Your teen might not know the difference between abuse and love, so it's up to you to talk with them.
No matter what you think about Fifty Shades of Grey—love or hate it—few can deny its erotic power. In search of novelty, many women have used the trilogy to spice up their sex lives with their partner, in search of deeper closeness and a more satisfying connection.
But while busy ramping up your sex life, you probably didn’t consider what your KIDS think about all things Fifty Shades of Grey. You’ve likely assumed—as I did—that our children are clueless about the film (and the books) because, after all, it's for adults.
I’ll be the parents of the 100+ teens who rushed a movie theater when the theater denied them entrance to the R-rated film opening weekend. But now that the series is readily available on DVD, your teen can easily access it and watch. And chances are, Mom and Dad—they aren't watching it with you. (Saturday night sleepover movie at their best friends house? Probably)
And while to you, the trilogy might seem simply kinky, to a teen just learning about sex and sexuality ... the triology's blatant sexual violence sends concerning messages.
I know I felt completely blindsided when my 12-year-old son asked me: "Mom, what's the big deal about Fifty Shades of Grey? What's with all that weird sex stuff ... you know, S&M? I thought hurting someone during sex was rape? Do some people actually like that?"
Gulp. He's 12! How on earth does he know about Fifty Shades? As much as I consider myself a mom who handles sex questions well, there is a BIG difference between the basic birds-and-bees, sex-is-an-expression-of-love conversation, and trying to explain S&M, BDSM and sexual violence to a 12-year-old.
As the 4th largest R-rated opening in history, the film's sexual violence can't help but influence the psyche of mainstream culture—especially influencing pop-culture obsessed teenagers who are at the cusp of forming their sexual identities.
The themes in the film are confusing even for adults, but they are certainly confusing for teenagers, who are just beginning to toy with the world of couplehood and sexuality.
Think this isn't a concern? Well, the rising sexual violence on college campuses tells us that young people are already growing up with very unhealthy ideas about sex and consent.
As parents and educators, it's important to have this conversation (no matter how awkward it is).
Here are four ways to approach the complicated themes of the Fifty Shades of Grey film with your tweens and teenagers:
1. Follow their lead.
Like all delicate conversations with kids, as parents we should follow their lead.
If they don't bring it up, listen for their conversations and (before you offer any new information) first ask them what they know already. Don't be afraid to fish around the subject by asking, "Are your friends talking about any particular movies lately?" Or, ask directly, "I understand some kids are talking about a movie that just came out, Fifty Shades of Grey. Have you heard anything about it? What do you think?"
Remember, knowledge is power and it's a parents job to educate teens about the truth. Otherwise, we risk leaving this "education" in their peers' hands.
2. Define healthy love and sex.
The sexually violent and abusive overtones of the movie are particularly concerning because they cross a line into romanticizing sexual violence.
Using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) criteria for sexual violence, Dr. Amy Bonomi and colleagues at Michigan State University analyzed the sexual and behavioral dynamics in the Fifty Shades of Grey books, and noted that emotional abuse and sexual violence are present in almost every interaction between the main characters, including the use of alcohol to compromise consent.
When talking with teens about the books or film, it's important to deconstruct the notion that misogyny or sexual violence are ever acceptable.
Healthy love is never abusive, and sex is something consensual and mature, cherished with someone who cares about and respects you.
Finally, let your teen know they NEVER have to participate in any type of sexual activity out of peer pressure, or in which they feel uncomfortable or unsure.
Healthy relationships should never make them feel uneasy or afraid.
3. Acknowledge the childhood sexual abuse theme in the book/film
The Fifty Shades series ignites curiosity about BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, Sadism and Masochism) and other sex games that "spice up" sexual routines for couples. Novelty, in and out of the bedroom, is a critical component and keeping couples attached and feeling close.
However, the idea that Fifty Shades is about BDSM is a misnomer because true BDSM is CONSENSUAL, respectful, and non-violent. By contrast, the sexual interactions in this film involve emotional abuse and sexual violence, and are nonconsensual in that consent becomes compromised by alcohol and coercion (much like rape scenarios on college campuses).
In the series, BDSM is used as a forum for acting out sexual aggression, rather than the vehicle for closeness and mutual pleasure it's intended.
Not surprisingly, the main character in the books/film, Christian Grey, was sexually abused as a child, and like many sexual abuse survivors, his character has coercive sexual fantasies, often fueled by pornography. As a result, he asserts his personal interests at the expense of others and prefers impersonal sexual relationships.
TIP—Here's a sample script for talking to your teen about this specific point:
"This is a movie is about a man who was abused as a child, and therefore thinks something wrong: He believes that love and pain go together.
4. Explain the romance factor, and how it's not real love.
Somewhere between a modern day Beauty and the Beast and an illicit BDSM fantasy, the movie strikes a chord with women who enjoy the romantic fantasy of being swept away by a modern, steamy-sex style Prince Charming.
Fantasies of submission are common among women, and some experts note that when women enjoy acting out these fantasies, it frees their partner from worrying about hurting them, allowing for more satisfying intimacy.
Fifty Shades of Grey uses BDSM to play out some of these female fantasies, and in so doing, illustrates the romantic cliche of being so drawn to a person that you will do "anything" to be with them. The main character is a successful, desirable man, who lavishly "courts" the woman in the movie. He is handsome, wealthy, and in control.
The woman is overly-trusting, lacks self-confidence, and is vulnerable. He's drawn to her beauty, her vulnerability, and her submissiveness; she's drawn to his confidence, his wealth, and the attention he pays to her. He's powerful and shows he can take care of her—and she so desperately wants him to. So absorbed in her desire for him, she does not recognize the warning signs of how dangerous this relationship is to her.
TIP—Here's a sample script for talking to your teen about this specific point:
"Romance is a kind of fantasy about love—it's more like how we want love to be, not how it actually is.
Teens are curious, and the appetite to see and discuss this film is already substantial. Our teens are already bombarded with messages from Fifty Shades in the media, and as parents and educators it's time to discuss the issues raised in the film with them.
As hard and controversial as these topics might be to discuss, they are some of the most important questions facing our teens—namely, questions surrounding love, sexuality, and respect.
Showing teens that it is okay to feel curious and ask questions is a first step in modeling healthy, open discourse that will aid them in articulating their thoughts and forming their values about these important topics.
Feel like you need a little extra support as you engage in this discussion with your teen? Stop by my website for a wealth of great information like this to help you keep healthy communication flowing in your family, and with your teen.