Fifty Shades of Grey has been vibrating in the zeitgeist’s sweet spot with such intensity that I could no longer ignore it. People kept asking me how I felt about it as a woman, a sex-writer, a sex-positive activist, and as a mother. By the time I picked up all three books I had read articles both for and against it, from every position imaginable, from every group imaginable. The response has been, well, unprecedented, and only two things seem consistent:
- People seem to agree that the writing is horrendous. I get it. The writing sucks.
- People seem to be taking it very personally. I don’t get it. It’s not about you.
So let’s get that out of the way before I confess something that shocked even me. The writing is so horrible that it stopped being funny midway through the first book and was painful by the end of the third. So what. She’s not a writer. She’s a chick who wrote stories on her commute, for her own fun. Seriously. We should all waste time so well. Besides, if this poorly-written drivel is what gets people to start reading in general, or reading erotica in specific, or talking about sex so openly, then that’s awesome.
And it’s not about you. Even if you are into BDSM, it’s still not about you. It’s a trilogy of stories about characters who are not you. I don’t think that every book I read about motherhood or athletes, or cooks, or….. is about me. It was not written to validate or invalidate anything about how you have sex. It’s a novel.
That’s all it is.
Amongst the things that it is not, which surely includes a great work of erotic fiction, is a BDSM how-to manual. For that matter, it is neither an indictment nor an endorsement of BDSM. Asking it to be any of those things is as unfair as asking Pretty Woman to accurately reflect the life of a sex worker. That said, after Pretty Woman came out, people probably did discuss the overall idea of sex work more than they used to, and that’s what art & media, especially Fairy Tales, have always done.
That’s what this is. It’s a Fairy Tale. Just like Pygmalion, Little Red Riding Hood, Pretty Woman, Shrek, West Side Story and every other work of fiction that has provided a glimpse into how intimacy, and the pressures of the world around us, impact us. In fact, that has been the primary use of Fairy Tales since they were first told – to teach us things that we can’t usually see when we’re in the thick of them.
What’s amazing is the impact it’s having on the mainstream population as a whole. It is just a (very badly written) novel, yet it is changing the sexual landscape, right before our eyes. In ways that I, as a sex-positive writer, find terrifically exciting. Seriously. So here’s the confession: I loved reading these books. And I read all three of them, taking copious notes, so that I wouldn’t “judge” the content without seeing how it ALL played out.
I am a literary snob of the highest order, so the fact that I loved reading these shocked me. Especially since I actually hate reading erotica (I admit, I mostly skipped the sex parts in these books, just read enough to set the scene in my head, get hot, and then skip forward before she said something stupid like “my waiting mound shivered with pent up longing and the anticipation of liberation as he thrust his manhood into my sacred places, probing my inner goddess with his dark pathos.” I made that up, I’m just assuming.)
Why did I love them so much? Several reasons, which is really what I want to talk about.
To me, these books did a great job of introducing some very important ideas about sexual relationships to a mainstream audience that might otherwise never be exposed to them. While some of that is simply exposure to consensual BDSM, the thing that most turned me on was the directness with which both the Christian and the Ana characters discussed boundaries and expectations – as a VERY two way street.
As he presented her with a literal contract to negotiate a potentially consensual Dom / Sub relationship, I couldn’t help but think, “what if we all did this?”
I wanted to jump up and down and tell EVERYONE out there that we should all have this level of direct discussion about what our needs and desires are. We should all, in all of our relationships, go into them with a clear understanding that we have a right to get our needs met, and be very clear about what those are. As I watched these characters negotiate what they believed their boundaries to be, I hoped that people were paying attention – YOU CAN DO THAT TOO, and you should. You should discuss the frequency and manner with which you would like to have sex. You should discuss the things you are curious about and afraid of.
While this is, in fact, a hallmark of most of the BDSM relationships I know, it is woefully absent in most of the “mainstream” romantic and sexual relationships that I come in contact with. To me, at that very basic level, this not only expanded the horizons of sexual agency for people who have probably never thought about it, but did so using a sexual style that many people see as manipulative – and is, in my experience, quite the opposite.
