One Catholic’s Opinion on Fifty Shades of Grey

NOTE:  I’ve revised and amended my opinion of these books based on conversations and a quote from Pope Benedict I found.  Feel free to read through this post, but then go check out my second opinion.

***********************

Well, I did it.  I read Fifty Shades of Grey .

I had been hearing a lot about it.  I saw an SNL skit about it and heard The Today Show talk about “mommy porn.”  I’ve encountered Twitter debates about the morality of the book, and seen my Facebook friends post all about it.

As a high school youth minister I’ve found myself reading and watching things I never would have chosen myself just because I want to be able to talk to teenagers about their faith using stories and examples from things they love.  That’s why I read Twilight and Harry Potter, it’s why I watched Glee (though I only made it through 3 episodes) and Jersey Shore (not even one full episode with that one).

Then, my husband sealed the deal when he came home one night begging me to read this book.  I love to read and I can be a bit compulsive and addicted to it – sacrificing things like making dinner or doing housework in favor of a good book.  My husband is not a fan of my reading addiction – he even has a special eye roll and sigh that he pulls out when he sees me sitting in the recliner with a book – so when he came home asking me to read something, I jumped at the chance for some uninterrupted and non-badgered reading time.

I knew very little about the book before I read it – just that it was a modern romance novel with some pretty explicit sex scenes in it.

The New York Times describes the content of the book saying, “The books, which were released in the last year, center on the lives (and affection for whips, chains and handcuffs) of Christian Grey, a rich, handsome tycoon, and Anastasia Steele, an innocent college student, who enter into a dominant-submissive relationship.”

That’s putting it mildly.

The sex scenes certainly are beyond steamy – some of them are pretty kinky and a few are downright freaky.  Let’s just say items like riding crops, rulers, floggers (whatever those are!), and the like are not within my comfort zone – they’re not within a lot of people’s comfort zones.  So why are these books (they’re a trilogy) sitting atop the NYT’s Bestseller List and showing up on SNL?

The Times says quotes one married woman who says:

“It’s relighting a fire under a lot of marriages,” said Lyss Stern. “I think it makes you feel sexy again, reading the books.”

It certainly worked for one friend of mine.  Her husband texted my husband telling him that he had to get me to read this book because his wife read it and they were definitely “relighting a fire” in their marriage (now I know why my husband was so eager for me to read it).

For the record, they do a lot more talking about tortuous sex than actually doing it. And yes, the writing is really that bad.

On the other hand, the book has quite a few critics.  It’s slow moving plot and overblown prose won’t win it any literary awards.  Then there are those who object to the bondage and dominant/submissive content of some of the scenes saying its degrading to women.  There’s some weird stuff in the female main character’s head about her “inner goddess” and her “subconscious” who play basically play the role of her id and superego respectively.  But the criticism that’s engaged me the most is from the Christians I know who are warning their friends off of them saying that it’s basically pornography and is would be sinful to read it.

I’m not sure I agree…

Now, I want to be clear about something.  There is a lot in this book that I found morally questionable and somethings I found downright wrong.  Let’s start with the fact that these are two unmarried people who begin a relationship on purely sexual grounds and exclusively for the sake of pleasure – that certainly does not uphold the sanctity of sex as unitive and designed for marriage.  There isn’t a single sex scene that doesn’t mention contraception as a key element – their sex isn’t procreative either.  I find the dominant/submissive context to be more than a little disturbing and the (very few) scenes in which it is actually used (as opposed to the many scenes where it is talked about) certainly do not uphold the inherent dignity of the two main characters.

Pornography

But is it pornography?  Is it sinful?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines pornography as:

Removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties.(CCC 2354)

The Catholic Church teaches that the human body should be respected, because of the dignity that Christ bestows on every person, and pornography involves exploiting the human body and viewing the body as an object.

Maybe not porn, but definitely not suited for anyone not married!

Well, see, here’s the thing.  The sexual acts in this book – they aren’t real or simulated – they’re fiction.  They’re made up and imaginary.  And the people engaging in them – they aren’t real either.  We can’t uphold the inherent dignity of a person who isn’t real.  And there are no images of the body – nor is the author particularly descriptive about the sex organs (she’s more into describing action).  In fact, the parts of the body that are most mentioned in these books are the eyes (of both characters) and the girl’s hair – and neither are what I’d call exploited.

I’m not sure that the argument that the books are morally wrong because they are pornography is accurate.

