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Fifty Shades of Caution

Women are asking whether they should view the new 'Fifty Shades of Grey' film or read the book series. I hate to see them falling into the same trap that has claimed so many men.

A few years ago my wife, Merry, said to me, "I've been hearing about this new book, Fifty Shades of Grey.  I wonder if that would be good to read?"

"Well, it's a book about sexual bondage and sadism," I replied.  "Does that sound like something you want to read?"

"I don't think so."

It was an easy decision for Merry, but there were many other Christian women hearing about the book and wondering, "Should I read Fifty Shades of Grey?" Many women love stories about romance, and this book had become a national sensation—the book and its two sequels ranked 1-3 at the top of the New York Times paperback bestseller list. So many women were talking about the book that others wanted to become part of the conversation.

And now, with the release of the Fifty Shades movie on February 13, that conversation has returned on an even higher level.  "Should we read the book … and watch the film?"

For some women, the decision is simple once they learn the plot.  Others are curious and want to try it out, so to speak.  And others can’t understand what the fuss is about.  "This isn’t real, after all, it’s just fiction.  It might even spice up your sex life!"

When this article on the Fifty Shades phenomenon first appeared in 2012 (this is an updated version), it was obvious that many readers were facing these same questions.  "Your timing with this article is particularly interesting to me because of a conversation I was involved in this past Friday night," one woman wrote.  "Our small group had a 'Girls Night Out' at one member's home and this topic came up. Of the 10 of us, 7 admitted to already having read the first book … As they began to tell me about it, I was floored. I could not believe that they were justifying reading it and actually talking about it and 'dumbing it down' to make themselves feel better. I went away feeling embarrassed and deeply saddened by the conversation we all had."

Another reader said, "I brought up the topic in our women’s group at church and I was amazed at the number of women who have been invited into a book club just for the purpose of talking about this book, and who were invited by Christian friends. They said they heard that it was helping their sexual desire toward their husbands.  It was a discussion that started out as calling for us women to be the kind of woman in Titus, and being careful not to get ensnared by desires of the flesh that will only satisfy worldly desires. It ended on a negative note for the first time in five years. I was told that I was being too judgmental about a book that I had not read."

The right place for sexual desire

Some people will say it’s unfair to criticize a book I haven’t read.  Usually I agree with that argument, but not when it comes to erotica or pornography.  Here are a few points to consider:

1. Erotic photos, videos, and books are all designed with one thing in mind—to stimulate sexual desire.  From a biblical standpoint, sexual desire is good as long as it’s in the right context.  But I think it’s safe to say that the creators of erotica and pornography are not very concerned about whether they help couples build stronger marriages. Instead, using these media invites men and women to fantasize about sexual relationships outside of marriage. That’s a dangerous path to walk. It leads to unhealthy comparisons with your spouse and a host of other problems. If the sexual relationship in a marriage is weak, reading erotica or viewing porn is not a good way to add some sparks.

2. Erotica and pornography promote a corrupted view of something God designed as beautiful.  Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says it well: 

Rightly understood and rightly ordered, marriage is a picture of God’s own covenantal faithfulness. Marriage is to display God’s glory, reveal God’s good gifts to His creatures, and protect human beings from the inevitable disaster that follows when sexual passions are divorced from their rightful place. 

The physicality of the male and female bodies cries out for fulfillment in the other. The sex drive calls both men and women out of themselves and toward a covenantal relationship that is consummated in a one-flesh union. By definition, sex within marriage is not merely the accomplishment of sexual fulfillment on the part of two individuals who happen to share the same bed. Rather, it is mutual self-giving that reaches pleasures both physical and spiritual. 

A man who directs his sexual drive toward the one-flesh relationship in marriage, Mohler writes, "is the perfect paradigm of God’s intention in creation." By contrast, a man involved with pornography subverts his sex drive toward lust and self-gratification.  "Rather than taking satisfaction in a wife, he looks at dirty pictures in order to be rewarded with sexual arousal that comes without responsibility, expectation, or demand."

3. The particular genre highlighted in Fifty Shades of Grey, BDSM, is even worse.  BDSM stands for bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism. These practices are the opposite of the "mutual self-giving" that should characterize a holy, biblical sexual relationship in marriage.

4. The fact that a book is fiction doesn’t negate the damaging consequences of reading it.   Words can penetrate your mind in negative ways just as images can. In Philippians 4:8 the Bible tells us, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Can you truly do that while simultaneously reading this book or viewing the film?

5. You don’t need to join every conversation.  We like to think that teenagers are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure, but sometimes I wonder if it’s just as bad for adults.  Think of what a mother tells her kids:  "If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do the same thing?"  The same goes for friends urging you to read erotica or look at pornography. 

Is it good for your marriage?

"I’ve been studying what God says about sexuality for 15 years," writes Dannah Gresh in a blog post titled, "I’m Not Reading Fifty Shades of Grey."

According to Him, there is only one who should stimulate sexual desire in me: my husband. Since that’s God’s plan for my sexual desire, anything other than my husband creating arousal in me would be missing the mark of God’s intention. (Translation: It is sin.) Jesus said it this way: "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." The same is true of a woman looking at or reading about a man.

Erotica, especially the genre involving bondage and sadism, easily leads to a corrupted view of something God created as good within the context of marriage. It sparks physiological reactions that require greater and greater levels for fulfillment; it causes unhealthy comparison to a real-life spouse; and it leads men and women to be preoccupied with sexual fulfillment at the expense of other relationships, including their relationship with God. 

So you’ve got to ask yourself:  Is any of that good for my marriage? 

My hope and prayer is that Christian women, when faced with the temptation of a book or film like Fifty Shades of Grey, will "be watchful" and "stand firm in the faith."  Don’t fall into the same trap as men do with pornography.

Copyright © 2012, 2015 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved. This article is updated from the original, which appeared in the June 18, 2012 issue of Marriage Memo.

Click here to read emails readers sent in response to the article.

Next Steps

1. Read "Is 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Dangerous?" an article by Dannah Gresh and Dr. Juli Slattery.

2. Listen to Dannah Gresh and Dr. Juli Slattery on FamilyLife Today.

3. If your marriage could use a refresh, check out our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway.

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