but making yourself less than you are, taking pleasure in abuse - that resets the world to a place where women have no choice to be submissives to domineering bastards. These are your dollars at work here, women - spend them wisely.
Maybe the male reviewer who insisted that this novel left him "feeling confused, bothered, and seriously doubting whether or not I understood what was going on" had no reason to butt in, as the feminists suggest. But I think I may just stand with him. After all this history of being belittled, undervalued and disregarded, women finally have a voice where we can say together that we will no longer be objectified - where we have our own genius to share, and hearts and minds of courage and truth that can change the world. Let's not- plllleeeeassse not strap a leash around our own necks and accept any human being- or tolerate even the fictional possiblity of one- as our "master".
(p.s. to the "feminists" out there- be proud of me - I'm comfortable talking about my sexuality!)
Original post here; re-printed with permission.
Christine Falk Dalessio is a doctoral student in Theology at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Her main areas of interest include John Paul II's New Feminism and the Theology of the Body. She maintains her blog Feminism: the Catholic F Word between schoolwork and teaching, and lives in Dayton with her husband Mike.