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Fifty Shades of Grey and the Sexual (Mis)Education of Boys

02/19/2015 02:30 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015
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Fifty Shades of Grey is now in theaters, so I'm bracing myself for the conversation(s) I'm about to have with my 13-year-old son. As someone who works in the fields of gender violence prevention and critical media literacy, I'm invested in these discussions on a professional level. But as a member of a generation that wants to raise its sons to be physically, emotionally, relationally, and sexually healthier than many of their fathers, I have even more invested personally.

Sadly, on both the professional and personal fronts, the Fifty Shades juggernaut has made my job -- and that of many parents and others like me -- more difficult.

I will leave it to others to analyze why so many women seem to be taken with this story of an innocent, virginal young (white) woman who falls in love with an abusive, controlling -- and very wealthy -- sexual sociopath. Suffice it to say that I appreciate how issues related to women's (hetero) sexuality and desire are complex in a male-dominated world in which misogyny is embedded in our cultural DNA, and men's violence against them is ubiquitous.

The tensions women navigate between wanting to love and be loved by men, and sexually fulfilled in (and out of) relationships with them, often result in apparent contradictions, such as women claiming to want equality with men, and yet sometimes finding it "hot" to be dominated and controlled by powerful and unabashedly sexist ones.

I get that. Nonetheless, I have been despondent about the popularity of Fifty Shades from the moment I became aware of it, not to mention the Twilight series, too. The primary source of my melancholy involves a critical area of my work: engaging men and male-dominated institutions in the struggle to transform the social norms that contribute to the ongoing tragedy of men's violence against women and children.

We've made significant progress in that struggle in recent years. But the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon represents at best a bump in the road, and at worst a significant setback, in the global movement to engage men in the prevention of gender-based violence.

I would like to provide some credentials and context for this assertion. Yes, I have read the first Fifty Shades book, along with a multitude of critical articles, essays, blog posts and the occasional master's thesis about the entire cultural spectacle. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I plan to (although I will not pay to see it).

It's not that I'm in the least bit worried about the explicit sex. Nor am I particularly troubled by the idea that many women appear to have sexual fantasies that stray far afield from the "good girl" archetype that has for centuries done so much to harm women and perpetuate their second-class status. I am also aware that the Fifty Shades books and movie, and much of the conversation surrounding them, tend to conflate the abuse in the central relationship outside the bedroom with the supposedly "consensual" abuse in the infamous torture room. There is much to be said about the gender and sexual politics around this conflation, but it is beyond the scope of this discussion.

Much of the commentary about the film's release has focused on women's reactions to it, including the message that its mainstream acceptance sends to girls about their sexuality and the lengths of degradation and self-negation that women are sometimes pressured to endure in relations with men to achieve intimacy or great sex.

But my primary concern for now has to do not with girls, but with boys like my son and other young men, who are trying to navigate the rocky shores of heterosexual desire themselves, in a culture that routinely offers them up sexually subordinate, compliant and sometimes self-loathing women at the click of a mouse or the price of a movie ticket.

What do parents of sons say to them about the draw this story has for women? How can we help them make sense of the mixed messages our society sends to them about what women want? That women want men to treat them as equals, even as millions embrace a story that countless battered women's advocates say more closely resembles an abusive relationship than it does some sort of kinky sex fantasy? And how can we expect young men to figure this stuff out when many of us middle-aged guys are often quite baffled ourselves?

Consider the cultural landscape in which Fifty Shades has emerged. With rare exceptions, young people are not getting any sort of comprehensive sex education in schools; outside of caring adults who take the time to talk with them, the primary sources of their ideas about sex and relationships come from their peers, pornography, and other forms of media. Thus, in spite of our reticence, parents and others who play an influential role in boys' and young men's lives have a responsibility to initiate conversations with them about these matters.

Recognizing that everyone needs to find their own style and comfort level, the points that follow can provide some background for these important conversations. Of course these ideas should be communicated with age appropriate language and examples:

1. Try not to blame or shame women for liking Fifty Shades. The books and film were produced and marketed as a way for women to have a little fun with a sexually explicit fantasy, in much the same way that the vast majority of (hetero) porn aims to please men. The fact that this particular fantasy -- like so much heterosexual porn aimed at men -- eroticizes men's violence against women, and thus contributes to women's continued subordination, certainly complicates matters. But it is important to look at all of this in context.

Women today -- especially young women -- face enormous pressure to be both virginal and sexual (the old Madonna-whore binary). It is nearly impossible for them to walk this line successfully, especially in a culture dominated by narratives in porn that depict even modest women as sexually voracious vixens dying to break free of cultural prohibitions against women's sexual expression. But here's the rub. Women who claim the right to their sexuality and somehow misstep run the risk of getting punished for it.

Regrettably, a certain percentage of women are quick to judge other women's sexual choices. But even worse, women who express their sexuality in ways that for whatever reason threaten men run the risk of being punished by those men with violence. This always says more about the men -- their anxieties, insecurities, or ideology -- than it does about women.

2. One of the reasons why many people are distressed by Fifty Shades is that the story -- like so much of popular culture's treatment of this subject matter -- blurs the line between a man's pathological need to control and dominate women and a woman's willing embrace of her subordination. This helps to perpetuate the widespread practice of victim-blaming, in which responsibility for domestic and sexual violence shifts off the men who commit it and onto the women who experience it.

