There is nothing new, unique, or even creative about Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s just the latest installment of pop culture messages that teach girls and young women that truly hot and irresistible love includes some element of violence and danger.
These messages start when you’re little with Beauty and the Beast. As a girl, you learn to be nice and patient with an abusive partner, and as long as you remain so, he will change his behavior and transform into a Prince. It doesn’t matter that he’s throwing things at you, locking you up in a room, not letting you eat without him, not letting you get to your father…he will change…you just need to tame him. But Beauty and the Beast isn’t real….
When you get a little older, these messages continue with the Twilight series. You see Bella fall for a vampire with a basic instinct to kill her. You learn to put up with stalking and harassing as you try to prevent him from killing you. To do so, just leave your friends, family, and identity behind to become just like him (a vampire). Bella and Edward teach you not to get too close, because that would end in death. In fact, when they eventually do have sex, he almost does kill her! Let’s get real. Bella displays 3 classic traits of a victim in an abusive relationship: She has intense low self-esteem; She loves the bad-boy (she only starts to have feelings for nice-guy Jacob when he turns into a werewolf); and she’s thrilled by the violent and dangerous acts of Edward (they aren’t red flags to her at all). Edward displays 4 hallmark traits of an abuser: He warns her away from him, only to increase her desire; He is possessive and tries to isolate her from her family and friends, he even incapacitates her car so she can’t get away; He stalks her constantly and when he can’t, he uses his vampire superpower to stalk her through others’ thoughts; and he has an intense temper but it’s not his fault because he’s a vampire. But Twilight isn’t real….
Now that you’re an adult, the messages are solidified with Fifty Shades of Grey. Emotionally intimate and tantric sex? Nah…who wants that? Let’s just keep getting abused. Some more stalking, some threats, get tied up for a day (literally)…You’re now a sex slave who hasn’t consented to it, but you love it, right? Christian Grey also happens to show classic abuser signs: he warns Anastasia away by telling her he’s not good for her, he stalks her by deliberately tracing her mobile phone to find out where she is, and he attempts to control and isolate her by having her sign a non-disclosure agreement (so that she can’t discuss what goes on in their sexual relationship). Super healthy! Then to top it all off, he actually rapes her: “‘No,’ I protest, kicking him off.” Christian replies, “If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet, too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you. Keep quiet. Katherine is probably outside listening, right now.” You learn that it is not really rape if you like it and as E.L. James writes, Anastasia does feel pleasure while she’s being raped. That message isn’t confusing at all when we are trying to combat college campus sexual assault on a national level. But Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t real….
So what? If these stories aren’t real and have no influence on our cultural representation of romance, why are they the same story? Cultivation Theory tells us we construct our ideas of reality through the images and messages around us, whether we are conscious of it or not (1). The popularity of these stories alone displays how much validity girls have given to these characters as representations of true love and it really makes it clear how the problems with sexual and romantic violence in our culture get covered up in ways that we don’t even notice.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a hot, intense, romantic love story as much as anyone….but Fifty Shades of Grey is not it. There are many movies that are truly hotter. More importantly, we rarely get the message that you can have hot and satisfying sex without experiencing pain or humiliation. In fact, both men and women report being more sexually satisfied during sex with someone they love and trust (2).
It is important to note that a common fantasy women report is wanting to be dominated sexually (3). HOWEVER, domination is wanted when it is consensually agreed upon and does not occur outside of the bedroom. This type of domination is sometimes referred to as ‘light bondage’. For example, wanting your partner to tell you what sexual acts to do, wanting a blindfold, or wanting your hands tied. This type of domination fantasy doesn’t come from a desire to be hurt or humiliated, but stems from a desire to let go. If someone you trust is in control, you get to experience sexual pleasure without the pressure of having to ask for what you want. It is rarer that the domination fantasy extends to physical pain or emotional insults, or acts that can be considered BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Sadism and Masochism). Even so, true practitioners of consensual BDSM do something called preparing and repairing. Meaning, they lovingly spend time together before the sex act, usually connecting emotionally on some level and will discuss the types of play they want to do. After the sex act, they cuddle and connect while talking about what worked and didn’t work. Fifty Shades is not a depiction of consensual domination fantasy or consensual BDSM.
Fifty Shades is less of an erotic love story and more of a stalker’s handbook. Please take some time to think about the girls and women who endure these types of relationships. One in 3 women have experienced relationship violence in America, a rate which has reached epidemic proportions (4). There is no happily ever after for women in these relationships. I would encourage you to get to get involved with V-Day, check out Love Is Respect, and celebrate Teen Dating Violence awareness month to help eradicate violence toward women instead of romanticizing violence toward women.