Lust

One person I know argued that these books are sinful because they inspire lust in the people who are reading it.

Back to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes. (CCC 2351)

Okay, I see a potential area of concern here.  After all these characters are certainly lustful for most of the story.  They both seek sexual pleasure isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.  But then I go back to the woman quoted in the New York Times and my friend.  They read these books and were inspired to turn to their husbands in passion.  Heck – so did I.

But is that lust?  After all, to have sexual feelings for one’s spouse or to enjoy sexual pleasure with one’s spouse is not only fine, it’s according to God’s design. To lust is to seek sexual pleasure in another person solely for one’s own pleasure without regard for the other person.  But if these books inspire to desire my husband and enjoy sexual pleasure within its procreative and unitive purposes…then is that wrong?

Clear Conscience

My conscience is clear in reading these books.  I read the first one to be informed, but I could have put it down and stopped after the first kinky scene – the way I stopped watching Jersey Shore after only part of one episode.  And let’s be honest, not only did I not put it down, I kept right on reading straight through the other books in the series.  Okay, let’s be really honest.  I started reading at 7PM one night and read straight through book two until almost 5AM the next morning.  Then I spent most of that day home in my sweats reading book three.  (I told you I’m addicted.)

My conscience is clear because I didn’t objectify my husband after reading these books or even fantasize about having sex with Christian Grey.  I have no desire to engage in any of the freaky (disordered) sex acts described in the novel.  The books w ere an entertaining (though not good in a literary sense) read that had the added thrill of making me desire my husband more.

Not porn.  Not lust.  Call them a “marital aid.”

Especially if we’re all being all unitive and procreative about it!!

Word of Warning

The irony here is that so many people are so black and white about these books – either they think they are great or they think they are evil.  The reality is that there are 50 Shades of Grey to the morality of these books (see what I did there?)  Which is why I am not blanket recommending or condemning these books.  I don’t think they are for everyone and I think that they certainly have the potential to lead to sin…which may be enough to convince you to avoid them altogether.

My thoughts come with many caveats and prefaces…

  • If you are in a loving Catholic marriage and
  • If you’re looking to spice up said marriage and
  • If you and your spouse generally try to uphold the procreative and unitive aspects of sex in your relationship and
  • If you can clearly find the line between reality and fantasy and
  • If you do not currently struggle from a pornography addiction and
  • If you have someone with whom you can discuss these books who can call you out if you start crossing the line into lust and
  • If you can read through the first couple steamy sex scenes without being totally weirded out and
  • If you plan to read all three books,

Then you may be able to avoid sin when reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

Even then, I think most married women should avoid them for the same reason I don’t recommend married women read romance novels.

However, if you do try it out and get through the first book, please promise you’ll read the whole series.  The second two books walk through the character development of Christian and Ana including the abuse he suffered that has wounded him and caused his perverted view of sex and his process of healing into a more rightly ordered and self-giving love that isn’t lustful or damaging.

One last disclaimer:  I take full responsibility for these opinions and you should in no way think that my opinion accurately reflects anything even remotely official from the Catholic Church regarding these books.  I’m quite willing to discover that I’m wrong :)

About Kristin Bird

Trying to set the world ablaze in the frozen tundra. (Luke 12:49)

Posted on May 16, 2012, in Catholic Realist, Family Life, Marriage and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Here’s a link to the blog of someone who disagrees with me. I’d recommend reading her thoughts as well. She outlines the potential danger in what is not yet lustful maybe becoming lustful – which is a great point. http://www.purefreedom.org/blog/?p=320

    One note on this though – she didn’t actually read the books so her perception of the BDSM sex in them is out of proportion to what is actually found in the books and ignores the ways in which the male lead is healed from his desire for this kind of sex (which is caused by some abuse he suffered as a child).

  2. Mary Gietman

    As a preface, I have to say that I enjoy your quest to form your conscience more fully and your desire to not jump to conclusions about the morality of any given thing. This is a trait that I’ve always appreciated about you. I also appreciate that you’re willing to experience things that others won’t (Harry Potter, Glee, etc.) for the sake of further developing your moral compass and exercising it. It makes you an asset to others when moral questions come up.

