On 15 September 2014, the following was emailed to over 1400 Unitarian Universalist ministers and religious educators across the United States and Canada …
On the 14th of February 2015, Universal Pictures will release the motion picture “Fifty Shades of Grey” based on the bestselling novel by E. L. James. Even now, the trailer has garnered much attention online and in mainstream media. As BDSM educator Tristan Taormino has commented: “Even with its flaws, Fifty Shades of Grey has become a worldwide phenomenon that simply cannot be ignored.”
Leather & Grace believes it is important for Unitarian Universalist ministers and religious educators to be informed and engaged on this matter. Already the book has significantly affected public discourse around sexuality and relationships, and the movie is likely to continue evoking strong and wide-ranging feelings in people, including those within our congregations. It is vital that the leaders of our faith movement draw upon the principles and values which guide us to speak the truth in love about “Fifty Shades”.
Story versus reality
Novels and films in many ways reflect their creators’ perceptions of culture and society. As such, they are not immune from conveying stereotypes and misrepresentations of marginalized people, or even of our heroes and role models. “Gone with the Wind” is a classic example of how race and female sexuality were distorted in the course of its narrative.
Likewise, both kinksters and sexologists have commented on how the novel “Fifty Shades” is rife with inaccuracies and misconceptions about BDSM and kink-oriented people. Christian Grey is portrayed as being abused and emotionally damaged, a common stereotype of kink-oriented people which recent psychological research has shown to be without foundation. There is also little negotiation or discussion between Christian and Anastasia Steele, and he even presents a full-blown “contract” early in the relationship, in which he demands extreme control over various aspects of her life; this conflicts with the ethos of the BDSM/kink/fetish community, where mutual negotiation and consent are considered paramount.
While it remains to be seen how closely the film will adhere to the novel, L&G joins the wider BDSM/kink/fetish community in stressing that both of these works are fictional portrayals, not factual representations of our reality.
How should UUs respond?
Nevertheless, the film is likely to have as profound a social and cultural impact as the book, if not greater. Some have posited that it may “mainstream” or “normalize” BDSM and kink. While this remains to be seen, the precedent of the novel shows that it is very likely to stimulate in some an interest in exploring alternative sexual expression. On the other hand, it will – indeed, already has – provoked sweeping and negative reactions from more conservative elements, such as Morality in Media.
Unitarian Universalists have a range of options for dealing with the impact of “Fifty Shades” in terms of pastoral care, religious education, and social witness. As members of both the UU faith community, and the BDSM/kink/fetish community, Leather & Grace would recommend an approach of compassionate discernment in line with the values and principles we share in covenant. Specifically:
- A full understanding of the impact of this film requires a basic knowledge of the ethics and subculture surrounding BDSM/kink/fetish sexuality; L&G stands prepared to assist UU ministers, religious educators and leaders by providing such information.
- Pastorally, ministers and lay counselors are likely to encounter individuals who feel drawn to BDSM and kink imagery and fantasy narratives; such an experience may resemble that of those who had lived as heterosexuals, only to experience attractions to people of the same gender later in life. L&G recommends that those providing pastoral care to individuals with a possible kink orientation provide careful and nonjudgmental guidance.
- Some UU congregations may observe or even be approached by those who would pressure cinemas to withdraw the film, or otherwise vilify members of the kink community; L&G reminds other UUs of our faith movement’s long commitment to freedom of expression for diverse points of view, our shared principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and our covenant to engage in a free and responsible search for meaning and truth; we call upon our fellow UUs to resist efforts to harass or intimidate any person, group or business over this film or any discussion of BDSM/kink/fetish sexuality and identity.
We are aware that we are asking much of our fellow Unitarian Universalists. It is precisely because of this that we have begun this appeal so far in advance before the release of this film. Understanding takes time, and we encourage you to make the best of the time now available to approach the issues discussed here in a manner consistent with the values of our progressive faith.
Please do not hesitate to check out our website (https://leatherandgrace.wordpress.com) for information and other resources, or to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org with specific questions and concerns.