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#50ShadesIsAbuse: The Erotic Normalization of Violence Against Women

02/09/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2015

The most offensive aspect of the movie, Fifty Shades of Grey, based on the phenomenally best-selling novel of the same name, is that it is being released for Valentine's Day. This release date connects physical and psychological violence with "love" and presents this as erotic. These are very dangerous associations, especially for women.

As I write in my forthcoming book, Women's Bodies as Battlefields: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women (Palgrave Macmillan 2015), "Eroticized violence in fiction, whether in films or novels, is treacherous because it promotes the idea that women desire to be treated violently. Violence against women then becomes part of the very construction of the nature of love and desire in societies, orchestrating the eroticizing of bodily pain itself and deadening the impulses to compassion and empathy."

Fifty Shades of Grey, film and books, is, in my view, just another moment in a long, long history in Western culture of erotic normalization of violence against women.

There is a boycott movement taking off against the film with the hashtags #50ShadesIsAbuse and #50dollarsNot50Shades, promoting donations to domestic violence shelters instead of paying to see the film. I support this, certainly, because boycotts are important to raise awareness and state clearly that violence is not love.

But, of course, there are the inevitable push backs against protests against the film. In talking and posting about this already, I have heard: 'what's wrong with BDSM (a variety of erotic practices involving bondage, dominance, submission and masochism) if the acts are between consenting adults?' Or, another version of this is 'some women find this erotic and what's your problem with that?' Or, even further, 'isn't it really feminist for women to be able to exercise their sexuality however they want?'

And it is true that the enormous popularity of the books, in fact, has been due in large part to women fans.

The Punitive Erotic and Western Culture

The problem is, women have learned to equate violence with love and with the erotic. Western culture has taught them this.

"The erotic" is a social construction, a product of social, cultural, economic and yes, religious influences that socialize people into finding certain things "erotic," i.e. sexually stimulating. That's why different cultures find different things erotic.

Some individual women thus may find submission to violence erotic (especially as a fantasy), some men may enjoy inflicting pain on women (and let's be clear, some men like submitting to dominance, and some women become dominatrix.) But those "likes" aren't biologically innate, they are very much a product of Western attitudes toward the body and sexuality, many of which are, in fact, punitive.

So when someone says to me, "Well, women want this," I reply, "Western culture has taught us well."

Western religion and culture do not celebrate the human body and physical pleasure. In many ways, in the West, bodies, especially the bodies of women and those of non-dominant races, are viewed as deserving of contempt and violence against them is justified. And if you can get women and exploited races to submit, apparently voluntarily, to their own oppression, that justifies the system.

So, what's "wrong" with Fifty Shades as a romanticized BDSM genre is that it is exactly through these kinds of vehicles that this culture constructs the erotic as violence against women. Women (and men) learn to be sexually stimulated by dominance over women, and their abject submission even to being chained, whipped, spanked, and subject to ritually enacted rape.

Remember, also, that through the popularity of Hollywood films around the world this construction of violence against women as erotic is being exported, and will help further promote a submission/dominance framework for gender relations.

Much has been made of the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey is very derivative especially of Stephenie Meyer's bestselling Twilight series.

But Fifty Shades also echoes a much older book, The Story of O. This is the English title of a post-war (1954) novel by author Anne Desclos who used the pen-name Pauline Réage for its publication. Desclos was a French journalist and novelist who used the name Dominique Aury in her professional life. The author did not reveal herself as the author for forty years after the initial publication.

The main character, called only O, is a French fashion photographer who, for no reason that is ever given, passively assents to being blindfolded, chained, whipped, raped, sodomized, branded and humiliated. The novel's spare, even clinical prose (a much, much better written book than the Fifty Shades novels) moves relentlessly on through this torture, until, at the end, the final lines dispassionately note that O was then abandoned by her last "lover," and she asks his permission to die, which was granted.

In his preface Jean Paulhan, the older male lover of Aury to whom she claims she had first written what became the book as a series of "love letters," argues that for women, "happiness is slavery...Women in their truest nature crave domination; that the character of O is empowered by confessing her desire; and that, in truth, slaves love their masters, would suffer in their absence, and have no wish to achieve independence."

Read these words again, and put them together with the fact that women "craving domination" is equated with slavery in a novel produced in France, a huge colonial power and a country that had profited greatly from the Atlantic slave trade.

Dominance and submission in Western culture do not just fall from the sky. A lot of effort goes into making the submission of some to the dominance of others seem like the natural order of things, and God help us, even erotic.

So what "natural order" of sexy dominance is Fifty Shades of Grey really peddling?
Consider that the books and film are about a billionaire "control freak" who likes to dominate.

Fifty Shades: The Porn of Class

The cover of Fifty Shades of Grey is the key to a different analysis of why this form of eroticized bondage and submission took off right now. The cover shows an expensive, silver patterned male tie, slightly loose. What is being eroticized, in my view, is dominance by male billionaires. The erotic rendering of vulture capitalism is the point. This novel makes greed erotic and that is the real fantasy. We fantasize that we like male CEO's dominating us, even though in real life they may look like the Koch brothers, the billionaire industrialists and funders of conservative politics. But it is not really these men who are eroticized, it is their money and power.

When eroticism is recruited in the service of normalizing violence, we have to ask over and over, 'who benefits?' The violence that is being normalized in a phenomenon like Fifty Shades employs women's bodies not as the end but as the means for economic dominance, even economic bondage.

Is this the author's intent, in my view? I see no evidence of that; it is, however, the reason why I think a fantasy of BDSM by billionaires is so desirable in the early 21st century. It's the money that's sexy.

So by all means participate in this boycott. An economic boycott, in fact, is the perfect antidote to the porn of class.

Don't buy it.