As the film industry promotes “Fifty Shades of Grey,” launching on Valentine’s Day, I sit beside sixty scholars, activists, and faith leaders from more than twenty countries at a forum convened by the Carter Center: “Beyond Violence: Women Leading for Peaceful Societies.” Working to end the domination of women worldwide, these leaders recognize that “prejudice, discrimination, war, violence, distorted interpretations of religious texts, physical and mental abuse, poverty, and disease fall disproportionately on women and girls, as Jimmy Carter notes in Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power. Together, these human rights defenders are refining bold and creative strategies to overturn systems, structures, and worldviews that abuse, marginalize, dominate, and annihilate girls and women worldwide.
While these activists labor to combat abuse, filmmakers are working to normalize the sexual domination of women as entertainment. With scenes holding women in bondage, men inflict pain re-framed as “discipline” in the form of sadism and masochism, offered as the ultimate aphrodisiac.
Meanwhile, in hidden corners of nearly every city of the world, girls and women are held in secret prisons and brothels where they endure gang-rape. Firearms and other weapons are used as instruments of rape, and rape itself is unleashed as an instrument of war. Targeted by the military, girls and women are murdered by the masses—a horror undocumented by the world’s journalists. Women, whose daughters have been abducted by extremists, wake up every morning wondering, “Is she alive?”
Those that use these forms of dominance–sexual, physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual—blame victims, telling them they provoked their own abuse. To suggest that women want rape is the supreme humiliation of victims. Herein the dominance of male over female—a heinous consequence of sin–lures its prey through deception, collusion, and power. Let’s consider each briefly.
Deception: No one enticed by the sexual dominance glorified in Fifty Shades of Grey would ever actually, truly, willingly exchange places with the girls and women exploited, drugged, chained, beaten, and raped in the world’s street corners, prisons, brothels, workhouses, and jungles. To pretend otherwise is to deceive ourselves. It is a deception that adds insult to injury for those for whom such evil is reality or present threat. That our imaginations could be seduced into craving sexual dominance suggests that we, as a culture, lack awareness and empathy for those who know its horrors.
Collusion: Male dominance and abuse has resulted in the disappearance of nearly 200 million girls and women. When their plight arouses not our robust empathy, but our indifference, apathy, and even worse, a glorification of their suffering, we stand not with the hurting, but with their oppressors. It’s a collusion with power that makes us complicit.
Domination: The collective suffering of women worldwide is the result of abuses of power, pervasive in many different cultures. Patriarchy—male dominance, is entrenched within the major faith traditions, including Christianity. The “he will rule over you” of Genesis 3:16 was one of the first consequences of sin in the garden. But unlike death, toil, and work, or even pain in child-birth—all the effects of sin—male rule has been elevated and advanced as a biblical ideal by Christian leaders throughout history. Christians resist death; we oppose the thorns and thistles of labor through technology and agriculture just as we work to improve the experiences of childbearing. Yet, male authority and rule receive an enduring endorsement from the church, making it harder to question and challenge without the fear of opposing God as well.
Thankfully, more and more Christians are reading Scripture without a patriarchal lens, lending their voices and lives to exposing patriarchy as part of the chaos and oppression of sin which Christ conquered at Calvary. What is more, Christian activists like CBE Micah Award recipients Kristyn Komarnicki and Lisa Thompson were among the first to expose the gender based violence implicit in Fifty Shades of Grey, in their important lecture “Fifty Shades of Deception.” Their thoughtful critique unmasked the ways in which this trilogy stands in moral opposition to the work of Christ in our world.
May we, in the power of Christ, work to dismantle the dominance, deception, and collusion of patriarchy as it exploits girls and women worldwide. May we be like Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, who served prostituted girls in London’s East End. Booth believed it was a betrayal of their humanity if she did not rise early to work on their behalf.