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Turning the Light on 50 Shades Darker

Michelle Watson

I’m going to be blunt today, right out of the gate. My question to you as a father is this: Where is your daughter learning about sex?

The reality is that she’s learning about sex constantly. I know you’re already aware of that fact (which no doubt terrifies you), so this probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. And if you’re like many dads I’ve talked with, you may not even want to think about the possibility of your daughter being sexually active.

Yet everywhere your daughter turns she is being bombarded with sex: on magazine covers, in sitcoms and movies, and in conversations--- at school, the gym, with friends, on dates, her workplace, and on it goes. Sexual content is so powerfully pervasive that at times it seems like it’s in the air we breathe. To say that the sexual dial has been turned up across our country is an understatement.

The time is now for you as a dad to enter into this conversation with your daughter, even if it is a bit uncomfortable for you. Why? Because she’s learning about sex somewhere, so why not from you?

Maurice Hilliard was a women’s basketball coach at Pepperdine for ten years in the early 2000’s and often found himself unexpectedly designated to a “dad role” with the girls on his team. He conducted a survey of 720 teenage girls and found that:

  • 97% of the girls said that having parents a teen could talk to could help reduce teen pregnancy in general

  • 93% said that having loving parents they could talk to did reduce their own risk of teen pregnancy

  • 76% said that their fathers were very or somewhat influential on their decision to have sex.

With three-quarters of young women saying that their dads matter when it comes to their sexual choices, clearly it is vital that you as a dad seriously consider “kicking it up a notch” to engage your daughter in honest conversation about sex. If you, as a guy and male role model don’t talk to her about sex, she will learn about it everywhere and anywhere else. She needs you to speak into her life about this topic.  

Why am I talking about this today?

It ties to the release of the movie 50 Shades Darker that debuted just two weeks ago today. And no, I haven’t seen it or it’s prequel, 50 Shades of Grey, which are both based on a best-selling trilogy about a lot more than just sex within a committed relationship. From what I’ve heard, between movies one and two the sexual interactions have grown increasingly aggressive, intense, and raw, which begs the question:

What made Fifty Shades of Grey the most searched movie in 2015, earning $571 million worldwide? And what made 50 Shades Darker dominate Valentine’s Day last week with $12 million in revenue on just that one day?

Before the movie debuted, I watched an interview with the male lead, Jamie Dorman, who plays Christian Grey. Jamie said that his character has “a voracious sexual appetite,” and to prepare for his role he not only met prostitutes, but even spent a night in an S&M dungeon.

I’m guessing that most of us have an idea of what S&M means, but in keeping with the honest nature of this blog, here are definitions of sadism and masochism, just to ensure that we’re all talking about the same thing. Sadism means that you get pleasure from inflicting pain on someone by humiliating them, and masochism means that you get pleasure from receiving pain or by being humiliated, which specifically can include spanking, whipping, being tied with ropes or chains, being locked up in cages, breast torture, blood play, vaginal torture, hot wax, asphyxiation, restraints, gags, and on it goes. Additionally, there are designated roles as a dominant or a submissive during these erotic rituals.

Are you as disturbed by this as I am?!

Humiliation and torture: These two words jump off the page at me; I imagine they do to you, too. If your daughter is conditioned to believe that dishonor and degradation, cruelty and brutality are acceptable components of an intimate exchange, she will not be able to stand strong as an empowered, vibrant, confident, healthy young woman. If this is how your daughters are learning they deserve to be treated--during sex or elsewhere--I assure you that our society will disintegrate from within and our foundation will crumble. Just ask someone who has been sexually abused to share her story and you will hear how sexual assault and injury have wreaked havoc on her self worth and self esteem. Once done, the damage can be lifelong.

Further, I fail to understand how this type of disrespectful, potentially abusive sexual interaction is being touted as typical, normal, and mainstream by the very nature of it being celebrated in this blockbuster film. I acknowledge that some might say that S&M in it’s true form is consensual. Yet as a licensed professional counselor of 20 years, I tend towards believing that there is often a traumatic backstory for those who engage in this type of behavior, thus leading me to assert that “consensual” is a relative term.

