None of us will ever know how many orgasms Fifty Shades of Grey has inspired, or how much marital boredom it’s enlivened with vaginal balls and riding crops, but its impact is incalculable far beyond the bedroom.
Since the first volume of E L James’ S&M trilogy was published in 2011, the books have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and been translated into 52 languages. From the Bible to the Harry Potter series, only a handful of books have ever racked up such numbers, and no previous work of pornography has captured the erotic imagination of so many women.
They’ve been hyperventilating about the movie ever since. Weeks before its Feb. 13 release, Fifty Shades had already sold more advance tickets on Fandango than any other R-rated film in history. From the moment it was cast, fans were so invested in what would appear on screen that they immediately ignited a social-media firestorm.
When Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, was chosen in September 2013 as the virginal Anastasia Steele, fans were disappointed by her lack of star power, but they saved their volleys of Twitter vitriol for Sons of Anarchy's Charlie Hunnam, who was hired to play her seducer, the kinky billionaire Christian Grey. Then Hunnam bolted, only weeks before production was scheduled to begin, and another round of controversy flared when he was replaced by pretty-boy actor Jamie Dornan, who plays a serial killer on the TV series The Fall. Could a former Calvin Klein model embody the dark sexual fantasies of millions of women?
So far the 51-year-old James—who has described Fifty Shades as her “midlife crisis, writ large”—has proved a shrewd judge of what turns women on, and when the film rights were sold for $5 million, she helped approve a like-minded team to adapt it, including a female director (Sam Taylor-Johnson) and a female screenwriter (Kelly Marcel).
No matter how the movie is received, it will resurrect the fierce debate about the story and What It Means. Critics have scoffed at its lamentable prose and characters that make Mickey and Minnie Mouse look multidimensional, starting with an insipid heroine whose most eloquent expression is the oft- repeated “Holy crap!” But no one can dispute the astonishing appeal of Anastasia’s sexual education.
Forbes listed James as the highest-earning author of 2013, estimating her income at $95 million. The trilogy is credited with inspiring a skyrocketing demand for sex toys as well as a new market for “mommy porn,” along with everything from silver ties and leather bras to a licensed board game, wine, and love songs.
Its outsize effect has also inspired innumerable arguments among journalists, academics, feminists, and social anthropologists. In an era when women are more empowered than at any time in recorded history, why are so many in thrall to a tale that revolves around a sadistic hero’s need to subjugate and inflict pain on the one he loves?
I’ve read more dumb theories than I care to count, but the silliest explanation is also the most dangerous. It’s hardly news that some women find recreational release in fantasies of sexual submission—more on that in a bit—and the matchup between a sexual innocent and a decadent Svengali represents a formula that’s been recycled for centuries. But when obtuse cultural critics claim this means liberated women think freedom is a burden, the only thing they illuminate is a stunning obliviousness to the hidden realities of women’s lives.
The real reasons for the popularity of Fifty Shades, and for the persistent role of domination and submission in women’s sexual imaginations, are rooted in what it actually means to live life in a female body—and the truth about that is so dark it makes Christian Grey’s Red Room of Pain seem as innocuous as a backyard sandbox.
We all prefer not to acknowledge this, of course; women throughout history have survived, and men have protected their prerogatives, by pretending we don’t even recognize it. In 6,000 years, no society has permitted women to tell the truth about their sexual experience, let alone their suppressed desires, without inflicting severe punishments on them.
From female genital mutilation to “honor” killings and stoning for adultery to religious commands about covering the female body, cultures around the world control and penalize female sexuality. Slut-shaming spans the sociopolitical spectrum, from an iconoclast like Sinéad O’Connor invoking the word “prostitute” to reprimand Miley Cyrus for her “Wrecking Ball” video to Mike Huckabee launching his expected right-wing presidential campaign by attacking Beyoncé’s hypersexualized image. And yet with every passing day, more women dare to express themselves, generating seismic shifts that threaten to topple far more venerable social institutions than Bill Cosby’s reputation.
However transgressive their words may be, women’s thoughts have long been far more so, but the first thing to remember about Fifty Shades is that this doesn’t mean people want to live out everything they imagine. “Erotic practices are a form of theater that allows you to transcend the limits of your own body and morality—but nobody wants them to be the reality,” says psychotherapist Esther Perel, an expert on sexual desire and author of the best-seller Mating in Captivity. “The erotic mind is very politically incorrect, and the thing that turns you on at night is the thing you demonstrate against during the day.”
