Sex, Violence, and, Shades of Grey

The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is everywhere. I saw a woman reading it the subway last week and another at the pool. This book, which started as an e-book and gained a following because women could read it in secret, has come out of the closet. Women are reading it out in the open everywhere. Magazine articles and blog posts are calling it the “Summer of Grey.”

I like that the book is helping some women get in touch with their sexuality. Judaism has always seen sex with in a committed relationship as a positive act. The Talmud dictates how often a man is to please his wife by having relations with her: for men of independent means, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for donkey-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in 30 days; and for sailors, once in six months. Having sex on Friday night during the Sabbath is even referred to as a “double mitzvah.” If this book is helping some couples come together then that is a good thing.

However, I find the threat of violence which hangs over the entire story to be chilling and dangerous. The book hooks readers by keeping them wondering if Ana the female character will submit to Christian’s “Red Room of Pain” and allow him to dominate her. This commingling of sex and violence is abhorrent to me as a woman and a Jew.

According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year. The National Crime Victimization Survey, which includes crimes that were not reported to the police, 232,960 women in the U.S. were raped or sexually assaulted in 2006. That’s more than 600 women every day. Young women, low-income women, and some minorities are disproportionately victims of domestic violence and rape. Women ages 20-24 are at greatest risk of nonfatal domestic violence, and women age 24 and under suffer from the highest rates of rape. The Justice Department estimates that one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape during their college years, and that less than five percent of these rapes will be reported.( Statistics can be found here.  )

I fear that this book sends the message that violent acts as part of sexual play is okay. I know that in the story Ana has to consent to everything. However from the start, she and Christian are not on an even playing field. He holds the power. He has more money, knowledge, and experience than her. She is in the under-24-years-old demographic. I fear that many women will be hurt physically and emotionally by putting themselves in the hands of men who don’t know when to stop, who will push the pain element too far, who will not hear the safeword.

There is no grey area here. Sex and violence do not go together. One is an act of love; the other is an act of hate. Millions of women suffer each year at the hands of abusive men. This is not sexy or alluring.

I wish I could quote a text from Jewish tradition which clearly says “Thou shalt not hit your lover.” But nothing is that clear. Jewish law however has built in many statues to safeguard vulnerable women from others’ abuses. Widows must be taken care of, and male family members are admonished not to have sex with female relatives. In addition, the stories of the rape of Dina and Tamar make it clear that raping a woman is a punishable act. Unlike the Christian tradition, Judaism does not see sex itself as shameful. But many structures are put in place so that sex is a pleasurable act between consenting adults, not a violent one.

If you enjoyed reading Shades of Grey, please take a moment to think about what you enjoyed about the book. And reflect on some of the messages it sends, particularly to young women who may not have the wherewithal to stand up to a dominating man. As women, we need to talk about the interplay between sex and violence so that we can protect ourselves. If this book helps to open up that conversation then I am glad that it has come out of the closet.

Posted on July 16, 2012

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