In 2011, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey made quite a stir. It’s not as if “mommy porn” and deviant sexual practices are anything new. It’s that much of the public would rather keep them out of sight and pretend they don’t exist. However, James’ book pushed this somewhat underground form of erotica out into mainstream, forcing us to take notice. With the publication of two sequels and the long-awaited movie release scheduled for 2015, the timing seemed right for a Christian voice in this growing discussion about women’s sexuality. Moody Publishers – experienced, well-known, and well-respected – took the challenge, and Pure Freedom’s Dannah Gresh and Authentic Intimacy’s Juli Slattery came out with Pulling Back the Shades: Erotica, Intimacy, and the Longings of a Woman's Heart (2014). I purchased the book with great anticipation and finished reading it a bit disappointed.
What Christians want to believe is that, under God, things really are “black and white” (meaning that there is a clear “right” and a clear “wrong”) and not in “shades of grey” (situational ethics). Few want to go as far as Bill Gothard, applying it to your choice in carpet color, but a decided majority will try to apply it to sexual activity – pornography, erotica, oral sex, French kissing, or what have you. It would be nice to get some detailed feedback on exactly how God expects us to behave in the bedroom, but we have general principles, not specifics.
I appreciated Gresh and Slattery’s efforts to try to clear up some of the “fuzziness.” It’s necessary so that Christian women can feel guilt-free about their God-given sexuality. While a few times they resort to the “slippery-slope” fallacy, the authors are generally honest about how much personal preference and other factors come into play, which would cause many readers to rest easy. They even admit to disagreeing with each other about some practices (e.g., masturbation). But they are adamantly against erotica like Fifty Shades, and seek out to build a case that matches their guilty verdict. They hit a brick wall a number of times, but I’d like to point out some obvious problems.
Much of their argument lays on the assumption that there’s a problem with reading about (or observing, in the case of pornography) other people’s sexual activities. This is backed up scripturally with a discussion about keeping sex between a married man and woman, anything else being adultery, fornication, etc. The problem is that the book then sends mixed messages about the appropriateness of erotic literature. Okay, we’ll assume it’s damaging to read, and get excited over, descriptions of others having sex. So why tell us about all of the “steamy scenes” found in the Song of Solomon? (Worse yet, why then is that book even in the Bible?) And why share your own experiences? I really don’t want to read about the authors’ sexual escapades with their respective husbands, no matter how sanitized they are. At least fiction isn’t exploiting the real experiences of real people for the reader’s own pleasure!
There’s also a problem area revolving around “submission.” The authors go to great lengths to lend support to this cause. However, they’re so wrapped up in defending it, that they never clearly define how their view differs from the so-called “counterfeits” found in books like Fifty Shades. And more importantly, they never explain how this biblical concept would translate into bedroom activity, if at all. The implication is that, if you have a “manly” man who takes charge in the relationship, you won’t need erotica for sexual fulfillment. I’m still trying to follow that logic.
To sum it up, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend Pulling Back the Shades. The awkward tag-team approach and lack of solid content, betray it as a rush-to-publication project. The authors come across as naïve – Oh, my! Christian women are reading erotica??!!! – and devoid of empathy - We never read this stuff, so we can’t relate to your problem! Gresh flat out refused to read Fifty Shades, and Slattery only under duress. While some readers might admire the authors’ concerns to protect their own purity and marital relationships, I thought they came across as condescending, caring more about maintaining spotless reputations than actually being of help to their readers. I would’ve preferred to hear from someone drawing from her personal struggles than someone who feels it necessary to remind me that she’s unstained by erotica. While I’m grateful that Gresh and Slattery took the time to address these important issues, I can’t help but think that the book assignment could’ve been passed on to better hands.