E.L. James’ novel and subsequent trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey has received a large amount of attention lately, largely due to its sexually explicit and taboo material, its simple language (something like middle-school reading level), and its ability to make even the most prudish of middle-class suburban housewives melt in their pants. Fifty Shades has essentially become mainstream erotica, an interesting comment on the general public’s—especially its straight women’s—desire to be turned on by something outside the realm of Hollywood sex symbols or stereotypical “vanilla sex.”
The book portrays recent college graduate Anastasia Steele as the naïve, introverted, understatedly beautiful protagonist who meets famous Seattle bachelor and multi-millionaire Christian Grey when she interviews him for her school’s newspaper. Instantly mesmerized by his beauty and mysterious demeanor, Ana leaves the interview feeling completely smitten and awkward. Christian is subsequently entranced by Ana’s innocence and wit and sets out to seduce her. He brings Ana to his downtown apartment and it is there that this fairly predictable and heteronormative storyline of “gorgeous and tormented older man is mesmerized by fragile and naïve, young, understatedly pretty girl” takes a different turn: Ana discovers Christian’s erotic tastes are in the realm of BDSM and she is not only terrified and intrigued, but also completely mesmerized by both Christian’s physical and emotional presence. Additionally, she quickly discovers that despite being an extremely successful businessman, Christian is tormented by his past and consumed by the need to control. Ana and Christian become entangled in an extremely passionate and erotic relationship leading each of them to discover dark and delicious things about themselves.
Fifty Shades is the first book of three in E.L. James’ series, she quickly followed up with Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. As previously mentioned, Fifty Shades has received a lot of attention from both the media and experts in the field of sexual behavior and therapy. Many individuals have criticized the book for its poor writing and emphasis on establishing a correlation between BDSM practices and childhood trauma. This is a valid concern in that the BDSM community is often demonized — usually due to lack of information — as inherently violent or abusive; however, many people who engage in BDSM practices have no history of abuse or trauma. Like all sexual tastes, turn-ons, and expressions, the desire to practice BDSM is a result of an individual’s unique experiences and desires. There is also a difference between consensual BDSM and abusive behavior. In some cases, this is can be a difficult distinction (for more information, visit this link.)
In terms of the characters’ sexual relationship, though the book deals with themes of dominance and submission, it does not attempt to give the reader a lesson on BDSM culture. Christian explains to Ana that most of the activities he enjoys engaging in with his submissives involve pleasure and pain. As her dominant, he explains that he will seek pleasure from her pain at times, but that he is always responsible for her safety and well-being. A contract is drafted entailing both of their “hard limits,” or activities they refuse to engage in, as well as rules for eating, exercising, and scheduling of time together. All of these things can and do occur in real-life dominant/submissive relationships, but Christian and Ana’s relationship is a fantasy, a piece of erotica meant to titillate its readers and thus should not be taken as an instructional manual. For people who read this book and become interested in exploring their own BDSM or other sexually related desires, resources can be found online and in published works from sexuality professionals to inform and educate regarding actual practices, techniques, and toys (see list at bottom).
One can easily tell that Fifty Shades is James’ first work as an author. Her storytelling is at times excruciatingly shallow and Ana and Christian’s relationship is occasionally depicted more like a middle school fling rather than a passionate, adult affair (this could be a result of the book’s reported beginning as a piece of Twilight fan fiction). Pacing of the story can also be frustrating as the characters’ relationship appears to develop over the course of mere days and frequently changes across chapters. The sex scenes also start out as extremely hot and steamy leaving the reader wanting more, but eventually become so commonplace that the fact that both Christian and Ana consistently “find their release” with each other starts to sound forced.
In spite of the somewhat low quality of writing and its misleading insinuations about individuals who practice BDSM, Fifty Shades of Grey has captured the attention of America. Many women readers are crediting the book with having re-awakened their sexual libido, and its rise to popularity reflects the public’s desire to explore and talk about what really turns them on. If you have not read it, regardless of your gender, sexual orientation, or sexual preferences, it is worth a look just to see what all the sexy fuss is about.
- Kink Academy – a comprehensive library of sex-ed videos from sex educators
- New England Leather Alliance – a safe place for all leather/fetish/sm people through education, advocacy, and charitable giving
- The Network/La Red – a survivor-led, social justice organization that works to end partner abuse in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, BDSM, polyamorous, and queer communities