Love it or hate it, a movie glorifying some of the darker sides of sexual behaviors between consenting adults is coming to a theater near you. What's near you is near your kids, so get ready to take advantage of this teachable moment.
If you don't know the theme of this best-selling trilogy, Mr. Grey is psychologically damaged from an abusive childhood and finds relief in sadomasochistic practices. He meets sexually inexperienced Ana, they develop a relationship, he teaches her about sex and she teaches him about love, all with lots of sex going on designed to arouse readers of all persuasions.
Here's a few topics from this movie that make a great discussion with any child, from around age 10 on:
In real life, it is never OK for an adult to seduce a child (Grey was introduced to sex by a friend of his mother)
In real life, it is never OK for people to hurt each other
In real life, girls want to have their own lives, their own opinions and don't crave domination
In real life, if a man tells a woman (or a woman tells a man) he's too damaged for a relationship, as Grey tells Anna early on, listen to him and run the other way.
With all of the hype about the books and movie, you may have read points like these, or thought about them yourself if you've read the books. As a sex educator, here's the point I consider most important: This material was written to induce sexual arousal, and when it does, your child needs to understand that just because they experience reflexive arousal does not mean that this is the type of sex they want to have when they are mature enough to have sex. It is a very common experience for humans to experience arousal from observing or reading about a sexual act they would never consider, and it takes honesty and maturity to understand that fact.
When a male experiences an erection, when a female experiences warmth and lubrication in her genitals, it is a sign that a primal part of their brain has been activated. Young people who don't understand this are at a terrible disadvantage. People who exploit children and adolescents use the child's reflexive arousal to convince them that they were a willing partner. Adolescents unfortunate enough to develop a crush on a predatory adult may find their arousal used as a tool for seduction. A teen may mistake a partner's arousal for a "yes," even when they are clearly saying "no." Each of these scenarios are too common and can have disastrous results that devoted parents can help prevent.
Becoming sexually aroused is a reflexive response to stimulus. Sexual response comes from a primal part of the brain that has nothing to do with reasoning. Our kids need to learn that there is no shame in sexual arousal – ever! A key lesson in becoming a mature adult is learning the difference between lust, which is physical arousal, and love. The ubiquitous promotions for the 50 Shades books and movie provide a most useful teaching aid to make this point.
Loving, responsible parents can find the words and the courage to explain sexual arousal to their children. Young people can learn about the joy of these wonderful feelings and the angst of them occurring at inopportune times. Parents can share the critical lesson that these feelings have nothing to do with the thoughtful, deliberate decisions they will make about their own sexuality. Just because they experience arousal at a book, a movie, video, or even the sight of popular young teacher does not at all mean that they can or should act on these feelings.
Your child will most likely have access to clips, summaries and other excerpts from 50 Shades of Grey. Along with processing the obvious lessons about loving, equal relationships between real adults in love, use this as an opportunity to prepare them for the complexities of understanding sexual arousal, a most important lesson for a lifetime of sexual health and safety.
Janet Rosenzweig, MS, PhD, MPA, is the Vice President, Research and programs for Prevent Child Abuse America and the author of The Sex-Wise Parent. For more information, read her blog and follow her @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter.