50 Shades of Grey is the recent trilogy that has swept the women of the world off our collective feet and is touted as “mommy porn”. Women are discussing the main character, Christian Grey, as though he were a real person, while spending hours “casting” the upcoming 50 Shades movie. According to the Los Angeles Times, 50 Shades of Grey has sold nearly 31 million copies since its release in 2011, surpassing the growth of the Harry Potter series!
After hearing all the hype, my curiosity got the better of me so I read the trilogy. I wanted to see what was so appealing about this particular series that women were so captivated by it. Although I heard about the racy sex scenes and the allegations that the series was literary pornography, something in me wanted to dig a little deeper. After a few chapters of the book, which reads much like I would imagine a teenage girl’s diary does, I was convinced that there was more to the appeal than meets the eye. After all, if women were after a romantic and sexual fix, Harlequin Romances have been around for decades.
For those who haven’t (and won’t) read the series, the basic premise of the story is that a naive college student, Anastasia Steele, meets 20-something billionaire Christian Grey. Grey introduces her to a new way of living, including BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism) sexual experiences. The series takes the reader through their lives and relationship and includes a good amount of erotic sexual encounters. In spite of the copious amount of sex scenes in the book, I remain unconvinced that the appeal of this book is merely sexual but rather is bringing forth a new awareness of eroticism in its readers.
Kleinplatz (1996) describes the erotic experience as one that “values sexual pleasure for its own sake rather than as a means to an end” (p. 106). Sexuality is taught in our education systems as a means to an end—those ends being the consummation of a loving relationship or adding to one’s family. Girls and women are especially given strong messages about sexuality—good girls don’t have sex. Girls who DO have sex, especially with multiple partners, are viewed as “sluts,” while men are congratulated. Rarely is sex talked about in its most base terms—sex is actually enjoyable. Indeed, even with our outwardly liberal attitudes about sexuality, the reality of societal sexual attitudes is much more what Kleinplatz (1996) says:
We understand that we must choose between much of what we feel in our bodies and what everyone else around us is telling us we should feel. Gradually or suddenly, we split into two contradictory beings… To gain the approval of others, we reject our primal erotic nature and, as we push our erotic sensibilities deeper and deeper into the shadows we find it increasingly difficult to honor or even be aware of the erotic within us. (Steinberg, 1992, p. 160)
This primal erotic nature is what is I believe is being awakened with 50 Shades of Grey. The book delves into the darker parts of Grey’s psyche, and as Steele accepts him, the shame he has carried for years melts away. Kleinplatz (1996) states that in erotic encounter, “one’s secrets are not simply revealed, but are divulged by choice…Perhaps this is the ultimate human desire, that is, to be known and understood and fully accepted. This is the gift that is offered” (p. 115).
It is quite possible that the appeal of 50 Shades of Grey is not “mommy porn” at all…It may be that this is the opportunity for women of all ages and stages to explore their own erotic nature, and as a consequence, find liberty in their sexuality. As Kleinplatz (1996) notes, “the self-knowledge that results from the erotic encounter promotes the development of self-affirmation and validation” (p. 117). The 50 Shades phenomenon can truly be an avenue for an awakening of the erotic experience where we as a society depart from the old ways of thinking about sex as a function and embrace it as a vehicle that can bring “deep joy, wonder, intimacy, growth, and wisdom when it is approached with honesty, courage and humility” (Steinberg, 1992, p. ii.)
— Lisa Vallejos