Indeed, the thing that turns you on at night may well be a reaction to what’s going on during the day; old habits die hard, and no one alive today has escaped the influence of conventional sex roles. Male privilege is increasingly threatened, but when Anastasia gets tied up and spanked by Christian, her enthusiastic self-subordination reaffirms age-old gender norms with a vengeance. Despite the S&M context, no traditional stereotypes were harmed in the making of Fifty Shades, which simply repackaged the clichés of our most cherished fairy tales, romance novels, and chick flicks.
Stories of women being rescued by men have characterized our favorite narratives from Homer to Disney, and deflowering virgins is another perennial favorite. In Fifty Shades, Perel says, “you have the theme of the ingenue, the innocent girl being discovered by the man who is going to initiate her and release the lioness within. He knows exactly what he wants, and he doesn’t need any taking care of, which releases her to focus on herself. He sends the message ‘I am a man, not a boy, so you can be a woman, not a mother.’ She doesn’t have to tell him what to do.”
When obtuse cultural critics claim that liberated women think freedom is a burden, the only thing they illuminate is a stunning obliviousness to the hidden realities of women’s lives.
As usual, he’s rich: From Prince Charming to Mr. Darcy to Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, wealth has always been a crucial attribute of such heroes. Anastasia’s tech billionaire lavishes his chosen love object with gifts, rewarding her surrender with designer clothes, flashy cars, and the mansion of her dreams. As the British humorist Caitlin Moran told EW last year, “Every time she’s good and submits to pain, he buys her something or takes her off in his f - - - ing helicopter.... The whole plot is will-get-spanked-on-the-clitoris-with-a-hairbrush-in-exchange-for-an-iPad.”
He’s also a stalker with some scary habits, but as a classic alpha male updated in the ripped body of 21st- century eye candy, Grey makes it easy for women to lose sight of the price he exacts for his love. “He meets every criterion on the list of sexual predators’ behaviors you’d find in a domestic-violence shelter,” says Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. “But what makes it okay is the veneer of wealth and power. If this guy was living on food stamps in a housing project, she would have told him to f--- off at the first sign of violence.”
Instead, Anastasia buys into his sexual sadism. “She’s a virgin, which feeds all our princess fantasies about purity, ” says Susan Shapiro Barash, a professor who teaches gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College and author of The Nine Phases of Marriage. “But he has a dark secret, and when she falls in love with him, his fantasy becomes something she really signs onto. When she’s awakened sexually, she says, ‘I love it!’”
But this time female capitulation delivers an unexpected plot twist that upends previous expectations. As S&M’s poster couple negotiate the terms of bondage and discipline, the obedient sub slowly turns the tables on her master. “We’re all raised to be good girls, but a good girl is a pleaser, and good girls don’t have much power,” says Barash. “In this story, his need for a sexually dominant relationship gives her more power than he has. He loses control immediately. And she gets what she always wanted—she gets real commitment. If this is a game, she wins.”
For James, bondage and domination provided a titillating frame to explore the power dynamics of sex, but many experts doubt that’s why women have responded so strongly to Fifty Shades. “I don’t believe the appeal is S&M—it’s really a Harlequin romance on steroids,” says Dines. Despite its antecedents in Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast, Fifty Shades can even be read as a story of women’s empowerment: The princess ends up saving the prince. “She heals him,” Barash says. “This story has not been told before.”
But its key elements address some eternal yearnings. More than 40 years after Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying introduced the zipless f---, many women still long for romantic devotion instead of a casual hookup. Being made to feel desirable is often the biggest turn-on, and Christian Grey, who constantly tells Anastasia how irresistible she is, wants his new lover so much he will sacrifice anything, even his defining obsession, to win her.
Not to mention give her earth-shattering orgasms, a noteworthy talent when the great majority of American women say they have trouble climaxing from intercourse alone. Given the prevalence of female sexual frustration in a culture that prioritizes male needs, it’s hardly surprising that many women are aroused by a hero who drives a girl who never even masturbated into a state of constant sexual ecstasy. Even for those of us who don’t fantasize about being paddled or whipped, the idea of an infinitely patient, adoring, and skillful lover may seem like the ultimate aphrodisiac, if not the impossible dream. As for the bondage part, well, that’s nothing new. “BDSM has existed since Roman times,” says Perel.
In fact, because virtually all cultures stigmatize unrestrained female sexuality, coercion has always featured prominently in sexual narratives. For some women, being forced to have sex alleviates guilt, a major reason for the existence of rape fantasies. “One appeal of submission for women is the desire to feel highly sexualized without taking responsibility for it: ‘It’s not my fault I’m this turned on, it was imposed on me,’ ” explains Dr. John Jacobs, a psychiatrist and author of All You Need Is Love and Other Lies About Marriage. For women and men, he says, “there’s a desire, perhaps built into the human psyche, for both being in control and at the same time not being responsible.”
