Since the release of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, I can’t escape conversations about this series.
Without having read the books or seen the movie (because, hello –it’s not on Nick, Jr. ) I’m blown away by the success of the trilogy.
This well-researched article in The Atlantic helped me to understand why the series is so popular. After reading it a couple times, I linked the article to my personal Facebook page with this preface: From the outside (not having read or seen Fifty Shades of Grey), I found this article to be an enlightening read about the advancement of the culture of sexual fantasy in the US. If you’re raising kids or working with kids/young adults, this is important stuff to understand. Heads up – there is, of course, some strong adult content here.
Boy, did that stir up some passionate reactions, both on my page and on friends’ pages.
One friend fervently defended the literary merits of the series. Another argued that anyone who reads or views that “garbage” is contributing to the demise of the moral foundation of society.
A few different friends attempted to convince me that Fifty Shades of Grey only affects culture and individuals who allow it to – that it’s just a book. It’s not a big deal. It doesn’t impact culture.
By giving the subject this much attention, am I blowing this way out of proportion? It’s possible, but the numbers indicate the opposite to be true.
The Fifty Shades of Grey book hit the bestseller list in week one. It has sold over one-hundred million copies. Analysts estimated the movie to bank sixty million dollars in the box office over Valentine’s Day weekend. It made over eighty-five million. That’s twenty-five million dollars more than what the experts predicted. Twenty-five million, people! (Read more here)
This is big and powerful.
It says something about what Americans want.
It does impact society.
And it affects how the next generation will shape and define their own sexual norms. So although one person suggested that I reserve my opinion until I have experienced Fifty Shades myself, I find this conversation to be a crucial one for us all to participate in, especially considering that with a single series, the culture in which we are raising our youth has been altered.
Let’s go back a few decades.
When I was an adolescent in the nineties, I’m pretty sure my sex education came from here…
And a little here…
For the most part, I learned about sex by watching TV shows that focused on guys and girls trying to get with each other. In these series, the majority of intimate encounters occurred between characters in committed relationships (I said the majority). Therefore, I believed the message that I could/should be physically intimate with the males whom I dated. Of course, those ideals followed me into adulthood.
Today’s tweens and teens are exposed to WAY more sex culture than I was in the nineties. It’s on TV, in magazines, on billboards, social media – it’s everywhere.
Remember this photo (among others…)?
Dr. Adler, an NYU law professor, explains in the aforementioned article: “’Mainstream culture has come to look more and more like pornography. It’s not just that with the click of a button you can see the most hardcore, extreme sex imaginable. It’s also what you see every day: It’s the way people on TV look like porn stars. It’s the way women go to work in shoes that 20 years ago would have been considered like what porn stars would wear.’
The ultimate sign of this ‘mainstream penetration,’ as Adler called it with a chuckle, is the way people project their sexuality on social media, imitating gestures and facial expressions from porn. ‘If you look at somebody’s Facebook page, or selfie culture—the way people are presenting themselves for cameras is much more sexualized than it once was,’ she said.”
Seriously. How many pics have you seen online where the subjects appear to be posing for Frederick’s of Hollywood?
Sigh. Young people see this crap all the time. (SMH.)
I decided to ask some young women I know about their reactions to Fifty Shades…
One female (21), said, “I didn’t read the books, but I did see the movie because I was invited by a group of girls at work. To me, it tells women that being controlled by a man is okay –that he controls the relationship and the woman has no say. It goes against everything I believe in about love and sex.”
Another female (18), who did not read the books or view the movie, commented on her impression of the characters: Ana seems more like a plot device than a character. Christian, the dominant male, is somehow portrayed as a dynamic and complex character because he recognizes that his abuse as a child caused him to be so sexually abusive, and at the end of the trilogy he stops and becomes a perfect gentleman.
When I asked about the reasons behind the series’ popularity, she answered: sex, marketing, and cougars.
And her ideas about the series’ message to young women and men?
“It’s telling young women that this sort of behavior is normal and should be accepted; women should consider it enjoyable. I think it feeds the entitlement ideology into the minds of young men (because they definitely need more of that). I’d really rather not have to revert to the Victorian era.”
