Same Old, Same Old

02.15.15 11:45 AM ET

Religious Right In Knots Over 50 Shades

Religious organizations are disguising their moral critiques of ’50 Shades of Grey’ as being about health, welfare, and women. Is anyone buying?

“Fifty Shades of Grey” has naturally evoked protest among Christian conservatives. Unlike past protests, however, this time the objections are couched in psychological and public health language, rather than in overtly religious terms. Indeed, the objections are ostensibly secular—until you look a little closer.

For example, one of the leaders of the #50dollarsnot50shades campaign is the National Center on Sexual Exploitation—tellingly, their name was “Morality in Media” until this year. Their website says that the book and film “promote torture as sexually gratifying and normalize domestic violence. … This type of material cultivates a rape and sexual violence culture and is now permeating our society.”

So far, the critique wouldn’t be out of place on a feminist anti-porn site. But then the NCSE goes further.

Even consent, the NCSE tells us, does not make BDSM okay. “There are many things we consent to that are psychologically disturbed, illegal, or morally corrupt. For example: People are freely consenting to wash their hands 400 times a day, but they probably have a compulsive disorder.” Note the slippery language: disturbed, illegal, or immoral. Those are different things, but they’re blended together on the website.

Ultimately, the website concludes, “Violence is violence. Sexual violence is worse.” No matter the context, no matter the consent—it’s always wrong, full stop.

If you spend time on the NCSE site, you’ll learn that, in fact, they’re against all BDSM and all pornography. On the surface, the concerns are about domestic violence. Scratch the surface, and it’s the same moralism as ever.

This is not to say that a moderate case couldn’t be made. One could certainly worry that even consensual BDSM could have dangerous consequences when it’s projected on screens at the multiplex. I doubt that every Joe Six Pack will parse the details of consensual kink; he might just enjoy seeing a woman get tied and whipped. (Then again, if the movie’s viewers are anything like the book’s readers, Joe will have been dragged to it by his wife.) One could also argue that Christian Grey, with his stalker tendencies, actions way outside negotiated scenes, and generally unbalanced psyche, is a poor exemplar of a BDSM practitioner. Given his lack of boundaries, I doubt he’d be allowed into most play parties. But these are not the NCSE’s arguments. Their argument is much simpler: BDSM is bad.

Let’s look at a second example. The American Family Association—currently sponsoring a Republican trip to Israel while distancing itself from its own spokesman, the incendiary Bryan Fischer—has asked theaters not to show “50 Shades” at all. (Tip: Hire North Korea as backup.) Their statement is worth quoting at length:

Nothing in Fifty Shades of Grey builds up society, respects or empowers women or demonstrates healthy relationships… Rather, the film glorifies abusive relationships and glamorizes abusive tendencies such as stalking, bondage sex, intimidation and isolation. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control’s standards of emotional abuse and sexual violence include nearly every one of the interactions between the two main characters… A more apt title for the movie would be ‘Fifty Shades of Evil.’ Without question, this film will have a corrosive effect on cultural views of what normative sexuality ought to be. Healthy relationships seek to safeguard the emotional and physical well-being of another; this film promotes inflicting emotional, physical and psychological harm on another for the sole purpose of self-serving sexual gratification.

This is a fascinating statement. Gone are the days of fiery preachers inveighing against pornography simply because it is immoral, or “smut.” Here, the AFA’s Tim Wildmon omits explicitly religious language (the AFA itself is a Christian organization, with a Christian “statement of faith”) and focuses instead on “healthy relationships.” He quotes the CDC, not Corinthians.

Yet this tactic is a double-edged sword. On one side, it attempts to universalize Christian morality into something all of us would agree with. But on the other, it gets into trouble if same-sex relationships, or BDSM, or whatever, are shown to be perfectly healthy. Indeed, this pseudo-science is part of what sunk the Christian Right’s political campaigns against LGBT equality. Once people learned that their gay or trans* friends weren’t sex-crazed, HIV-spreading, child-molesting Antichrists, the Christians looked ignorant.

Likewise, one hopes, in the case of reproductive justice. Once the dust settles and the evidence shows that banning abortion does not actually “protect women’s health,” that argument, too, will look like a sham.

The pseudo-scientific crusade against BDSM has similar flaws. There is data showing that consensual BDSM play is perfectly fine, psychologically speaking. Actual BDSM practitioners are generally highly attuned to the “emotional and physical well-being” of their partners. Indeed, that’s why many of them have gotten into the scene in the first place.

And what about cases where women are dominant (has the NCSE ever heard of a dominatrix?)? Surely that isn’t “violence against women.” Yet one suspects the Morality in Media folks would still not be into it.

The trouble is, of course, that most Americans don’t share the Christian Right’s view of sexual sin. Sure, many are plenty squeamish about bondage. But “sin” sounds like a throwback. And it’s surely no coincidence that the states with the highest presale rates of “Fifty Shades” tickets have been not California and New York—but Mississippi and Alabama. For many people, BDSM is fun precisely because it’s sinful.

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Over-indulgence in sexual pleasure was a problem for St. Paul, who rightly saw that it could draw one away from “spiritual” pursuits. The body is mortal, corrupt, evil; the point, for Paul, was to transcend the body and be born again in spirit. Eventually, St. Thomas Aquinas would explain that sex for its own sake—sodomy of any kind, and certainly hedonistic pleasures like BDSM—is luxuria. It’s luxuriating in pleasure, rather than using sex for its intended purpose of procreation.

Many Christians still think this way, more or less. And maybe the psychobabble is an earnest attempt to translate the language of sin into secular terms. Certainly, contemporary society’s vulgarization of sexuality and objectification of women provide evidence for their misgivings.

But rather than make this moral case in a straightforward way, today’s “Fifty Shades” protesters try to translate it into psychological or jurisprudential language. Here, though, the evidence doesn’t bear them out. I can appreciate that Christian moralists don’t want to sound like scolds. But instead, they sound like quacks.