A Prudish Nation: Understanding Reactions to 50 Shades of Grey

With all the mad pontificating around 50 Shades of Grey the movie (not to discount the same standing-on-ceremony when the books came out more than three years ago), I am certain it belies a bigger conversation, one about sex.

When I was 20 and touring Italy with a study-abroad journalism and drama program, I remember the reputation of American girls – that we are easy but prudish. We didn’t dress as provocatively as the Italian women, but we took it off quicker. At least that was the notion among Italian men.

Now, I was all for a good flirtation, especially at such a young age, but I wasn’t ready to jump in the sack with just any foreign hunk. There is an art of flirtation and an art of seduction that virtually every society on the planet has (well, maybe not some Muslim nations, but I’m going to say many do) – and yet, they know when and where sex has its proper place.

We don’t. We Americans are afraid of sensuality, afraid of sexuality, afraid to push the limits. While we all wax poetic about our physical encounters, we hold it up to this pedestal of purity that I’m not sure it deserves.

Sex is an animal act. People get turned on by weird stuff. In a consensual, loving, committed relationship, anything goes.

And what happens behind closed doors usually stays there.

When people object so strongly to a movie like 50 Shades, I have to wonder what they’re objecting to. It’s a movie, for god’s sake. It’s a story. It’s people pretending to be someone else for the sake of entertainment. Why get your knickers in a bunch over make-believe?

Because it strikes to the core of something so much deeper and more defining.

I don’t know one person whose parents sat them down to have a talk about what defines a healthy relationship. Every person gets the how-babies-are-made talk; no one gets the how-to-have-a-healthy-sexual-relationship talk.

And so we are left with the information gleaned from our first sexual encounters.

If, like the main character in this series, Christian Grey, your first sexual encounter is with a friend of your mother’s when you are 15, and it’s about being submissive to her dominance, then that’s what you know sex to be.

You don’t know true intimacy. You don’t know an equal give-and-take relationship. You don’t know how to take baby steps toward growing closer.

In that way, these books – and the reactions to the books and the movie – represent what our society is lacking in the area of sexual education and training.

At its core, a story about bondage and domination shouldn’t threaten anything about who we are if we are honest and strong. The problem is that we are not educated in healthy sexuality and so we grow up with mistaken notions or dreamy fictitious romance or no notion at all of what a healthy sexual relationship is.

The requisite parental conversation about the birds and the bees, a.k.a. how babies are made is very different from raw, animal sex that occurs a lot more often and for a lot more years than any baby-making efforts.

You become a teen with hormones raging and you’re not sure what to make of those hormones. Act on them? Don’t? And if so, how? It’s not something most people discuss with their parents or teachers.

What you hear is: Don’t. Just Say No. No Means No. Sexually transmitted diseases. Pregnancy. Danger Danger Danger.

When we were kids, boys snuck issues of Playboy into their rooms and fantasized about what they saw in those pages. Girls were weaned on Judy Blume’s Forever and movies like St. Elmo’s Fire, so we learned love was about commitment and big hair and shoulder pads. We were told to let the boys make the first move, that girls who “chased” boys were easy and undesirable. We learned to be submissive in a way, and the boys were prompted to be aggressive to a degree.

That dichotomy has been the backbone of male-female relations for most of history.

Plus, we grew up in an era when divorce became more permissible, more common, so that informed our notions of sexuality too. Bored with your spouse? Sexually incompatible? Say goodbye! Love was about always connecting, everything aligned, mutual passion. If you couldn’t achieve that, get out.

We need to achieve balance in our conversations about sex. It is not just for making babies. And it’s not bad.

You see, our society does not prepare us for sexual identity. We are not infused with a discourse on healthy physical relationships. BDSM is not, by definition, unhealthy. It’s the perspective you bring to the bedroom that makes what you do there healthy or depraved.

The vast outcry against this franchise has more to do with the people shouting out and with our society’s failure to build healthy sexual conversations. It has nothing to do with the books or the movie, where poor writing depicts two people making consensual decisions to engage in fringe sexual behavior.

If you read the books (spoiler alert), you know that eventually, Christian and Ana get married and it’s Christian who wants to abandon the Red Playroom. Ana wants to hang on to some of what they did there, some of the toys.

And so in the end, they change each other, as any relationship does, and accept what they love of one another while putting their feet down to what bothers them. That’s a healthy connection.

I have found it fascinating since the first book graced shelves and night tables how adamant people respond on both sides of the coin. It’s just a story, people. It may turn you on or it may turn you off, but it’s just a story.

We have never been a society that promotes censorship. Our freedom entitles us to choose what we read and watch, so if you’re uncomfortable, stay away. But respect the rights of others to enjoy what they enjoy.

And understand that all of us are crippled by the lack of foundation we were given on this subject. Sit in the discomfort long enough for it to go away and then do what you can to change the tide on this matter. I, for one, am going to have conversations with my children at the appropriate ages about what constitutes a healthy physical relationship. I want them going into adulthood stronger than I was, and more successful, too.

Connect with Lynne

Register for The Writers Community