A younger female (16), who saw the movie without reading the book(s), stated, “Ana is weak. Christian is controlling. The series fulfills some women’s fantasies. It makes young people think the lifestyle in the series is normal.”
Surprisingly, not one boy out of the six I queried, replied.
Not one of us would deny that American culture is very sexy already, and now Fifty Shades of Grey, an R-rated movie with twenty minutes of sex scenes, has brought the once-subversive culture of erotica into the mainstream.
People, I’m in my thirties, and I had no idea what BDSM stood for until all the Fifty Shades buzz began. Now I know it’s a catchall phrase for bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism – and so do a lot of thirteen-year-olds who have been exposed to the same media I have, without even investing or engaging in the series.
But that’s ok, because kids can handle it, right? Because parents have got it under control.
A few weeks ago, my husband asked some youth group kids what their parents are saying about Fifty Shades…
Some said their parents had read the books or viewed the movie, a few alongside of them.
Some said their parents stated “Don’t even ask. You’re not going to read it, see it, or even talk about it.”
Most admitted their parents hadn’t said anything at all.
Not even a mention? My friends, this is here. This is happening.
Erotica has hit the mainstream, and young people know about it.
Trust me, they know. Who hasn’t seen this?
Now, into the already perplexing stage of identity formation, which includes defining the self as a sexual being, we’ve added a new set of concepts — concepts that can be confusing, even to adults.
Let’s not brush this off as nothing.
Let’s not say it doesn’t matter. It won’t affect us.
And please, I beg you, let’s not tell our young people they are not to think about it, ask about it, or talk about it.
If left to their own devices, young people can and will find far more information than they asked for – take it from someone who, searching for a definition, typed in “BDSM” on Google. I had to weed through some graphic adult content just to find a definition.
This stuff is widely available. It’s on the internet. It’s in the news. It’s on television. It’s in conversations at schools across the country.
So whether you liked it or didn’t like it, read it or didn’t read it, saw it or didn’t see it, Fifty Shades of Grey is the talk of the town, and it’s a talk that young people need us — parents, teachers, youth workers – to join in on.
They need the adults who know them, care about them, and have life experience, to talk to them about love, intimacy, sex, and yes (squirm), even the different ways people engage in sexual intimacy..
The varied views of what makes intimacy special and satisfying for human beings…
What they themselves will define as good, right, safe, healthy intimacy – what they will take with them into future relationships…
And what they will leave behind.
Erotica has been around years, but not like this. Fifty Shades of Grey has changed the way our culture perceives erotica, increased the amount of people engaging with erotica, and brought long-concealed BDSM practices to the forefront of adolescent minds. Like they needed anything else to think about…
If you have kids, work with kids, care about kids, start a conversation.
What have they heard? What do they know? What is their truth?
And what will we say?
18 thoughts on “Unrestrained: Sex Talks We Need to be Having. Now.”
Take into consideration, in addition, the means high culture and reduced society have
actually clashed. It’s long been acceptable to check out the Financial Times as well as see the Eurovision Song competition, read Philip Roth along with Marian Keyes.
Considering that erotica is specific niche to start with, this change took longer to reach it, and also only now have we loosened up a
little bit. By this reckoning, Fifty Shades is simply Mills
& Advantage for the generation that would once have
actually been humiliated to be viewed checking out Mills & Boon.
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Yes, good point. Erotica is nothing new– just a new audience.
It’s the nature of the relationship that concerns me (for young and old alike), not the kinky sex they are having. The message that a good woman can change an abusive man via her love, and shouldn’t give up on him is a dangerous for every one, from Disney Princess fans (hello Beauty and the Beast) to Twilight, and 50 Shades readers/watchers. I remember seeing parents buying this book for their young teenage daughters when it first went mainstream and I was horrified. I was sure they had no idea what relationship models and ideas they were purchasing for their daughter, they were just happy they wanted to read a book.