Either gender may fantasize about domination and submission, but the culture traditionally casts the male as the aggressor, and nowhere is this more evident than in porn, the vast majority of which has been created by men for men. “There’s nothing about pleasing women in porn,” says Terry Real, a family and couples therapist who runs the Relational Life Institute in Boston. “The woman’s pleasure is giving the man pleasure. You will never see a woman say, ‘Excuse me, I don’t like that, could you do this instead?’”
Even for those of us who don’t fantasize about being paddled or whipped, the idea of an infinitely patient, adoring and skillful lover may seem like the ultimate aphrodisiac, if not the impossible dream.
In the past, this held true even when pornography was created by women. The most infamous example is Story of O, the 1954 French erotic novel written by a woman for her lover, an admirer of the Marquis de Sade. In it, the character O willingly becomes a sexual slave who is whipped, chained, and branded by a secret society of men. Her identity is reduced to a collection of anonymous orifices, and the price she pays for sexual objectification is self-annihilation. Abandoned by her master, O requests, and is granted permission, to die.
By that standard, James looks like a genuine revolutionary for switching the focus to the woman’s sexual pleasure and her eventual triumph. Anastasia gets the traditional prize when she lands a rich husband, but James herself represents a new kind of woman: After devising a blockbuster blend of old archetypes enlivened by risqué thrills, her reward was landing the title of Highest-Paid Author in the World. Nor is she the only female creator exploring new erotic frontiers. Lena Dunham has made transgressive sex a hallmark of the HBO television series Girls, and the fourth season opened last month with an episode featuring Brian Williams’ daughter Allison—who most recently charmed America’s children in a live television performance as Peter Pan—enjoying a vigorous session of anilingus.
Times are indisputably changing, and the success of James’ trilogy has contributed to the sense that old-fashioned sexual constraints are under siege. Feminism and the gay rights movement have long challenged traditional assumptions, and the legalization of gay marriage and the push for transgender rights are expanding our ideas about sexuality. “Sex roles are less determined now, and I think it’s making sexuality less of a contract and more of a choice,” says a New York cabaret singer, a bisexual in a longtime lesbian marriage. She’s having an affair with a straight man, and recently she penetrated him during intercourse. “It happened spontaneously, but we just went for it,” she says. “It was new territory for him, and it felt powerful to me.”
In the past, few women felt free to express dominant sexual tendencies unless they were working as dominatrixes, and few men felt comfortable enough to let them. Male power and female submission are so intrinsic to our experience that we often take that dynamic for granted without even realizing it. As a result, everything we think we know about female sexuality may be only the tip of an iceberg—one whose true dimensions and topography remain unknown.
As I was working on this story, I began to think about real women and the messages we absorb from the larger world, starting with the lesson that our bodies are not our own.
After more than four decades as a reporter, I find myself sighing at claims that statistics on rape or sexual abuse are overstated. I’ve never even asked my friends what traumas they’ve endured, but here’s a partial count of events that happened to acquaintances who shared them with me. (I’m only including women I know personally, as opposed to the thousands of people I’ve interviewed over the years.)
Offhand, I can think of two women raped by strangers at knifepoint and two raped at gunpoint. Three women sexually abused in childhood by their fathers. A new bride molested by her father-in-law. A woman who didn’t know her husband was sexually abusing their daughter until the girl became suicidal. One woman raped at 9 by an older cousin. One woman molested at 8 by a stranger. (When her father heard what happened, he hit her.) Another woman roofied and gang-raped by seven kitchen workers at the summer resort where she was waitressing. One woman sexually assaulted at 7 by her older brother in attacks that included vaginal penetration with scissors. Then there’s the wife whose husband agreed they should divorce—whereupon he shot and killed himself and their 5-year-old daughter. I could go on (and on and on), but you get the idea.
By most standards, these women are fortunate. None grew up poor, and virtually all were raised by educated parents in intact families. As adults, they have flourishing careers, enduring marriages, healthy children. They don’t define themselves as victims, or even as unusual. In truth, their experiences are not unusual, but our resistance to acknowledging that fact remains ferocious.
Almost all the aforementioned crimes were not reported to law enforcement or other authorities, and none was prosecuted. Except for the murder of the 5-year-old girl, these events don’t show up in any official statistics. Like so many aspects of women’s lives, such traumas remain invisible, sometimes even to those who experience them.
