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The allure of discipline?

20 February 2015

IT IS wonderfully ironic that the trial of Dominique Strauss-Kahn for "aggravated pimping" should have taken place at the same time as the release of the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Both provoke reflection on the relationship between male and female desire.

The trial of the former head of the IMF in Lille casts a harsh light on the sense of sexual entitlement enjoyed by the powerful European men who were part of his circle. The "festive afternoons" described at the trial were orgies, in which the women were not eager participants but prostitutes, often desperately poor. Accused of assault, Strauss-Kahn claimed that perhaps he was a bit rougher than other males, which sounds more like a boast than a plea.

Although he is likely to be acquitted, it is clear that Strauss-Kahn believed in his absolute right to sexual satisfaction, while regarding the women concerned as merely receptacles, paid or unpaid. They had no status in his interior world. They were objects, to be desired, used, and forgotten. It is both sleazy and pathetic.

The scene he inhabited with such brio is changing fast. Like the former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, Strauss-Kahn has come across as a sexual dinosaur, slow to realise that, even in the macho cultures of France and Italy, it is increasingly unacceptable for powerful men to regard plenty of sex with luscious anonymous females as a just reward. A media world that once colluded with such behaviour is no longer prepared to do so.

But then along comes Fifty Shades, implying that we are back in a world where women simply submit to male desire, no matter how depraved. Oddly, cinemas are full of women who appear to be thoroughly enjoying the spectacle, and clearly regard it as a sex-movie made for them.

In fact, most men seem to be nonplussed by Fifty Shades, which, - erotic nonsense though it is - is seen from a female point of view. It exploits female fantasies of male strength; of sex that takes time; of sex where women can choose this and not that. Many men, seeing things this way round, could feel embarrassed, and even inadequate.

In church life, relations between men and women are less flirty than they once were, but it's observable that the women who dress in high heels, low-cut tops, and short skirts (preferably leather) are often the conservative Evangelicals. Submitting to their husbands, or enjoying high expectations? There's a good question for this season of discipline.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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