    Ok, after our initial discussion and now that I’ve read the actual post, I have more comments…

    First, I kindly disagree with your conclusion on the CCC quote on pornography. The word “simulated” is of particular concern. If the book were a movie, the scenes would be “simulated” with fictional characters and it would be pornography. Are the movie and the book really that separate because one is physically visible on a screen and one is visible in the mind’s eye? Based on the CCC quote, I would judge the book to be, at best, illicit if not outright pornographic. Bottom line, we’re not sure it’s NOT pornography.
    Illicit is not good enough for the Christian conscience.

    I think what you and other women have done with their “inspiration” is rightly ordered and the best you can do in the circumstance. However, think about what the husbands in your anecdote are asking. “Here hunny, read this. My buddy said it made his wife desire him more, and I don’t think you desire me enough, so I’m giving you this illicit book to hopefully get the affection I need from you…since I’m not enough on my own.” The message is much more subtle when delivered, and might be missed, but it’s there. I know sexual intimacy is an area where many couples struggle and my marriage certainly isn’t immune. But, given that pornography use for the sake of inspiring even rightly-ordered marital intimacy is still considered sinful, I think using the book this way is a very dark shade of grey, if not outright black.

    It’s uncomfortable for me to say, but I have to say it for the sake of an open, honest discussion. Sin should NOT be inspiring. If unmarried, contracepted, physically abusive, twisted, deplorable, painful sex is what sends you for your husband…um….how can that possibly be rightly ordered or good for your marriage? If you want to make an argument for a dainty ol’ English romance novel, let’s talk. But this? No way.

    Finally, in all quests for moral understanding, the point is not to get as close to the line as you can without crossing it. The goal of the moral life is to RUN in the opposite direction of the line at all times. Whether reading the book and/or acting on it are inherently sinful and worthy of a trip to the confessional, I also can’t conclude 100% because I don’t feel the CCC is specific enough in this case, but that also doesn’t 100% conclude that it ISN’T sinful and it is behavior worthy of the redeemed. If it might be of danger to the soul, we ought to stay away. I also don’t have to conclude 100% in order to determine that it’s too dark a shade to be welcome in my home or in my marriage.

    Again, I appreciate the discussion, but I arrive at the opposite conclusion.

    • Wow Mary, that was a lengthy response!

      As I said, I’m open to being wrong…but there are a few areas of your logic that I disagree with. I think there’s a big difference between simulated sex on the screen and a fictional account of sex written down. Even in a simulated act on the screen, there is an object of the lust – the actor or actress you’re watching becomes the focus of the lust. Those two actors are objectified. Also the definition says that it is a sex act (real or simulated) that is removed from the intimacy of the partners. The idea here is that the sex act belongs to those two people only – and the problem isn’t inherently in the real or simulation of the act. The problem is inherent in the bringing in of the third party. The comment on simulation is (I think) intended as a point of clarification. As I mentioned above, there is not marital bond we need preserve among these people because they aren’t real. The sex act isn’t real or simulated. It’s a non-existent sex act.

      To be honest, this definition has me questioning even the gravity of watching a movie that has a sexual scene in it (even if it’s not technically classified as a pornographic movie)…that’s simulated sex right there.

      I’m also going to say that it’s hard to have this conversation with someone who hasn’t read the book. The sex in the book that causes arousal (at least for me and the friends with whom I’ve discussed the book) are not the BDSM scenes. In fact, there are only two instances of that in the book and after the second, she leaves him because of it…and the end goal of the books (the happily ever after) is a married relationship of unitive and procreative sex (Spoiler alert: it’s a romance novel, of course they get a happily ever after without the freaky sex, married, and with babies).

      If anything the books make clear how disordered these sexual acts are. In reality, it is the scenes where he begins to heal the wounds that led him to that kind of perversion and engages with the girl in “normal” ways that are the most inspiring. For many women, it’s not the sex act that inspires arousal…it’s the story of a man who sacrifices his own selfish desires in order to give to the woman he loves. The most arousing scenes in the book are the ones where that’s the context for their sex. And hey, I’d be a lot more comfortable with all these acts if the whole story took place in the context of marriage instead of outside it but…well, that kind of book just isn’t out there.

