Dubbed "Mommy porn" because of all the women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s reading it, 50 Shades of Grey has sold more than 100 million copies after only three years in print, having outpaced Harry Potter to become the fastest-selling paperback of all time.
The story centers on the bizarre relationship between Ana, a naïve 21-year-old virgin, and Christian, an intense, 27-year-old self-made billionaire. They're attracted at first sight, but before getting involved sexually, Christian wants Ana to sign a written consent form for a BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission, masochism) arrangement. He presents her with a multi-page document outlining the terms by which he will completely dominate her and she will fully submit. "The Submissive shall accept whippings, floggings, spankings, canings, paddlings, or any other discipline the Dominant should decide to administer, without hesitation, inquiry, or complaint." This is a shocking new concept to Ana, but Christian has had fifteen such contractual relationships before.
Ana never signs, but she effectively becomes number sixteen anyway. There are multiple trysts in Christian's "playroom," which Ana calls the Red Room of Pain, and Christian's hyper-controlling personality drives the whole affair. Ana would like more of a romance with some conventional boyfriend-girlfriend affection, but Christian says he doesn't know any other way to have a relationship. "Because I'm fifty shades of f***ed up."
This is no doubt true, but he's not the only one. The question thinking people should be asking is, What is the appeal here? Why are millions of grown women—both independent, modern, and secular ones and married, conservative, and religious ones—reading this, presumably identifying with a timid girl who willingly becomes a controlling sadist's sexual plaything? - - "Desperately Disconnected: 50 Shades of Grey & the Longings of the Female Heart"
What, indeed, is the appeal? Clemmons goes on to highlight a study done by Dannah Gresh, a sexuality expert, and Dr. Juli Slattery, a clinical psychologist specializing in women and intimacy. Slattery read the series and, based on her own response as she read, noted five desires of a woman's heart that the books address. Gresh consulted publisher guidelines for erotica and interviewed women who read a lot of popular erotica to create a list of five common characteristics in the genre. Though done independently, their lists matched. Here is what they found (and I am paraphrasing):
• Erotica appeals to a longing to escape reality by giving women a compelling fantasy.The next question, of course, is whether or not this type of writing can do anything to help satisfy those longings. Is it cathartic, healing, or hopeful? Is it just an innocent diversion? Apparently it is none of the above. If anything, Gresh and Slattery found that women who consume erotica report a rise in disillusionment and isolation (check out the Salvo article to read an interesting testimonial). Slattery notes,"You cannot pursue the kinds of relationships you read about in erotica without an outcome very different from the ones in the books."
• Erotica appeals to a longing to be cherished by presenting a woman who becomes a man's sole focus.
• Erotica appeals to a longing to be protected by introducing a strong man.
• Erotica appeals to a longing to rescue a man by featuring a woman who subdues the man's darker instincts.
• Erotica appeals to a longing for sex by providing a vicarious version.
The longing to be cherished, rescued, and sexually fulfilled in mind-blowing ways while saving the bad boy from his inner demons happens all the time in the fantasy worlds that readers find increasingly compelling, but the promised fulfillment doesn't pan out in real life. Just to be clear, I'm not criticizing the longings. I'm criticizing a deeply flawed plan for fulfilling them that spills over into real-world decisions. When actual relationships resemble those in books like 50 Shades (or the Twilight saga, if you are looking for a tamer version), the stories never end well.
I am not here stand on a pedestal. I used to be one of those men who helped the equally false fantasy of pornography to flourish. Men spend billions to saturate themselves with a lie about how women in their fantasies should look, feel and act. Is that helping relationships? Would anyone like to argue that porn encourages the cherishing and protection of women? Of course not. Porn makes men calloused objectifiers who treat women as expendable toys meant to make us happy as we see fit. It harms rather than helps a good sex life. Porn makes sure that the ordinary world of real women, sex and relationships will never be enough. Don't take it personally, ladies. You're competing with an intoxicating lie.
And it's the same lie stories like 50 Shades of Gray offers. It's a fantasy. A compelling, emotional, intoxicating fantasy. Guard your soul. Before you know it, the ordinary world of real men, real sex, and real relationships will never be enough.
So what is the solution? We could all fight the porn industry in all its forms instead of support it. We could choose to cherish and protect both men and women in both the lives we live and the stories we tell. Maybe then we could foster a climate in which imaginary lovers are not preferable to real ones. I don't think it's too late, but we have our work cut out for us.