50 Shades of Grey opened in theaters last Friday and brought in $94 domestically and $266 million worldwide in its opening weekend. Much has been said about the film and its glorification of misogyny and sadomasochism. Over the last few days, Mitch Majeski and Vanessa Felhauer exchanged emails in an attempt to address the sexual ethic of 50 Shades of Grey and to point us to a biblical, more satisfying understanding of sex. Here is what transpired.
Felhauer: When we talked last week about writing an email exchange about 50 Shades of Grey, I was pretty riled up. But the more I’ve read and prayed and engaged with this topic, the more my heart breaks. I’m tearing up even as I write this. In my life and ministry, I see it more from the women’s side — so many women in bondage to shame. God designed our sexuality for such good and pleasure and to point us to the God who is our ultimate pleasure. And Satan has brought such darkness and destruction.
I was glancing through comments on one friend’s Facebook feed after she posted a plea to not see this movie. One woman had asked her if she had read the book, claiming that it’s not abuse because some women like it, and so if it’s consensual what’s the problem? And it does turn some women on, but I think the important question is, why? For women who suffered abuse in the past, pain, shame and feelings of being used may be inexorably linked to sex. Many women, with or without sexual abuse histories, feel they don’t have worth. Our world communicates that in so many ways. And so sadomasochistic sex becomes one more way to punish our bodies — along with cutting, purging, excessive exercising or whatever your thing is.
Majeski: There is something visceral in my response to 50 Shades, as well. I was sexually abused as a child and, in the past, I have struggled with pornography. I’ve seen and experienced the damage of sexuality gone wrong. To me, the life-stealing darkness of this movie (and others) is tangible.
With that admission, let’s pursue, as much as possible, an objective analysis of what 50 Shades says about the current condition of sexual mores in the West.
I have an unfortunate memory of the trailer. Shelli and I saw it when we went to see Unbroken with her folks. The awkwardness of sitting in a room of people faced with those images was tangible and telling. One line of dialogue gave all the necessary context: “I don’t do romance. My tastes are very singular.”
“My tastes.” That’s it, isn’t it? Sexuality today is about individual tastes. It is about taking what satisfies us. How else can we understand bondage? Constraining someone’s participation in the sexual act removes mutuality, by definition.
Let’s talk about consent. Selfish sexual consumption still pricks our calloused consciences. “Consent” provides the absolution we seek. Shouldn’t the most intimate act in all of creation have more substance to it than consent? I consent to many things I’d rather not have. I consent to be cut off in traffic; I consent to a government unjustly ordered. What empty horror lies in sexual intimacy that rises only to the the level of consent?
Again, this is all revealing — if we will only accept the revelation. Every culture determines and promotes its values. The non negotiables rise to the top, trumping all others. The popularity of 50 Shades of Grey reveals how individual pleasure and “consent” have trumped giving and mutual delight. Is that what we want?
Felhauer: I’m thankful I have not yet had to sit through the trailer. Just the ads popping up on my Kindle about sent me over the edge.
As a single woman, your thoughts on sexuality and individual pleasure trumping mutual delight strike a chord. This is territory that I have had to personally wrestle through, and in which I regularly engage other single women in conversation.
I was exposed to both porn and BDSM erotica in college — at a Christian college. It seemed like a harmless way to physically remain a virgin until marriage yet still experience sexual pleasure. But it isn’t harmless, and your words sum up the “pleasure” so aptly — an empty horror. I haven’t read erotica in 15 years, but shame followed me for a long time. Beyond the obvious sexual sin, I think we need to consider the deeper heart issues. There is a way of viewing myself, others, and God in which I do not perceive sexuality as a beautiful gift that God has given us for mutual pleasure within a covenanted relationship. Instead, I will look at sex as something to selfishly take for my own pleasure without giving thought to others.
When I am the center of my own universe, it is easy to see how others simply become pawns in getting what I want. Our culture tells us that we should be the center of our own universes, but the church subtly has told us this, as well. From “name it and claim it” religiosity, to the clutter of self-help books on the shelves of Christian bookstores, we look mainly to our own interests (Philippians 2:4, 21). My own foray into erotica wasn’t really about sexual pleasure. It was about me setting up myself as my own god and taking what I wanted because I viewed God as the Great Withholder. But the true God, a good God, doesn’t use his position as God to take; he uses it to pour out his own life. And that character trait of God is reflected in sexual intimacy that gives instead of takes.
