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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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 🙂