Mary Jo Podgurski

Column Mary Jo Podgurski

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 68 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Ask Mary Jo

‘Fifty Shades of Gray’ book causing family dispute

December 6, 2012

Q.I’m writing in the hope that you might be a “third party” in a dispute I’m having with my mother. First let me say that we generally get along well, so this is rare. And I apologize in advance for what is going to be a long email!

Here’s what happened. Our daughter is a sophomore in college. Over Thanksgiving break, she shared she was enjoying reading “Fifty Shades of Gray.” I felt two emotions: one, I was a little taken aback she had decided to read what I considered pornographic literature, and two, I was happy she told me about it. We were always close and it pleases me that she is open and still talks with me.

My husband and I talked it over and I decided to read the book myself. Ugh. I really, really didn’t like it. I actually didn’t mind the erotica as much as the poor relationship it displays. I told our daughter we’ll talk about it when she’s home over Christmas. Once again, I’m thrilled she talks with me. I don’t plan to be judgmental but just hope to share my feelings about how unhealthy the relationship in the books is.

Then my mom found out. Actually she saw the books at my home and chastised me for “reading smut.” We got into a heated discussion. When I was young, my mom was a good parent but she never, ever talked about sex with me. She just told me not to do it. That didn’t help me at all, which is why I’ve been so open with my daughter. Some of the stupid decisions I made as a teenager might have been avoided if I’d had a parent I could have talked with.

My mom thinks I should scold my daughter and tell her to destroy the books. I think I should continue to be open-minded and talk with my daughter. I don’t think shutting her down and shunning her is a good idea. What do you think? – Parent of 19-year-old female

Mary Jo’s Response: I think you’re an amazing parent! I also admire your attempt to respect both your mom’s opinion and support your daughter. Generational cultures are different, especially when sexuality is involved. Your daughter lives in a world where online information is readily available. Your mom lived in an era where pornography wasn’t easily accessible. The erotica in books is a constant between both generations, though, and “Fifty Shades” is incredibly popular.

I haven’t read the books. I considered perusing them prior to responding to you but time constraints made that difficult. What I’ve heard from colleagues mirrors your response. More than the erotica, the relationship in the novels is troubling. Many people have shared that it is indeed unhealthy – not because it’s a domination/submission plot, but because the sexual experiences do not always appear consensual.

Your daughter is no longer a child. As an adult, she will make her own choices. I agree that her communication with you is important. Parents matter. I think your plan is perfect. Talk openly with her and share your thoughts.

Having empathy for your mom’s experience may make it easier to understand her concerns. She wants to protect you and her granddaughter. We parent in the world in which our children live. This book – for better or worse – is a cultural phenomena. As a parent, your role is to support and teach your child. You’re fulfilling that role.

Since I didn’t read the books, I asked our peer educators for their thoughts. I was surprised that a few of them had read at least the first book. Their comments are anonymous to avoid judgment and I’ve summarized them below. As always, I am thrilled to offer them a voice.

Negative Comments: It’s an abusive relationship. He stalks her, goes to her house after she told him she never wanted to see him again, does not listen to her when she says she does not want to do something sexually, he tells her when she has to go to sleep, what and when she can and can’t eat, and says he has the right to punish her if she does not do what he says. It’s also terribly written.

Positive Comments: A great read! It is a great romance novel, but it’s just more sexual than most. Most people think it’s just a porno, but it’s just really good. They truly love each other but his past just made him become who he is. Sure, a lot of people don’t want to read it and think it’s too graphic, but it does say only for mature audiences. If you’re too immature for that kind of stuff, you’re not going to like it.

Comments from nonreaders: “Fifty Shades” breaks a taboo in modern literature. Modern lit needs all the help it can in expanding, and any diverse, off-the-wall topic to shock and wow the masses works. Though a touchy subject, the sexual nature of the book is a light into a secretive world once thought to be wrong, but now just an odd kink. It’s bizarre, it’s freaky, and it opens the door for different literature of all versions. Let books change things! Don’t go off what anyone else says. Use your own judgment.



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