Author Kate Allure explores her love/hate relationship with 50 Shades with the help of some sex-experts: intimacy coach Amy Jo Goddard, Riverdale Ave erotic publisher Lori Perkins, New Rules of Attraction author Arden Leigh, and even the luscious London dominatrix Madame Caramel.
As a writer, I have struggled with the fact that I like this book. My conscience tells me that I should not like it, but I did and still do. Now I’m faced with the question of whether I should see the much-hyped movie. One could say I’ve got 50 shades of indecision, but if I’m going to “quote” literature, I’ll take it up a notch…
To see or not to see, that is the question?
50 Shades of Grey is an undeniably popular book. So what’s my problem with joining the other 100 million women that enjoyed it, and letting it go at that?
For starters, it misrepresents BDSM, say many practitioners (one of two groups that sometimes refer to 50 Shades as “that book”— romance authors being the other). Other faults include the need to suspend disbelief a little too often and the oft-slammed quality of the prose. Sir Salman Rushdie only sampled it, but the famed author summed it up for many when he said, “I’ve never read anything so badly written that got published. It made Twilight look like War and Peace.”
But none of that changes the fact that I enjoyed the book. Not only enjoyed it, could not put it down. That’s why I found myself in a hotel lobby back in 2012 seeking free wifi so I could hurriedly download the second installment before rushing to catch a long flight home. I was so enthralled with the novelty of the storyline that I could overlook its issues to enjoy the titillating read.
So what, then, is my enduring discomfort with 50 Shades? It took some soul searching to figure it out, but it lies in the question of whether the book has had a positive or negative impact on women’s sexuality and growth—and by women’s sexuality I mean our right to enjoy sex as much as men without being called sluts. We live in a society that either wants to vilify and purge the “sexy” in us or, the exact opposite, objectify us till we’re nothing more than sexual playthings for men—of no value if we don’t meet an almost unattainable level of sexpot-ness. We even use female sex appeal to sell products to other women. (Argh!)
So, in this eternal struggle…did 50 Shades of Grey help or hurt?
Women’s Sexuality — coming out of the closet, or the cage
I asked respected sexuality educator, Amy Jo Goddard, for her thoughts on “that book,” and she responded, “50 Shades of Grey is everyone’s favorite book to pick on and yet it has sold millions of copies worldwide. I think there are many positive things about this, regardless of what you think of the book—as long as you don’t take it to be a BDSM primer for how to be a good kinkster. Fortunately, the 50 Shades Phenomenon has gotten people having new kinds of conversations about sex and about kinky sex in particular—something people have many misconceptions about. More people are buying sex toys and trying new things sexually.”
It’s true. Luxury brand LELO reported a 50% increase for whips and teasers and a 200% increase for pleasure beads in 2012, followed in 2013 with an 82% increase in vibrators. Other companies also reported sizeable increases in everything from Ben Wa balls to blindfolds, and many are gearing up for the movie release. Even my local Target now carries official 50 Shades toys next to the books, although packaged discreetly and placed just out of reach of little hands. And these expensive little items are already nearly sold out. Somebody’s buying all this stuff, so the evidence suggests that in bedrooms across the country there is some kinky experimentation taking place.
I think that’s a good thing, and so does Goddard, saying, “Women are expanding their fantasies and people are able to let go of some of the shame they might have about their kinky fantasies because now everyone has permission to think kinky sex is hot. All of these things forward our ideas about sexuality because shame is dispelled and communication is opened up. That’s always good for people’s sexuality.”
Red Rooms of Pain — sick or healthy fantasy?
Initially, doctors, therapists, and bloggers reported that 50 Shades was helpful to marriages because of its libido-enhancing effects; later it was claimed bad for marriage. One woman even blamed her divorce on the book. Recently, a Michigan State University study concluded that the tendency to read it was coincident with other unhealthy behaviors in young women—they’re more likely to have abusive partners and binge drink, among other things—but they couldn’t say whether there was a causal relationship (which came first, reading it or the negative behaviors). A second Illinois State University study refuted these results, reporting no difference in self-esteem or sexual behaviors between readers and non-readers. However, the Michigan researchers raise a valid concern that violence against and hyper-sexualization of women in media and entertainment normalizes such behavior. They point to hardcore internet porn, but that wasn’t part of the study. I do feel that it’s a strange paradox—shaming women for the very sexuality that is so pervasive and lauded on in our culture. But no one can honestly claim that 50 Shades is the cause of any of this, nor even the result of it.
Further, the researchers missed the point of the romance. In 50 Shades the heroine rejects the violent beatings and the hero completely transforms his modus operandi to keep her. They still have their Red Room, but now the play is mild and fully consensual. The hero’s “very singular” interests were deeply imbedded in his psyche and practically overnight he changed to please her. Nice fantasy, but that required a problematic suspension of disbelief for me. The Michigan study suggests the story will make women more likely to accept being beaten by a boyfriend, when really the researchers should have asked, will female readers believe the fantasy: “If I just put up with a little beating, I’ll catch and then change the man of my dreams.” I think we’re smarter than that.
