Let me start off by admitting that when I was in college I was addicted to romance novels. I would binge-read stacks of them in bed while eating my way through a roll of cookie dough. Healthy, right? It started out as a means of escape from my seemingly soul-crushing breakup with my boyfriend of 5 years. I was lonely. I was sick of crying. I hated myself. So I ran and hid in the poorly written pages of Harlequin.
Eventually, I got counseling, got back to church, and got back to exercise and a cookie-dough-free diet. I was better. But I was still hooked on romance novels, now just because they were thrilling – I got lost in being someone else, someone who was loved, desired and not only wanted, but needed. Fast forward again, I got better and gave those romance books the old heave-ho.
Why am I boring you with my life story? Because even though I haven’t read “Fifty Shades of Grey”, my experience with romance novels has helped me theorize why it’s so alluring. And just as an aside, this is not the first series to incorporate S&M. It’s been around for a long time, like since the 1700’s. The uniqueness is how widely acceptable and popular it has become.
Again, I haven’t read the book, but I’ve read so many reviews and plot outlines, my eyes went crossed. My understanding of it is this:
Mousy, insecure, virginal college girl (aka every budding predator’s fantasy) gets to interview this gorgeous, mysterious, confident billionaire, who sees her and becomes obsessed (obviously). Insecure girl is intrigued because no one has ever in the entire history of ever shown any interest in her. Pretty boy is doubly intrigued because she’s an easy target upon which he can take out all of his unholy and tortured desires. Oh, I’m sorry – that was my interpretation. Pretty boy is intrigued because he has a Dark Side that deep down he hopes can be redeemed, and maybe just maybe, this insecure little woman can be the one to save him from himself (if she can stand all of the abuse and torture first).
Sounds like a healthy relationship to me. What girl doesn’t want to save a gorgeous billionaire who shows his love through control, manipulation and torture?
And what’s so bad about S&M anyway?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), describes sexual masochism disorder as “recurrent and intense sexual arousal from the act of being humiliated, beaten, bound or otherwise made to suffer, while sexual sadism disorder is the “recurrent and intense sexual arousal from the physical or psychological suffering of another person,” (DSM-5, pgs. 694-695). One important caveat the DSM makes however, is that it’s not considered “disordered” (read: diagnose-able) unless it causes clinically significant impairment or distress in multiple life areas. Meaning, if you claim S&M doesn’t bother you, a psychologist won’t label you.
Additionally, according to psychologists, S&M “uses pain to create pleasure and violence to express love,” (Havelock Ellis, 1924). Ellis, among others, claimed that men tend towards sadism (wanting to inflict pain and be dominant), and women ten towards masochism (wanting to receive pain and be submissive). What does that dynamic/trend remind me of? Oh, right – domestic violence, minus the whole pleasure part.
Now that we have our definitions, it is clear to me that S&M can become a bit backwards, since humans are naturally made to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Pain is a biological function that warns us that we are in danger and should take action of some kind. Oftentimes, endorphins are released in response to pain, to lesson their blow. Some may confuse this as pleasure, and continue seeking it out for comfort. Our wires get crossed when we continue to interpret pleasure through pain and humiliation, or through inflicting pain and humiliation on others.
And those wires get crossed generally, when something went wrong in the past, is going wrong presently, or is about to go wrong.
So why do people do it? Because they think it’s novel, dangerous, taboo and thus, exhilarating. Or, perhaps because they think if sex has become routine, this just might spice things up enough to make it interesting again. Or because they are insecure.
Which brings me to another issue of “Fifty Shades”: it showcases and idealizes this unhealthy desire in women: to have a man so consumed with desire for us that he can’t leave us AND to be able to save a man that’s so far gone he’s lost himself. And why is that alluring to us? Because we want to think that we are what men need to become healed and whole. Because if they need us to live happily, then they will be indebted forever AND NEVER LEAVE US. Some women don’t trust that love and choice will keep a man in our lives. We think we have to earn it somehow, to manipulate ourselves into a sense of security.
For some of us struggling with insecurity, it’s not enough to be wanted. We need to be needed, just as oxygen is needed. If a man needs us like he needs oxygen, he will never stray. Or at least that’s the hope. And the lie.
And the other lie? That a man can love you by beating you.
This is a fantasy with no glimmer of truth or hope. It is broken, and only serves to keep breaking others. It’s the lie that keeps many people in unhealthy relationships. It’s the lie that keeps women and children cycling in the horrors of domestic abuse. It requires intense healing on both sides, that we in our brokenness, can’t give to each other. It takes the grace of God, and sometimes, the help of professionals.
Real love involves reciprocal self-giving. We sacrifice ourselves for the GOOD of the other. If we love, we give comfort, protection, peace, support, care, and freedom. Whips and chains are not particularly good at delivering those messages of love. Whips and chains are just what they imply – slavery. True love is not slavery. True love is FREE.
At the end of it all, our deepest desires are to be seen, to be acknowledged and to be loved; the way we go about doing that can be healthy or unhealthy. Choose wisely.