I ask myself: How can a movie like this possibly be a source of education about sex while normalizing this kind of behavior? Adding to that reality is the fact that marriage is rarely presented as a significant moral value in relation to sexual interactions anymore. Sadly, sometimes it feels like there’s no turning back when it comes to cultural norms around this issue, which deeply and profoundly breaks my heart, especially when in my counseling office I hear gut-wrenching stories of sexual exchanges gone wrong, resulting in detrimental impacts on women.

Then this week I read an article in People Magazine about Jamie Dorman regarding his experience of playing Christian Grey. I was shocked to learn that not only does he not endorse Christian’s approach to sex, but he doesn’t even think his wife would want to see the movie. He is clearly profiting from the ravenous sexual appetites of his viewers while simultaneously opposing that which he has invested in. The article continues by nonchalantly transitioning from content about his “experimenting with some rather complicated bedroom accessories” during filming to then talking about things “getting even more animated” at home with his wife and two young daughters, ages three and one, while watching their two favorite movies, Frozen and Trolls.

Did you catch that he’s a dad to two little girls? Jamie Dorman is a father to two young, vulnerable daughters, and he has chosen to endorse S&M by putting his name and reputation behind such activity. I have to wonder if his girls will ever watch these movies one day, and if so, is this how he wants them to learn about sex? Does he want his precious treasures to be treated in ways that he has modeled throughout some of the 118 minutes of this film?

Lest we mistakenly assume that this theme is tied only to these two present day movies, there are actually new sexual apps springing up everyday. And if you have a daughter between the ages of 13 and 29 (according to research), there is a strong likelihood that she has already been asked to send a nude selfie, making her incredibly vulnerable to exploitation and cyberbullying. In fact, this kind of exchange is now often considered a typical part of a relationship, and sexual hookups are increasingly considered par for the course.

I’ve not ever spoken out this strongly in a blog before, where I’m calling out someone I’ve never met on his lifestyle choices. But I am so disturbed by what this recent movie portrays that I cannot stay silent. Moreover, I appeal to you as a father: You have to address this issue, sex, with your daughter.

Please don’t assume that your daughter has clarity on this subject, particularly if you haven’t been a part of the conversation with her. Never conclude that she is immune from devastating, life-long impacts should she engage in sexual activity at an early age. Sexual exploration is a dangerous new norm, and she needs you to help protect her.

Dad, if you’re ready to tackle this subject with your daughter, here are some suggestions:

  1. Tell her your wishes, hopes, dreams, and expectations for how she should be treated, sexually and otherwise. If you don’t tell her directly, she won’t know. She needs to hear your words in order to know your heart.

  2. Let her know that you believe she is worthy of being treated with respect, with dignity and honor, while communicating your hope that she will never tolerate humiliation or torture in a romantic relationship. Again, if you don’t say it directly, she won’t know exactly what you’re thinking on this issue. If you affirm her worth and value, it will stick with her long after you’ve said the words.

  3. In an age appropriate way, tell her a story of someone you’ve known (it could even be you) who didn’t navigate a relationship wisely and had to learn the hard way. Being honest with your daughter can go a long way towards letting her know you’ve not always been perfect, which could then set the foundation for future conversations should she need to come to you with a need at some point down the road.

  4. Invite her to write out her “minimum dating requirements,” which are those absolute relationship deal breakers should she ever be asked, forced, or pressured to engage in activities that don’t sit right in the core of her being. Start the conversation early, even as young as fourth or fifth grade. For extra credit, help her write this out, followed with asking if she will let you hold her accountable to keep her standards high in each of these areas. Then check in with her a couple times a year.

  5. Treat your daughter the way you want her to be treated…always. When she experiences being treated well by you, she will expect that same treatment from others, especially guys. Remember that more is caught than taught. Letting her experience honorable treatment from you is better than any lecture you could give her.

Dads, I know this is a tough subject to address, and yet honestly, we’ve just barely scratched the surface today. It’s time to turn the lights on so you can see the potentially treacherous sexual dynamics that swirl around your daughter and choose to courageously open up this conversation with her.

Truthfully, this is too important to ignore. Your daughter’s future depends on it.