50 Shades of Grey: Whipping BDSM Out Of The Shadows
Mar 2012 12

50 Shades of Grey: Whipping BDSM Out Of The Shadows

Posted In Blog,Books,Entertainment,Love,Relationships,Sex,Society

by Andrew Shaffer

“There’s a very fine line between pleasure and pain, Anastasia. They are two sides of the same coin, one not existing without the other. I can show you how pleasurable pain can be.”

– Christian Grey, the hero of E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey

“Patrons at my library are freaking out over 50 Shades of Grey,” Chicago librarian Leah White told me. Since the BDSM erotic romance novel (and its two sequels) is available only as “print-on-demand” through a small Australian publisher (TheWritersCoffeeShop.com), libraries and bookstores have had trouble keeping it in stock. Still, its popularity has steadily grown in the US over the past year, fueled in part by ebooks, which account for more than 90% of the trilogy’s 100,000-plus sales.

According to one Huffington Post blogger in January, the book is so engrossing that “moms are forgetting to pick their kids up from school.” And on March 1, following a salacious story in the New York Post, 50 Shades of Grey finally hit the top spot on Amazon’s Kindle books bestseller list. Today Show host Hoda Kotb even jumped on the bandwagon. “Hello steamy!” she tweeted after downloading the ebook. (This was particularly alarming to me, since my mother watches Hoda and her co-host Kathie Lee Gifford religiously.) Has BDSM gone mainstream?

First, let’s look at the plot of 50 Shades of Grey. Anastasia Steele, a college-age virgin who has never been kissed, meets Christian Grey, the 27-year-old billionaire CEO of Grey’s Enterprises Holdings. Christian is unbelievably handsome with his “tousled hair” and “expensive body wash.” He is also unbelievably kinky. He lost his virginity to a dominatrix when he was fifteen, and, after five years as her submissive, became a dom himself. He used his vast wealth to turn a room in his penthouse apartment into a virtual dungeon, nicknamed the “Red Room of Pain.” And he wants to share his love of BDSM (and fine wine, classical music, and Bruce Springsteen) with Anastasia.

The sex is well-written and James’ portrayal of BDSM is, for the most part, accurate. While Christian and Anastasia start out with “vanilla” sex acts, they gradually add spanking, bondage, riding crops, and object insertion into their repertoire. While such activities are old hat in the erotic fiction genre, they are shockingly explicit for a book being discussed by mainstream media. James teases the reader with an exhaustive list of sex acts and scenarios by way of a D/S contract. “No fisting, you say. Anything else you object to?” Christian asks Anastasia. “Anal intercourse doesn’t exactly float my boat,” she says. He responds, “I’ll agree to [remove] the fisting, but I’d really like to claim your ass, Anastasia.” The author takes the D/S relationship to extremes, however, as Christian attempts to prohibit Anastasia from snacking between meals and dictate how many times a week she works out (four, if you must know). As many readers have wondered, Is this BDSM or Weight Watchers?

The one problem I had with James’ portrayal of BDSM is the use of the lifestyle as “evidence” for how “dark” the hero is. “I’m fifty shades of fucked up, baby,” he tells Anastasia, a reference to both his abusive past and his love of BDSM.

“It wants us to think of Christian’s BDSM as something that’s wrong with him, a symptom of his inner, childhood demons,” Angela Toscano writes on the romance blog Dear Author. “But it also wants us to get off on it. Like teenage girls giggling over pictures of penises, it seems to say of BDSM, ‘Tee he he he! That’s so gross,’ but secretly loving the titillation that comes from viewing the forbidden.” It’s in sharp contrast to the sex-positive portrayal of BDSM as healthy and normal that one finds in most erotic fiction.

Some media outlets have dubbed 50 Shades of Grey “mommy porn” for the book’s almost singular appeal to middle-aged mothers, most of whom have never read an erotic book (let alone one featuring BDSM). “I am not in the habit of reading erotica, but this trilogy makes it seem okay, even for Westchester county,” one reader wrote.

Why this book? If you’re looking for erotic women’s fiction, there’s no shortage of better books out there, something even the most rabid E.L. James fans admit. But part of the book’s appeal is that “everybody is reading it.” A quick glance at Amazon reveals that customers who bought 50 Shades of Grey also bought the Hunger Games trilogy, Heaven is for Real, Steve Jobs’ biography, and novels by Nicholas Sparks and Jodi Picoult. In other words, big, popular books and authors.

Regardless of why it’s popular, 50 Shades of Grey‘s very existence is leading to some interesting, sex-positive discussions. “I found myself explaining what BDSM was to some of the moms at Saturday morning basketball,” publicist Alison Brod told The New York Post. Whether or not this signifies that BDSM (or even erotica) has gone mainstream is up in the air at this point, but it’s not inconceivable that 50 Shades of Grey could potentially do for BDSM what Twilight did for vampires.

***

Andrew Shaffer is the author of Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love, a book which takes a humorous look at the disastrous love lives of history’s smartest men and women. His writing has appeared in Mental Floss and Maxim. Stephen Colbert, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, once called Shaffer’s atheist Christmas cards “un-American.” Visit him online at EvilReads.com/.

He is currently serializing a Fifty Shades of Grey parody (Fifty-One Shades, because it’s one better) at: EvilReads.com/Fifty-One-Shades

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