(1) Potter, W. J. (1993). Cultivation theory and research. Human Communication Research, 19(4), 564-601.
(2) Herbenick, D. (2014). Sex, love, intimacy, and orgasm: Integrating sex ed and new findings from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. Oral presentation at the National Sex Ed Conference. East Rutherford, NJ.
(3) Joyal, C. C., Cossette, A., & Lapierre, V. (2014). What Exactly Is an Unusual Sexual Fantasy?. The Journal of Sexual Medicine. Advanced online publication.
(4) Alhabib, S., Nur, U., & Jones, R. (2010). Domestic violence against women: Systematic review of prevalence studies. Journal of Family Violence, 25(4), 369-382.
Photo Source: Dollar Photo Club
At this stage of my life and my career, I’m getting a lot of questions from friends and colleagues about touching “down there” as a lot of us have toddlers, yet I’m usually the only sex educator people know. Here are some common concerns I’ve been getting lately:
“Fred loves to pull on his penis ALL the time. Is this normal?”
“Jocelyn wants to play with her baby brother’s penis in the bath. What should I do?”
“Jackson has started putting his finger in his anus. His anus! This can’t be good.”
“Leah wants to pull on my nipples and then hers and then mine. Ummm….help?”
“Hannah pulls on her labia every time she uses the potty. This has to be gross, right?”
“Gia puts her hands down her pants sometimes, and my mother said I should tuck her shirt in or make her wear overalls to keep her from doing it.”
The short answer to all of these fears, is: “Relax, your kids are completely normal!”
Why do young kids touch their genitals?
Young children love exploring the human body, whether it be their own or their mom’s or siblings', etc. Babies start out touching eyes and noses and move on to other parts as they discover them. And you know what that means? Genitals are no different. So if your toddler is feeling her vulva during a diaper change or stretching his penis in the bathtub, it is all about figuring out what those parts do.
Up until recently, parents and even the medical community did not recognize genital exploration among infants and young children as masturbation, it was treated as a disorder and lots of money was wasted on very expensive tests and treatment (1, 2). Don’t worry, genital exploration among young kids isn't sexual per se. There are just millions of nerve endings that make genitals more sensitive than other body parts (3). During infancy, toddlerhood and early childhood, genital arousal is recognized by the brain as comfort by releasing endorphins (3). It’s not triggering the sexual response cycle. However, at some point during childhood and certainly during puberty, genital arousal does trigger the sexual response cycle to prepare the body for orgasm. In short, if sexual abuse is not in the picture, you don’t need to worry about your child being ‘too sexual too soon’ because they are exploring their bodies. If you do suspect sexual abuse, click here for resources. If not, just know that your child is perfectly normal and here’s what you can do to respond to the curiosity:
What to do about it?
(1) Finkelstein, E., Amichai, B., Jaworowski, S., & Mukamel, M. (1996). Masturbation in prepubescent children: A case report and review of the literature. Child: care, health and development, 22(5), 323-326.
(2) Yang, M. L., Fullwood, E., Goldstein, J., & Mink, J. W. (2005). Masturbation in infancy and early childhood presenting as a movement disorder: 12 cases and a review of the literature. Pediatrics, 116(6), 1427-1432.
(3) Beier, K. M., & Loewit, K. K. (2013). Basic Understanding of Human Sexuality. In Sexual Medicine in Clinical Practice (pp. 9-17). Springer New York.
(4) M. Adams, Donald W. Robinson, K. (2001). Shame reduction, affect regulation, and sexual boundary development: Essential building blocks of sexual addiction treatment. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 8(1), 23-44.
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I’ve been thinking a lot about the word ‘girl’ lately. Especially since I saw a new marketing campaign for an engineering toy for girls, Goldiblox, go viral. I thought the advertisement was cleaver and fun to watch. What got me thinking, was the disappointment and concern over Goldiblox being too “girly”, “girlified”, or “girlish”. The fear seems to be that Goldiblox will reinforce gender stereotypes. I do not have this fear. The only thing Goldiblox has done is add much-needed variety to toys that are marketed to girls. Since the 80s, girls have mostly been marketed princess and pink. The backlash to the “pinkification” of girls’ toys has come mostly in the form of mothers encouraging their daughters to abandon the “girly-girl” and get “tough” through sports and “smart” through engineering and math. Consequently, the message became girls who like princesses or pink can’t be tough or smart. That being “girly” is not being tough or smart. Therefore, girls aren’t
tough or smart.
“He is such a girl!” “Don’t be such a girl.” “You are acting like a little girl.” These are all phrases that have come out of my mouth. There is so much cultural distain for being a girl, that no one is immune to it.
