By the time I heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, even my mother had read it. When she called to tell me about it, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. I’ve spent the past two years talking about my own experiences with S&M — a part of my life that ended (in practice) six years ago. Now, I’m weary of the subject. But facing 50 Shades was, of course, inevitable.
As a 21-year-old college student in Manhattan, I’d answered an ad in the Village Voice, and spent the next four years performing all the practices described in 50 Shades (and many, many more) upon men who paid $200 per hour to see me.
And then I wrote a book about it. Whip Smart begins with an anthropological experiment, follows by my immersion in the commercial realm of S&M fantasy, and ends with the surprising and inevitable realization that my most profound motives were neither financially nor curiosity based.
At 21, I could not reconcile my feminism, my self-conception as an intellectual, with my desire to relinquish power. And I was curious, adventurous, and drawn to experiences outside of social prescription. So I stuck with that story, and the flimsy idea that I was fundamentally different from my clients, and the women I worked with.
The abridged conclusion is that I was, and am, fundamentally interested in power dynamics. The eroticization of this, for me, was an effort to divorce my submissive desires from my “real” life. I had no interest in submitting to the mores of our sexist culture, but still had been socialized by them – and repressed tendencies have a way of creeping out in fantasy, in sex.
The experience of those years, and of writing and publishing the book, taught me how to integrate my desires into my life. I got honest with myself, and then anyone who cared to read my story. I learned to accept the seeming contradiction of my beliefs and my fantasies. If our society’s pressure to submit myself to a submissive, sexualized female ideal were not insidious, I might not be so convinced of my feminism. These parts of myself exist not at odds, but in tandem. What a relief it was to figure this out.
I avoided Fifty Shades for as long as I could. I avoided most articles analyzing the phenomenon. I resisted indulging in other’s proclamations of the book’s terrible writing. I wanted it to be bad. I wanted it to be good, and feared it wasn’t. I feared what feelings bubbled in me, every time it was mentioned.
And then I bought it. The writing was indeed terrible. But I still masturbated three times, iPad in one hand, the other tucked under the waistband of my pajama bottoms. With zero shame. My own experience had given me that freedom.
I’m not interested in condemning the book. I think it’s my obligation, as a writer, to inform myself of what people are responding to. Especially women. My most important goal as a writer is to acknowledge the truth that readers already know, however inchoately. Writers are mirrors, more than guides. And for me, honest self-appraisal has been the best guide.
I read the Twilight series, and I read most of Fifty Shades. These books have not found success based on tricks or mirage, at least none that do not already operate in the psyches of their readers, or the cultures that raised them. They are not great works of art, but they are mirrors.
I do, however, believe in the responsibility of writers to also show us what can be. My own experience has shown me that I can accept my submissive fantasies, and remain an empowered, intellectual woman. I can still wear my stilettos and expect to be taken seriously. I need not be defined solely by my own eroticism, nor our culture’s eroticization of my body, my femininity, and its invented ideal.
I think it’s likely that Fifty Shades could have named the desire to submit to another’s power without endorsing the more complex and dangerous fantasy that one must be a naïf to do so. Need Christian Grey have been a wealthy businessman? Need Anastasia have been a virgin incapable of naming her own vagina? One can submit one’s body, can submit to one’s desires, and to those of another human being, without submitting all their worldly knowledge.
This equation is a dangerous one: that we must sacrifice our maturity to obtain our fantasies. That we must have all the power, or none of it. The myth lifts a curtain with one hand, and drops another with the other. Women have been negotiating this shitty deal for a long, long time. If there is an illusion here, it is that we must continue doing so.
But the book is just a story – millions froth at every corner of our culture; there is no inherent threat posed by the book, per se. Its pages boast no invention, and in that sense, it is the most accurate mirror. The book has not revealed our deep-seated belief that women’s sexuality threatens our independence, or that we are incapable of containing multitudes. Our reaction to the book has revealed this belief. The writer’s choices evidence it as well. The products of our culture are often simply its symptoms.
I am glad that Fifty Shades was published, because we need to see our secrets named. Because we need to make public a conversation of how this can be done without promoting our disempowerment. Empowerment does not come in reading this book; it comes in seeing what we are, and what we are not. Accepting our fantasies comes at a price, but not the forfeiting of our intellects, our wisdom, our politics, or our dignity. Rather, in bravely deciding that there is enough room for all of our selves. And there is.
Read more in this debate: Petra Joy.