’50 Shades of Grey’ Hits a Red-State Sweet Spot

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50 Shades

Credit: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

(WOMENSENEWS)– Where would you expect that the kinky, S&M themed movie, "50 Shades of Grey," would be boffo at the box office?

In the blue states, right? In those traditional bastions of free love, sex, drugs and rock and roll, where, as Cole Porter put it, "anything goes."

Wrong. The racy movie found its strongest box office in the Bible Belt. The top five states were Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas and the all-time champ Mississippi, where the film grossed four times more than expected, according to the box office website Fandango.

That seems odd on the face of it. Isn’t the Bible Belt the place where conservatives rail about evil Hollywood destroying family values, spewing explicit sexual images and wallowing in ungodly and perverse behavior?

The film’s popularity becomes clearer however, when you realize that the South has been the bastion of efforts to undermine modern scientific sex education and also to block women’s access, not just to information about sex but even to their most basic sexual choice; contraception.

Abstinence-only education, which teaches that sex is not proper outside of marriage and that the only acceptable form of birth control is no sex, has grown significantly over the years. Federal funds are available for such programs and the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the United States reports that half of all funds spent on abstinence-only sex education has been spent in the South.

Sorry State of Sex Ed

Sophie Godley, assistant professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, notes in BU Today that what she calls the sorry state of sex education has a link to the popularity of the 50 Shades books and the movie.

"With recent generations raised on abstinence-only, shame-based sexuality ‘education,’ is it any wonder that we now are offered a sexual fantasy that insists on a female character who is clueless, uninitiated and in fact has never even masturbated? Nor is there much new about Fifty Shades, especially sexually. Is there really anything edgy or brave about a dominant man and a naïve girl with big eyes? It is just an R-rated version of a Disney movie. It is incredibly depressing that badly written erotica acting out very old sexual scripts for women and men has become so popular."

Extreme male dominance isn’t the subtext of 50 Shades of Grey, it’s the whole story. It’s one that too often finds a deep resonance in the Bible Belt, since it more often emanates from church pulpits than movie screens. In 2006, former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn left the Southern Baptist Church because of its rigid rules about female equality.

In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Carter said: "I’m familiar with the verses they have quoted about wives being subjugated to their husbands. In my opinion, this is a distortion of the meaning of scripture . . . I personally feel the Bible says all people are equal in the eyes of God. I personally feel that women should play an absolutely equal role in service of Christ in the church."

Political Efforts Centered in South

Male attempts to control female sexuality are of course not exclusive to the South. But political efforts to that end are often centered there–and have more success there–than in other regions of the country.

Southern politicians led the way in promoting actions that would deny women the right to birth control, which has been legal in the United States for 50 years.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida supports a "personhood" amendment, giving a fetus full legal rights, that would outlaw certain forms of contraception including the pill and the IUD. U.S. Sen. Roy Blount of Missouri lent his name to another amendment that narrowly missed passing the Senate in 2014. It would have allowed any employer in the U.S. who disapproved of contraception for any reason to deny birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act to female employees.

Southern states lead the nation in putting limits on reproductive health care. Alabama, Mississippi and Texas have all enacted laws requiring abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges with local hospitals, a partnership that’s often impossible in conservative areas.

In Texas, many clinics have been shut down and women seeking an abortion must now travel many thousands of miles away from their home. In Louisiana, state law mandates that a woman receive counseling designed to discourage abortions before obtaining the procedure.

Not surprisingly, the Bible Belt leads the nation in the number of teenage out of wedlock births.

Boston University’s Godly concludes, "We all have work to do to improve our sexual health: increasing communication with our partners; beefing up our birth control; getting tested and treated for sexually transmitted infections; speaking up early and often about the critical importance of active, engaged consent; and working on undoing the shame and misinformation so many of us learned or absorbed growing up in a sexually repressed yet sex-sells-everything, misogynist, homophobic culture. There is so much work to be done."

In the South, it seems, that work may be just a little harder.

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