Christian Doctrines, Egalitarianism, theology

Does “50 Shades” reveal some unspoken longing for gender hierarchy?

The only thing (probably) I’m going to write on 50 Shades of Grey is this post. I know, there are literally hundreds of Christian responses to the book. This is not another. It is a response to an article from First Things called “Fifty Shades Against Gender Neturality,” which I found to be deeply problematic.

Let’s get the basics out of the way. No, I haven’t read the book. No, I’m not commenting on the content of the book because I haven’t read it. All this post is trying to put forward is the notion that 50 Shades of Grey somehow reveals an unspoken longing for gender hierarchy, as alleged in the aforementioned article, is mistaken.

This article will not be explicit but by nature its content is more “adult” than my site normally is.

Only Women?

The author of the article on First Things writes:

[T]here’s a hunger that’s not being satisfied: Namely, for men who are unabashedly masculine, who aren’t afraid to take control, and to lead. That is, there’s a longing (even a lusting) for men who aren’t afraid of what’s classically been called “headship.”

A major difficulty with the article is the premise that women’s desire to be dominated somehow reveals a more basic gender hierarchy ingrained into human nature. One difficulty with this is that it is not only women who desire such things. There are men also who are “into” things like being dominated. Thus, should we draw the conclusion that there is a basic hierarchy of women over men in human nature? Clearly not. Moreover, what response could the author of the article on First Things say in response to this? That human nature is broken? Obviously! But it is clearly special pleading to say that women’s desires in this realm point to intrinsic human nature while that desire of men is a reflection of the opposite. The standards need to be the same.

But the author never even mentions or acknowledges awareness of men longing for the same type of activity. Why not? Perhaps it is just ignorance, or perhaps it is the desire to push an agenda. But the reality of men who want to play the role of submissive demolishes this absurd premise. Surely the author wouldn’t agree that this reality means:

There’s a hunger that’s not being satisfied: Namely, for women who are unabashedly feminine, who aren’t afraid to take control, and to lead. That is, there’s a longing (even a lusting) for women who aren’t afraid of what’s classically been called “headship.”

But if women lusting after these kinds of relationships entail this for men, why would it not entail the same for women? It seems that the only reason is because this would go against the argument for male headship. That, indeed, is special pleading.

There is a kind of brokenness here, but it is not a hidden desire for men to be in a relationship of headship of women; it is a brokenness of the fallen human nature–lusting after characters or even activities which we don’t have. The women and men reading 50 Shades is indicative of something: broken human nature.

What Are We Attracted To?

The central premise of the author’s argument is that that which we are attracted to must reveal something about human nature. Our desires must somehow show a “hunger” “not being satisfied.” In the case of 50 Shades, the author argues that it is male hierarchy. But how fluid are these hungers? Who decides what the “hunger” ultimately points towards?

As one commentator on the article shared when I posted it to a Facebook group, what do human desires for pornography, materialism, or mind-altering drugs point to? The permutations of what we could arbitrarily assign to these things are nearly infinite. Materialism–the desire for more things–points to our need to dominate the earth; to outdo our neighbor; to love our neighbor by buying them things; to assert our authority over those who can’t buy things; perpetuation of immoral systems of wealth; etc.

The arbitrariness of assigning interest of 50 Shades to an unspoken desire for gender hierarchy is clear and tells us more about the author’s presuppositions than about the reasons behind the book’s success.

Looking for the Brothel

The author writes:

If Fr. Smith, the titular character in the Bruce Marshall novel, is right that “the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God,” what are fans of the Fifty Shades series seeking?

This line reveals how the author’s presuppositions have guided their article.* Think about it:

Men seeking brothel = looking for God
Women seeking pornographic books = looking for men

How does that follow? The article is blatantly male-centric and yet offers no reason for thinking that this strange split should be believed. Why think that men seek after God while women must seek after men? Are women incapable of also seeking God? Could women’s desire for similar sins also be a kind of replacement for God? Perhaps men seeking a brothel are in fact unconsciously looking for women to love and care for them. Perhaps they are looking to perpetuate a sinful cycle of violence against women.

But according to the author, when it comes to men- they seek God. Women? Apparently they have to seek after men.


There is something happening when we go after sinful desires. We are seeking to replace God with an idol. Whether that idol is a brothel, a dirty book, accumulating wealth, or something else, we can unanimously affirm that all of these desires point to a replacement of God with something else. There is a God-shaped hole in our hearts, and we as fallen people will seek to fill it with anything. These desires don’t reveal the way things should be, as though our sinful longings were somehow pointers towards the good. Instead, these desires are themselves evil. They are a replacement of God with something which is not God. The fallen world does not show how things should be; it shows them as fallen. To arbitrarily psychoanalyze desires and assign to them our chosen pet issues is to do injustice to the real impact of sin on human nature and in society. Rather than trying to put forth our agendas of what preferred stance we take on gender issues or something else, we should seek to reconcile with God and point people towards God.

*Another commentator on the article when I shared it helped develop this point.


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


2 thoughts on “Does “50 Shades” reveal some unspoken longing for gender hierarchy?

  1. Karl Barth was very skeptical about natural theology, because of the corruption of nature. While Roger Oslon (and I) think he went too far, and that Emil Brunner had better ideas, there is still something to Barth’s criticism. It is dangerous to argue based on corrupted nature. How do you know, for sure, that your observations are based on good bits instead of bad bits? And is that dualism even legitimate, given the doctrine of Total Depravity?

    Now, there is an easy way to test these ideas. Try and glorify God via actions instead of just words. Apply these ideas in church congregations and see what happens. The Bible gives plenty of indicators of health and pathology. Let’s see if this ‘headship’ ignores or heeds Eph 5:21, and how ‘submit’ (hypotassō) is defined in practice. Let’s see if the ‘heads’ hypotassō to Jesus as their wives hypotassō to them, or if there is a curious asymmetry going on. Let’s see what it looks like for the heads to lay down their lives for their wives.

    If there are groups which, after applying the author’s ideas, evaluate their situation as ‘better’, then perhaps Joseph Heschmeyer has a point. After all, Jesus says to judge by the fruit, right? He was very used to the Pharisees being full of hot air, even if they got some things right. It’s not all that helpful to get something right but be unable to exemplify it and unwilling to help others do it. That’s somewhat different from Jesus and how he interacted and interacts with us, if my memory of scripture serves me.

    Posted by labreuer | February 14, 2015, 1:27 PM
  2. I have to agree with you here: I think it’s shaking ground jumping from 50 Shades to an argument for longing for hierarchy that is “right.”

    Posted by SLIMJIM | February 15, 2015, 9:23 PM

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