Fifty Shades: Female Sexual Power May Be the Real Issue

Fifty Shades: Female Sexual Power May Be the Real Issue February 20, 2015

© Hlubokidzianis |
© Hlubokidzianis |

Ray Rice stands in an elevator and punches out his then girlfriend.  Anastasia stands in the elevator and says loudly “Stop!” to the handsome, rich boyfriend, Christian. He is stopped in his tracks.

That’s the difference between a woman with power and a woman without power. According to the Rev. Dr. William K. Kirby, one of the “take-homes” from the much read and much viewed Fifty Shades of Grey is that a woman can own her sexuality and not relinquish power. When she says, “no,” that “no” will be fully honored.

Kirby, an ordained Elder, now retired, in The United Methodist Church holds two degrees from SMU Perkins School of Theology and an Ed.D. from the San Francisco Institute of the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. He contends that much of the Christian backlash against the movie has been misplaced.

Kirby is no stranger to controversial stances on sexuality. After realizing that his calling was to campus ministry, he started his career as Assistant Dean of the Chapel at Stephens College in Columbia, MO. After two years there, he accepted an appointment as the Director of the Wesley-Westminster Foundation at Princeton University and served for 12 years in that capacity. While at Princeton, he created the Sex Education Counseling and Health Service as part of the Princeton University Health Center. He was also one of the first clergy to speak out about the nature of God’s love for the homosexual–long before it was trendy to take that stance.

He noted that 68% of the audience for the record-breaking opening of Fifty Shades of Grey were female–and that the movie grossed far more than expected on its opening weekend. What has brought out those women in such numbers, many trailing their reluctant husbands?

Kirby noted that most adults have “vanilla sex.” The movie, featuring what he termed “vanilla kink,”gave them an opportunity to explore something out of their sexual experience, but, perhaps, in their sexual fantasies. He also noted that “kink” refers to a negotiated, equal process that includes spanking, bondage, tying of hands, role-playing, and pain. He likens it to playing in a sandbox–the boundaries are clear, and all experiences are both safe and consensual.

Many in the religious world who strongly suggested that people not see the movie because they believe this was not a relationship between equals. Kirby insists that is not the case. The two characters negotiated all the way through the movie. The female character requested everything that happened to her.

More, because of she never actually signed the contract, she kept the upper hand. She played the role of the submissive in the dominant/submissive role playing that took place here. Kirby said that the submissive actually has the power because the person playing that role can stop it at any time. The dominant can only do what the submissive has negotiated in advance.

Kirby discussed the damage done to the male character by his past history of sexual abuse. Sex was forced upon him. His right to stop it at any time, which is the privilege of the submissive in negotiated role-playing, was denied him. He continued to be in contact with his childhood abuser. He becomes a poster boy for the deep, difficult-to-heal damage that takes place when sexual encounters are neither non-negotiated nor between equals. Not the case as portrayed in this movie.

Yes, the male did inflict pain upon the female. However, there were no surprises here. He explained who he was from the very beginning. She asked him to show her what he does. When she reached her limit, when she realized she would never get what she wanted from this damaged man, she left. Not only did she leave, she left on her own terms, insisting on the return of the car he had sold. An abused woman would and could not do that. Only one confident in herself and her power has the capacity to make a claim like that.

Bottom line: this movie is not about female abuse. It is about male sexual child abuse. However, that is not the objection voiced by those decrying the movie.

Kirby suspects that much of the religious objection comes from the idea that a woman can indeed own her sexuality and make informed decisions about how and when she will use it. This may be part of the big draw the movie has for women (note: we are speaking only of the movie, not the books that preceded it).

Many women have been taught that their sexuality is not theirs to own or control, so the female character’s strength and intentional decisions about her sexuality appeals to them. It may be that another religious objection to this movie is that the female actually has more power. The female submissive sets the guidelines and the male must abide by them. This turns much religious thought, particularly in the more conservative world, on its head because of the insistence on male-only leadership in church and household.

There is also the reality many couples face: lack of vibrant sexual expression in long-term relationships. Fifty Shades of Grey suggests ways to reignite that spark, again in safe, consensual, limit-defined ways. These couples see the movie as erotic, not abusive.

Kirby emphasized that a healthy and mature relationship can only take place when both parties have achieved a high level of self-awareness, including owning any damage from the past that may be informing the present. Here, the male character was phobic about being touched and the female character wanted that normal reciprocity. There was no long term future in this relationship. Nonetheless, she was not afraid of him or afraid to ask for what she wanted.

Is the movie worth seeing? It’s your call–and it is hardly great cinematography. However, it is also not pornography–it carries an “R” rating. Anyone 17 and over can freely see it. The best option might be to use the movie as a way to enter into conversations about the nature of healthy sexuality, what consent actually means, discuss fantasies and how to define the limits to the sexual sandbox depending upon one’s life circumstances.

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