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Light from the past on a grey area

14 September 2012

Christian tradition can contribute to the debate about Fifty Shades of Grey, says Jo Ind

SO FAR, the Churches have not had a great deal to say on what is claimed to be the best-selling book in British history - Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic novel by E. L. James, which has sold 5.3 million copies in the UK since April.

It seems that Anglicans and Roman Catholics have spent the sum­mer speaking about gay mar­riage, while millions - on trains, in book clubs, and online - have been discuss­ing Anastasia Steele and her relationship with the sadomasochist Christian Grey.

The central issue of the easy-read book that has topped the UK best-sellers list for the past six months is of a 22-year-old virgin who falls in love with a multi-billionaire who wants to tie her up, spank her, and make her ask for more. Anastasia is looking for romance. Christian cannot get turned on when sex is vanilla. Can they find a way of getting it together, despite their seemingly incompatible sexualities?

It is an interesting dilemma, and one that raises questions for us all about compromise within sex, going outside our comfort zones, and working out what we really don't like and what we could develop a taste for.

Last month, discussion of the novel took a darker turn. Clare Phillipson, the director of Wearside Women in Need, a charity for sur­vivors of domestic violence, called for women to burn their copies on 5 November, along with an effigy of Christian Grey, on the grounds that the book is "an instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman".

Ms Phillipson sees the plot as being about a perpetrator of dom­estic violence who takes someone who is less experienced and less powerful, spins her a yarn, starts doing horrific sexual things to her, and makes it seem normal. She worries that teenagers will pick the book up and think: "This is all right," and that it depicts perfectly accept­able activities.

I BELIEVE it is important for the Churches to get a foothold in the discussion at this point, although it is difficult for them to do so because, historically, their understanding of sexual ethics has been focused on procreative acts - heterosexual vaginal intercourse in the context of marriage. This way of thinking has nothing to offer when exploring the dilemmas of Fifty Shades of Grey.

The first thing that I would say to Ms Phillipson is that I can under­stand why women who have been beaten by their partners are highly sensitised to beatings in erotic fan­tasies. I have sympathy with those who are reminded by reading Fifty Shades of Grey of being stalked, abused, and traumatised.

Yet I would also say that it is im­portant to draw a distinction be­tween a scenario in which a woman consents to being spanked because it turns her on (and in which there is an agreed safe word for her to say when she wants it to stop), and one in which a man simply beats the hell out of her.

I think that, in the book, Christian Grey goes far further than your aver­age bloke in ensuring that Anastasia really is consenting to what they do in sex. On that count, he is a role-model.

Having said that, I agree that "con­sent" is slippery. There is an argument that women have been socialised to be submissive to men, and that the submissive/dominant dynamic has been eroticised. A woman's desire to be submissive can be seen as evidence of her oppression rather than her liberation, even if she does consent to it.

I agree with this line. Besides, we all know that we can "consent" to things because we are vulnerable; because our options are limited; because we think everybody else is doing it; because we feel that we want something, although when we ac­tually do it, we realise that we don't want to do it.

Consent is dynamic: it is tricky, and it can take much skill and ex­perience to discern when it is deep and authentic, and when it is half-baked and mistaken.

THIS is where the Churches have a great deal to offer. Among their tradi­tions is a useful guide to assessing the quality of consent: the teachings of St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order.

Ignatius taught about consolation and desolation. When we are con­soled, he said, new energy is released, and we feel closer to others. When we are desolate, we turn in on ourselves, and feel drained. With prac­­tice, we can evaluate our experi­ences accord­ing to how desolate or consoled they made us; and we can choose to live more in consolation.

I think that this practice is invalu­able in discerning whether our sexual experiences are truly what we want, or whether we are being manipulated and are compromising in an unhelp­ful way (as distinct from the com­promises that are necessary and creative in relationships).

If Anastasia came to me for help in her dilemma with Christian, I would offer her St Ignatius. "When you are playing with Christian, listen very carefully to your feelings - both as it is happening and after­wards. How is it making you feel? Is it making you feel peaceful and fully alive? Is it making you withdraw and contract inside?"

In all my readings of sex manuals and feminist literature, I have found nothing as useful as this approach for im­proving sex. The Churches have so much to offer in making better lovers of us all. Come on; let's use what we've got to help people.

Jo Ind is a writer for Maverick Television and the NHS.  Her book Memories of Bliss: God, sex, and us was published by SCM Press in 2003.

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