“I turned 50 shades of pink when I saw my former elementary school teacher reading Fifty Shades of Grey,” someone might quip. Joking about the New York Times best-seller (and soon-to-be movie) Fifty Shades of Grey is almost as popular as the book itself. Billed as “an erotic novel,” the book reportedly includes obscenely graphic sexual scenes – scenes that focus on distorted practices such as bondage, dominance and sadism. The fact that so many make fun of the book seems to highlight a truth that society fails to acknowledge: reading books like these is contrary to our human dignity and our innate desire for love.
It is easy to claim that novels like Fifty Shades, with graphic and distorted sex scenes, is not pornographic – that it’s just a romance novel. Yet in a culture where the number one search engine term is “sex” and 13.3 billion dollars is made annually from sexual exploitation, this claim is a thin facade. The lie that our culture tells us is that pornographic fantasies – whether visual pornography or descriptive novels – don’t hurt anyone, not even ourselves.
The commandments tell us “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” We don’t simply covet with our eyes, but also with our minds and emotions. As a wife, I certainly would not be comfortable with my husband spending hours fantasizing about another woman. At our wedding, we vowed fidelity and that includes faithfulness in our hearts and our thoughts.
The fact that 65 million people (mostly women) bought Fifty Shades of Grey sadly means that there are a lot of people escaping from reality into fantasy. And this fantasy isn’t simply a “Gone with the Wind” romance. This book is full of unnatural sexual practice and desires (such as physical beatings) that clearly degrade the human person. The idea that this is a popular book club choice indicates that our standards as a culture for true love have severely diminished.
Too many shrug this sort of indulgence off as light entertainment. Perhaps we don’t read such books or go to watch such movies ourselves, but we certainly don’t speak up when others bring up their favorite books and films in conversation.
By indulging in such media or even by lacking the courage to admit to others that we believe that it is degrading and harmful, we are cheapening the love for which we were designed. In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict writes, “there is a certain relationship between love and the Divine: love promises infinity, eternity—a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday existence” (no. 5). The Pope argues that when heady Eros (such as that found through sexual fantasies) is not disciplined towards a greater love, it degrades the human person.
Man is most fully himself, the Holy Father explains, when he is united in body and soul. It is not true, as some claim, that Catholics are against sex or the human body. Rather, it is when sex and bodily pleasures are divorced from who we are as sons and daughters of God that Eros becomes negative. “Eros, reduced to pure ‘sex’, has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great ‘yes’ to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will” (no. 5). Sadly, each of us can look around us and identify results of this mentality – the hook-up culture at colleges, men and women more focused on “sexual satisfaction” than living out their marriage vocation, and the disregard for human life that results from these sexual encounters are just a few examples of the destruction caused by distorting the true purpose for our sexuality.
All of us are called to glorify the Lord in our souls and through our body. If we are married, that means through faithful, free, total and fruitful love with our spouse. If we are single or consecrated than that is through celibacy and dedicating our chastity to the Lord. St. Paul tells us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, that we have been “purchased at a price” – that is, by the death of Christ who redeemed us, body and soul (1 Cor 6:19-20).
Even if reading trashy romance novels hasn’t (yet) led to immoral behavior, it most certainly qualifies for all of us as indulging in impure thoughts. If the idea of your mother, your pastor or your children seeing what you are reading would make you blush, perhaps it’s time to rethink your book choices. There is so much beauty in the world – in our relationships, in art, in literature – why poison your mind and your thoughts about sex with images that will be hard to erase?
At a papal audience, Blessed Pope John Paul II said that “The ‘heart’ has become a battlefield between love and lust.” If we truly wish to live out our vocations of being a gift to a spouse (or to the Church through religious life), then we must strive to conquer lust in our own lives, beginning with our minds and hearts. Guarding one’s thoughts and the concupiscence of our eyes is most certainly a struggle, but one worth fighting. By refusing to indulge in explicit romance novels, movies or television shows, we are making a conscientious choice to desire true love and intimacy over any fleeting sensation of lustful satisfaction.