The other day, I told several women at a luncheon that I was writing about the frequency of sexual violation. “I immediately thought, ‘None of that has ever happened to me,’ ” one of those women wrote me in a private email that night. “By the time I’d finished my train ride home, I had identified at least half a dozen incidents, beginning when I was 12 years old!”
I’ve personally been the victim of crimes committed in different American cities by male strangers on 13 separate occasions involving a total of 22 different perpetrators (a couple of the events were group attacks). Two assaults were attempted rapes, one of which I fought off and one of which I outran. In this tally, I am not including the unwanted sexual acts committed by my dentist, my gynecologist, a great-uncle (all now deceased), and innumerable strangers who exposed themselves or molested my body on trains and subways, in crowds and people’s homes. Nor am I counting events involving male superiors in various jobs. After I was sexually attacked by one editor in the elevator on my third day of work at my first newspaper job, I told his boss, who chuckled and then made a pass at me. When I told another top editor, he replied that the entire newsroom thought I was sleeping with him, so I might as well do so. (I subsequently learned that the entire newsroom thought I was sleeping with him because he told people I was. I wasn’t.)
When people pontificate about women’s intrinsic sexual nature, I find myself thinking: How do you know? How can we ourselves even know?
Things were worse out on the street. From the age of 13 on, I was harassed by strangers dozens of times a day in incidents that ranged from catcalls to obscene verbal abuse to men exposing their genitals to grabbing various parts of my body. Nothing much has changed over the years. My daughter was 13 the first time she and her best friend, sitting in the back of a New York City bus, found themselves staring at a stranger’s naked penis thrust in their faces. When my daughter was in college, she once counted the incidents of sexual harassment she experienced between leaving our apartment building and arriving at the subway stop three blocks away. “The number got so far up in the double digits that I lost count,” she said.
Not all men are perpetrators, but what many men don’t understand is that none of this is atypical. Having to deal with such behavior is simply the reality of living in a female body in the United States, which is by any measure less hazardous than living in a female body in Egypt or India or Nigeria. Even here, despite the ubiquity of sexual harassment, there wasn’t even a name for it until well into the 1970s, let alone a legal remedy. “It was just life,” Gloria Steinem has said. It still is, as even the most cursory look at the headlines will attest.
So when people pontificate about women’s intrinsic sexual nature, I find myself thinking: How do you know? How can we ourselves even know? From earliest childhood, women’s experience of sex is so inextricably intertwined with all forms of male control that submission is forever eroticized in more ways than we can possibly unravel. As females, we have been dominated physically, politically, socially, legally, and economically, and pop culture endlessly reinforces the message. Hip-hop derides bitches and ho’s, an entire genre of blockbuster videogames depicts female characters as sexualized corpses or disposable prostitutes, fashion sells bondage dresses with leather cages, and Hollywood recycles domination themes from 9 1⁄2 Weeks to Secretary to Venus in Fur. Sex is fused with violence for countless women who suffer domestic abuse by husbands and lovers. More than a third of all female homicide victims are killed by intimate partners.
Given those realities, who can say what we would be like in a world where our sexual desires, and the way we express them, were freely chosen instead of imposed on us by a lifetime of social conditioning? Fifty Shades of Grey may represent the ultimate appropriation for capitalist consumption of themes that have resonated throughout history, but one thing its popularity can’t tell us is the truth about female sexuality.
“In the past, women were so tied economically to the home that it was ‘give your husband what he wants or you’ll end up on the street,’” says the bisexual singer. “But these days I have a lot of friends having affairs because they have powerhouse jobs, make four times as much money as their husbands, and their husbands aren’t good lovers. You don’t have to lie there and take it anymore. You can ask for what you want.”
Female infidelity is soaring; research shows that women initiate two-thirds of divorces and the majority of marital separations. The entire culture is roiled by evidence of our dissatisfaction with the status quo—and our growing refusal to accept it. Fifty Shades of Grey is ultimately a symptom of that quest, not a verdict on its outcome. But until we can express our sexual natures without fear of social stigma, loss of love, unwanted pregnancy, criminal prosecution, physical violence, or murder, it’s probably wise to reserve judgment about what women really like to do, say, think, and feel during sex.
The deepest truth about female sexuality may be that it has never, in all of recorded history, been something we ourselves had the freedom to shape. Many feminists believe that if we did, the results would be transformative for both men and women. “In a culture of gender equality, sex would be way more creative and more interesting,” says Dines. “You would be the author of your own sexuality.” Such autonomy would be infinitely more transgressive than any blindfold or ball gag.
So. What do women really want?
Stay tuned. We’re only just beginning to find out.
Lede photo: Ryan McGinley and Team (Gallery Inc.), New York