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
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
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
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
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
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
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.