Editor’s note: In their book, Pulling Back the Shades, Dannah Gresh and Dr. Juli Slattery provide solid biblical counsel on how to view the Fifty Shades of Grey craze. In this adapted excerpt from the book, Juli (who read the books) and Dannah (who did not) discuss how erotica can deceive us and harm our relationships.
Juli: Having read the Fifty Shades trilogy, I will say with great confidence that these books are not merely fiction—a story that could be true but is not—but are actually fantasy—something that could not possibly be true. Erotica like Fifty Shades is fantasy because it subtly asks you to assume a different reality. It can be entertaining to enter a fantasy and imagine a visit to a realm that can’t possibly be true (The Lord of the Rings series comes to mind). So, when does fantasy present dangerous deception? Should we avoid all books and movies that are not grounded solidly in reality?
Here are two questions that will help you decide for yourself whether or not fantasy, or any other form of fiction, presents a dangerous deception: What laws are changed? What does it inspire?
What laws are changed?
One of the most widely known fantasy stories starts out like this: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” From the outset, the author of Star Wars is asking you to step away from what you know to be true and imagine with him a different galaxy, a different time, with different assumptions. The story is filled with creatures like Wookiees and talking robots, time warps and space travel. We accept these illogical elements because we know they are part of fantasy.
Erotica also lures you into a different reality but doesn’t let you know that you are entering a world “far, far away.” Within the context of “normal life,” erotica introduces romantic stories that are not possible. But what makes erotica unrealistic is far more subtle and yet more dangerous. Instead of manipulating laws of physics and science, erotica authors like EL James change moral and relational laws. Right and wrong get morphed into a morally grey universe that becomes impossible to untwist. While reading Fifty Shades of Grey, I emailed a friend, stating, “I can no longer find true north!” I got sucked into the fantasy.
Just as there are scientific laws in our universe—such as gravity—there are also principles that govern our emotions, relationships, and spiritual health. You have freedom to choose if you will abide by them, but you can never be free from the consequences of your actions.
Erotica twists and distorts the results of making immoral and foolish choices. In the real world, our actions have consequences, sometimes very grave consequences. The authors of erotica simply ignore or erase those consequences and create a magical “happy ending.” Solomon warns against falling into this delusional thinking. After talking about the dangers of sexual immorality, he writes, “Can a man (or woman) scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched?” (Proverbs 6:27-28).
Here’s a reality check: You cannot pursue the kinds of relationships you read about in erotica without an outcome very different from the ones in the books. If you read Fifty Shades and then invest in a relationship that is built around sexual sadism, you will not end up in a loving, caring, committed marriage.
This is what happened to a young missionary and Christian leader:
I am single and erotica has ruined my life. I have been addicted for ten years and I am only twenty-five. No one knows my struggle. No one knows that I have lived an isolated life because I have found more solace in fantasies aroused in my mind by erotica than in real relationships.
Erotica seems harmless because it’s just words on a page but it brands your mind, creates false expectations for future relationships. I can’t even maintain real relationships because I feel like a shallow pretender hiding one of the biggest parts of my life.
Erotica perpetuated my “need” for meeting people online because I didn’t know how to develop or maintain relationships with people outside of the screen. Eventually, I decided to take my online relationships into reality. Many of the stories I read portrayed rape or power-struggle situations as exciting. A no didn’t always mean no because, in the end, the girl always seemed to end up just fine. So when I met one of my first guys online, I was thrust ever too quickly into a scenario I had read about but, unlike the stories, I didn’t end up fine. My no didn’t mean no, and I was sexually abused by a man who did the same things to me that I had read about in those erotic stories. But in my story, there wasn’t a happy ending.
Ever since then, I have carried the weight of shame and guilt from putting myself into that situation six years ago. Erotica makes it seem normal for us to be used and abused, but it’s not normal.
Be careful little eyes what you read. You cannot change emotional, relational, and spiritual laws in real life, but erotica may lead you to believe that you can.
What does it inspire?
Even though fantasy by definition takes us out of some aspect of reality, it can use imagination to point us to deeper truth. For example, C.S. Lewis’s book series The Chronicles of Narnia takes great license in creating a fantasy in which a magical wardrobe transports children into the world of Narnia. There is a white witch, half human-half animal creatures, and a mighty lion who is so self-sacrificing that some have suggested he is a Christ-figure. While Lewis changes the laws of nature, he is drawing attention to deeper spiritual truths about the captivity we live in, Jesus’ sacrifice to free us from sin, and God’s final victory over evil.
What is erotica intended to inspire? Rather than pointing to a deeper truth, erotica uses fantasy ultimately to promote deception—to make you believe that you can have everything you’ve ever longed for. Let’s take a logical look at the absurdity of what is presented in the Fifty Shades of Grey series.
By the end of the second book, Christian and Ana have known each other for six weeks. They are engaged and madly in love. Christian is a multibillionaire (he makes $100,000 an hour!) at the age of twenty-seven. This self-made man has all the time and money in the world to dote on his new love.
Is it possible for a young man to be so wealthy? Sure. But let’s add to the money the fact that Christian is incredibly fit and handsome and always knows exactly what to say and do to win Ana’s heart. He is controlling, but apparently not smothering. He is angry and aggressive, but somehow not abusive. Both how he behaves and how she reacts to his behavior are pure fantasy—of the most deceptive kind.
And the sex … let’s just say it reaches the outer-limit of fantasy.
Dannah: The fantasy of erotica inspires one thing—the longing for more. Instead of satisfying your longings, it will awaken, manipulate, and deepen them. No longer will you be satisfied with an attentive boyfriend or husband who occasionally brings you a soy latte to cheer you up … you will want a man who is obsessively, unrealistically in love with you and has the bank account to prove it. Normal sex in your marriage—the kind that requires communication, sometimes involves frustration, and doesn’t always end in rapturous orgasm—will now be disappointing. A hardworking man who is faithfully scraping by will never be able to provide for you the way a man in your fantasy can.
And it’s not always the harder erotica fantasies like Fifty Shades that create the deception. We know of a single woman who has feasted so obsessively on Christian romance novels that no man can live up to her expectations. She remains addicted to the fiction and is unable to experience authentic relationships in her real world. The end result of living in fantasy is disillusionment, dissatisfaction, and ungratefulness in reality. If you desperately desire to have a fulfilling love life, to be alive and satisfied, erotica will not get you there. You will never reach contentment reading something that is intended to make you long for more!
You may be thinking, “I can tell the difference between truth and fiction. I’m not the type of woman to get pulled in.” We talk to many women who cannot see their own deception even as they were buried in the emotional, relational, and spiritual consequences of the lies that have destroyed them. That’s the hard part: by their very nature, lies are deceptive, not easily detected. The thought that you are not vulnerable to deception is evidence that you are. Paul has a warning for that kind of thinking: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12).