Another Theology of the Body, Part XV--HOT TAKES on 50 Shades of Grey

As you are aware if you consume even the slightest bit of media, the 50 Shades of Grey movie will soon be upon us.  To gear up, the Catholic blogosphere has been quite active with its think pieces, or jeremiads, most of which reflect the view that the existence and popularity of the film is a sign that everything is going to hell in a handbasket.  As examples, you could look to Jennifer Fitz, or a pair of offerings from, you guessed it, our old pal Dr. Popcak.  Rest assured, to use the lingo of sports writing, they are HOT TAKES.

Before turning to their hot takes, a brief digression.  I have this weird love for terrible movies.  Not "so good they're bad" movies like, say, the early work of Arnold Schwarzenegger; I love those movies, too, but I am talking about thoroughly terrible films.  I'm talking about the kinds of movies where you ask yourself questions like "why did they think this would be a good idea, or even an idea that had a prospect of working?"  "If I was given this amount of money and told to make a film, could I do better than this, with no training or experience?"  For example, take Battlefield Earth.  Among its legion of problems, throughout the movie the camera appears to be tilted at a 45 degree angle.  Why?  Why did the director think this was an effective choice?  What was going through his head?  I have no idea, but it made watching Battlefield Earth an enthralling experience for me.

All signs point to 50 Shades of Grey being of this type.  The pre-release press tour has been catastrophic.  The lead actors (you know, the one's who are supposed to be having this illicit, raunchy affair) appear to loathe each other.  Moreover, they appear to loathe the material.  From the lead guy, Jamie Dornan: "It was an interesting evening [going to a sex dungeon for research]. Then go back to my wife and newborn baby afterwards … I had a long shower before touching either of them." Meanwhile, the director and author evidently had serious fights over "artistic vision," which might as well be firing off a signal flare that the film is going to be a train wreck.

Until I read this reporting, I had no interest in seeing the movie, but now I am deeply intrigued.  Is it possible to have sex scenes with absolutely zero sexual chemistry?  We may soon find out!  Indeed, if the movie is as bad as the press tour suggests, it might be ill-advised for Fitz and Popcak to discourage people from seeing the film--the film itself might be the best argument against experimenting with BDSM.  The actors certainly seem to think so!   The movie might turn out to basically be a PSA for the position they stake out in their pieces, after all.

Be that as it may, back to the broader point made by Fitz and Popcak regarding BDSM generally.  Fitz takes the "burn it with fire" approach, essentially taking the position that if you are interested in engaging in this activity, you should find a way to stop being interested.
But the question for me is, what precisely is "the activity" that she has a problem with?  Because it seems to me that BDSM has at least three components.  First, there is the fantasy component--the parties pretending to be someone they are not in a sexual context.  Second, there is the element of power, where one person gets to tell the other what to do.  And third, there is the element of striking the other person, or using some measure of force to constrain them (tie them up, handcuffs, etc.)

I understand the objection to the third element.  Violence of any kind, particularly in an intimate partner context, is a very serious issue.  The line between "acceptable" BDSM and abuse seems to me, as an outside observer, to be razor thin even under the best of circumstances.  I am aware (primarily from listening to people like Dan Savage) that the communities formed around BDSM activities emphasize the notion of negotiation--making sure that both parties know ahead of time exactly what is coming, so that prior express consent can be obtained.  Still, it seems to me that one is at least potentially "playing with fire" by opening oneself to this kind of activity.  In fact, I wonder if folks who are encouraged to play around in this space--perhaps because of 50 Shades of Grey--are more likely to cross the line into a bad situation than into experienced folks.

Something else with regard to the violent dimension: in Fitz's piece, and even more so with Popcak, the locus of the problematic desire is placed on the person receiving the spanking or handcuffing or whatever, and that recipient is assumed to be a woman.  First, while it is my understanding that the assumption with regard to gender is true more often than not, the script can be flipped with the man desiring to be the recipient.  Moreover, I would be far more concerned about the person doing the spanking than the one receiving it.  Pain produces endorphins, the same endorphins released with, for example, a really strenuous work-out.  In a sense, enjoying some measure of pain is normal and biological.  Enjoying the process of giving someone pain, however, is far more psychological, and to me has a far greater likelihood of spilling out of the bedroom into other activities.  Perhaps this is unfounded, but I would be far more concerned about that end of the equation than the recipient.  Or, to personalize it, I get why someone might like the sensations involved with being the submissive in BDSM; I don't get why someone would like hurting someone for hurting's sake, even if they knew that the other person wanted to be hurt in this way.

So, I recognize the concern about the violent elements of BDSM, even if they are (it is claimed) attenuated and controlled.  On the flip side, though, I don't see any problem with fantasy, at least on its own terms.  As I've talked about before, pretending to be someone else for a little while is a way of breaking out of the normal and letting off a little steam.  Certainly, if a person has trouble confusing fantasy with reality, or they refuse to engage with reality in preference to the fantasy, then that's a serious problem.  But as a quick trip out of the normal for a couple of hours--I don't see the problem at all.

