Fifty Shades of Reality

October 2nd, 2012

My friend Natalie was the first to alert me to the existence of the Fifty Shades of Grey fiction trilogy by E L James. Through a brief email she asked, “Have you seen this? It’s about BDSM—bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism!” I didn’t think much of it, until I started hearing more and more talk about it on television.

I saw an interview on our local news with a married couple. The wife was saying how she and her husband were reading the book together to create some steam in their sex life. He sat beside her nodding slightly, grinning from ear to ear, hand on her thigh. I thought, Hey, that’s great! I’m all about a married couple fueling their sexual energies for one another! Woohoo! Maybe we’ll read it too!

But as the media droned on about it, I noticed the interviews becoming slightly more hostile. Many folks were looking at the books through a completely different lens. “They’re pornography . . . smut . . . trash!” many declared. I recognized those as fighting words and wondered what all of the hubbub was about.

When someone sent me a link to Saturday Night Live’s “digital short” spoof about Fifty Shades of Grey, my radar lit up. It aired around Mother’s Day, featuring well-meaning husbands and children bringing gifts to mom, only to discover her reading the book and masturbating in bed . . . in the bathtub . . . against the washing machine. Hmmm, I thought. Obviously not all women are using the book to fuel their marriage bed. Some must be lighting their own fires and hiding the smoke signals from their husbands.

I set a Google alert and began reading what others were saying about the series. Some insisted that reading the book was harmless. “Readers know the difference between truth and fiction!” was a common mantra from advocates. However, adversaries insisted, “If society believes this is what women want, we’re in danger!” My red flag waved wildly when yet another Google alert revealed that sales of whips, chains, and other BDSM-related paraphernalia were on a drastic uphill climb . . . thanks to the Fifty Shades trilogy.

Soon the series had sold 10 million copies within six weeks, and a friend told me there was a waiting list of over four hundred people for the book at her local library. As I read blog post after blog post—some proclaiming the pros of the story; others crying out about the cons—I realized a culture war wasn’t just brewing, it was already raging! And when I heard that a European hotel had replaced their Gideon’s Bibles with Fifty Shades of Grey in all of their hotel rooms, I could only deduce that this isn’t just a cultural war. It’s a full-blown spiritual battle.

Although I didn’t see the Fifty Shades onslaught coming, no doubt God did. And I think He let me feel the ground rumbling. For three years I’d been saying, “Someday I want to write about sexual fantasy!” And through all of the media madness and literary-critic chaos, I realized that the time for the book wasn’t someday. It was now! Fortunately, I’d already read so many books, combed the professional research, conducted tons of interviews, and done lots of praying and soul searching about where I stood on the matter of sexual fantasy.

Other than actually developing the manuscript, I knew I had one more bridge to cross. I had to actually read the Fifty Shades series. I couldn’t write a “Christian response” to something I’d never read. My husband bought it for me, and we prayed that God would give me eyes to see it through His lens.

I confess I secretly hoped that it would throw gas on my already steady sexual fire for my husband, Greg. The verdict? It didn’t affect me like I thought I would. I needed Greg to hold me, but not in response to sexual arousal on my part. I needed him to hold me while I wept. My heart absolutely broke for the naive twenty-one-year old girl in the story who, after knowing him less than one week, gives her virginity away to a man who wants her to sign a “domination/submission” contract that will allow him to ritualistically beat her anytime he wants in the name of sexual pleasure.

The theme that runs through the book is chilling: “Wow, this older, incredibly handsome, filthy rich guy wants me! That must mean I’m something special!” and “Sure, he’s sick and twisted, but my love will change him!” It actually reminded me of a girl I used to know. I still see her reflection in the mirror every morning. I’m just thankful that she looks at herself, her relationships, and sex very differently now. And I pray every day that my own twenty-year old daughter will never experience anything remotely similar to what I did.

Whether you’ve read Fifty Shades of Grey or not is entirely beside the point, because we’ve got a lot of foundational work to lay exploring the broader topic of sexual fantasies in general. If you did read Fifty Shades of Grey, whether you were fascinated with it or freaked out by it, I want to help you “chew up the meat and spit out the bones” when it comes to sexual fantasies. And I’m praying the same prayer over you that I’ve prayed over myself—that God would give you eyes to view all things sexual through His lens, and no one else’s.

It’s easy to assume that fantasies must be a road map to future fulfillment. If ________ is what I think about, dream about, fantasize about, well, it must be what I want! If it feels that good in the fantasy, I can only imagine how good it’s going to feel in reality!

Yet, many have learned (some the hard way) that most fantasies are better left as fantasy—not reality! In fact, some of the fantasizing we do is merely to medicate the emotional pain we’ve caused ourselves by acting out on previous fantasies! What a vicious cycle! As they say in the recovery movement, “The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over, expecting different results this time!”

This reminds me of a Richard Torregrossa cartoon that I saw in Robin Norwood’s book Daily Meditations for Women Who Love Too Much. In the cartoon, a woman is on her hands and knees on the sidewalk underneath a street light at night. A police officer approaches and asks, “What are you looking for?”

“My keys,” the woman replies.

“Is this where you lost them?” the officer insightfully inquires.

The woman responds, “No, but it’s the only place I can see to look.”

Sometimes we think our sexual fantasies are the only place we can find the fulfillment we crave because it’s the only place we can see to look, but sexual fantasy is not an accurate road map for discovering what we want in the present or future. It is, however, an excellent road map into the past!

Why would we want to go there? So that we can recognize and heal the unresolved pain that often drives us to do some pretty stupid things. Only then can we fully integrate our sexual fantasies and our Christian faith to become the women, men, wives, husbands, moms, and dads God created us to be.

This article is excerpted from: The Fantasy Fallacy: Exposing the Deeper Meaning behind Sexual Thoughts by Shannon Ethridge Copyright©2012 by Thomas Nelson, a response to the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. More resources on this topic are available at

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