Fifty Shades of Grey and Jihad. Any similarity? Of course not. One is a phenomenally successful, poorly written, vaguely pornographic novel that follows the tried and true formula of romance novels: powerful, gorgeous, got-it-all man falls for shy, immature, hiddenly attractive, and mildly spunky woman. He dominates her; she reforms him. They (and their assorted whips and handcuffs) live happily ever after.
The second is the horror of ISIS beheading and burning and slaughtering innocent victims; a range of killings from Paris to Denmark to Montreal. People possessed by an insane lust for violence in the service of a literal and infinitely intolerant interpretation of a monotheistic text and tradition. Women as chattel or worse.
The first is just a little harmless, or not so harmless, sexist titillation, of which (sadly) many women are particularly enamored (nearly seventy percent of the first weekend’s viewers were female). The second is serious business. ISIS’s crimes against civilians, women, ethnic groups, and prisoners of war have provoked military response from the U.S., Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and even Turkey.
Shades of Grey is a Hollywood movie. ISIS is a serious threat to our way of life. The film is a great money maker, slated to hit five hundred millions dollars before you know it. Jihad elicits long faces from pundits, moral hand-wringing from political leaders, hundreds of air attacks, and special resolutions from Congress.
So isn’t it the height of intellectual irresponsibility to mention them in the same breath – let along the same blog?
I don’t think so. For here is the point that screams for attention but which seems to attract far too little. Both of these are manifestations of the interconnections between masculine violence and masculine hatred of women. ISIS in particular and jihad culture (think Boko Haram’s kidnapping of schoolgirls) in general make no secret of their belief that a woman is, at best, a kind of slave; that rape and the sale of women are morally and religiously sanctioned; and that women should never possess male freedom.
Of course “we” are not like “them”. The democratic, secular, it’s all about your choice West is not the woman-hating, veil wearing East. Unlike the endlessly controlled, honor-killed, and uneducated women in Arab countries, in the Grey story the victim gets to sign a contract.
But what she learns, and what the tale wants us to learn, is how pretending to be a man’s slave and having him inflict pain are wonderful, sexually exciting, and liberating. This lesson is most definitely not, as some have argued, simply a stimulating and legitimate expansion of sexual possibilities. It is, rather, the same old tired, vicious patriarchal ideology of control and submission, domination and subordination.
As philosopher Herbert Marcuse observed decades ago, such “freedom” is better understood as “repressive tolerance” – a celebration of previously forbidden behavior that, in reality, simply reconfirms existing patterns of repression.
In the world of Jihad, in the world of Grey, what is being repressed?
First a woman’s capacity to think, act, and be an autonomous human, Grey repeats what ISIS and the style section of the Times and countless other sources of religious and secular culture make clear. Women are to be constrained by dictates of fashion and body image; by men’s sexual desires and the pronouncements of masculine authority figures; and by the ancient patriarchal hatred of women’s bodies and souls.
Second, what is being repressed is men’s awareness of how much they are motivated by unacknowledged fear, vulnerability, and need; and how they deal with these “unmasculine” emotional states with whips, date-rape drugs, college boy chants (“No means yes, yes means anal”), and splitting women into virgins, mothers, and whores. Unable to tolerate the power of sexual desire, men in patriarchy project uncontrollable sexual temptation onto women; use their felt-as-shameful need of women’s bodies and sexuality as an excuse to rape, harass, control, and degrade; and never admit how much their own sense of self depends on their control of someone else.
Suppose Grey’s heroine had suggested, with empathy and understanding for his abused past, that she wouldn’t dream of having sex with the billionaire sadist until he had a long dose of therapy; or developed a deep meditation practice so that he could learn to observe how his fear morphed into aggression; or that he spend some time volunteering at a battered women’s shelter to see the brutal reality obscured by the penthouse, the gleaming tools, the expensive leather.
Where, you ask, would the fun be in that? Perhaps not so much fun, but doesn’t that tell us something about how rape culture affects both male and female sexuality? Why are domination and violence considered “liberation” in sex when in any other aspect of life we’d respond with distaste, questioning, and criticism? Suppose you had a friend who could talk with you only if you were tied up or blindfolded? And who interspersed the occasional whipping into chats about family or work? Would you say “Ahh, an exciting way to expand our conversational possibilities?” Or would you say that this seems, not to beat around the bush, pretty sick?
Suppose the women trapped by repressive Islamic cultures armed themselves knives, studied self-defense from girlhood on, and demanded that each and every man be trained to deal with sexual desire in respectful, self-and-other honoring ways? Suppose every Islamic (and Christian, Jewish, and Hindu) cleric began today to make it clear that women can know as much about God as men. Suppose Islamic men were taught from a young age that there is no shame in sexual desire, no honor in killing those who see the world differently, and no holiness in condemning heresy.
What a crazy dream, to think that there or here freedom, equality, respect, empathy, a simple delight in our sensuality and capacity to love could be the basis of erotic connection. What a dream to think that we could stop dehumanizing women through rape or abuse, insane norms of appearance or good girl/bad girl stereotypes. Or that we could overthrow legal and cultural systems in which women are systematically dehumanized.
Can we even imagine a culture in which women cease to celebrate their masochism and men their sadism? A culture without the need for an erotics of “consensual” whipping and the near sexual joy exhibited in horrific jihadi videos of beheadings and burnings?
Surely there must be an alternative to all this violence; the ways we have to hurt someone to love them or hurt Others to serve God. Perhaps we could face each other naked and emotionally open, grateful that we are taking part in the miracle of existence. Perhaps we could treasure our ability to share our gladness with each other: without whips and handcuffs, without demands that the Other see the world as we do or worship the same God.
In such a world men might be sexually frustrated, but we wouldn’t see it as women’s fault. We might be scared of intimacy, but we’d be able to admit it without degrading women. We might not like the way other people live, or what they write about our faith, but we could say so without bullets or bombs.
What courage all this would take. And what love. How far away we are from such a world. But let’s hope, if only for a few moments, that it might be possible.
Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His newest book is Political and Spiritual: Essays on Religion, Environment, Disability, and Justice. [Read an excerpt here.] He has previously published the Nautilus Book Award winners Spirituality: What it is and Why it Matters and the short story collection Engaging Voices: Tales of Morality and Meaning in an Age of Global Warming.