(Note: This article will use slight generalizations like “women are used to…” and “women constantly get messages that…” There are exceptions to almost every rule. (Is there an exception to the rule that there are exceptions to every rule?) You are free to disagree, if you feel that what I say is not generally true.)
Where 50 Shades of Grey is discussed on the Internet, people, both believers and unbelievers, often assume that this book is evidence that women actually want subordination. Gender hierarchy Christians™ then add that the activities in these books pervert “natural”, “God-ordained” female subordination. But, so their narrative goes, the popularity of the books proves that women are created with a desire for subordination. The most infamous example is probably this quote from Doug Wilson, that first appeared on the Internet in an article commenting on 50 SoG:
“Because we have forgotten the biblical concepts of true authority and submission, or more accurately, have rebelled against them, we have created a climate in which caricatures of authority and submission intrude upon our lives with violence.
When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us…we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed.
But we cannot make gravity disappear just because we dislike it, and in the same way we find that our banished authority and submission comes back to us in pathological forms. This is what lies behind sexual “bondage and submission games,” along with very common rape fantasies… True authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity. When authority is honored according to the word of God it serves and protects — and gives enormous pleasure. When it is denied, the result is not “no authority,” but an authority which devours.”
But that conclusion does not fit the facts.
1) Readers don’t testify to reading it because they want to be below a man.
Many readers testify that Grey’s controlling and punishing character is pictured as a problem in the story, a problem that can be solved with love. In fact, the BDSM community expresses unhappiness on the Internet that 50SoG pictures BDSM as deviant, a sign of how messed up Grey is. (Whatever your or my opinion of BDSM is, BDSM practitioners could discern whether or not 50SoG pictures their activities as healthy.) If they are right, readers are enjoying a book that pictures some controlling and sadistic acts as deviant, not a book praising it.
Having a problem to solve in a story gives it a storyline. “You can change a man with love” is a problematic message. But it is not the message “controlling sadists are wonderful“.
His controlling and sadistic nature changes him from just a super-rich super-handsome icon to a guy who needs rescuing too. Women say the books appeal to them because, in the books, Christian actually give Ana gifts she likes and a relationship because she – not he – wants more than sex. Christian ends up listening to Ana in some things.
Women are used to bossy guys. Most of us are, to some degree, used to being scared of men, to not even say what we think because we don’t know how the menfolk will react. (Women who read these books are more likely than other women to have a verbally abusive or stalking partner – 50 SoG seems to resonate with women who have even more reason than most to be scared of men.) It is mostly the degree of our experience with being scared of men that differ – some women from a close-to-egalitarian society and kind family experience it occasionally, other women experience it to a serious degree in every interaction with men.
Is it possible that some women are so used to mistreatment from men, that they find the idea of a man that is kind and respectful more unrealistic than getting a super-handsome billionaire to care about no woman except her? I think they are, and it is a sobering reflection on the state of society.
2) If readers want to be below a man, the conclusion does not follow that this is what they would want in an egalitarian world.
Women’s sexual identity is formed by a million messages from society:
“You should look outwardly pretty.” “You should focus on pleasing men (while men do not get the same amount of messages that they should please women).” “It is not attractive for a woman to have muscles/ be physically large/ speak their minds.” “Your sexual activity makes you a [crude slur word] (but male sexual activity makes them ‘real men’).” “Men are initiators and women responders.” “Porn stars are not only prettier than you, but they also accept rough treatment and degradation. That is what men want from women.” “You should submit.”
Is it any wonder that women learn, from those messages, what they should do to be loved by a man?
Women don’t really have rape fantasies, say those in the know. But many have fantasies about a man they desire, who understands that if she says “yes” she will feel like a bad girl. And then she hopes the man who gives her what she desires without making her feel like a bad girl. She won’t think of him as a bad guy if he does that, because society doesn’t give the same messages to him about being a bad boy if he pursues sex. (Could this be why, in pornography and BDSM, women are called sexual slurs that cannot be repeated on this blog as a standard procedure? Women who feel no more shame than men for their sexuality1 probably have little reason to allow sexual subordination.)
And women’s sexual arousal often comes from fear.
…Women tend to become physically aroused when they sense any possibility of sexual aggression in their environment. This lowers their chance of injury if they are raped. It’s not dissimilar to the rush of adrenaline people get when riding rollercoasters or watching horror flicks.” – Jenny Rae Armstrong
Physical arousal at the possibility of sexual aggression does not mean that a woman is a masochist or submissive. Reacting to the book description of something does not mean a woman will like the reality of it.
If some/most women actually want subordination, it is a sign of how they internalized messages of a porn-filled, harassment-filled, patriarchy-filled culture. This is not evidence of what women will choose in a world where they are truly treated as equals, and get cultural messages to match.
3) If readers in an egalitarian porn-free society will want to be below a man, the conclusion still does not follow that this is God-ordained.
Part of the gospel message is that this world is fallen. We have desires and inclinations that are not from God. Our cravings need redemption. The first time that female subordination and male rule is predicted in the Bible is in Genesis 3:16, as one of the results of the fall. The gospel message says that we – God’s people and the earth – will be saved from the results of the fall. Jesus did not save us so we could continue behaving like the fallen.
No. gender role proponents, the popularity of “50 Shades of Grey” does not mean it is right to keep women below men (as long as you don’t actually cane her in some room of pain). Instead, it speaks of a deeply broken world that needs the Jesus who “proclaims freedom and sets the oppressed free (Luk 4:18), who will not break a bruised reed. (Mat 12:20)
1 As a Christian, I believe in the concept of sexual sin. But the New Testament does not make any distinction whereby female sexual sin is worse than male sexual sin.