Once upon a time, the 1953 movie The Moon Is Blue was reportedly banned in Boston, owing to the presence of the word “virgin” in the dialogue. On the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy, the characters couldn’t say the word “pregnant.”
Whether these cinematic scruples were wildly puritanical or merely prudent, they are now undeniably past. This “once upon a time” has proved not to be for all time or even a long time; for, on St. Valentine’s Day of this month, just six decades later, the film adaption of E.L. James’ bestselling book Fifty Shades of Grey will be released.
Whatever else the film heralds for our culture, it marks the end of an era. Sexual promiscuity used to exist as an idol. Now, it is an atmosphere. Sexual violence began as a bad moment but is now a bad mood. Though our culture used to worship sex, this film and the book it is based on are proof aplenty that we kneel before this particular altar no more.
The work of James represents a new sort of pornography. A friend tells me that among her fellow educators at a small school in Grand Forks, N.D., she is the only holdout on Fifty Shades of Grey. Her fellow teachers are not trench-coated johns, slipping silently into the red-light district. They are everyday women and men, who rise alongside their husbands and wives, teach children until mid-afternoon and fill their free time with soccer, hockey, family games — and now the work of E.L. James.
Pornography has learned to be domestic. Though widely read, the smut of the 1970s was still kept as a secret. Erica Jong knew she was proposing the abnormal, because the world still remembered the normal. Turning The Fear of Flying into a movie was impossible. Turning 50 Shades into a movie was inevitable. Even 40 years ago, newscasters spoke of porn’s supporters as the unusual minority opinion. Today, they speak of porn’s detractors as such. That the Fifty Shades trailer premiered on morning television means more than just the film has good publicists; it means the film also has a good public: people who have forgotten the abnormality of sexual violence and abuse. No longer a sleazy pastime for miscreants, this domesticated porn is now an accepted form of entertainment for mothers.
It is no accident that James’ novel was first self-published: It is an essential part of the appeal. Not some chain-smoking pervert peddling smut written under an array of pseudonyms, James, the publisher, is a wife and mother of two, just like many of her readers. Not a single young man with a twisted imagination, James, the author, is a middle-aged woman dissatisfied with life, just like her readers. James, the woman, has turned to sexual adventure as a relief from anxiety, just like many of her readers. She seems the sort of woman one might have coffee with, an empathetic friend sharing her thoughts. As long as there are women, they will share ideas about everything. That Ms. James is doing the sharing heralds the dawn of a new day. Pornography now functions by the logic of Pinterest.
That this is a new era should be obvious. When Margaret Mead wrote Coming of Age in Samoa in 1928, the practices depicted a world and a way of life unknown to her readers. Thus, her book depicted the exotic. When Helen Gurley Brown wrote Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, sex among single girls was still relatively uncommon. Thus her book depicted the elusive.
Idolatry relies on these two threads. Worship, even misapplied worship, requires distance and mystery. The only sort of people who can worship sexual promiscuity are those who are not sexually promiscuous themselves. Their fascination may entice them to action, but that is no longer worship. Idols must remain unavailable; they must arouse a demand without ever offering a supply to satisfy it.
Today, the demand is being satisfied, and James has almost singlehandedly accomplished this. Fifty Shades is a publishing phenomenon. James has further introduced a new way of appealing to readers. The appeal of Mead and Brown was founded on their dissimilarity to the reader; James’ appeal is founded on her similarity. Thousands of fawning (and often inarticulate) blog posts have been written by middle-aged moms thanking one of their own for speaking up about sex. The testimonials universally declare: The contents of the book are not ideas being dreamed about; they are activities being undertaken.
Now is the era to which idolatry inevitably leads. The worshipper of some strange god becomes convinced that the god will grant satisfaction. The god may be money, as in the case of Ebenezer Scrooge; it may be land, as in the case of Alexander the Great; or it may be sexual liberation, as in the case of decadent Americans following the two great wars.
When taken to be gods, these objects are not yet possessed, but they are pursued. With the fanaticism of a militant Muslim, the idolater seeks out the object of his or her adoration. But it all comes to naught. Scrooge realizes that money hasn’t healed the hole in his heart. Alexander loses his life after gaining his land.
And as we will soon see, American women and men will discover not freedom, but chains of iron drawn tight, in the new world of “sexual liberation” — a world growing darker with each applied shade of gray. It is obvious that the first phase of excitement and worship is entirely different from the second phase of boredom and use, and it would be an easy error to equate the two. Not all forms of obsession or enthusiasm have their origin in adoration and worship. I am rather enthusiastic about the air, but I do not worship it. I worship God but have never seen his face.
The error of equating idolatry with use is at once easy and dangerous. Aldous Huxley presented the first version of this error in the novel Brave New World. Many Christians have found this book to be an accurate portrayal of the modern world and a welcome secular testament that men and women will freely become slaves to the impulse of evil. But for all of his accuracy, Huxley was wrong on the role of sex in his imagined England. He equates the two phases as one. First, “everyone belongs to everyone else,” and intercourse is as everyday as eating, sometimes more so. Second, the “solidarity service” (the only allowed religious ritual) ends with the pairing off of the participants for mandatory copulation. The contradiction arises from the two uses of sex. The everyday cannot at the same time be the extraordinary.
Objects of worship must either be above or elusive. The former is the way of orthodoxy; the latter is the way of idolatry.
Since sexual license and perversion are no longer elusive, but are being peddled on morning television shows; since sexual license is no longer an object of excited idolatry, but an object of exhausting use; since women are actually becoming what they read, they soon will learn how hollow their excitement really is. The new domesticated porn, like all acquired idols, will leave its adherents hungry. As concerns conversion, no heart is more hardened to it than one infatuated with the promise of a new secular dogma. Conversely, no heart is more open than one which has found that promise unfulfilled. The disappointed are always eager to discover.
This is likely what Pope Francis had in mind when he cautioned Christians against being “obsessed with sex.” The age of idolatry is passing away.
In combat with an idol, one may follow Moses and throw down the Ten Commandments. But combat with a mood requires more nuance. The Woman at the Well was not a specimen of unblemished femininity indulging in sexual fantasy; she was an ashamed product of promiscuity, worn down by the weight of her failures and shortcomings; and she was ready to accept grace.
In the new world of domesticated porn, there will be many women and many men like her, souls who become weary, panting for water in the heat of high noon.
John Goerke writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.
He is pursuing a master’s degree in
Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas.