I wish it wasn’t true. I already know from sites like A Cry for Justice that the church often gives terrible advice to abuse victims. I don’t want to believe Samantha Field is entirely right when claiming that purity culture(1) Christians don’t care about or teach the importance of consent. I’ve read stories of “Christian” leaders telling women to repent for being raped. I already mentioned some abuse-condoning statements by Paige Patterson and Bruce Ware on this blog.
But evidence keeps on mounting:
Dannah K. Gresh (also the writer of “And the Bride Wore White”, who has sold more than 470,000 books, leaders guides, and curriculum bearing the message of purity) and Dr. Juli Slattery (a psychologist formerly from Focus on the Family) wrote a new book to give a Christian response to “50 Shades of Grey” and erotica like it, and talk about how to be sexual and spiritual at the same time. The topic of “Pulling Back the Shades: Erotica, Intimacy, and the Longings of a Woman’s Heart”certainly has merit. But their book also gives evidence of followers of Jesus not caring or thinking about intimate partner abuse – while touching on topics which certainly relates to it.
My first uneasy feeling, even before reading anything of the book, came with its endorsements: The first was from Mary Kassian, who elsewhere claims the sexual dynamic between a man and a woman should remind us of God’s relationship with us – without thinking that many women’s first sexual contact is non-consensual and very negative, and how they would get a very ugly picture of God from that. (2)
But I can’t quite judge a book by its endorsers. It is partially true that people are known by their friends, but Jesus was also a friend of Judas.
I got to judge by the contents.
Control and protection
“Pulling back the Shades” starts by giving a list of 5 needs that women have, and how erotic fiction apparently meets them. One of the needs is: “To be protected by a strong man.” And how such books allegedly meet them is: “Presents a controlling alpha male who dominates the female.”
But a controller does not mean a protector, not by a long shot! In fact, a desire to control/ dominate is one of the first characteristics by which you can spot a potential abuser. Protection is the opposite of abuse, and therefore the exact opposite of what a woman is likely to find from a controlling man.
But still, that graph is only a short intro, and a writer could warn how controlling men could hinder, not help, their desire for protection. How well does the authors actually do in addressing potential abuse when they unpack this idea?
For that, I will point to a piece of Dannah Gresh writing that is available even to those who did not buy her book, to see how she does – and doesn’t – connect protection and its opposite, abuse, to male dominance.
My source is her blog article: “Single desire: How Can I Be Protected By Strong Man?” Before answering her own question, she says, amidst a few other things which most of this blog’s readers won’t quite agree with:
Young twenty-somethings ask their boyfriends, “Why won’t you lead?” Then, when they show strength, “You can lead but not THAT way!”
She shames women for not accepting the forms of “leading” they do get? Of course a woman could want to be led in some regard, but still say”not that way!” when the wannabe leader leads in a bad direction, or in an area of her life where she does not need to be led. After all, the desire to be led would be a desire to have someone whose wisdom and decisions you can trust more than your own.
Then Dannah Gresh adds advice on how to be protected. The advice is:
Let him initiate.
Her next sentence directly talks about his “role to lead.”
I totally believe in letting men initiate, as in not squashing their initiative when they do. I equally believe in letting women initiate, as in not squashing their initiative when they do. But to initiate is not to protect. It is equally easy to initiate things in your own interest as to initiate them for the protection of another.
Let him pay. Let him open the door for you.
Perhaps letting him pay is related to protection, as both paying and protecting are forms of giving. She uses opening doors as an example of goodness and caring in action, which it probably is, in a token way. I cannot quite see why that token is chosen, rather than any other miniscule task that women are capable of.
I think she may be right at least in principle here – if you enjoy and encourage little things a man does for you, then he may want to do more.
Let him lead the pace of your physical romance.
Here I have to add that she qualifies it. By itself, that advice would not help single women to stay as sexually pure as she advocates.
But the rub of it is that two of her points, and the “you can lead but not that way” point prior to this list, are about letting men lead, not about letting them protect. And the controlling men most interested in “leading” show at least one sign for being potential abusers.
But Gresh and Slattery go further. They do not just overlook the possibility of abuse and give advice that may make women paired with abusers think they should just submit more.
They also seem to overlook actual descriptions of abuse in “50 Shades of Grey” too.
Many writers point out abuse in 50 SoG. (3)
No abuse in “50 Shades of Grey?”
“The book is a glaring glamorization of violence against women,” says Amy Bonomi, chair of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University and lead author of the study. Bonomi explains that Christian Grey, the copper-headed business tycoon for whom James’ book is named, controls his young conquest, Anastasia Steele, through stalking, intimidation, isolation and humiliation. In response, Steele “begins to manage her behavior to keep peace in the relationship, which is something we see in abused women,” Bonomi says. “Over time, she loses her identity” and “becomes disempowered and entrapped.”
Other critics of 50 SoG books write, and quote from the books to make the point, that Anastasia does not enjoy being hit at all, she is truly suffering during beatings. They show how he is stalking her, and how he is rough before she consents to any roughness, how she says “no” and he don’t stop. Many times Ana tolerates the unwanted things Christian does because she doesn’t want to start an argument, make him angry, risk his punishments , or him leaving her.
But Dr. Juli Slattery insists:
In FSOG, Christian’s “abuse” of Anna is put in the light of bringing her sexual pleasure. The “submission” contract is with the understanding that Christian will use all of his authority only to bring Anna pleasure – that it really is a form of protection. Yes, it seems very counter-intuitive and it is. It is a dangerous blurring of fantasy and reality. The truth is, women want a STRONG man who is benevolent. In other words, he is powerful but uses all of his power only for her good and protection… In the fantasy of FSOG, the “abuser” is benevolent and deeply loves Anna. (4)
Dr. Slattery is a psychologist, but she does not see the abuse that others point out?
Is it hard for Gresh and Slattery to see abuse, as stalkers initiate, he is a billionaire who pays for everything, and (often through threats and her being afraid of how he’ll react if she refuses, other times by ignoring the word “no”) he leads the pace of their physical “romance“? In short, do they struggle to see a man as abusive, as long as he fulfils some cultural ideals of manhood?
I don’t want to completely condemn “Pulling back the shades” – I believe it does have things to tell Christian women over the problems with erotic literature, and how to meet those needs instead. There is a reason why it gets good reviews on Amazon. But this book’s writers also seems dangerously unaware of abuse and to encourage some very unhealthy relational patterns.
I would rather ask: If Christian books on sexuality and relationships encourage or condone unhealthy and abusive relationships, what can we do to influence our brothers and sisters who write these books in the right direction?
(1) Purity culture: the belief that any kind of sexual behavior (including thoughts) outside of heterosexual marriage is sin; that any sexual activity is permanently sullying and (unlike all other sins) sexual sin cannot ever be fully cleansed. This often include the idea that a woman’s clothing or behaviour could be blamed for the sexual thoughts and actions of others towards her. (This definition was edited after a commenter corrected me.)
(3) Here are several sources that point out abuse in 50 SoG: Trigger warning, domestic violence: Any of the links in point 3 may be triggering to a domestic abuse survivor.
Many more links at http://50shadesisabuseblogring.wordpress.com/the-links/
(4) This wording was in a letter to me after I asked her about the abuse in 50 Shades of Grey, and why she nevertheless claims the book speaks to the female need to be protected.