Tony Porter, an advocate for fighting violence against girls and women, has a TED talk where he describes the process of socializing boys to be violent, emotionless and to devalue girls and women. He also describes a moment where he asked a boy what it would feel like if his coach said he played ‘like a girl’ and the boy responded, “It would destroy me.”:
“If it would destroy [a 12-year-old boy] to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?”
Taken one step further, if ‘girl’ is the worst thing a boy could be called, what does that teach girls about themselves?
Currently, we are in a sociocultural stage where it is mostly OK for girls to be like boys and women to be like men. Which is an improvement, but without it being OK for boys to be like girls or men to be like women, masculinity is validated as the norm and femininity as something wrong or lesser-than. True gender equality would be where it is OK for girls to be like boys, boys to be like girls, girls to be like girls, boys to be like boys, women to be like men, men to be like women, women to be like women and men to be like men.
In the midst of the Goldiblox excitement and panic, I imagine what the reaction would be if there were currently a baby doll being marketed to boys, and the marketing message was, “Be an Army Dad” or a “Superhero Dad”. I doubt there would be the same panic over gender stereotypes being reinforced because we would be making a feminine toy, more masculine (better). Goldiblox has taken a masculine toy and made it more feminine (worse).
The most common solution to the gendered toy dilemma is to create more ‘gender neutral toys’. I really like gender neutrality in most things, especially in toys and clothes for children, and I think we need more of it. However, I am also not fooled that gender neutrality is the ultimate form of gender equality. Gender neutrality is the absence of gender not the tolerance of gender. True gender equality would be the equal representation of the feminine and masculine in products, roles, occupations, media, etc. for all genders.
Gender is a spectrum. Individuals identify with feminine and masculine qualities regardless of their biological sex (male/female). Therefore, we need to value all places on the gender spectrum and allow anyone to express whatever part of the spectrum they identify with. That means, if you are a boy who loves fire-fighting and superheroes, that should be OK. If you are a boy who loves flowers and baby dolls, that should be OK. If you are a girl who loves princesses and pink, that should be OK. If you are a girl who loves transformers and aliens, that should be OK.
For toys, more gender equality would look like more variety: feminine blocks, masculine blocks, neutral blocks, feminine dolls, masculine dolls, neutral dolls. Not simply toys with no gendered characteristics at all. The problem with looking at gender dichotomously or representing no gender at all, is that you miss the variety within gender. Girly girls, tomboys, tough boys, sensitive boys. Gender is a spectrum and by only appreciating gender neutrality, both genders become devalued.
It seems like we are in a state of hating on femininity because it is weak or lesser-than masculinity. This is not empowering for anyone. Eve Ensler, creator of the Vagina Monologues and founder of V-Day, describes our gender socialization process in one of her TED talks. She argues that there is a ‘girl’ in all of us. We all have girl-like qualities: emotion, empathy, passion, vulnerability, etc. And these qualities are key to the repair and growth of human kind. Yet, we socialize the ‘girl’ out of all of us. We teach our men not to be girls, our boys not to be girls, and our women not to be girls.
“Being a girl is so powerful, we’ve had to train everyone not to be that.”
Lately, it seems like we are even trying to socialize our girls not to be girls. However, Brene Brown, has been conducting powerful research on vulnerability (a primary girl-like quality) and how it transforms shame and consequently people’s lives because vulnerability is the ultimate expression of strength. Her work highlights how we shame children through parenting, education, and culture. This shame sticks with us into adulthood, creating a harsh exterior in all of us, and blocks us from living out our potential. But when we practice vulnerability, the shame starts to crumble and we access much needed strength and clarity to be the whole-hearted people we need to be to change the world.
In other girl-greatness news, organizations, scholars, and world leaders are recognizing that the world can be changed dramatically, especially in underdeveloped regions, if we empower and educate girls because a girl is more likely to contribute to the economic growth of her community while taking care of her family simultaneously. This understanding is epitomized in the story of Malala, an education activist from Pakistan. She was shot down by the Taliban at the age of 11 after coming home from school. Her girl-power is so monumental, that the Taliban is terrified enough to take her down. Remarkably, she survived and is kicking-butt changing the world. Recognition of the power of girls has spurred International Girls Day, an entire day dedicated to the power of girls.
Perhaps being more like a ‘girl’ for all people of all genders and ages could be exactly what the world needs. So let’s not be so down on ‘girl’ and start to embrace ‘girl’ and cultivate ‘girl’ in all of us.
Photo Source: Dollar Photo Club
About this Blog:
I'm here to help us discuss sexuality, gender, sexual media, and social media by integrating information from academic and mainstream sources. I do this so you can be informed about what is going on in the sex research world and apply the research to your life. I hope this process produces more sexually competent people who raise sexually competent kids.
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