By: Laura G Owens
Millions of women around the world are devouring Fifty Shades of Grey, but before our fascination with Christian Grey, the controlling billionaire who lures a virgin co-ed into his Red Room of Pain, was our blood lust for the immortal men of Twilight, Vampire Diaries and True Blood.
Yet, unlike our thirst for vampire erotica, something unspoken lies beneath our hunger for the forbidden themes in Shades, something in our collective psyche about female sexuality we need to unwrap and destigmatize.
But first I need to confess.
I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey or seen the movie but not because I’m squeamish or judgmental about anyone who watches or engages in BDSM. What ever sexual exploration turns someone on is fine with me as long as it’s physically and emotionally consensual, and doesn’t lead a woman down a pathway of codependence or self-loathing.
For the most part I almost never read fiction and I haven’t gotten around to the seeing the movie although the movie’s been out long enough for me to get around to it. I guess I can’t picture myself sitting next to my husband or friends in a packed theatre of voyeurs while blindfolded Anastasia groans in a convoluted blend of pleasure and pain. I also can’t bear the thought of watching Shades on pay-per-view in case my 17 year old daughter wanders into the family room and my pause finger freezes on a bondage scene.
Apparently in order for me to feel comfortable watching Shades I need to create my own permissive atmosphere at home, with my husband and out of ear and eye shot of my nearly grown daughter. What this says about me likely reflects how our society still handles women’s sexuality in general, that is, with confusion.
Friends I ask about the book are quick to admit they’ve read Shades, even women who appear (by my stereotypical lens) uber conservative and wouldn’t be caught dead discussing even your vanilla varieties of sex. When the book series came out nearly every woman I knew had it on her bedside table.
About three years ago a group of women and I took a limo to celebrate a friend’s birthday. In between champagne and shots I asked the group what they thought about Fifty Shades of Grey (almost everyone had read at least one book in the series). I ask women all the time and no one evades the question but they do quickly sum up why they can’t put the book down. The writing is just so-so most tell me, but the characters and story are intensely compelling.
The sex they insist, is secondary.
This has got to be the Her version of “I only read Penthouse for the articles.” There are shelves of well-written novels ripe with titillating erotica but those haven’t stayed on the New York Times Bestseller list nearly as long as Shades.
“Perhaps what I’m sensing is collective titillation denial. I haven’t heard a single one of my friends admit she wants to be Anastasia Steele (if only for one night). But then again, I’ve never asked. “Sexuality that is simultaneously forbidden and commanded both terrifies and titillates,” explains Wendy Strgar, loveologist and CEO at Good Clean Love in her article, “Fifty Shades of Erotic Consciousness” (Whole Life Times, April-May 2015).
My guess is we don’t know exactly why we’re drawn to Shades. Self-denial, at least in part, stems from the muzzle of shame we put on women and sexuality. “I’m not even sure where my own judgments and those of society begin and end,” writes Delaine Moore, author of the Secret Sex Life of a Single Mom. “Nice” girls don’t use whips, they also don’t lay back on the bed blindfolded and handcuffed or strap on leathers, although I’d guess plenty of men and women secretly wish they did.
“In too many ways to name, Fifty Shades of Grey reflects our sexual fantasies and anxieties,” explains Strgar…“Perhaps our collective attention on a sexual fantasy that cuts to the core of the human pleasure/pain dichotomy will help blaze a trail to an awakened erotic life of our own in which consent and curiosity reveal doorways to our capacity for sexual healing pleasure.”
Many women are silently drawn towards forbidden doors of sexuality yet when we discuss sex with friends we tend to retreat into the safety of nervous laughter, silence or we shame other women to protect our own uncomfortable curiosity.
Last year at a party I asked my friend Taylor why she read the Shades series. I knew of anyone she was the most likely to tell the whole truth. In a loud voice she told me that besides the interesting characters and intriguing back story about “how Grey got that way,” the books made her “hot!” I believed her but I also knew she artificially emphasized the word “hot” just to irritate Elise who was standing nearby.
Elise is in her forties, married and sometimes when she drinks too much she casually flirts with a husband or two, nothing overtly offensive or flagrant, just one too many compliments or some mild dirty dancing. What’s ironic however, is Elise announced to a group of friends one night that “Unlike most women she knows” she doesn’t like talking about sex so “don’t expect me to join in.” One afternoon in a private petty moment I told Taylor. Like me Taylor doesn’t appreciate being scolded by the self-appointed morality police but unlike me, she’ll quickly call B.S.
“I haven’t read Shades and I won’t” Elise said after she heard Taylor. “You haven’t either Laura, right? We might be the only two left.”
I told her no I hadn’t read the books but only because I don’t read much fiction and that I didn’t think there was anything wrong with every woman in the world reading Shades, including by the way, the First Lady.
Elise’s disgust with sex talk while she sometimes casually flirts with married men speaks to the 150 shades of ambivalence we all have about women, our sexuality and the confused definition of power that comes with both.
My husband insists women’s fascination with the submission-power themes in Shades is a real feminist dilemma. His theory I told him, was ridiculous. If some women get turned on by voluntary sexual submission this doesn’t imply that hidden within our gender’s evolutionary roots sits a desire to be dominated by men and so women must only be pretending to want equality.
The fact is, the bedroom and the boardroom are worlds apart.
Consider the successful well-respected male CEO who dons a diaper for his dominatrix every weekend. If somehow we discovered his sexual secret we might wonder why but we wouldn’t assume his tastes revealed a universal male longing to return to infantilism, nor would we strip him of his identity, intelligence, or corporate authority.
Women and men’s identities at home, at work and in the bedroom won’t ever fit neatly inside box office generalizations. The truth is people involved in the BDSM community including sex therapist Gloria Brame Ph.D, author of Different Loving, aren’t big fans of Fifty Shades of Grey because it’s unrealistic (Sollee. K. (2014, August). 5 Major Myths About BDSM. Women’s Health). Shades depicts main character Anastasia psychologically pressured into BDSM while by extension her lover Christian controls other aspects of their relationship until they spiral into codependence.
In real world BDSM explains Brame, it’s all about consensual sex play and exploring what you do and don’t like. BDSM doesn’t assume men dominate nor is every one into every BDSM practice such as spanking, dressing in leather or bondage. Like “regular” sex where interests range from missionary to kinky, BDSM interests run the spectrum. “The question is balancing your own morality with your sexuality so you find the right combination for you,” explains Brame.
As ambivalent as we might feel about a woman enjoying pain or bondage in the bedroom while still insisting on “normalcy” and control in other areas of her life, a healthy relationship with our self and with our mate doesn’t demand we reconcile the two arenas. Sex between two consenting adults doesn’t need to mirror the world outside the bedroom, that’s why it’s called fantasy.
Perhaps the mainstream popularity of Shades (despite how unrealistic) is helping shift our consciousness about female sexuality and gender expectations. Perhaps we can move from labeling BDSM as an all or nothing “perverted” fetish reserved for the “slutty” or fringe “underworld,” to an open conversation about how sexual tastes are as individual as the individual, rather than a reflection of one’s moral “goodness” in society.