Everyone had their say before that film was out, but what’s it actually like? As Fifty Shades of Grey hits the cinema this weekend and becomes the cultural touchstone of 2015 thus far (yes, Fifty shades of Earl Grey tea is available), my esteemed editor decided I should experience what is was like to go and watch it alongside other human beings. My local cinema had 24 screenings of the thing on Friday night, so I picked one of the many sell-outs and went along on my own to watch it and try to figure out just why it is so popular.

My immediate discovery was that it’s super-awkward to be a 20-something guy, with a beard, on your own, watching Fifty Shades of Grey. From what I could see, I was the only person there on my own, the rest of the room comprised of a few (soon to be awkward) dates and an overwhelming majority of girls’ nights out. The only thing that made me feel more conspicuous were the two egg custard tarts I’d picked up from the reduced-to-clear aisle of Sainsbury’s on my way. A single, bearded, 20-something guy is one thing, but when he’s eating egg custards…that’s a sure-fire weirdo. I had considered buying two tickets so I didn’t have to sit next to anyone (on an aisle, naturally) but on the night before Valentine’s day, a man with an empty seat next to him in a packed screening of Fifty shades would look like the saddest of jiltings, and even the egg-custard-weirdo persona was preferable to that.

And then things got more awkward… the film started. There was a weird atmosphere in the room throughout the opening 45 sex-less minutes. Everyone knew what was coming, that’s why they were there, and as such the merest hint towards it was rapturously received, like a couple of  hundred people were teetering on the brink, ready for the undoing of a button to tip them over the edge. The heroine nervously sucking the end of her pencil drew murmurs but at times the dialogue bordered on Carry on… territory, with lines such as, ‘I exercise control in all things,’ and an offhand mention of cable ties garnering genuine whoops of delight from the audience. When the sex did arrive, people don’t know how to respond; some laughed when Ana is first spanked, but when they get down to it, the silence is only punctuated by the occasional sharp intake of breath. There was an oddly reverent attitude towards Christian Grey’s demands on Ana, as if we too were subject to his bidding. The reasons for its popularity remain a mystery. Are we still that stuffy as a society that we go mad over any appearance of sex in the mainstream? Does the film finally unlock female sexuality in all its splendour? (Spoiler: no it doesn’t.) Or is it just that the old adage holds true…sex sells.

Clearly EL James’ motivation behind smashing any glass ceiling is so she can get a better view of the sexual acts happening below

As for the film itself? Well believe what the Christian (and plenty of non-Christian) bloggers have already told you, because it’s all kinds of messed up. For EL James (the book’s author), it’s like feminism never happened, or at least only a warped version of it happened. The idea of women’s sexual emancipation in this film, the ‘independent woman’ moment, is when Ana (while looking at a sexual contract that is central to the film) says 'no' to one particularly violent sexual act. That’s it. That’s as far as feminism has taken us: women can now object to the most horrific male fantasies. Clearly EL James’ motivation behind smashing any glass ceiling is so she can get a better view of the sexual acts happening below.

There’s the five minute conversation that happens when Christian Grey is explaining himself and his desire for certain BDSM acts. He says he doesn’t ‘make love,’ instead, he says he...well, we can’t exactly say it here...but you get the idea. When he’s asked what she gets out of all of this his response is simple: ‘Me.’ His view on sex is that it should be all about his wants and desires, and that the prize of him, his swanky pad and his helicopter is adequate compensation. He then explains that he doesn’t like to share a bed or sleep next to a woman, so after he’s had his way with her, she’ll be sent to her own room. That sound you can hear is Germaine Greer crying.

Let me make this clear: the relationship in Fifty Shades of Grey is abusive. It’s an abuse of power, it’s an abuse of trust. A quick list of other things that happen in the film: he tells her what to wear and what to eat, he tracks her movements, he takes her back to his without her consent when she’s drunk, he takes her virginity mere seconds after she’s mentioned it, he demands her surrender and insists on being called 'sir'. Apparently this is THE romantic film this Valentine’s Day. Christian Grey literally hits his girlfriend, just because he gets off on it. And at the end of the film, when Ana finally stands up for herself and leaves, it’s after she’s been hit six times and realises she loves him. The looming spectre of two sequels to come suggests that this so-called ‘victory’ is somewhat fleeting.

Our problem with this film should be about a distortion of sex

In Sex God, Rob Bell explains the idea that this is about that. Our idea of Christian love and sex is that the this of sex should point towards the that, of love and intimacy. In Fifty Shades of Grey, the this of sex, of S&M, doesn’t point towards love, but towards control, towards power. And that’s the problem with the film. As a church, our problem with this film shouldn’t be a puritanical attitude towards bare bums and breasts. Our problem with this film should be about a distortion of sex. In this film, sex is a weapon. It’s not a consummation of love, it’s a mode of control. It isn’t an unbiblical view of sex because it involves handcuffs and whips; it’s unbiblical because it’s used an expression of influence and dominance. Not only that, but the film depicts an abusive relationship as a romantic one. Nothing in Fifty Shades of Grey is about love, it’s all a distortion, it’s all a lie.

Our response to this film cannot be the Father Ted approach, we need more nuance than, ‘Down with this sort of thing.’ Our criticism of this film cannot be prudish embarrassment, but a reclaiming of intimacy. The lie of Fifty Shades sells the biblical glory of sex short, the church needs to come out of hiding and tell the world what sex is really about. That truth, unlike the contents of Mr Grey’s room, will set people free. 

Read: Grey Matter: 50 Shades, pornography and the shaping of our brains

Click here for a free copy of the latest edition of Premier Christianity