Which leaves us with the middle issue, the question of power.  It is at this point we should pause the tape and talk about Dr. Greg.  Dr. Greg identifies very clearly where the problem with BDSM lies, and it is in this element.  Unfortunately, rather than seeing unequal relationships as problematic on their own terms, he sees female submission as a transference of the "natural receptivity" of women.  No, really:

The Theology of the Body asserts that an inherent character of femininity is receptivity.  That is, the ability to be open, generous, receptive to others. Not dependent, or needy, or a victim, but intimately relational  in character.  The secular feminist culture pressures women to deny their basic receptivity, but nature will not be denied.  The receptive, feminine impulse continues to assert itself, and if it cannot find legitimate expression in healthy relationships, it will assert itself in more insidious ways.

In essence, many women who have been trained to reject their natural, healthy vulnerability, can only allow their feminine impulse to be expressed by permitting themselves to be dominated. Unable to allow their feminine nature to emerge in any other way, many women either fantasize or actually place themselves positions where they are no longer given a choice in the matter.  Domination is, in essence, Satan’s counterfeit of the healthy submission (as opposed to subjugation/dominance) that naturally expresses itself in subtle and psychologically affirming ways in a healthy, nurturing relationship.

A few thoughts.  First, during my review of Holy Sex!, I mentioned that I thought Dr. Greg's heart wasn't in the idea of complementarity of the sexes.  Hoo boy, was I wrong about that, as demonstrated by this post.  Second, I've registered my objection to this kind of simplistic complementarian logic, so I will not repeat it here.  Third, it would seem that, by this logic, all modern women, minus those who have read Dr. Greg's book, would be into being submissive.  After all, every other woman is having her "inherent feminine receptivity" denied by "secular feminist culture."  I know 50 Shades of Grey is popular, but it's not that popular.  Fourth, this would seem to suggest that men would never have submissive fantasies, which certainly is not the case.


Returning to a reality-based discussion of the notion of power in relationships, unlike Dr. Greg I think equality in relationships is a good thing.  Indeed, I think it is a precondition to an authentic Christian relationship.  To the extent a relationship between the parties is founded in some formal inequality, where one party gets to dictate the terms of the relationship, then I think this is a fundamental problem.  Calling it "BDSM," to me, doesn't change this basic fact.  It's really not any different, ultimately, than the Duggars, though obviously the motivations are wildly different.  It's not OK.

But are relationships that have a BDSM component actually unequal?  Or are the parties pretending to be unequal, for an hour or so in the bedroom, and then equal the rest of the time?  In other words, is the power transfer real, or is it fantasy?  It seems to me that some versions of pretend power transfer are harmless.  Suppose that a couple decides, on the birthday of the respective members of the couple, that the other person will do whatever he or she wants.. Whatever activities, whatever meals--totally up to the birthday boy or girl.  That's a power transfer, of a sort, but it is sharply limited in scope (i.e. one day, and presumably nothing that will have any permanent ramifications).  It seems to me that this is categorically different from an arrangement where one part of the couple gets to call the shots all the time.

Fitz's piece operates on the assumption that everything done in the context of BDSM is 100% real.  "If your brain works correctly, sexual arousal will take place within the context of a mutually-cherishing, tender, compassionate marital relationship," implying that a BDSM relationship is definitionally incapable of being mutually-cherishing, tender, and compassionate.  If a relationship is founded on an unequal arrangement, then I agree.  But if it more like "birthday day" than a fundamental element of the relationship, Fitz's conclusion seems alarmist.

Paradoxically, it seems to me that power exchange is OK so long as the couple doesn't really take it seriously.  So long as the couple is actually equal on a day-in, day-out basis, playing around in this space for a few brief interludes is probably fine.  The moment it becomes serious, the moment that this power transfer starts impacting the life outside the bedroom, is the moment it becomes a problem.

I have no idea if the relationship described in 50 Shades of Grey involves "real" inequality or "pretend" inequality.  I have no idea if the relationship described in the book is a positive one or not.  Certainly, it seems to me, that these are potentially dangerous currents to navigate.  But I think that the overheated hot takes from Fitz and Popcak are a bridge too far.

POSTSCRIPT:  One of the real joys of the internet is being connected with voices that you would never find on your own.  Last week, I came across Elnathan John, a Nigerian blogger and satirist, who is a wickedly good writer.  He writes about the Nigerian experience, such as "How to Worship the Nigerian God."  John emphasizes that, to be a true Nigerian, you need to make sure that God Blesses your Hustle.  As he says:

Everything in Nigeria is a hustle. Government, politics, religion- all a hustle. And the Nigerian god helps those who help themselves. The key to survival is understanding the rules of the hustle so that by strategically positioning yourself, God can meet you at the point of your need and bless your hustle.

I've seen few people who embrace this principle with more zeal than Dr. Greg.  For example, do you know what Dr. Popcak's proposed solution to the scourge of women who reject their "inherent character of receptivity"?  Why, people should buy his book Holy Sex! and give it to such women, of course!  When a commenter suggested that it was somewhat gauche to suggest such a self-interested solution to the problem, he fired back that perhaps the commenter had a mercenary attitude.  Moreover, what had the commenter done to foster the full flowering of female receptivity?  Surely, it is only his zeal for female receptivity, and not an overactive sensitivity to criticism, that motivated Dr. Greg's reply.

You tell 'em, Dr. Greg.  As John says, don't let anyone truncate your hustle.


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