      Lastly… You’re absolutely right. It DOES say something about my husband that he wanted me to read this. He didn’t know about the content, he just wanted me to desire him more. For me, like a lot of women, it’s hard to feel that desire after a long day of work, cleaning, cooking, wiping runny noses, and changing dirty diapers. The gift in the books for my marriage was two-fold:
      1). It gave my husband and I a starting point for talking about an area of our marriage that needed work…though we weren’t conscious of it before that.
      2) It gave me a means by which I could mentally prepare for my husband to come home and focus on my desire for him…even for just a few minutes.
      Are there better ways to do this that don’t require something that could potentially cause sin? I’m sure there are, but I don’t know what they are and let’s be honest, it’s not like there is a great support network of easily accessible resources for Catholics who are trying to have healthy sex lives…just like I’ve yet to find a book that inspires desire for my husband that’s based on married, unitive, and procreative sex.

    • A follow up important clarification to this point you make:

      “It’s uncomfortable for me to say, but I have to say it for the sake of an open, honest discussion. Sin should NOT be inspiring. If unmarried, contracepted, physically abusive, twisted, deplorable, painful sex is what sends you for your husband…um….how can that possibly be rightly ordered or good for your marriage? If you want to make an argument for a dainty ol’ English romance novel, let’s talk. But this? No way.”

      Perhaps I was unclear about something in my original post. The sex scenes in the book, while explicit, are not BDSM sex (with one exception). In fact, every time this twisted predilection is mentioned, it is clearly acknowledged as disordered, and as something less than what we are called to. What makes this book so attractive to me and sent me running for my husband was the overall theme of the book: that innocence and true self sacrificing love can convert even the most perverted, twisted, and hardened of hearts. When we encounter self sacrificial love, we are inspired to that same kind of love in return: the reminder of this reality is what sent me running for my husband…along with a true appreciation for the kind of man (strong, powerful, confident, honest, and not at all twisted) that he is. I am fortunate enough to have a man who has a lot of the good qualities of Christian Grey, and none of the bad…

      • But what of the umarried? And if it is not BDSM why does the cover have handcuffs? Only one scene? No other whips etc. are used? No hitting?

    • I have to agree with you Mary. I was thinking about the exact same word “stimulating” We might not be watching these images on television but usually when you read a book you imagine everything in your mind. So your mind can be your eyes. I’m 24 years old and my sister says a lot of high schoolers are reading them as well. Not only that, but I am a nurse and the book has been a hot topic on some of the floors in the hospital for nurses. It’s definilty getting around….
      My question is then, if this book doesn’t seem harmful or immoral then why are so many girls hooked on it? It can’t be the story line, and it can’t be because it has a great mystery…? Then what is it? Your desires or even if you want to call it sexual excitement (I guess if you want to call it that?) and so on should be left between you and your husband. Pure eyes and actions should also be just as important as a pure mind and not allowing any pages of a book to tempt you to desire some fantasy, man, or dream relationship that isn’t real. Since this book has just become popular I don’t think it has been reviewed too much by well known Catholics,(jason evert would be a good one) , but I’m waiting for it. I think jason evert has already talked about the Twilight books and those didn’t even have explicit sex scenes in them…

  3. I am thinking maybe it is not good because it changed the brain chemistry and may alter how a person responds to stimulus thus creating a situation in which a woman would have to have this kind of literature to desire intimacy instead of allowing the natural chemistry between husband and wife to happen. Would it also take the focus off of the unitive part of the act and replace that with sensual pleasure? While pleasure is a gift of God and part of the gift of the marital embrace it seems these books would place the emphasis on pleasure, while pleasure is not bad it might create difficulty for the couple to enter into the mystery of unity when the act itself becomes a pleasure focused. This would bypass will and become an alteration of chemical responses and hormonal responses and we can become “trained” to have particular responses which could later become an unhealthy thing. This of course is just my opinion. http://vimeo.com/41724204

  4. Jim Mazzarelli

    I happened upon your review while searching for another more damning one I started to read but didn’t finished off of newadvent.org. I haven’t read the books, but my quick observation is that you do a lot of “convincing” or yourself that these books are ok. A helpful filter to run these tricky decisions through is the straightforward question, “Is there something better out there to read?” Something more faithful. Something more holy. Something that would raise your heart, mind and soul to the heavens. Not something to which our base reactions are a stir of our loins, even if the outlet for the cravings is something as healthy as our marital partners. If you haven’t read C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters”, or haven’t read it since high school, you might want to start there — irony intended ; )

    • Jim,
      Did you read through the follow up to this post? If not, I’d love for you to do so as this quest for something that has the same effect without the danger of sin is something i bring up there. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a book that can help married couples without being scandalous…

      • Jim Mazzarelli

        Fair enough, but to get to the heart of what a truly healthy marriage needs, please try this read, “Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility” by Dr. Edward Sri. My wife and I and several friends have read the book (and others on Pope JPII’s topic “Theology of the Body”). It’s very enlightening. Read Amazon’s review here: http://www.amazon.com/Men-Women-Mystery-Love-Responsibility/dp/0867168404, and listen to the author himself here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2npOhhRr_4. Ok. And if you’re looking for a more sultry title, try this, “Holy Sex! A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving” by Dr. Gregory Popcak and his wife Lisa: http://www.exceptionalmarriages.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=15&bc=no.

