When I first read about the release of Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James, I was really excited. I produce X-rated films for women. Female fantasies are still mostly hidden in our society, and so I applaud women who express their desires and create erotica and porn from a female perspective in books and films. I anticipated a juicy read.
I should have known better. Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a fan fiction novel based on the Twilight saga. A huge online success, it was snapped up by Random House and re-released in what I believe to be a whitewashed version. What remains is a romantic, anti-feminist fairy tale.
I have no problem with consensual SM sex (sadomasochism, erotic role-playing – it takes many names) or with women living out submissive roles in the bedroom (where the sub holds the power as she/he sets the boundaries). The danger in this book does not lie in its pretty tame SM scenarios, but in its old-fashioned, stereotypical gender roles: Anastasia Steele is a young, innocent woman who gifts her virginity to Christian Grey, an older, immensely wealthy, sexually-experienced man. She does this, and only agrees to his SM-play, because she loves him.
This gender-cliché was so true of now-dated, romantic novels that I was surprised to find it in a modern storyline. Is it still true that women cannot separate sex from love? That only their prince will do? So much for sexual liberation, women pleasuring themselves, and enjoying sex with no strings attached…
Christian, the ‘prince,’ displays controlling behavior in the bedroom, and stalker-like behavior outside it (e.g. turning up uninvited when Ana is meeting her mother, making Ana a doctor’s appointment to put her on the mini-pill, checking Ana’s whereabouts by tracking her phone…). This is typical of abusive men who have a need to control their women. As Christian’s intentions are all wrapped up in powerful desire and longing, his behavior is made to seem romantic, and Ana lets him get away with it over and over again. (In the second book of the trilogy, Christian buys the company Ana works for so he can keep an eye on her). I prefer my women to be strong and independent heroines rather than flustered damsels in distress that are manipulated by their partners.
The book’s conservative streak continues in describing Christian as emotionally damaged because of neglect and abuse he suffered as a child. Abuse is the only reason put forward for his sexual preferences – something many players in the SM scene will object strongly to, and ignoring the fact that perfectly healthy, happy, and balanced individuals and couples also enjoy role-play and experimenting with power exchange in the bedroom.
In reality both women and men have sexual fantasies about being dominant and/or submissive. Some choose to live out those fantasies, others allow their fantasies to remain a sexy ‘movie’ in their imaginations, to be ‘watched’ during sex or masturbation. Reading an SM book or watching SM porn does not necessarily mean that you want to be a Dom or Sub in real life. It annoys me that the media now claims Fifty Shades’s massive sales are proof that most women are submissive and want to be dominated.
The sales figures are proof of the power of clever marketing. Marketing that promises something the book does not deliver – ‘porn for women.’ Pornographic (as in ‘explicit’ and ‘aimed at arousal’) this is not. Women have bought this ‘must-have’ book in great numbers because there is so little female-oriented pornographic material that eroticises men to choose from.
Whether they read to the end, or not, buyers are counted as women who got turned on by the book (and who want to be dominated). Our media perpetuates the ‘porn for women’ label endlessly because it makes a sensational story.
The sad truth is that if Fifty Shades really was explicit porn for women featuring a strong, sexually experienced heroine who enjoys SM sex (possibly in a dominant as well as submissive role) and a hot, healthy, and liberated man who gets off on being a Dom just because he enjoys it, this book would not be available at your local supermarket. It would have been published by a small indie publisher, and be available only at women’s sex shops or selected sites online because it would have been branded as ‘obscene pornographic material’ that no major brand would touch.
This kind of book exists: Carrie’s Story came out over a decade ago, published by Cleiss Press. I read it twice with gusto and it turned me on – a lot. I had quite a few great orgasms initiated by the scenarios in this book. Of course, it never became a bestseller because it is genuinely explicit (SM) porn from a female perspective.
So are modern women rushing to embrace BDSM? Well, no. The threat and promise of sadistic sex is ever present in Fifty Shades, both in the contract Ana is meant to sign as a devoted sub (but does never actually sign) and in the equipment that Christian keeps locked in his ‘red room of pain.’ While this helps to raise the reader’s levels of anticipation, most of the sex that actually happens is pretty straight, soft – ‘vanilla.’ I do wonder how much the original text was edited, whether more explicit and hard scenes were censored to capture a mainstream audience, and whether the plot would have felt more authentic if it hadn’t been stretched thin to fill three books instead of one.
And yet, as I write, the Fifty Shades trilogy is holding the top three spots in the UK publishing bestsellers lists. Undoubtedly impressive. Dare I suggest that the marketing and hype of the trilogy has attracted women who have been enjoying Mills & Boon novels and fancy romance with a dash of risqué sex? Maybe the fantasy of a rich man who takes control in and out of the bedroom and showers his girlfriend with expensive gifts is tailor-made for the current economic climate. A bit of escapism when in reality we would not ever want to sacrifice our independence for a guy – no matter how attractive, sexy, or rich a guy is.
I hope that Fifty Shades will clear the way for a new wave of female erotica to be published. Let’s hope that what follows has little censoring and plenty of explicit, delicious, erotic content that enables the female and male characters to enjoy sex way beyond traditional gender stereotypes.
Read more in this debate: Melissa Febos.