At about age 13 or so I read some novels that contained very graphic sex scenes that my mum had also read. We didn’t exactly discuss them, but she knew I knew enough about the mechanics of sex to understand that with the right person it can be great fun. The main difference between 50 Shades and the books I read at that age is that they were about men and women in relationships where love and mutual respect led to bodice tearing acts of passion.
Now I have an 11 year old son, my greatest concern is that hard core internet pornography and pop culture phenomenons like 50 Shades and going to lead him and his potential girlfriends to think that that is what normal looks like. I’d rather he saw fumbling home made husband and wife style porn first, but I can’t exactly point him in that direction without calling down the wrath of all authorities… maybe time to dig out some of my old erotica novels and leave them strategically lying around the house instead?
Just for a point of reference to my comments to follow, I am 24 and live in South Africa. I have read the books but not yet seen the movie.
So I learned about BDSM when i was about 15 years old. Its a concept that is widely know on the internet. If the kids you are referring to have ever been on a chat site or played around on sites like IMVU (a virtual reality), then they have heard about this way before 50Shades was even a concept.
To me, 50Shades is actually a poor example of what the entire scene is supposed to be about. Although Anna does consent and everything that happens in the book is mutual, it does not portray the close connection, love and trust that normally goes with these kind of relationships.
And taking this from someone who has a very good relationship with my parents, I would never have admitted to them that i had heard of BDSM or that I had any idea what it was about. Don’t be surprised if all the people you question reference 50Shades as the first time they heard of it. 50Shades has just made it more acceptable to admit what we already knew.
I dont think highlighting this in the media was such a bad thing. I personally feel that it has allowed people that live in this lifestyle to feel more accepted by society. It is a step closer to having unity and mutual understanding amongst people.
But then again, this is only in my opinion.
Thanks for this perspective, r1meyer. You made me think of something I hadn’t really considered yet: when I was a teenager (I’m 32 now) none of my friends were on chat rooms or participating in virtual reality. Social media didn’t even exist until I hit college. We didn’t engage nearly as much with the online world as people do today. I’m sure you’re right that a lot of young people know FAR more than I would expect.
May I ask if you grew up in South Africa, or moved there later in life? Do you feel BDSM is widely known and accepted in mainstream South African culture?
You say you have a very good relationship with your parents, but never would have admitted that you had heard of BDSM. If you don’t mind sharing, I’d love to know if that’s because it would have made you uncomfortable to discuss it with them, because you thought they wouldn’t approve of you knowing, or because of some other reason? When you say you had a good relationship with them, do you mean an open relationship, or a polite/respectful relationship? This kind of thing is so interesting and important to me as I try to lay the groundwork for open communication with my children.
Your last point also has me thinking– you suggest that the media attention to Fifty Shades has allowed people who practice BDSM to feel more accepted. I wonder what those people would say. I wonder if they feel that Fifty Shades did them a favor and represented them accurately, or only muddied the waters more…?
I wholeheartedly agree with your idea that any type of movement which allows lesser-heard voices to be heard helps promote understanding. This is precisely why I advocate for discussing topics that may be a bit squirmy for some!
I’m so glad you took the time to share your ideas. Feedback from someone who can bridge the gap between the teenage years and middle-age years is priceless. I hope to hear more from you on this topic, and others.
Thanks for taking the time to respond without judging what I had to say, it is always great when people are open to discussion.
I was born and raised in South Africa. I have left the country three times but only for short trips to other locations in Africa. I do believe BDSM is a known concept here, I’m not so sure that I would say it is accepted though. It is still very much a frowned upon topic.
My relationship with my parents is open and honest. I grew up with the understanding that I could talk to them about anything, ask them anything. My sister has always loved to make use of this. She and my mom discuss every aspect of life, love, sex, relationships, you name it. This on the other hand, made me feel like I needed to hide my life more. I’m just the kind of person that likes to handle things myself, figure them out myself, so I would never have told my parents about BDSM. Not because I didn’t want to admit I knew about it but more because I wouldn’t have wanted them to fill in the blanks that I was yet to learn. But that’s only my perspective on it.
I do believe that this open relationship with my parents has helped me in other ways tough, so please don’t take from the above that it was all bad for me.