As for my suspension-of-disbelief problem, author Arden Leigh (The New Rules of Attraction) notes in her blog that characters, like Christian Grey, are a brand new archetype. Delightfully labeling them the Gothic Pixie Dream Boy, she describes the type as a “brooding, sexy, supernatural figure who appears out of nowhere as a guardian angel-demon to the unsuspecting heroine, and who loves her immediately despite the fact that she has yet to actualize any of her potential.” Leigh has no problem with this fantastical hero, but instead feels that “What’s important here is the creation of an archetype within commercially successful mainstream media that specifically caters to the desires of women. And it’s indelibly entwined with our newfound research on women’s sexuality. People were shocked at the notion of such a scandalous book as Fifty Shades of Grey finding popularity with housewives all across middle America.”
Leigh believes it is “no coincidence but emblematic of our culture trying desperately to wrap its mind around women’s sexual fantasies…” 50 Shades has highlighted the fact that women, for the most part, want to have sex and want to enjoy it. We have sexual desires that are not all related to procreation or wanting to please a man.
For a more hands-on perspective, I approached Madame Caramel, pro-domme and proprietress of the Hoxton Dungeon Suite (a first-class BDSM apartment rental in London as shown in these photos). I asked how the book affected her and her livelihood. She reported that it “made no difference whatsoever but we had more curious couples inquiring regarding the dungeon. It was fun too see some couples trying the dungeon and I having to explain almost every toy in the suite, and the next day, see what they use…Only one butt plug.” When asked what she thought of the book, MC laughed, “I didn’t bother reading it…my life’s 100 shades of grey, red and blue…”
So, my limited survey is positive: 50 Shades opened up a discussion about women’s sexuality, encouraged us to explore our fantasies and desires, and brought it all out of the closet.
But wait — is it good for me, the author?
I’ve answered one question, but another pops up. Was 50 Shades good for erotic romance authors and fans? Lori Perkins, publisher of Riverdale Ave Books and editor of Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey, says unequivocally, yes. “50 Shades of Grey was the best thing that ever happened to erotic romance, and woman who love to read erotic romance. It shined the spotlight on the authors, who were relatively unknown until then, bringing them untold readers and dollars, as well as opened the door to discussions about contemporary female sexuality on a massive scale.”
Certainly, 50 Shades opened doors. Erotic romance novels are everywhere in places that used to be off limits—Costco, Walmart, even your local grocery store. That might make some mothers with children in tow cringe, but then again, hasn’t Playboy been on grocery shelves since…forever? And the covers of erotic romance books are more modest than what’s seen on men’s magazines like GQ, Maxim, and the almost pornographic swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. I think it’s a very good thing that books of interest to many women are now as easily available as those of interest to men.
So, again, what’s my big fuss about? I think it keeps coming back to the idea, buried deep in our cultural psyche, that ladies are not supposed to feel or want these things. We’re supposed to be pure of mind and body. And if we are openly interested there must be something wrong with us. The only way to counteract this societal belief is to stand up and be counted. Own it and be proud—whether it’s our choice of reading material or movie, or our desire to be sexual beings in ways that may differ from the accepted norm.
E L James courageously did this by putting it all out there in a book about such a forbidden topic. And, women were clearly starved for something that allowed them to explore desires so taboo they previously couldn’t even admit to having them.
So, yes, count me in. I’ll be there on opening night, happily munching popcorn—and publicly counted among the millions of 50 Shades fans.
Just please…let it be good! Not just good, great. While the movie trailer gives me pause, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the director doesn’t give the naysayers more to ridicule. I want a worthy film that spurs further thoughtful debate. Women’s sexuality should not be a passing fad, last year’s topic…and oh how silly that everyone got all stirred up about it. Rather, it should remain something to be celebrated and explored. And “that book,” for all that it was slammed, definitely got people talking. Let’s keep talking and exploring and moving forward.
I’d love to hear your thoughts…are you going to see “that movie”? And how has the book changed your own sexuality, if at all?
Sir Salman Rushdie http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9596577/Sir-Salman-Rushdie-Fifty-Shades-of-Grey-makes-Twilight-look-like-War-and-Peace.html
Amy Jo Goddard http://amyjogoddard.com
Michigan State University study http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/jwh.2014.4782
Illinois State University study http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2014-33470-001/
Arden Leigh http://ardenleigh.typepad.com/blog/2013/08/female-sexual-desire-and-the-gothic-pixie-dream-boy.html#sthash.fWh6uVmt.dpuf
Hoxton Dungeon Suite http://www.hoxtondungeonsuite.co.uk
Riverdale Ave Books http://riverdaleavebooks.com