Warning: The following contains images and terminology that's of a sexual nature. As such, this post -- and the links contained within -- may not be suitable for work.
Like it or not, author E.L. James' Twilight fan fiction-turned New York Times bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey has swept the nation. After reading ad nauseum about the erotic series, I caved over Memorial Day weekend and tore through the first book in the trilogy (Grey is followed by Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed - the entire series has sold over 10 million copies to date).
I'm not about to debunk the formidable number of snarky dialogues you've read about the books – they're true, for the most part. Despite the deficient writing quality, though, the narrative manages a measure of addictiveness, while also proving shockingly effective in the libido department. The story of handsome, wealthy Christian Grey and the sexually inexperienced, naive post-collegiate Anastasia Steele's romance is textbook erotic fiction (dubbed "mommy porn" by many, thanks to its perceived demographic) - until you consider the fact that the tale is elevated beyond a Fabio fantasy by combing in BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism) scenarios.
This very fact, however fantasized, along with Grey's surprising mass popularity transforms the book's themes and formula into engrossing talking points. Which is why - in the wake of my Fifty Shades-filled weekend - I decided to mull it over with some folks on the front lines. Namely: a sex therapist, a professional dominatrix, the co-founder of a chain of popular sex toy shops, a fan of the series and a bookstore employee.
The ensuing dialogues provide a revelatory peek into the fallout from an unlikely bestseller (which is, as it happens, currently being developed into a movie thanks to Universal Pictures and Focus Features). The big-screen adaptation ensures that we'll be talking Fifty Shades of Grey for a long time to come - so here's all you'll need to know, straight from the experts!
Doing "The Deed" (No, Not That Deed)
The act of publicly purchasing Fifty Shades of Grey seems almost as shameful for some as the act of reading it. Which is why its rise in popularity can be at least partially attributed to the fact that - after James pulled the story from fan fiction websites and reworked it - the series was originally published in e-book form in May of last year. Once readers found a way to discreetly comb through the steamy subject matter, word of mouth spread. "I discovered the series via Facebook - a friend was talking about it on her page, so I was curious," says Carrie Vining Spanier, wife, mother of two and fan of the series. Vining Spanier caught on early, when only Grey and Darker were available, and was hooked immediately. "I read the first two within about four days. The third didn't come out until about two months later, and I downloaded it to my Kindle the day it came out. I couldn't wait!"
When Vintage Books republished the series and they became widely available in paperback, bookstore owners began fielding bashful requests. "It started with a few women, every few weeks," explains Emma Straub, author and bookseller at BookCourt in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. "Now it's everyone! College girls and grandmothers and everyone in between. The older ladies aren't embarrassed at all. The younger ones sometimes ask very silly questions, like 'Is this any good?' or 'Have you heard anything about this?'" Straub tweeted last month, "Getting very good at pegging 50 Shades buyers when they walk in the door" - so I had to ask: what's the description? "A general unfamiliarness with books, I must say," Straub divulges. "Also, a hat and sunglasses. I'm not joking."
A Winning Formula
The critics have already ascertained that the Fifty Shades series isn't exactly Hemingway. So what's the magic combination that's catapulted the story to popularity, despite its literary deficiencies? "She's got a great formula: kinky light erotica with a love story," says certified sex therapist Sari Cooper. "And if you look at the formulas of all the bodice-rippers that sell in the millions, it has that quality of a love story. Very powerful man chooses unassuming young woman, overwhelms her with his love, he's constantly there for her - it's a formula, and it works! It's a fairy tale for women that turns them on. An erotic fairy tale."
And, as with any engaging read, it's a form of escapism. "When I read a book, I usually choose fluffy books that offer an escape in my mind," explains Vining Spanier. "I want to be entertained, and this trilogy did that. The characters were lovable, there was romance, and of course the sex - winner!"
A Matter of Accuracy
The BDSM relationship in the Fifty Shades series begins with Christian, a dominant ("dom") practicing in the privacy of his home, seeking out Anastasia as his submissive ("sub"). There's a negotiable contract involved, and Christian has a fully-equipped playroom in his residence (which Anastasia dubs his, "Red Room of Pain"). But the particulars begin to melt away as their love affair strengthens. "I'm a dom and I've never had any of the subs sign any sort of contract," says Domme Jezebel, headmistress of Jezebel's, a fantasy, fetish and role-play dungeon in New York City. Jezebel does specify that all her sessions begin with a very clear hammering out of the rules between both parties, and also notes, "A lot of my friends who are actually in the lifestyle - not professional doms like me, but are living the lifestyle - do have contacts. But most of the professional doms I know don't have contracts with their subs."
Contractual niceties aside, the differentiation in the BDSM community is between play in public clubs (which involves standard hour or more-length sessions - or "scenes" - and obviously doesn't include sex) and those living the dominant/submissive lifestyle privately either part or full time. James' novel depicts the latter, though all Christian's experiences prior to meeting Anastasia involved contractual subs involved in unemotional relationships. Which begs the question: is it realistic that a privately practicing dom and sub could develop romantic ties? "Friends of mine…did a contract years ago - she was the sub and he was the dom," says Jezebel. "They eventually fell in love and became married."