Majeski: “The Great Withholder.” That’s memorable. It’s also an accurate description of a view of God that we are continually tempted to believe. Two passages of Scripture come to mind:
“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1)
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:21–25)
Satan paints God as the “Great Withholder” in the first scenes recorded in Scripture. If we are left feeling that we should have more than God has given us, then we are easily turned into indiscriminate takers. Since the conscience never dies completely, this posture of ungrateful “taking” drives us to invent ways where we can take and still seem reasonable and good. Claiming to be wise in our “sexual freedom,” we foolishly consume others for our own benefit. Isn’t our simultaneous fascination with sexual freedom and zombies, then, curious?
It is grace that allows this “taking” posture to reach its fullness and reveal its foolishness. God giving us up to lusts (and all the pain associated with lust) is indeed punishment, but can’t you hear the whispers of redemption? Through the pain of selfish sexual destruction, there is a Fatherly voice:
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. (Isaiah 55:2)
There have been times in my life as an adult that my own sexual expression was selfish taking. I believed that life existed on the other side of God’s boundary. There was only death. But the shame and wreckage did awake a need for God. I remember the day I prayed, “God, I love this more than you. I will only change if I can love you more than it. Please change my love for you.” That prayer marked a profound turning point in my life.
Do you think, then, that the shame and guilt that results from our sexual sin may actually have a redemptive purpose?
Felhauer: Absolutely! In my own life, God has redeemed this in depth of relationship with both himself and others. Speaking my sin to another believer who could minister grace and comfort released me from bondage to the shame of those specific sins. Also, I am becoming less likely to fear that if others know the real me they will turn away in disgust. I have been able to experience God not as disappointed in me for breaking some arbitrary rule, but as One who wept with me over the devastation I was wreaking in my life. Not because I wasn’t being a “good enough” Christian or was taking time away from the mission with my folly, but because he views my heart as valuable. That really is what his mission here has always been, anyway — exchanging ashes for beauty (Isaiah 61).
Majeski: I agree and, yet, deep down, I want God to bring beauty by giving me whatever I want (sexual freedom without shame). “Certainly God wants me to feel good, right?” That temptation misses the love of the Father who opposes our destructive choices (Hebrews 12:7). Sexual freedom has left us miserable. We are miserable because we reject God’s wisdom which leads to health and we are miserable because God uses misery to bring us back (Hosea 2:6-7).
A few of us grew up with loving dads who stood in the way of our foolishness — who showed discipline and love as complementary. The rest of us are dumbfounded by the idea that God’s tender hand might be behind hardship. We often speak of the sexual maladies that flow out of “daddy issues,” but the absence of dads with uncompromising boundaries because they love their kids is the…ahem…mother of all daddy issues.
I want to go back to the last sentence in your previous email:
“And that character trait of God is reflected in sexual intimacy that gives instead of takes.”
I love great sentences. Few things reveal the image of God like summarizing profound truth in a few words of “subject-verb-direct object.” That’s a great sentence. Within your sentence, we have a sexual ethic that brings sexual delight to both the abstinent single person and the sexually active married person. I’ll explain and then ask for your thoughts as a single woman.
The single person is not outside the joys of sexuality if we view sexuality as a gift to be conserved. Like our natural world, sexuality is not a limitless resource to be recklessly consumed. Every person has sexual limits. Mortality tells us that. Even at 42, the limits of my sexuality are apparent. But, as in all things, the limits indicate value.
A diamond is precious because it is rare. That seasonal run of your favorite ale is special because it is limited. Our natural resources should be conserved because they are finite. Conservation, restraint, stewardship, and savoring — these are not the lifeless responses of prudish restraint. They are delight in action. The abstinent person does more to proclaim and savor the sublime joys of sexuality than the promiscuous. One sees sexuality as a 2005 Montelena Estate Cabernet and the other sees it as Welch’s grape juice (from concentrate). Leaving the bottle in the cellar, the wine connoisseur expresses his or her delight.