        Good luck and God bless!

        P.S. My wife and I also hail from the land of the frozen tundra and have lots of family there (we escaped south several years ago!). Go Badgers and Packers!!

      • My thoughts too, you try hard to convinceyourself, deep down you know the truth. Unfortunately you set out to convince others. Not working for many of us, sadly, may be for others, especially younger, single people.
        Reading, visualizing, can be the same as watching a movie. And yes, being married myself, i still look away from unnecessry sex scenes in regular movies. Definitely some people’s wacky fantasies are not material to inspire love and passion in a marriage. Even a healthy and happy sexual life is a Grace. Pray for it confidently.

      • Did you see the follow up post? Please take a look.

  5. If you are someone who forms our youth, I am in great fear for our future. You are greatly decieved. One must never commit or do a wrong that a good may result from it. I don’t need to look at a porn magazine to talk to youth about porn. How utterly stupid to justify immorality so one can teach. Please. You and your husband have some serious issues if you like to read such filth. Our Lady of Fatima said more souls go to Hell because of the sins of the flesh.

    • I’d encourage you to read the entire post – including the note at the very beginning with the link to the follow up I wrote – before engaging in name calling and damning me to hell. I’m choosing to assume that you intended this response to be a “loving correction” and that the medium of online communication makes it come off in a way you didn’t intend.

  6. What I find most disturbing about the 50 shades of Greyis that it is read in public. I was on an airplane and both flights a woman was reading this. One of them was reading it next to her teenage daughter! Imagine if it were men with their copies of Hustler surrounding their passengers! Also, I have found a profound disregard for the sensibilities of others in that they push it on you–strangers even, And then, if you say that you don’t wish to discuss the book, you are ridiculed and, maybe worse, subjected to a lengthy diatribe about why it’s not something that should make you uncomfortable to discuss. One said that the people reading it in front of me weren’t forcing me to read it over their shoulders so why be upset? So it is OK for a woman to be aroused while sitting next to me in an enclosed space, so long as I’m not reading it too! These books are pressed upon a person, to the point of sexual harrassment.

    • I’d have to agree with Jim – I’ve read those books and they are spectacular! Also, here is some food for thought…

      “Lust indulged became habit, and habit unresisted became necessity.” -St. Augustine

      “As long as modesty will not be put into practice, the society will continue to degrade. Society reveals what it is by the clothes it wears.” -Pope Pius XII

      “More souls go to hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason.” -Our Lady of Fatima

      “Mary’s life should be for you a pictorial image of virginity. Her life is like a mirror reflecting the face of chastity and the form of virtue. Therein you may find a model for your own life…showing what to improve, what to imitate, what to hold fast to.” -St. Ambrose of Milan, Doctor of the Church, c. 377 A.D.

      “Of all inner conflicts the most arduous are concerned with chastity. These battles are of daily occurrence, but victory is rare”. -St. Augustine

      May God be praised eternally, however, because in Mary He has given us such a shining example of this virtue.” -Taken from “The Glories of Mary” St. Alphonsus Liguori

  7. Christian,

    Your first comment was fine.

  8. Full disclosure: I have not read the books, nor do I plan to. I am reading about the books, though, and I will say that there is a lot of rationalization going on in the blogospheric ether. Porn is porn, even if – for a time – it heats up a relationship between a husband and wife. Porn, however, is insidious and is of the devil. What will stop a husband or a wife from taking the next step to keep the relationship “hot?” The rationalizations will continue and their marriage is in grave danger.

  9. The book begs a person to visualize the scenes…as any book does. It begs the reader to visualize THEMSELVES in this position. If one receives pleasure from reading about another persons (whether fictional or real) sexual life, than I believe that is perversion of the gift. Just what I think

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  1. Pingback: Fifty Shades of Grey…A Second Opinion | The Catholic Realist

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