Primed to accept brutality as normal in romantic relationships
It’s not enough that classic works of literature like Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights are to be given a 50 Shades of Grey makeover (read how Catherine Earnshaw enjoys bondage sessions with Heathcliff!). Or that there are 50 Shades of Grey mother and daughter cooking classes (whip up ’Playroom Pretzel Ropes’ and ‘Bondage Wrapped Shrimp’ with mum!) Or ‘My mummy pretends Christian Grey is my daddy’ slogans on baby jumpsuits complete with charming handcuff motifs.
The ‘50 Shades’ juggernaut rolls on, consuming everything in its wake. Now the latest market is teens who are being targeted with spin-offs from the phenomenon.
We know 13 and 14-year-olds are already reading this ode to sadism, receiving an early lesson in submission 101.
In the multi-million dollar best seller, Anastasia Steele has to sign a contract agreeing to do whatever her lover Christian Grey wants. She must be available on call.
One of the terms is: ‘The submissive shall submit to any sexual activity without hesitation or argument’. This is presented as true love rather than as a powerful man controlling a naïve young woman having her first sexual experience.
Anastasia feels “demeaned, debased, and abused.” But Grey is wealthy and showers her with gifts. Isn’t that so romantic? Cruelty is OK, as long as there is a happy ending.
Now teens are being sold their own versions, promoted as’ erotic fiction’ helping them ‘explore their sexuality’. But what is it that is being eroticised?
One of the most new popular titles for young people is Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire. Here’s an extract about the reaction of main character Travis after Abby sleeps with him and leaves without saying goodbye:
“Travis is a fucking wreck! He won’t talk to us, he’s trashed the apartment, threw the stereo across the room… He took a swing at Shep [roommate] when he found out we helped you leave. Abby! It’s scaring me! … he’s gone fucking nuts! I heard him call your name, and then he stomped all over the apartment looking for you. …he tried to call you. Over, and over and over…His face was… I’ve never seen him like that. He ripped his sheets off the bed, and threw them away, threw his pillows away, shattered his mirror with his fist, kicked his door… broke it from the hinges! It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life!”
Ah, young love. Travis, unhinged, goes around destroying things when he can’t get his way. He tries to blackmail Abby and limit her freedom. Obsession and jealousy are misread as love.
One young reader wrote on the Goodreadings site “I felt like Abby was in danger throughout the entire novel…anyone as needy as Travis is dangerous, in my opinion, especially when alcohol is in the mix”. Smart girl.
We are seeing a trend toward the acceptance of brutality as normal in romantic relationships. I heard a 15-year-old boy say he slaps girls and pulls their hair during sex because he read they liked it. Some girls expect to receive bruises from sex. Why say it with flowers when you can show it with beatings?
The view that ‘erotic’ fiction is an alternative to kids visiting porn sites has not been demonstrated. Even if they read one or two books, the bombardment of sexual imagery and porn online will barely be dented. Average age of first exposure to online porn is 11.
Age social affairs writer Michelle Griffin has argued that kids should be reading porn-themed books, recommending ‘House of Holes’ for the school library and family bookshelf. This is the book described by The Guardian as a “porn fest.”
There is a difference between literature which help teenage girls interpret their natural curiosity in sex and their bodies and literature which seeks to shape or exploit it.
Melbourne mother Helen Parkes wrote to me: “There are 12 & 13 year olds in my daughter’s class reading 50 shades and other ‘steamys’… I don’t think these are positive in any way even as a tool to ‘begin dialogue’. I want my daughter and her friends to spend a few years participating in school plays and sports instead of grooming themselves for men before they even know who they are and what they enjoy”.
Girls and young women describe cold, soul-less sexual experiences in which they are expected to be service stations for boys, pressured to ‘put out’, with no concern for their emotional wellbeing.
Will these so-called erotic novels help develop respect-based relationships? Real connection and intimacy? I doubt it. Yet that’s what girls say they want. In this months’ Girlfriend, the magazine’s sex survey shows 76% of readers are not sexually active – 56% say it’s because they are waiting for real love.
Reading material that portrays sex as a part of caring, complex, human relationships is a way of promoting healthy physical and psychological development. We should be equipping and empowering young people to make positive choices about their sexual lives rather than training them in domination and submission.
Perhaps it’s time for some explicit content on love and authentic human connection?