So while it's not entirely out of the question that a romance could spark during serious BDSM role-play, the regulations and stipulations of most public locales ensure that it's quite rare. "This story is not a true BDSM relationship," explains Cooper. "This is a love story that's been kinkified. And the reason why is - in a true BDSM relationship…the rules are immensely clear, they're ironed out in advance, and there would not be this kind of emotional reactivity afterwards. There's a lot of care in working with someone in a scene."
What's troubling about Fifty Shades of Grey is that Christian is depicted as the victim of early abuse, thereby attributing his BDSM tendencies as being the result of abuse as opposed to being a predilection. Despite knowing that the book is a fantasy story, it's worrisome to think that James' tale could deposit (or inflame) such generalizations into the collective subconscious. "She's conflating a lot of different things in the book," says Cooper. "There isn't any correlation between being into BDSM and having been abused. If anything, it's misinforming the public. It is perpetuating a belief system that many people have.”
"The book is going to sell a lot more if there's something titillating in there about a person who was…abused in some way when they were younger," admits Jezebel. "So that obviously gets someone's attention a lot more than a perfectly healthy adult who chooses to have a BDSM lifestyle."
Unlocking the BDSM Mystery
James delves into the idea that BDSM pushes the limits of pleasure and pain, and allows participants to explore sexuality in a non-traditional (or, as Christian likes to say, "vanilla") way. On a surface level, that's accurate. And in a professional relationship within a public club, it doesn't involve sexual intercourse. "It's about sensuality and sexuality, but not sex," explains Jezebel. "And if someone is dominant and someone is submissive, it doesn't mean that the submissive is being taken advantage of. As a matter of fact the sub is most likely in more control of the situation than the dominant is. So it's a mutual thing."
It also opens the doors for those who've otherwise squelched specific inclinations (BDSM or otherwise), for fear of judgment. "I think most people feel like what they like and what they're attracted to is somewhat shameful when it has to do with any type of sex that's out of the realm of what you see in a movie," says Cooper. "I've had clients who feel anxious if they want to have intercourse in a certain position that they may not think is politically correct. There's shame in it for some people. Because they think, 'Well what would people think if they knew?' They don't think of it as, 'I can enjoy that just like I enjoy having my neck scratched.'"
Much of the book's controversy has centered on the fact that the sex scenes involving BDSM are perceived as violent or abusive. "It's not about abuse. Not at all," says Jezebel. "If it's abuse, then it's not about BDSM - they'd be in the same abusive relationship if they were in a vanilla relationship. It's about mutual satisfaction. And sex is not the primary, secondary, even the tertiary - it's all about fetish and fantasy and role-play."
Igniting Newfound Sexuality
What's most striking - and worth noting - about Christian and Anastasia's relationship is the amount of trust showcased between a submissive and a dominant. In many ways, it pushes the boundaries of intimacy and communication - and experimenting with these tools can serve to strengthen any relationship. "This book has been a libido enhancer, and it also allows people to start the conversation with one another," says Cooper. "And this is for people who've been together for many years who've never been trained to talk to one another. So in that way I think it's been very helpful."
"Even if some of the details aren't on point and are a little fantastical, I think it's very good that it's bringing more attention to the world of BDSM," says Jezebel. "This shows them that there are other areas of sexuality and sensuality…different things to explore, especially for people who get older and find sex isn't the big thrill that it once was, and you're sitting there looking at your partner going, 'Well I'm bored. What's next?"
Let's Hear It for the Toys!
Fifty Shades of Grey has spawned a bevy of curious questions and daring purchases, resulting in previously unseen buying trends. Claire Cavanah, co-founder of adult toy chain Babeland and co-author of Moregasm: Babeland’s Guide to Mind-Blowing Sex says they first noticed customers mentioning the book regularly in January of this year. After multiple requests about bondage and spanking how-to's and the proper way to use crops or floggers, the store added a "Fifty Shades of Hot Sex" workshop to its regular adult sex education event offerings. "It had the highest attendance ever - 125 people,” recalls Cavanah. “We had to close the RSVP list!” Babeland will be adding more events in the future (including four this June) to compensate.
But a swell of attendance in public classes hasn't been the only side effect - folks are clearly inviting the toys they read about into their own bedrooms, as well. In fact, the spike in purchases of blindfolds, restraints, riding crops, floggers, cuffs and Ben Wa Ball-type products mentioned in the book has been so extreme that Babeland put together a Fifty Shades of Grey kit containing the most popular items.
"We’ve seen a 91% increase from March to May in sales of the Babeland Bondage Kit," says Cavanah. "Overall, we’ve seen visits to the Bondage category on our website jump nearly 400% from early April to May. We’ve never seen a trend that has influenced sales of accessories in the bondage category jump like this before."
The takeaway seems to be that - despite the book's romanticized, and at times inaccurate, portrayals - it's become a healthy conversation starter and sexual tool for folks who normally blush at even the slightest suggestion of unconventional sex. "I think after reading the book and then maybe playing with the toys, the next logical step is to try to gently broach it to your spouse, your partner," says Jezebel. "And, once they realize it's not some kind of trick and they're going to get in trouble, I think guys will open right up because they love trying different things, but they're always afraid that that the female is going to cut them off at the knees."