BDSM must be built on trust, another thing that was dealt with in a very interesting manner. As the Christian character points out time and time again, trust is essential and that is why he was making so clear what she was getting into. But the biggest trust crisis came when she didn’t safeword in a scene. (For those who know nothing about BDSM and didn’t read the books, a safeword is a word – any word – that is said to STOP all activity when engaging in BDSM. It is meant to be uttered when one is at, but not over, their boundaries.)
While some have, rightly, argued that he should have been able to read her when it was going too far, he couldn’t. And that happens in life, BDSM or not. He trusted her to use the safeword when it was too much, and she didn’t. As a result, he went too far and hurt her. When we tell our partners in life – sexual or otherwise – that something is okay with us, but it really isn’t, we allow them to hurt us. That, in effect, turns them into an instrument of pain, which is really unfair to them. And, which erodes trust.
This is a nuance that is too often lost in the pain and anger of relationships that are not working. Where BDSM gives us a safeword to stop all activity, in the default world, we all have that level of responsibility to protect not only ourselves, but to protect others from unknowingly hurting us and ruining a relationship. Honesty and trust runs both ways. In this way, BDSM celebrates something that few people outside of it grasp, but that Christian repeats time and time again: SUBS HAVE ALL THE POWER. When you safeword, everything stops. When you don’t exercise that right and responsibility, things go wrong.
In Fifty Shades Of Grey, when Ana didn’t safeword, she allowed them both to be harmed. And that was the last time he took her into his playroom for a long time. To me, that’s an apt illustration of what happens when we are not honest, when we destroy trust. (Honestly, I would have dumped her at that point, but then, I wasn’t in love with either one of them.)
That said, over the course of both the negotiations and the evolution of their relationship, their needs and desires and boundaries changed. Both of them. They started as two people with very clear definitions of their sexuality, both of which changed over time, through discussion and as a result of the relationship. To me, this was a fantastic illustration of the fact that our sexuality is not a destination, but a journey. Our sexuality can and should change as we come in contact with new opportunities and perspectives. Both characters in this book evolved, together, to something that neither one of them ever would have predicted.
Granted, her insipid whining and desire for “hearts and roses” annoyed the crap out of me, (as did her obsessive pathologizing of his sexuality, which I’ll get to in a bit) but that perspective is very representative of the kind of thing we see in the mainstream psyche. I saw the Ana character as precisely the narrowly defined concept of “love” and “normal” and “right” that many of us are spoon fed and grow up believing in. So, what happens when that is juxtaposed against love and desire that defies those boundaries? If you read all three books, what happens is that she expands her definition. She comes to realize that people do not fit into neat little boxes, and she wants things she didn’t know it was “okay” to want. That’s a lesson I’d like more people to learn.
Likewise, regardless of why he had defined his own sexuality so narrowly, he began embracing things that he just “didn’t” do. Yes, at first, it is a one-way street, him making concessions for her. But by the end, it was totally equal, and they created something that was new to both of them, an even hybrid of what they both brought into the relationship.
I, personally, think we need more of that. As AV Flox so accurately points out in her piece about FSoG, we have all met that lover who would be “perfect if.” And the idea that we need to – or have any right to – change them to meet our needs does us all a disservice. But the idea that we can’t change is no better. The ability to change and adapt as our understanding of ourselves and our needs change, that’s the golden ticket. And both characters did that in this book. Which was surprising to me, given how it started.
Indeed, in the beginning, I found them both rather revolting for their arrogance. The way that the Ana character kept asking “why” Christian was the way he was gave us such a beautiful illustration of the way society as a whole tries to pathologize people’s sexuality. And how condescending and useless it is. That said, it’s common. But by the end, she had realized it didn’t really matter why he was the way he was, as long as he was happy now, and that’s a fundamental shift.
