Can Fifty Shades of Grey at least get Hongkongers talking about sex?

Kelly Yang says while we should never forget the harm sexual violence does, if the movie gets us to openly discuss sex, it will hopefully lift our flagging libido

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 February, 2015, 9:52am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 February, 2015, 9:52am

Not tonight, honey. How many of us have heard this statement? Too many of us, according to Hong Kong's Family Planning Association. In a recent survey, nearly 60 per cent of Hong Kong women have at least one long-running "sexual problem" which has contributed to less frequent intercourse. And according to Google, the term "sexless marriage" is the No1 most common complaint about a marriage.

What's with the lack of action? Some say it's because we're tired. Hong Kong ranks No5 in the world in terms of longest working hours. On average, we work 49 hours a week - nine more than the 40-hour working week suggested by the International Labour Organisation. After a long day, all we want is sleep. We also blame it on traditional Chinese culture, in which sex is still considered a taboo subject.

That all changed about four years ago when the book Fifty Shades of Grey hit bookshelves worldwide. Suddenly, everyone was talking about sex. I remember reading the book and writing about it for my column. My thoughts then? My God, the writing's terrible, followed by: is there any more of this?

There was more; two other books. And now there's a movie. As hordes pack the cinemas to watch their favourite bad boy Christian Grey and his doe-eyed submissive Anastasia Steele on the big screen, it's hard not to get caught up in Fifty Shades fever. Sex shops are stocking up with fuzzy handcuffs. Restaurants are serving bow "tie me up" pasta.

With the movie's sexy soundtrack and gorgeous actors, it's almost too easy to forget what's at the heart of the book, which is BDSM. In the words of Grey, this isn't "plain vanilla" sex. It's bondage, complete with whips, gags, and other, er, accessories. In one scene from the book, the dominant Grey whacks the young, innocent Steele so many times that her bottom is flaming red and she's crying out in pain. The author and producers maintain the book actually empowers women because the sex between the adults is consensual and Steele takes control by the end of the trilogy. But it's too easy to glamorise sexual violence.

In reality, according to the World Health Organisation, 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Here in Hong Kong, many domestic helpers say they are sexually abused by their employers. In nearly all these cases, it's not a happily-ever-after situation. The victim simply does not run off with a handsome abuser who suddenly respects her again.

We must remember this when we watch the movie. If we can take what's good from it - namely, that it helps us restart a conversation about sex, then that's great. That's exactly what Hong Kong needs. According to 16 per cent of Hong Kong married women are in a sexless marriage. Our low libido is partly to blame for our falling birth rate, one of the lowest in the world.

But if we take the bad from the movie - the romanticisation of sexual violence and abuse - then we're in dangerous waters. However sexy Fifty Shades may be, sexual violence is not hot. It's wrong.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.