How 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is contributing to shift in norms on sexuality

The shift has implications not just for adults, but for children as well. While many agree that 'Fifty Shades of Grey' isn't for kids, its marketing has still reached that age group.

Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters
A film poster for 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is pictured at Regal Theater in Los Angeles, Thursday. The film's arrival in US theaters is in the midst of a national debate about sexual violence and domestic abuse, sparked by high-profile incidents involving the National Football League and US colleges last year.

The erotic movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” sold a record $94.4 million in movie tickets over Valentine’s Day weekend, but that is not all that the tale of two Seattle 20-somethings is selling, say some observers. The narrative of explicit and humiliating behavior is helping to reset the mainstream base line for acceptable sexual behavior, a shift that has been under way for years and has implications not just for adults but for children as well.

While many argue that "Fifty Shades of Grey" is for adults, "the media firestorm has pushed it into the awareness of children of all ages," says Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, via e-mail. A quick search of social media posts on the film, she says, shows throngs of teenage girls fantasizing about having their own Christian Greys. "These girls are wishing to have a man who intimidates, humiliates, and abuses them,” she adds.

“The sexual templates of children are being altered to think that sexual violence, emotionless sexual encounters, and fetishized practices are normal and healthy behaviors," Ms. Hawkins says.

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.

Calvin Klein’s now-infamous ads from the early 1990s were staged, filmed, and photographed to appear as amateur kiddie porn, he says, “complete with wood paneling in the basement, too-young models, and an off-camera voice asking strangely inappropriate questions like he is ‘grooming’ them to do something no one should want to see.” Professor Coonfield made his comments via e-mail.

What’s important now is not the debate over conservative or liberal views on human sexuality, he says, but rather a deeper awareness of who is controlling what we think.

“I’m not saying we need a national conversation about how uptight and uncomfortable we are with these subjects,” says Coonfield, adding, “Nor do I think we need a national censorship board to make sure we neither see, hear, nor speak about it.”

If the film leads to conversations about sexuality, this is a good thing, he says. However, he says, “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.”

Many parents find the issue inescapable, a trend only reinforced by the saturation marketing that accompanies a major studio film such as “Fifty Shades.” 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. The push to market merchandise from the film has raised the visibility of sex toys, which are now marketed to mainstream consumers in such outlets as Target.

Los Angeles mother Rebecca Cody, shopping in Target with her 4-year-old daughter, Gwynne, and 9-year-old son, Tommy, says the conversations are being forced upon families by such marketing. “You have to explain everything to them anyway, with Viagra commercials on at dinner time,”  she says.

The Los Angeles mother says the film’s billboards that 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, adding that parents almost can't keep adult themes away from children anymore.

Representatives of the adult merchandise industry say their products are aimed at informed adults. “Our corsets and handcuffs are pretty, almost like fashion accessories,” says Desiree Duffie, spokesperson for California Exotic Novelties. She is quick to add, “We do not market to teen girls.”

But “Fifty Shades” is a step backward in terms of the fight against all forms of domestic violence, in particular the current prevalence of rape on college campuses and in the military, says Patrick Wanis, a human behavior therapist based in Miami and Los Angeles. “This movie sends the message that a woman does not mean no when she says no,” he says.

Mr. Wanis sees this trend in the context of a much larger evolution.

“We are seeing the dissolution of all boundaries, particularly moral ones ... a concept of what is right and what is unacceptable,” he says. “For a culture to survive, it has to be able to draw some boundaries. If it doesn’t, it will slowly collapse from within.”

 Staff writer Daniel B. Wood contributed to this report.

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