Fifty Shades of Grey is back in the news. Last weekend the movie version of the wildly successful book hit the screens. Naturally, this provoked a flurry of articles.
Nothing like a little BDSM to brighten up everyone’s life.
I have written about the book in the past. My post,“Romance Porn for the Hookup Generation” can be found here.
Ross Douthat has written one of the best new commentaries on the phenomenon. He believes that people are drawn to the story because they want to redeem the sexual revolution.
Those who followed the Pied Pipers of sexual liberation, even into the hookup culture, often discovered that the consequences were less than thrilling.
What was promised as liberation turned out to be a different form of exploitation and oppression.
Douthat laid down the predicates:
Viewed from one angle, the sexual revolution looks obviously egalitarian. It’s about extending to everyone the liberties — the freedom to be promiscuous, to pursue sexual fulfillment without guilt — that were once available only to privileged cisgendered heterosexual males. It’s about ushering in a society where everyone can freely love and take pleasure in anyone and anything they want.
But viewed from another angle, that same revolution looks more like a permission slip for the strong and privileged to prey upon the weak and easily exploited. This is the sexual revolution of Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt and Joe Francis and roughly 98 percent of the online pornography consumed by young men. It’s the revolution that’s been better for fraternity brothers than their female guests, better for the rich than the poor, better for the beautiful than the plain, better for liberated adults than fatherless children ... and so on down a long, depressing list. At times, as the French writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry recently suggested, this side of sexual revolution looks more like “sexual reaction,” a step way back toward a libertinism more like that of pre-Christian Rome — anti-egalitarian and hierarchical, privileging men over women, adults over children, the upper class over the lower orders.
The sexual revolution promised equality; it promised that women, in particular would gain access to a smorgasbord of sexual delights. You know, the kind that had previously been reserved for men.
Not only did it promise women more, better orgasms, but it told them that they could have more orgasms than men. As though there was some kind of competition over who had the most orgasms.
In practice the sexual revolution looked more like a pagan Bacchanal, the kind of orgy that offered the most pleasure to those who had the most power. The powerless were relegated to the role of sex toys, instruments for the pleasure of powerful men.
It turns out that sexual liberation works best for men. Women who do not want to hook up and who do not define sexual fulfillment in terms of orgasm count often felt used and abused.
However much women felt exploited by patriarchal institutions like marriage, orgies and hookups had amped up the exploitation.
Thus, the sins of the sexual revolution needed redeeming. It was better than admitting that it was a rather large mistake, a new and better way to make women into sexual objects.
Douthat believes that the difference between the promise and the reality needed to be brought into some kind of synthesis. Obviously, we are saying the same thing in different terms.
In his words:
But the essential dream of our age [is] … a synthesis, in which the aristocratic thrills of libertinism are somehow preserved but their most exploitative elements are rendered egalitarian and safe.
The hope, in other words, is that we can eventually have the fun of Rome without all the nasty bits: Contraception and abortion will pre-empt the inconvenient infant, age-of-consent laws will make sure that young people’s initiation doesn’t start too early, and with enough carefully drawn up regulations for initiating intercourse we can all experience the courts of Tiberius and Heliogabalus without anybody getting hurt.
So our sexual egalitarians don’t want to shut down the party or end the bacchanal. They just want hookup culture to be governed by affirmative consent, for prostitutes to become empowered sex workers, for misogynistic porn to be balanced out by feminist alternatives, for dangerous patriarchal polygamy to give way to safe egalitarian polyamory, and for De Sade’s Justine to find happiness as a submissive protected by her safe words.
Douthat means that sexual egalitarians are doubling down on an illusion. They want to keep the thrills but to avoid the consequences. They assume that human sexuality is perfectly malleable, to the point where it will function perfectly well when gender roles have been overcome.
Egalitarian musings ignore the difference between the sexes and ignore the fact that sexual desire cannot be controlled by an act of the will.
It may seem ironic to see people who have been brought up to believe that men and women are fundamentally the same are glomming on to a book and movie that presents men and women as stereotypical caricatures.
As Douthat describes it:
A fantasy of being chased, seduced and whipped by an embodiment of the .001 percent, a man who’s dangerous but not too dangerous, thrillingly Caligulan but ultimately vulnerable, and who proves himself to be a caring spouse and father in the end.
A real-life Christian Grey, the man set free from all restraint, would probably be a pure satyr like the sex-partying Dominique Strauss-Kahn or the billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, with his private-jet harems and the conviction for soliciting a 14-year-old. But in the fantasy, the synthesis, he’s a guy who will first dominate you but ultimately love you —
Within every male sexual predator lies the beating heart of an incipient male feminist. All he needs is the love of a good woman, a woman who will act out his perverted male fantasies in order to show him how empty and unequal they are. Once he is cured, they will live happily ever after.
Like the Clintons!
Christian Grey is not merely a Christian—get it?—but he is also a privileged white male. He treats women badly because he was traumatized as a child. He just needs therapy… as though the problems that gender-neutered men and women have come about because they have not had enough therapy.
If you believe that, you’ll believe anything.