Growing up is hard. Learning right from wrong is a complicated, difficult process, especially when children have to move away from the black and white rules of childhood into the murkier guidelines of the teen years. Comparatively, it’s a lot easier to learn not to play in the potty than to learn how to effectively stand up to the poor decisions of the cool crowd. And this week, it’s going to get harder.
On Friday, one of the most anticipated movies of the year will open, and if the book sales are any indication, it is set to be one of the highest grossing movies of the year. Movies based on successful book sales are nothing new; however, movies based on books that showcase BDSM as the main theme is groundbreaking in a whole new way.
We, of course, are talking about “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and whether someone has chosen to read it or not, it would be difficult to imagine that too many people are unaware of its presence in our society. Just in case you are wondering and fear having “BDSM” appear in your history, it stands for Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism, and Masochism. Without much effort, you will be able to educate yourself on opinions from almost every aspect of why you should or should not read these books or watch this movie. You can learn about it from a religious perspective, a marital perspective, a dating relationship perspective, a pornography perspective, and even from a “rights” perspective (as in adults have the right to make their own entertainment choices). But here’s the interesting thing. Not one of these has addressed it from a legacy perspective.
According to Wikipedia, the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy has sold over 100 million copies. A hundred million copies. To provide some perspective on that number, this is more than “The Hunger Game” series (50 million), “Little House on the Prairie” series (60 million), and “The Vampire Chronicles” (80 million). It’s safe to assume that some of these copies went into homes were teenagers were present, and though many teenagers probably ignored their parents’ reading choice at first, as the series grew more popular, regardless of the house rules, at least some of those teens sneakily read their mom’s copy or just went online and found the series, in its entirety, for free. And if having the book in their house wasn’t enough, the trailers that aired during the Super Bowl, on the “Today Show”, and on social media feeds may have piqued the interest of even the most resolute teenager. It’s hard to ignore a woman masked and tied to a bed when your hormones are raging.
But here’s the thing. I would make the argument that it shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, I would make the argument that we need to engage as if we were going to war for the very health and well-being of our children and the world they live in. Because we are. This book and movie demands open dialogue with our teen generation. If we pretend like it isn’t happening, we run the risk of them engaging with it anyway but coming to their own conclusions, without direction, about the world they live in.
The insidious danger of “entertainment” such as Fifty Shades is not the fact that it showcases BDSM which, by definition, highlights a contractual (as in an actual contract is signed) sexual agreement between two parties based on power and control. Clearly there are issues there, but they are issues that are out in the open. The true insidious danger is in the fact that there wasn’t an immediate and complete denouncing of this as entertainment. Instead it was invited into the mainstream, giving the message to our most impressionable brains that these relationships, on some level, are OK and may be even “normal.” Teenage brains are developmentally incapable of filtering this kind of right and wrong. They do not have the tools in their toolbox to discern the difference between abusive power and control and the kind of power and control that gets exchanged when a contract is involved. It blurs a lot of lines. Lines that all of us need to be concerned about as it sets up patterns of entitlement, rights, and poor boundary making as they enter into adulthood and begin to cross paths with all of us.
Research tells us that our brains do not fully develop until sometime between the ages of 24-26. We already know that 1 in 5 high school girls will be in a domestic violence relationship at some point in their high school career and we know that 1 in 4 women, before they reach the age of 25, will be sexually assaulted with 66% of these sexual assaults committed by someone they know. This already happens. Now, before there is an outcry of unfairness, there is no evidence whatsoever that supports any theories that “Fifty Shades of Grey” causes any of these numbers to increase. However, there is also no evidence that supports any theories that “Fifty Shades of Grey” has a positive impact on these numbers either. Therefore, we are left with having to consider anecdotal information and this is what we know:
1: Kids learn from us. All of us. Whether you have a teenager or child that you are directly responsible for is completely irrelevant. Our next generation takes their cues from us. When we give implicit approval to something, they notice. 100 million copies sold falls under “implicit approval.”
2: Kids do not need help learning how to have power and control over each other. Instead of teaching teenagers and young adults not to exhibit abusive power and control, we assume it as an inevitable. We teach them how to protect themselves instead of making space to teach them how not to engage in it in the first place. Series like Fifty Shades does nothing to change this. Not only does it justify abusive power and control in a relationship by throwing around words like “adult” and “consent,” it celebrates abusive power and control by implying the best, most intoxicating relationships are only found when one is submitting to the demands of another. Assuming, of course, that everyone is “protected” by safe words and contracts. The mixed message is breathtakingly confusing – is power and control a good thing or a bad thing?
3: Kids need help learning about respect. This is not a one-time lesson when they are talking back. For this to become a foundational practice in their life, they have to see it modeled for them consistently and chronically. Regardless of the defense of BDSM, no one can claim that it is based on respect. The best someone could claim is that the participants respect the contract. It’s impossible to have a relationship with a piece of paper. Therefore, we need to be modeling healthy, respectful relationships with living, breathing human beings and refusing to justify anything that is less than that.
4: Kids need help learning about consent. They need to understand that consent happens only when both parties understand the consequences of having sex and agree to having sex. Furthermore, consent can never be given if one party threatens the other, has more power than the other, fears the other, or forces the other. Though the argument can be made in a BDSM relationship that neither party is being forced to participate, hairs could be split over whether one party is threatening and/or fearful of the other. However even the staunchest supporter would have to agree that in a BDSM relationship one party definitely has more power than the other – it’s the entire premise of the agreement. Furthermore, it’s important to note that at least the submissive may not fully comprehend the consequences of their position until after the deed is done. It’s hard to know how the complete relinquishing of your power and control to another will impact you until after you’ve made the choice to do it. Entertainment like Fifty Shades contributes to confusion about consent as it gives permission for people to operate in, shall we say, the gray.
So, where does that leave us? In short, we need to be thinking about the legacy we are leaving for the next generation. Before you buy that ticket to Fifty Shades, think about the messages it is sending. Do you really want to imply to any teenager in the theater that relationships based in BDSM are healthy and okay? And if you have a teenager in your direct sphere of influence, talk to them about it and why you are choosing not to go – even if they know you read the book. Help them to understand that our choices can change as we understand the impact of the choices we are making. At any point, we have the right to go in a different direction. Some directional changes take more courage than others, but we are never without options. We just have to exercise them. Ask them what they know of this title and help them understand the messages this series and movie are promoting contribute to a culture where men are portrayed as hostile and predatory while women are portrayed as playthings and objects. These portrayals undermine and erode the strengths of both genders. Work with them to understand what respect and consent really means and encourage them to believe they have enough value to set boundaries for themselves and to expect others to respect those boundaries. And hope that someone is talking to your children’s future significant others before they cross paths. Do you really want Christian Grey to be your son, your daughter’s boyfriend, or the father of your grandchildren? Talk about a legacy.
Written by: Valerie Craig, Co-Founder and Director of Education