As for the point about wondering if 50Shades represented BDSM well. No it certainly did not. So don’t get me wrong, as I mentioned I do think it played a part in bringing information about BDSM to light but these books themselves do miss a few key aspects. BDSM is supposed to be all about mutual respect and understanding but these books always leave the leading lady feeling afraid of her leading man. Not exactly the image I would have used to describe this situation if I must be honest.
I think it will still be a long time before BDSM is an accepted idea and not just the trend of the moment, but I also believe that we have taken a step in the right direction. We all have to start somewhere.
I love your blog. But I’m not entirely sure I follow your train of thought with this one and I’m not sure I necessarily agree that “50 Shades” is as transformative as you make it sound, at least for young people. After all, hasn’t popular culture been drenched in sex for the last 25+ years? Madonna, Britney, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Miley Cyrus, Titanic, Blurred Lines, Lady Gaga, MTV, Playboy, Teen Mom, etc. have each been pushing sexuality into the popular culture in their own ways. “Seinfeld” had episodes dedicated to being “spongeworthy” and being the “Master of Your Domain” in the 90s. How many Millenials haven’t seen, or at least heard of, the Pam Anderson, Paris Hilton, or Kim Kardashian sex tapes? “50 Shades” is extraordinarily popular, but I think its popularity is unique because of who is consuming it – older women, not young people.
I think you’re dead-on though about the need to talk about, and contextualize, sexuality. Humans are sexual beings. We want sex. We LOVE sex. But in the U.S. it’s taboo, especially for women, to acknowledge that. Our puritanical selves shame sex and those (again, especially women) who embrace it. There’s nothing wrong with safe, healthy sex as long as it’s on each person’s own terms. Of course, that’s precisely the problem with “50 Shades”.
I ultimately think it’s a *good* thing that sexuality has become more ingrained in our society, because acting like it doesn’t exist is to deny our own humanity. Now, I think there are MILES to go in terms of teaching and learning about gender politics, slut-shaming, peer pressure, identity politics, and respect for others, but I actually think that shining a light on sex is ultimately a very good thing.
But you’re absolutely right – as with anything else, it requires us to be confident and self-assured enough to have the conversation in the first place. If we remain too scared to talk about sex, our only role models will be poorly-written sex novels and internet porn.
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Thanks for these comment, xxGuile. You bring up a valid point that pop culture HAS been drenched in sex for decades. I mean, even the TV shows I referenced from the nineties placed a huge emphasis on dating and sex. I think you’re right that a lot of the buzz about Fifty Shades is because women my age are gaga for it, but I have to respectfully disagree with the suggestion that young people are not consuming it.
Many of the teens my husband works with in a local youth group have either read the books or viewed the movie — and we live in a small, conservative region of the Midwest. An English teacher friend told me that many of her high school students have read the series, and are frustrated that they can’t get Accelerated Reader points for the books because there are no quizzes (at this point, anyway)for Fifty Shades. These are a few of the reasons I feel the Fifty Shades phenomenon is different than other recent sexy trends. And although erotic literature has existed for centuries, I doubt many teenagers had easy access to it before now, or would have ever even thought to seek it out. And I’m quite certain they wouldn’t have been asking their English teacher for AR credit on The Lustful Turk or The Boudoir! 🙂
Your point about American society shaming women who embrace sex/sexuality is really true. The two sides I’ve heard to the Fifty Shades debate have basically been, “I love it because it’s interesting/hot” or “You should be ashamed of yourselves!” Where are the other voices? There must be others like me who are wondering what the success of the series indicates about what Americans want, and how those wants will influence the next generation, as there is sure to be a huge influx of erotica material on the mainstream market now, if there’s not already (just like the vampire trend a few years back).
I’m totally with you that we’d be remiss to pretend sexuality isn’t a huge part of who we are as human beings– to ignore or avoid that only leads to further complications. But in order to address the important issues you mentioned above, we have to somehow enlighten an entire population of citizens that understanding sexuality and educating about healthy sexuality means TALKING about sexuality from the childhood years all the way through to the end. And that encompasses so much more than a couple quick talks about human anatomy and the physical mechanics of sex, doesn’t it?
