Fifty Shades of Grey

After a few years on bookshelves, February will see Fifty Shades of Grey hit the silver screen.

Bookings for the opening weekend commenced four months before the film was released and the identity of the actor playing ‘Christian Grey’ was speculated over long before being revealed. The hype has been enormous, and the film’s earnings will match it.

Even if you avoid the film like the plague, and even if none of your young people, friends, family or pets go anywhere near it, Fifty Shades of Grey’s release will be significant. When this film comes out, suddenly, all bets will be off. Everything talked about and alluded to in the film is going to enter the mainstream consciousness. It’s going to be acceptable, nay fashionable, to talk about and experience the behaviour in the film. In the run up to Valentine’s Day, advertisers will no doubt ramp up their campaigns, with the focus on sex and desire rather than love and relationships. You may avoid the film, but its presence will not be so easily escaped, and our young people will not be exempt from it.

The Christian world doesn’t need another critique of the book or the upcoming film, but the film, or more accurately the popularity of the book / film / app / board game, tells us a lot about our culture’s relationship with sex. There’s nothing interesting about Fifty Shades; what’s interesting is what the phenomenon tells us about the state of sex in the western world.

Those of you with a keen eye will have noticed that this is a magazine about youth work, and Fifty shades of grey hasn’t been a huge hit among young people. It’s flickered on their cultural radar, but compared to the way it’s been hoovered up by the wider population, it hasn’t had the resonance or cultural capital among teenagers that it has elsewhere. But before you start celebrating young people’s sexual illiteracy, their non-engagement with the franchise comes with a kicker: it’s not an indication that young people are shunning sex, it means that franchise doesn’t even come close to scratching the itch of this sexualised generation. Fifty Shades may provide a skewed worldview of sex, but it’s not the biggest problem young people face. In a world of naked selfies and PornHub, why read about what you can already see online?

Last summer, at the Soul Survivor festival, an appeal saw a wave of young people come forward when asked if they had a problem with porn. This may be anecdotal evidence, but it’s pretty clear that young people, Christian young people, are looking at and engaging with porn. We also know, from recent research, that this porn is having a tangible impact on teenage brains.

Fifty shades of grey doesn’t even come close to scratching the itch of this sexualised generation

Scans of brains from people with heavy porn use look similar to those with drug or alcohol addictions. This doesn’t just cause genuine harm but can significantly alter the way young people view relationships, themselves and members of the opposite (or same) sex. One young person involved in this study reached a stage where masturbation was a coping mechanism, to relieve stress or tension in a variety of situations. Just as making alcohol free and readily available would result in more alcoholics, unlimited access to porn online results in more young people being affected.

There’s a question that we conveniently ignore when we talk about porn: what are we concerned about? What is ‘the porn problem’? Some would say it’s a human trafficking problem. Others that it dehumanises those involved, turning people beloved by God into sexual objects. These things are both true, but I think there’s something else, an elephant in the room: it’s easier to talk about porn than it is to talk about lust and masturbation. We can confront a porn problem by talking about its dangers and ills, but to tackle lust and masturbation we have to take a longer, harder look at ourselves and our values. Just because you don’t look at porn, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a lust problem, and just because you only have sex with your spouse, it doesn’t mean you don’t dehumanise them. If we’re honest, we talk about porn because we know what we think about it. But does the Church have a theology of masturbation? We talk about Jesus’ comparison of lust to sexual activity, but what does that actually mean? We’ve turned porn, and at this moment Fifty shades of grey, into our sexual scapegoat, heaping all of the sexual ills of our society onto it, telling ourselves that if we avoid engaging with it, we’re doing alright.

Fifty shades of grey is symptomatic of the sexual shift in our culture. Things that were considered unacceptable have entered the zeitgeist, and the spread of extreme online porn is linked to this. Our answer must not be to shout about Christian Grey’s evils, becoming celibate wack-a-moles, knocking one issue after the other on the head while others spring up around it and ignoring the root cause. Instead we need to tackle the underlying issues. We need to have open conversations about lust and masturbation and not hide behind a porn barrier. We need sex and relationships education. We need to communicate that sex isn’t a sticking plaster for intimacy, but the height of a loving relationship. The world’s view of sexuality leads to hurt and bondage far worse than that outlined in Fifty shades. It’s our responsibility to point young people towards Jesus’ better, more life-giving expression – sex in all its fullness.

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