Every now and then a cultural phenomenon reaches a level of media momentum that it becomes virtually inescapable. Occasionally that phenomenon happens to involve a topic many don’t typically address in polite company, and therefore elicits a startled uneasiness at first, and later an increased acceptance within the general public. Such was the case with President Clinton’s White House affair in the 1990s, which accustomed the populace to the open discussion of certain intimate behaviors for the first time.
Such is the case now with a book-to-film which has become an enormous hit, arguably due to its provocative themes. (I am not naming the film so as not to promote it.) And similarly to the Clinton affair, it throws into the public spotlight intimate behaviors previously talked about mostly with wink-and-nudge euphemisms, if at all.
Also similarly to the sensationalism of that 1990s political spectacle, people’s reactions span the continuum from giggles to ire, with the majority falling with some disquiet at points between. Aside from broader considerations of the subject of erotica, my concern in this case is with its intertwining with violence, even though both are portrayed as mutually agreed upon.
Whether or not both participants are ‘consenting’ (tricky territory in this context), my position is that a dangerous subtext is presented anytime violence is eroticized. (Such an intersection from another direction is often seen in slasher movies.) Both erotica and the anticipation of physical pain evoke pulse-quickening responses; couldn’t juxtaposing them plausibly reinforce unhealthy and otherwise absent connections between them? It seems to me that doing so could potentially contribute to a subliminal desensitization toward sexual violence and its victims.
Some will argue that i am blurring the distinction between film fantasy and the all too common reality of sexual violence. Maybe so. But it comes from my conviction that so much is at stake, for even a single potential victim. One positive outcome of this media saturation touching on a touchy subject is that it can encourage a frank and thoughtful discussion of the underlying issues, with all their nuances and, yes, say it with me… gray areas.