Consent is not enough. It is not enough to justify BDSM or any other exploitative sexual practice. Consent is too flimsy a foundation for Ana Steele to justify the destructive things that are done to her by Christian Grey in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” For this reason I consider “Fifty Shades” to be grossly sexually destructive – especially of women – and I am boycotting the film.
“As long as he or she is consenting, it’s OK.” No it’s not, because people consent all the time to practices that they know are destructive and this doesn’t make such practices right. First, people can be pressured by their culture or their peers into things that they know are harmful to them. The fear of being left out or laughed at can motivate the teenager to do drugs that are physiologically damaging to his body. He may know that they are harmful and that he will suffer consequences for doing them. But he doesn’t want his friends to think that he isn’t cool enough to do things that are physically risky. So he ‘consents’ in order to fit in. His ‘consent’ may seem voluntary but really he is being pressured by the people in his surroundings, and his fear of social rejection overcomes his better judgment. Women and men all the time are afraid of not fitting in or being part of the cool crowd. So they ‘consent’ to sexually exploitative practices that they know are damaging in order to be accepted. The sixteen-year-old girl ‘consents’ to sext pictures of her naked torso in order to fit in with the social climbers at school. The twenty-one year-old college student ‘consents’ to a group sex experience because he wants other kids to think well of him.
Maybe the cultural or social pressure is not overt. There may even be no one who is explicitly urging the sixteen-year-old or the twenty-one year old to sext or have group sex. But humans have a powerful desire to be accepted. Countless times when we think that our peers or our cultural surroundings are not accepting us, we voluntarily change our behaviors in order to fit in. We are very good at voluntarily doing what’s popular even when no one else is explicitly pushing us to do it. The need for acceptance is enough to compel us, on our own, to do things that we know will harm our souls or bodies in the long run.
“But all of this only applies if persons are going against their better judgment. If they sincerely believe that the sexual practice – BDSM or whatever – is not wrong, then that makes it OK.” This, unfortunately, is false. Sometimes persons dupe themselves or are seriously misguided and can do things that are destructive even when they do not realize it. A lot of sincere National Socialists in World War Two believed that what they were doing was right. Their mass murders of the Jews were destroying their souls, but they believed such practices to be fine. A lot of people in the 1930s and 1940s actually believed – this is true – that cigarette smoking was a healthful practice and that it would sooth their lungs, calm their nerves, and enable them to live longer. Even today there can be mass cultural delusions. A lot of people today drink water out of sun-heated plastic water bottles. It is possible – although not yet conclusively determined – that their practices are carcinogenic because heating up some types of plastic bottles could increase the leaching of harmful phthalates into fluids, thus causing cancer. “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a carcinogen for the soul. The point is that history is full of examples of mass cultural delusions. Just because large numbers of people think that something is right or intriguing or cool doesn’t make it in fact right or intriguing or cool. A democratic majority is a poor basis for a healthy sexual morality.
I want to end this post on a personal note. A lot of times my students these days tell me that they want to help stop the sexual trafficking industry. They are shocked by the idea of exploited women – girls, even – being made to do things that are predatory and damaging. Whenever they say this to me I always respond, “do you really want to do something to stop sex trafficking? Change yourself first before you try to change others. Don’t look at porn, don’t promote sexual practices that are exploitative of others, and don’t put money in the hands of people whose movies stir up a desire in the culture for the trafficked girls.” “Fifty Shades” is wrong because it is stirring up a desire in people for exploitative sexual practices. It makes people want to do things that enable predatory industries like sex trafficking to flourish. Do not go to this film and do not let your friends go to this film. If you choose to attend this film then you are contributing too to the sexual exploitation because you are directly putting money in the hands of the people who are promoting this stuff.
Follow Jeremy Neill on Twitter: @drjeremyneill