Is it possible to initiate such a huge change in the way we Americans do things? Will we ever see a time when parents and children, teachers and students talk openly and honestly about sex and sexuality? We’ve got a long way to go, don’t we?
Although it will take years, or even decades, we can probably agree that movements like this definitely encourage conversations that people weren’t having (or weren’t having this widely) just a few years ago.
I’m really glad you offered these ideas and encouraged me to think about this subject in yet another way. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and keeping the conversation going. I hope to hear from you again.
I completely agree – I’ve written at length on what’s wrong with sex ed today, and I may need to resurrect that post as we all continue to talk about Fifty Shades, but I think the mission-critical issue is that we need to talk more about relationships – what’s healthy, what’s not healthy, how to recognize the difference, how to be a part of creating a healthy relationship. Our discussions about sex need to take place in that context.
What makes it difficult is that so much of what is marketed today shows very unhealthy relationship dynamics. Like Twilight, for example. For someone like me that did a significant amount of work specifically focused on teaching myself about what a good relationship looked like, I can recognize how poisonous Edward and Bella’s relationship is and basically shrug it off. But for teens and young adults who don’t have a solid concept of what good vs. toxic dynamics look like, or who may not even know that that’s something they have to be aware of(*), everything they see impacts what they end up looking for or putting up with in a relationship. Even Twilight and Fifty Shades.
For my family, my 11-year-old is aware of the mechanics. We had that discussion before she heard about it at school to make sure we got in front of whatever they were going to teach her. And I’m that annoying mom who let her watch Twilight (so she could see what everyone was talking about and talk about it with her friends) but I kept interjecting with – “You see that? That’s not a good thing in real life. In real life, Bella should run far FAR away!” “I KNOW, Mom!! You keep saying that and I’m trying to watch the movie!” “Okay – sorry, sweetie.”
I think if we focus on helping our kids understand and recognize good vs. bad relationship dynamics, a lot of the other issues such as when you should have sex, with whom, what you want to try, when you should stop – making good choices in that regard will flow naturally out of understanding relationship dynamics. And the kids won’t be as vulnerable to suggestion from popular media.
(*) Because the dominant message they receive is that love fixes everything and it magically works out if it’s “true love.”
You’re right on with your ideas about talking MORE, and about guiding young people to recognize the differences between healthy and unhealthy dynamics (and how that varies from one person to the next). Young people (well — all people) are flooded with material showcasing unhealthy relationships. Even though many of them are mature enough to decipher between fiction and real life, they are still more likely to be affected by what they see/hear than adults who have already formed ideals regarding healthy relationship norms and dynamics.
I love what you say about the hope that healthy and safe choices will be a natural result of education and communication. My earnest hope for my children is that if we teach them (by example, not just with words) the values of our family and faith in a way that highlights the positives of good choices, they will learn to follow their own moral compass in tough situations rather than just following trends, crowds, and crazes.
Thanks so much for reading and sharing about your daughter and your world, Athena.
I’d also love to read the post you mentioned early in your comment.
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You raise some really good points here, Stacy. I agree that having the conversations you recommend is wise and is much better than pretending we don’t live in a highly sexualized culture.
I’ll also add that we need to be careful not to shame those whose inclinations lie outside of “normal” sexualities, identities, etc. which I’ve seen happening in the things I’ve been reading. For example, as an adult, I view some types of erotica as being healthy — should I feel ashamed (Hint: I don’t:))? Also, what we do and don’t censor has huge power implications. Who gets to make that call?
“Other” voices in art, cinema, literature, etc. have frequently been repressed because they represented viewpoints outside of the mainstream (e.g. white, middle-class men’s, usually). It has been surprising to me how strong the reactions to 50 Shades have been in light of how positive the reactions to Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) — an art film about the coming of age of two girls who are in love; a film with much more actual sex than 50 Shades — were. Is it because Blue was an “art” film and 50 Shades is “trash?” I fear that those same white-middle class folks are also in control of how those distinctions are drawn.
