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The Danger of Viewing Fifty Shades of Grey As Sex Ed

02/18/2015 11:07 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015
Samir Hussein via Getty Images

In what may be the greatest orgasm omission of all time, it turns out that Ana, the protagonist of Fifty Shades of Grey, never has an orgasm on screen. You have to ask, how is this possible in a story purported to be about female sexual liberation and pleasure?

It is really notable that advance ticket sales for the film were highest in conservative states with high concentrations of Christians, both Evangelicals and Catholic: Mississippi, North Dakota, Arkansas, West Virginia, Kentucky and Alabama. They also happened to be states consistently ranked among the worst states for a woman to live in. All are states where, even if sex ed is a requirement, a) consent is not a mandatory part of curricula, b) there is no requirement that information be medically accurate and c) there are no prohibitions on promoting religion as part of sex ed.

Consent, female orgasm and pleasure might be desirable and sought-after realities for hundreds of millions of women and, sometimes, their partners, but that remains a source of cultural discomfort in ways that female submission, pain and denial of female control do not. When you get past the silk knots and sighing, Fifty Shades is an age-old fairy tale in which a controlling, older man engaged in sexualized violence that doesn't "really" hurt, makes good and transforms a naïve virgin girl rewarded largely by learning to do what she's told -- and like it. It's so traditional it hurts, so to speak.

Even FSOG's unconventional sex oozes conventional rules and rituals. Red may be the color of passion and romance most utilized in this movie, but long before it was that it was, in religion symbolism, the color associated with martyred saints and the crucifixion. The "red room of pain," with its special language, carefully tended props, specific garb and carefully constructed rules of behavior, taps into the central transformative story of Christianity and the routine of a church service, particularly a Catholic one. Both depend on carefully constructed and "safe" ritualized submission and violence. The well-circulated promotional picture of Anastasia shows her arms spread to either side, immobilized; nail heads in the background; blindfold skimming her brow in the fashion of a crown of thorns; and her head thrown back in what could be agony or ecstasy. It resembles nothing so much as so many cross images. As far as the "edgy" allure of pain is concerned, this story is firmly in theological territory, replete with mortification-of-the flesh sacrifice themes. Women artists frequently explore the nexus of these problematic depictions.

There may be an explosion of repressed interest in women's sexual pleasure, but it is met in FSOG by a very old-fashioned story. The movie, and stereotypes it trades in, communicate the idea that "real men," the kind women want, are secretly violent, need to be in complete charge and define exactly how sex should look and feel. They know what the woman wants even when she doesn't. She will, in exchange, comply with male authority. On the other hand, girls, and especially virgins like the protagonist, are depicted as physically passive, anxious and aware of threat. Dangerous, stigmatizing, unbridled female desire might be real, but it is, quite literally, subjected to rules and forcibly controlled. Ana, and her fans, are rewarded not by on-screen climax, but by the promise of marriage.

All of this sounds an awful lot like ideas embedded in abstinence-only sex ed, where similar messages are rife. In the U.S., only 22 states require comprehensive sex ed, which includes information about abstinence, STDs, contraception and multiple sexualities. Only 19 require that information be "medically accurate."

Female autonomy, desire and consent are not central themes of abstinence-only and abstinence-focused lessons, which have consistently been found to convey false and misleading information, to yield higher rates of teen pregnancy and to perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Worse, the absence of comprehensive sex ed creates a socially-sanctioned climate of shame. Five out of six of the states that had the highest advanced sales for the film on Friday have among the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world. Most conservative faiths, built as they are on patriarchal ideals, struggle, to put it mildly, with the notion of female consent.

"Young people learn about norms and expectations for sexual behavior in a number of ways, including from friends, parents, and schools," explains Dr. Jane D. Brown, in a report titled, "The Media as Sex Educators for Youth." So, what about parents?

However, more than 75% of parents surveyed in the U.S., and similar numbers in the UK, for example, want this information provided in schools. Globally, obstacles to providing comprehensive sexual education are part of growing, and often violent, resistance to educating girls and gender equality. Equality most frequently undermined, despite the wishes of parents and their children (who might also be religious), by political and faith-based hierarchies.

Kids who grow up without comprehensive sex ed become adults who similarly lack and seek information. In the almost 20 years since Michelle Fine wrote, "Sexuality, Schooling, and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire," very little has changed when it comes to sex ed. The cohort of kids she was writing about make up a big chunk of the people flocking to this film now.

A study by researchers at Michigan State University found that adult female readers of the Fifty Shades books had significantly higher rates of "unhealthy behaviors" such as having unsafe sex, binge drinking and other risks associated with being an "abusive relationship." Women who had read at least the first novel were more likely than nonreaders to have had a spouse who swore, shouted or yelled at them or who used electronic media to harass them. They were also more likely to have had eating disorders. A movie about female physical pleasure, wrapped up in pain, makes a lot of sense. Buying a ticket and going to the film in public says a lot. Especially, for example, in Alabama.

In Alabama, you can sell guns, but it is illegal to sell sex toys. Selling a dildo or vibrator, because, c'mon, who are we kidding, this is a tax on anyone who even thinks women should be able to seek sexual pleasure, can still result in a $10,000 fine. As The Daily Beasts' Suzi Parker pointed out last week, the mainly Southern states that the movie is so popular in are places "where children's dance studios double as hardcore bondage clubs after midnight, PTA moms secretly work as strippers and office buildings masquerade as swinger clubs." If this movie has done anything liberating it's been to dismantle a culturally enforced public/private dichotomy, one that porn has always been a part of.

Ana has countless orgasms in the books, which can be read in private, but she does not on screen, in public. Here's what she does do on screen for public consumption: She is tied up and blindfolded; stalked; rendered immobile and physically vulnerable; cries; is beaten with a belt several times; told that romance isn't a thing she should express; experiences pain; is constantly intimidated; feels anxiety and fear; lets her boyfriend "spank" her for rolling her eyes and control her food and dress; and, finally, asks to find out "how bad it can get." She actually, out of curiosity, consents to most of the sex-related aspects of this list. However, issues with abuse and consent pervade the non-sex relationship. Researchers analyzing the Fifty Shades story recently concluded that "emotional abuse is present in almost every interaction." (Members of the kink community have consistently disavowed the books'/film's portrayals as representative of authentic BSDM.)

Despite the film's watered-downness, it was consumed by women, first and foremost, as porn. Like the vast majority of porn, this story is hardly about healthy sexuality or women's sexual liberation. FSOG may yet yield some interesting cultural fruit, like people talking more openly about sex or challenging stereotypes, but the story itself is the least transgressive imaginable. "Think of it as the "Downton Abbey" of bondage, designed neither to menace nor to offend but purely to cosset the fatigued imagination," says Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. "You get dirtier talk in most action movies, and more genitalia in a TED talk on Renaissance sculpture." That's pretty funny, but, it's actually not at all funny that this movie, and others like it, are as close to comprehensive sex ed that some people will get. It pays to remember, as E L James, the author of the series explained, that this story's genesis was a midlife crisis. It's entertainment, not education, but it comes at an educational cost. In the absence of comprehensive sex ed or the presence of uninformative abstinence-only lessons, people -- not just kids -- turn to porn for information.

FSOG's $80 million plus worth of ticket sales this weekend says a lot about this state of affairs. Imagine if that money were used to support efforts to make sure kids get the comprehensive sex ed they need?