“Fifty Shades…” and the Sexual Objectification of Women

An interview with Catholic talk show host and author, Teresa Tomeo, about the disturbing "Fifty Shades of Grey" phenomenon

Teresa Tomeo (www.TeresaTomeo.com) is a syndicated Catholic talk show host and a motivational speaker with thirty years of broadcasting experience in both the secular and Christian media. She is also the author of several books, including Noise: How Our Media-Saturated Culture Dominates Lives and Dismantles Families, Newsflash: My Surprising Journey from Secular Anchor to Media Evangelist, and Extreme Makeover: Women Transformed by Christ, Not Conformed to the Culture. Her daily morning program, Catholic Connection, is produced by Ave Maria Radio and syndicated through the EWTN Global Catholic Radio Network.Teresa Tomeo (Photo: www.teresatomeo.com)
In August 2012, Tomeo wrote a CWR article, “Grey is the Devil’s Favorite Color”, about the dangerous and degrading appeal of the Fifty Shades of Grey novels. The three best-selling books by E. L. James have now been published in 52 languages and have sold over 100 million copies worldwide. A major motion picture based on the first novel opens this weekend.

Tomeo recently spoke with CWR about the books and movie, why they are appealing, and why that appeal is so troublesome.

CWR: Why are so many woman attracted to the Fifty Shades of Grey novels, movie, and overall story? What are they looking for? 

Tomeo: As a woman I have asked myself the same question: “What are they looking for?” I keep going back to the refrain in a popular 1980’s country tune: women are looking for love in all the wrong places. There is a desire there, a natural desire to have a strong man lead.  But because we have lost a sense of who we are—male and female made in God’s image—we have confused sex with love, and now to the extreme of violent sex.

The good news in all of this is that the Church has the answers. We just need to be able to articulate them in a way the secular world can understand. That is why I always try to show evidence from non-religious sources; evidence that supports what we know to be true according to natural law. 

CWR: Many defend or dismiss the degrading, even violent, practices depicted in the books and upcoming movie as simply “fun” between “consenting adults”. How do you respond to that sort of statement?

Tomeo: Those trying to justify this type of violence and sexual objectification of women throw the word “consent” around way too easily. How quickly they forget that just because someone may “consent” to something doesn’t mean they are comfortable with their decision. As a matter of fact, in studies related to the Fifty Shades of Grey books, researchers have outlined how patterns of intimate partner violence and stalking are a big part of the relationship between the main characters, Ana and Christian. It is a pattern that is typical in abusive relationships. That is why so many women’s shelters are boycotting the film.

Women often “consent” because they may be in danger, they may be trying to protect their children, or they may already be so emotionally damaged that they feel must “consent” to survive. I just recently interviewed a woman who speaks out against sex trafficking. She submitted, or “consented”, for years to her abusers because the abusers threatened her life and the life of her family repeatedly.

And what about all the women who supposedly “consent” to abortion? Studies now show women “consent” not because they feel it is their “choice” but because they feel as if they have no choice at all. How many times have we seen this is in hostage situations where the hostages oftentimes eventually consent or side with their captors?

Treating this as “fun” between “consenting adults” is making light of a very serious problem.

CWR: Studies show that men view pornography far more than women, but they also indicate that growing numbers of women are using pornography, or “erotica”. Is this simply about sex, or is there something deeper going on?

Tomeo: It goes back to our deep desire to be loved. We as Catholics know, as St. Augustine stated at the opening of his Confessions, that “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” No amount of sexual gratification is going to fill the deepest longings of our hearts. Only God can do that.

In our over-sexualized society, however, we are told every time we turn around that it’s all about sex.  People keep pushing the envelope expecting the next thrill to satisfy. But it doesn’t. Again, that is why we need to use this as an opportunity to evangelize.

CWR: What are some ways that Catholics can not only respond to the Fifty Shades of Grey fad, but to the underlying problems and challenges?

Tomeo: First of all we need to educate ourselves. What does the Church say about pornography and why? The comments made in the Catechism of the Catholic Church are a good place to start:

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials. (CCC, par 2354)

Then we need to see just how serious the problem of porn and, in particular, violent porn is. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has one of the best sites out there regarding this issue and specifically the Fifty Shades of Grey film and books.  Catholic apologist Matt Fradd’s site, “The Porn Effect”, is another great resource; it includes a number of pieces about this specific topic, including “50 Things You Should Know About Fifty Shades of Grey”. Also, read the beautiful pastoral letter, “Bought With a Price”, written by Bishop Paul S. Loverde of Arlington, Virginia.

Parents also need to get serious about their own media habits and the media habits of their children. It amazes me how many parents, given the state of our culture today, have no idea what their children are doing on-line. If parents think their kids are going to know about Fifty Shades of Grey then they are simply fooling themselves. I have already had several listeners tell me their teens—especially teen girls—are coming home from school saying how they can’t wait to see the movie.Parents—all of us, really—need to use this as a teachable moment, for ourselves and our families. We should be able to lovingly challenge those claiming this is no big deal. We should be willing to boycott the film and support wholesome entertainment such as the movie “Old Fashioned” also coming out this weekend. 

Most importantly, we need to be Christ to those who are searching for true meaning and authentic love. 

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