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These are some important insights, Adam. I’m glad you agree that addressing these currents is better than ignoring them, and I hope you didn’t see my post as a shaming post. I’m not scolding adults here for their interests. I’m coming at this with my parent/teacher/youth worker hat on.
Censorship is a confusing thing to me. As a lover of language and literature, I would like to say that censorship shouldn’t exist. If you don’t like erotica, don’t read erotica. If you don’t like pornography, don’t watch pornography. As a parent, this gets tricky for me. I DON’T want my kids to see that last couple seconds of the Fifty Shades trailer. I think it could be frightening. But it’s on mainstream television (along with a whole lot of other scary/sexy stuff), so we just don’t watch that in front of our young children. At what age will that change? I don’t know. That’s another complex part of censorship — maturity varies so much at every age.
You ask who gets to make the call when it comes to censorship, and I have often wondered about this issue. Who DOES get to make that call? What about the committee that assigns movie ratings? What about the way that committee is allowing more sex/violence/language to make the cut for a PG-13 or R rating? Will X-rated films be just an R before long? What about curriculum? Who decides who makes the cut in state education curriculum and what’s too racy? Why do we trust those individuals to do so?
The question about the differences between “Blue..” and “Fifty Shades” is an important one too. Are the stronger reactions to Fifty Shades based on the sheer numbers? Is Fifty Shades bringing erotica to an audience that probably wasn’t viewing “art films?” Can an “art film” can “get away with” more because it’s more likely to be seen as educating/enlightening/inspiring than a film about a book that has been mocked and torn apart because of quality (phrasing, redundancy, character development, etc)? Like so many other things, is it all about context? You’d understand this better than many of us because of your interest in and experience with film.
All important questions. Is it unlikely that any of them have answers? Probably. But I’m still glad we are having these discussions.
Thanks for reading, questioning, and prompting me to go a step further.
This is so relevant, Stace. You’re right. Conversations NEED to take place. As a public school educator, I wish I felt more secure in tackling these issues head on. Even though I know the line I walk is tenuous, I try to engage students in “safe” conversations that allow them to question the impact media’s messages send. Above all, I want to guide students to be questioners, examiners, explorers of their OWN ideas, but in order to do that they must question, examine, and explore all that influences those ideas. Thank you for this article. It matters.
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Kendalynn, you’re the kind of teacher kids WOULD feel safe asking tough questions. I love what you say about students exploring their OWN ideas. It’s so crucial for kids to decide how THEY feel about a movement, despite cultural and social influences. If we can teach them to identify and follow that inner voice of truth, they can pick and choose what’s worthy of their efforts and attention, and what to dismiss. I’m so glad you and others like you have a part in guiding young people. Thank you for reading and sharing these valuable insights! Stacy
Great Article! Fifty Shades of Grey is more than just a book, the popularity of the books speaks to a shift that has been happening and our children have a front row seat. From tv shows to even cartoons, sex is everywhere and the limits are being pushed further and further. Parents beware and keep the dialogue open. It’s not just the simply birds and the bees, it’s continuous talks about sex and what they’ve learn from what they’ve see and hear daily. Once again, great article!
You are so right. It’s NOT just the birds and the bees — a one-time talk and then we’re done — phew! And actually, the physical stuff is fairly easy in comparison to the emotional. Really though, both aspects need to be an ongoing discussion, don’t they? I mean, we adults need to constantly reanalyze what we feel and where we stand, and kids are no different. Thanks so much for reading and weighing in. Cheers, Stacy
Well said! Great article and I completely agree. Sexuality has become apart of our mainstream culture and it is up to the adult to keep an open dialogue and relationship with their children. Mine are still a bit young and have no clue, however, when they do start to take notice I intend to give them facts and talk openly. Again, great article.
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Yes, and mine are young too, but we are keeping openness and transparency as top priorities in parenting. I KNOW this is going to be more difficult as our kids grow older! But the hope is that if we talk frankly and gently about emotions and feelings from early on, we stand a better chance of our teens one day being able to ask us tough/embarrassing questions. Thanks for reading and relating, Lisa. I appreciate your feedback! Best, Stacy
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