Much ado has been made about the blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey, a disappointing screen adaptation of E. L. James’s poorly written bestseller. And yet, the film’s opening weekend box office take was $81.7 million! The allure of titillating forbidden desire sells. By now we are all familiar with Christian Grey, the young, good-looking kinky billionaire bachelor who seduces the innocent Anastasia Steele to participate in sadomasochism (S&M). Although the film could have proven to be groundbreaking, exploring enriching ways to express our sexuality; the film instead seems to have reinforced traditional gender roles with a certain glorification of the sexual abuse of women.
That said – I am left wondering if an S&M ethics that celebrates our sexuality can be constructed. The problem in pursuing this loathly goal is overcoming 2000 years of sexual baggage based on a Christianity that has gotten sex wrong. Rather than celebrating human sexuality, Christianity’s early distain for the body infused a form of S&M in our relationship with a domineering God bent on our humiliation whenever we choose to explore our bodies.
“The moment [the Tempter] left, [St. Benedict] was seized with an unusually violent temptation. The evil spirit recalled to his mind a woman he had once seen, and before he realized it his emotions were carrying him away. Almost overcome in the struggle, he was on the point of abandoning the lonely wilderness, when suddenly with the help of God’s grace he came to himself. He then noticed a thick patch of nettles and briers next to him. Throwing his garments aside he flung himself into the sharp thorns and stinging nettles. There he rolled and tossed until his whole body was in pain and covered with blood. Yet, once he had conquered pleasure through suffering, his torn and bleeding skin served to drain the poison of temptation from his body [author’s emphasis]. Before long, the pain that was burning his whole body had put out the fires of evil in his heart. It was by exchanging these two fires that he gained the victory over sin. So complete was his triumph that from then on, as he later told his disciples, he never experienced another temptation of this kind.”
As I read the ascetic life of saints like Benedict, I cannot help but wonder about the existing relationship between seeking submission to God and S&M. Does the quest to be dominated, or in the case of Benedict for physical pain, become a form of sexual pleasure? The concept of S&M, a composite of both sadism and masochism that developed several centuries after the ascetic life of saints, might help us better understand the ambivalent relationship between agonizing sexual pleasure and agonizing physical pain.
Sadism, named after the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814 CE), is the practice of inflicting violence on the other person to stimulate one’s own sexual pleasure. Masochism, named after Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836–95 CE), is the practice of deriving sexual satisfaction and pleasure from receiving pain and being violently dominated. The underlying assumption of S&M is that constant exposure to pain eventually become pleasurable. The cultivation of this stimulus slowly replaces the ability to become sexually aroused by any other means, such as genital stimulation. The infliction or receiving of painful stimulus becomes necessary to experience intense and extreme sexual arousal. And yet, the pleasure achieved through S&M is not so much the pain received or inflicted, but rather the knowledge of control over another.
Are the extreme cases of self-denial and self-mutilation practiced by the early Christian ascetics in their desire to pursue heavenly pleasure a sanctified form of S&M? Was pleasure achieved through self-flagellation? If so, did we develop a type of Christianity where the ultimate desire to please God is satisfied through the prolongation of human pain?
No doubt the Christianity that developed found pleasure in the state of being dominated by God. In the early Christian ascetics’ renunciation of sexual pleasure, did they turn God into a dominatrix? If so, this creates an image of a God who erotically desires humans to self-inflict pain, as though God would take pleasure from humans’ repression of pleasure. The idea of God as dominatrix would then seem to justify the repression of those who fall short of the ascetic ideal. Furthermore, because of the intertwining of religion and politics, the sexual repression that developed in Christianity also became manifested in the political arena. Political repression that brought pain to commoners in this world was offset with the promise of heavenly bliss in the next.
Benedict illustrates how S&M exists in the religious anti-pleasure views of the early Christian believers who linked pain – specifically, the self-deprivation of sexual pleasure – with salvation. Self-denial of the flesh’s desires was deemed essential for achieving an elevated spiritual plateau. We can even detect an element of S&M in the theology of atonement, developed by Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109 CE). According to his theology, God’s honor was offended by the sins of humans (specifically original sin), so he had to respond: either by punishing humans (because God is all holy) or by demanding a substitute – a sacrifice to take the place of the offending humans (because God, after all, is merciful). Hence the need for Jesus to violently die on the cross, shedding his blood to compensate for the iniquity of humans. In other words, God, to satisfy God’s vanity, must humiliate, torture, and brutally kill God’s child Jesus, rather than the true object of God’s wrath, so that God can be placated. The problem with Anselm’s theory is that it casts God as the ultimate child abuser who is satisfied by the domination, humiliation, and pain of God’s child.
So what is it about S&M in human relationships, in which bondage, humiliation, and physical pain serve as the ultimate aphrodisiac and arousal comes from an overt dominant-subordinate power relationship? Because of the abuse many women face in relationships marked by domestic violence, there is much concern about whether S&M should be considered an acceptable sexual practice. I suggest that if we employ orthoeros (a term I coined to signify correct erotic love), guidelines rather than rigid rules can make S&M an acceptable form of sexual gratification.
Sexual pleasure is God-given. This doesn’t mean that sex should be our ultimate goal in life, or it becomes an idol. But this also means that sex isn’t wrong. Sex is part of the human experience to be enjoyed, and that pleasure should not be limited to men. According to the Talmud, men are expected to meet and satisfy the sexual needs of their wives. In the privacy of the bedchamber, couples can participate in whatever kind of sexually satisfying activity they choose. Their sexual activity, according to the Mishnah Torah, can be “natural or unnatural.”
Based on this healthier understanding of sexuality, I have argued for a sexual ethics based on 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 that states: “All things are permissible to me, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful to be, but not all things are constructed. Let no one seek their own good, but instead what is good for others.” While all sex is permissible to me, not all sexual encounters are beneficial, especially if it ignores the well being of my partner. In practice, all sexual acts “natural or unnatural” are permissible as long as they at least remain 1) safe, 2) consensual, 3) based on a trusting vulnerability, and 4) mutually pleasing.
If consenting adults in a familial relationship in the privacy of their bedchamber mutually choose to engage in S&M, then, like any other sexual activity, it should occur only in the context of orthoeros code; that is, in a context in which unconditional love is linked to a justice-based relationship. S&M sexual acts can only be entered into with an uncoerced agreement to remain safe, sane, and consensual. If S&M becomes a form of role-playing, then clear signals and open communication are required to delineate the boundaries between, on the one hand, play and pleasure, and on the other, violation and pain. Fantasy role-playing can only be acceptable if both parties remain in full and complete control of what is occurring. There is a fine line between mock sexual games and the terrifying feeling of having no control over what is happening to you. When either party loses this type of control, their vulnerability and trust are betrayed.
Mr. Grey will see you now, or not.
This op-ed is derived from my book A Lily Among the Thorns: Toward a New Christian Sexual Ethics.
 Pope Gregory Dialogues 2:2.
 Nedarim, 15b.
 Mishnah Torah, Issurei Biah, 21:9