Abstinence is an act of delight in sexuality that remains in the cellar. Healthy, mutual sexual expression within a marriage conserves the limited resource of sexuality. Like all stewardship, the benefits of these individual acts of conservation extend beyond individuals to the entire community. Sex is better for everyone when everyone cherishes it, conserves it and restrains it to God’s design. A glutton ruins a grand feast for others and for himself because he satisfies his appetite with no regard for others and no regard for his own senses. In the end, he misses the beauty and delicacy of the feast. Sexual gluttons do the same.
Obviously, Christian Grey is unsatisfied sexually. He seeks to satisfy his appetite with no regard for his own senses. His BDSM is a sexuality that is unhappy because it only takes. Here’s the irony: The biblical sexual ethic that you’ve described actually enables a single abstinent person to be more sexually satisfied than Christian Grey. Abstinence preserves the value of sexuality for all, while Mr. Grey lowers it for all.
Healthy human sexuality paints a picture of God’s delight in his redeemed bride and his covenant love for her (Isaiah 62:4-5 and Revelation 19:6-8). Single abstinence and married sex add to that picture. They both add the contrasting tones necessary to complete a piece entitled, “Behold, our God.” In this way, they are both sexualities that give to the entire community and that, as Jesus said (Acts 20:35), is a happier way to live.
So, is this line of thinking crazy? Does it bring joyful purpose to abstinence, really?
Felhauer: I really like that thought of abstinence preserving the value of sexuality for everyone, and in that the glory of God being seen. Too often our message to singles is, “Don’t have premarital sex because you’ll have a healthier marriage if you wait.” There are two things wrong with that though. First, it may or may not be true. It’s like a Proverb — it’s a principle, not a promise. I could abstain until marriage and still find myself in a difficult marriage. Or I may never marry and at some point as a single that stops being a carrot on a stick and I’m left with little reason to continue in abstinence. But, more importantly, the focus is wrong. Desiring a healthy marriage is certainly not a wrong thing, but it can’t be the end goal. If it is, it’s still all about me, and I will persist in being a taker. But when I view my sexuality as an expression of Imago Dei, then there is immense delight in waiting physically and emotionally. Just as there is immense delight in giving physically and emotionally to a spouse.
I think it was John Piper who once said that, if God promises that when we seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, all these things will be added to us as well, and “all these things” means every good gift — including sexual pleasure. If this is true, an abstinent single person isn’t missing out on anything. My sexual expression as an abstinent single brings just as much to the picture as your expression in marriage. And that thought gives me goosebumps that no movie could ever compete with.
Majeski: It is beautiful. My journey to sexual purity and sexual joy was marked by more than simple morality. “Do this, don’t do that” simply left me stirred to cross the line. God had to open my eyes to the eternal weight of sexual expression. There are consequences to sexual “freedom” and benefits to letting God set the boundaries. God’s character is at stake. The health of the community is at stake. The health of individuals is at stake. My health and my joy are at stake. Eternity is at stake.
I remember the day that it dawned on me that there is a sort of “sexual economy” in the world. Sexual pleasure is the commodity and souls are the currency. The Majeski family sponsors a dear girl in Haiti through Compassion International. Does our indulging in 50 Shades support the economy that would draw her into prostitution and pornography? How can I send money to provide her with food while I support the economy that would love to make her a sex slave? It is time for us to see sex in this light. With or without “consent,” unrestrained sexual freedom results in untold sexual oppression. Always.
There is an addictive pattern at work in unrestrained sexuality. We take what we desire only to be disappointed in what it provides (which could be pleasurable but is always temporary). The disappointment increases the appetite and the need to take, and down we go. The horror of this cycle is that it can fixate us on this one pleasure at the expense of all other things, including God and our eternity. We are not speaking of light things here.
But we, by the grace of God, can contribute to something else. A God-ordered sexuality allows sex, like all good gifts (James 1:17), to speak of God’s goodness to us. Receiving sex with gratitude makes it holy (1 Timothy 4:1-5), which is to say that it is set aside to be savored and to become one of the many tastes included in the refrain:
Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! (Psalms 34:8)
Now that gives me reason to reject every shade of sexual “freedom.”