The ‘birds and the bees’ just got 50 shades more gray

The narrative of explicit and humiliating behavior in 'Fifty Shades of Grey'  is helping to reset the mainstream base line for acceptable sexual behavior, with implications not just for adults but for children as well.

Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

The erotic movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” sold a record $94.4 million in movie tickets over Valentine’s Day weekend, but that isn’t all it’s selling. The narrative of explicit and humiliating behavior is helping to reset the mainstream base line for acceptable sexual behavior, with implications not just for adults but for children as well.

“The media firestorm has pushed [the film] into the awareness of children of all ages,” says Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, via e-mail. “The sexual templates of children are being altered to think that sexual violence ... and fetishized practices are normal and healthy behaviors.” 

Much of this push has been driven by images from the pornography industry seeping into the popular culture, points out Gordon Coonfield, associate professor of communication at Villanova University near Philadelphia.

“We have been letting advertisers, who rip off the aesthetics, themes, and genres of pornographers, talk to our children for us instead of really talking to them ourselves,” he says.

Many parents find the issue inescapable, a trend only reinforced by the saturation marketing that accompanies a major studio film release. A study by the Parents Television Council found that 47 percent of TV ads for the film ran in the so-called family hour between 8 and 9 p.m. Merchandise from the film has raised the visibility of sex toys, which are now marketed to mainstream consumers in such outlets as Target. Even the cuddly Vermont Teddy Bear company is selling a bear in a gray suit with sex toy accessories. 

Los Angeles mother Rebecca Cody, shopping in Target with her 4-year-old daughter, Gwynne, and 9-year-old son, Tommy, says the film’s billboards, which are visible all over town, have made it impossible to ignore the movie. “The one that just says ‘Curious?’ is something I had to explain to them,” she says.

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