While some part of me wishes that he didn’t have a seedy background to “blame” the BDSM on, (what a trite decision that was,) I still think it can provide a valuable perspective. Many people feel the need to pathologize and understand why other people are the way they are, rather than just accepting that it is what it is – and making it work. Which is ultimately what happened, if you read all three books. Likewise, accepting that it is what it is and won’t work because you simply aren’t compatible. Compatibility matters more, which is also discussed in their “off again” parts of their on again off again relationship.
The truth is, we DO all have baggage that we bring into our relationships, even if they don’t manifest as whips and chains. It wasn’t until he admitted and dealt with the scars he had that the two characters became truly connected, beyond their dizzying passion and all that sappy crap. Again, that is true for all of us. Yes, the “I need to save him” candy-striper garbage is the insipid vehicle of a cheezy novel – I expect that of the genre. But the underlying truth that our scars can harm us and stop us from being truly touched is true, and awfully direct in these awfully written books.
And the desire to change went both ways. He wanted Ana to conform to something that she couldn’t and wouldn’t. And didn’t. She refused to be controlled in her personal life, and he had to deal with that. He had to figure out not only why he wanted to control her, but what the reasonable boundaries of that control would be. She stayed very much her own person.
She never gave up her career, her friends, her family or anything else. In fact, by the end of book three, she was running a publishing company. And she was asking him to tie her up and beat her, because she wanted it.
I’ve read countless charges that their relationship was juvenile and co-dependent and all that. That he infantilized her by taking care of her every need. That’s an awfully condescending way to look at it, in my opinion. I have long said, and absolutely meant, that I see nothing wrong in either a man or a woman dedicating their life to making their lover happy, and being paid well for doing it, if that’s what they want. If my husband had enough money to buy me cars on a whim and fill my closets with clothes that I didn’t have to shop for, frankly, I’d be all for it. You can plan my menus and my wardrobes all day long, I hate doing that shit. Their relationship actually seemed damned good to me by the end of the second book. Not one I’d want, but better than most I’ve had and seen.
Which brings me to the final thing that I loved about this book. It serves as a good reminder that we do not get to judge other people’s relationships. If they are happy in them, it’s none of our business. Moreover, one never knows the whole story – certainly, none of the people in their lives did. But, as all Disney style fairy tales do, this had a happy ending. (I kinda wish it didn’t, but I didn’t write it.) It is easy to sit back and say that Christian was creepy, overbearing, controlling and all that – all true. And that Ana was whiney and self-righteous, and passive-aggressively manipulative – also all true. But they made it work. So who are we to say?
Even if they were real people, it would not be our place to judge. But they’re not; it was a work of fiction. It was no different than any other work of fiction that showed us what happens when two different people meet and touch each other. Just these two, not all people, not all BDSM, just these two people.
Sure, there was lots of hot sex. Oh, ya, there was that. It is not a BDSM handbook, or at least not a complete one. But the bits I read and then continued in my imagination so as not to have her horrible writing ruin the hotness were SMOKING FUCKING HOT. I was crazy turned on.
So here’s what I hope. I hope that all sorts of people who are otherwise out of touch with that kind of sexual passion in their loins -that quiver with anticipation of his hot member on her throbbing sex – what the fuck is a “sex?” It is NOT a body part! – feel that and start having hot sex. I hope they discuss boundaries and fantasies and fears as directly as Christian and Ana did. I hope they say to each other, “what do you do with a butt plug anyway?” and then go online and find out. I hope that women get together in groups and talk about the things that turned them on, and maybe try some of them. I hope that people do learn more about BDSM, and the power of submission and trust and honesty and truly caring for your lovers before, during and AFTER sex.
And I hope that more people look for erotic fiction that is actually good. Start with Anais Nin and Henry Miller.
If these books, as badly written as they are, can do that for us, then I could not be more happy. Seriously. Or turned on, in every way. And E L James will have accomplished more in her spare time than an army of us sex-positive activists have managed in years. Good for her. Really good, baby.