When Fifty Shades of Grey came out in 2011 it seemed to do what a lot of erotica prior had been unable to; it swept erotica as a genre out from under the carpets and from behind furniture and dragged it into the open. As it became a runaway success it became clear that women around the world were embracing erotica in a way that hadn’t been seen before. Women from all walks of life were reading erotica in the open and becoming more interested in the genre.
No matter what my personal issues with Fifty Shades of Grey are (and believe me, I have several), I appreciated this about the book: it was no longer taboo for women to discuss the fact that they — surprise, surprise — have sexual thoughts, crave sexual attention from a thoughtful lover, and like to indulge in some fantasies of their own. When I was in high school the done thing seemed to be to wrap Mills & Boon books (remember those?) in brown paper and read them in public, but now I see women of all ages poring over Fifty Shades of Grey and the like openly. The sexual revolution, it appears, has begun, and it is mainstream, and I’m all for it.
What I don’t understand though is why it should particularly come as a surprise to know that women — no matter what their faiths or religious identities — are reading porn. That’s the entire basis for the book entitled Pulling Back The Shades: Erotica, Intimacy, and the Longings of a Woman’s Heart by Dannah Gresh and Juli Slattery. They decided to write this book based on a Christian perspective for Christian women because they ‘couldn’t believe’ that they were reading a book like Fifty Shades. Christians believe that under god things are black and white, with no room for ‘shades of grey’.
A lot of those shades of grey are applied to sex, whether it be their own or someone else’s, or an indulgence in erotica, porn, or even someone’s sexuality and sexual preferences. So the only thing that’s clear here is that there seems to be no clear consensus on how god wants people to behave in the bedroom.
Don’t get me wrong; there is room for a book like this in the world. It is important for women — no matter their religion — to not feel guilty about their own sexual needs and fantasies. We all have them. They are important and healthy. But this book feels entirely too forced.
While it does make some important points about how so much of our sex lives are based on our personal preferences, they then seem to go out of their way to point out that they are against erotica, and they don’t think Christian women should read it. They seem to be against the voyeuristic aspect of erotica, pointing out that it’s somehow ‘wrong’ to get excited about descriptions of sex between two individuals we happen to be observing through the pages of the book. But once again they contradict themselves by mentioning the ‘steamy scenes’ that are present in the Song of Solomon, and by talking about their own sexual escapades with their husbands. I simply fail to see the point.
The book also feels rushed and it is too littered with their own personal opinions to actually be helpful. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and that is certainly the case with this book. While some authors cooperate to produce a well-written piece this one seems to pit the styles of Gresh and Slattery against each other. The emphasis on purity and the need to disassociate themselves from erotica (while trying to write a book that seeks to understand why Christian women read erotica) seems to miss the point entirely. There is a lack of compassion for our fallible humanity, and a lack of empathy.
Their voices are condescending and judgemental, and I found myself getting more and more irritated and talked down to as I kept reading. Referring to erotica as a problem and treating it as such does nothing to normalise our own sexualities and — in my opinion — is remarkably unhealthy. I rate this one star out of five (and if I could give it half a star, I would).
(The columnist loves to write about food, travel, and feminism in a little cottage by the sea in Chennai)
Awanthi Vardaraj @AwanthiVardaraj