This is perhaps most pithily expressed in the phrase many abusive men use to justify violence against women: "she was asking for it." We have to be clear that just because many women apparently enjoy watching a fictional account of a relationship in which a woman is treated very badly by a man who nonetheless turns her on sexually, in real life women do not want to be mistreated.

3. We have to respond to the commonly held belief among young men that "girls like guys who treat them like dirt." In sexual assault and relationship abuse education, we always tell young men that women don't want to be treated poorly, no one asks to be mistreated, and men need to take responsibility for their own behavior. We'll continue to emphasize these basic points. But we have to go further or risk losing credibility.

Young men can look around and see for themselves countless examples of girls who pursue guys whom other guys know to be sexist and disrespectful toward women. They are well aware that deeply misogynous rappers like Eminem continue to have flocks of female fans despite recording and performing songs with lyrics that drip with contempt for women. And now a whole new generation of young men will be able to point to Fifty Shades as proof that women are, indeed, attracted to abusive assholes.

What can you say to these guys? Women don't want to be treated like dirt, but many of them have been conditioned to have low expectations of men, and figure they just have to put up with some of the mistreatment because "that's just the way guys are." Even more likely is that many women have bought the classic romantic fantasy - of which Fifty Shades is the most recent and arguably one of the most pernicious examples - that their love can rescue a damaged man who has a heart of gold underneath the gruff exterior.

It's the lie that battered women have been fed for centuries: that if they only loved him a little more, he would heal and the abuse would stop. Fifty Shades is Beauty and the Beast for a pornified generation of women.

4. The most compelling reason to be critical of this film and the book on which it is based is that it depicts men's controlling and abusive behavior as sexy and a turn-on for women. This in turn sends the message to young men that women secretly wish to be dominated, especially in the bedroom. Not surprisingly, the popularity of Fifty Shades with women has been greeted with enthusiasm by wide swaths of the openly misogynist men's rights blogosphere.

This popularity supposedly confirms what many anti-feminist men's rights activists have been saying for years: that women's desire to be dominated sexually by men is part of their genetic code, and that efforts by feminists to achieve equality are destined to fail because they contravene human nature. Another popular take-away from the film on men's rights sites is that women "cry rape" only when they find men unattractive. If he's "hot," they're turned on by his sexual violence. It is more than a little troubling that a film which many women consider to be titillating and ultimately romantic is being read by a segment of the male population as a validation of their sexism and contempt for women.

5. The film depicts the story of an ordinary middle-class young woman and recent college graduate who falls in love with a slightly older, gorgeous (white) man who is a billionaire. It thus plays right into the classic Harlequin romance and Pretty Woman story-line in which a woman finds her way to a beautiful, wealthy man's heart through his (admittedly twisted) libido, and a life of luxury awaits her.

One saving grace of this sordid story is that most men are not millionaires, much less billionaires, and most are not movie-star handsome. So while many women are able to see themselves in Anastasia Steele, outside of a small slice of upper-class businessmen, few men are truly able to see themselves in Christian Grey's damaged and abusive character.

In fact, a provocative question to ask young men is if they think Anastasia would put up with Christian's abuse if he were a working-class white guy or poor man of color. As the sociologist Gail Dines says, Grey's wealth acts as "a kind of luxury cleansing cream for his abuse, and his pathological attachment to Anastasia is reframed as devotion, since he showers her with lavish gifts." Dines writes that "If this guy was living on food stamps in a housing project, she would have told him to f*ck off at the first sign of violence."

6. It is important to reiterate that this movie is fiction. In real life, men who behave like Christian Grey are called batterers and stalkers. Sometimes they are the kind of men who murder women who dare to leave them. From the point of view of people who work to reduce men's violence against women, the most damaging thing about Fifty Shades of Grey is not what takes place in The Red Room of Pain, however unpleasant that might be for some who are not enthralled with BDSM.

The problem is that it feeds untold numbers of young women the dangerous myth that they have it in their power to fix broken men. I'm all for women -- and men - helping men with traumatic pasts get help on their road to health and emotional wellness. But as Dines points out, "Perhaps the even bigger lie of the Fifty Shades trilogy, and no doubt the film, is that Anastasia nurtures and loves him out of his sadism and brutality. Indeed, men like Christian Grey are never loved out of battery; they just keep getting more drunk on their power over women. Believing they'll change is the dangerous fantasy that keeps many women in their grip. Battered women's shelters and graveyards are full of women who had the misfortune to meet a Christian Grey. But films that tell the truth about sexual sadists like Christian Grey--films where we see broken bones, black eyes, and motherless, traumatized children--don't seem to generate the same profits."

7. For all the reasons listed above and more, many people in the battered women's and anti-rape movements are exasperated and deflated by the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. Women are the primary losers in this process, which is perhaps paradoxical, as they are the primary consumers of the books and movie. But this pop cultural development is no triumph for men, either.

One of the most important goals of gender violence prevention work is to teach boys and young men that violence is not manly, and abuse is not sexy. To the extent that this movie complicates our efforts, it harms not just women. It also does damage to young heterosexual men, who in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey's commercial triumph are left scratching their heads and trying to figure out responsible and healthy ways to relate sexually to women, and themselves.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.