Credit to Vintage Books
Let me start off by being quite blunt–I loved the 50 shades books. I thought it was refreshing to read a book that was open and honest about sex, intriguing that marriage and committment were depicted as an extension of passionate infatuation rather than the end of it, and commendable that female sexuality specifically was addressed through a validating yet surprisingly technical how-to on the female orgasm.
These points mark the three most important messages from the books, so I’ll do them the justice of providing some more detail.
First off–honesty about sex. Although I think it is lots of fun that the 50 shades sex is descriptive enough for housewives to masturbate to, the moment I began loving, rather than just lusting, the series was when I discovered its origins as an erotic Twilight fan-fiction. I personally read Twilight while spending 2 weeks on a Galapagos voyage with my family and a ship full of crusty senior citizens (details intended to convey my degree of sexual starvation) and spent the entire book agonizingly craving a Bella/Edward sex scene. And not just any kind of sex scene…50 shades is not only refreshingly real about removing the taboo around sex, it shocks and excites readers with decently kinky BDSM sex that satisfies the fantasies that, come on, WE ALL HAVE. Furthermore, it does so in a way that feels comfortable and relatable because the reader has Ana’s perspective as a beginner and is allowed to feel curious, frightened, and excited all at the same time (yum).
I’ll address the monogamy and female sexuality together because I think the book connects them in a fascinating way. The biggest reason why married women specifically are so hot for Christian Grey is that his desire to be monogamous and even contractual in both sex and the non-sexual side of the relationship is painted as a natural extension (throwing in a penis metaphor in homage to E.L. James’ finesse…. Christian’s huge “building”…really??) of his desire to sexually please Ana. From a lesbian perspective, I can most definitely relate to there being something amazing about taking the time to learn a person’s body and how to please them, and monogamy can be a way of lovingly dedicating yourself further to learning about that person, rather than a way of trapping yourself with one body to use for your own pleasure (SHAME). I love that 50 shades uses Christian’s commitment and dedication to pleasing his partner sexually as a metaphor for the work required to make any couple function–everyone’s body is physically different, so sex that will physically and respectfully satisfy someone requires effort to know them as an individual; similarly, even two people who are a great match for one another have differences which require effort to navigate in a way that makes the relationship meaningful.
So, to summarize the pro’s of the series, 50 shades makes sex in general, and kinky, aggressive, passionate and recreational/non-reproductive (#pride) sex legitimate as enjoyable and healthy for both men and women.
So far, I have addressed the ways 50 shades is validating for women romantically and sexually in relationships. I love that Ana can have both the sex and the love that many women crave, so in terms of the female perspective in the books, well done to E. L. James. The portrayal of BDSM-style submission specifically is relatable and validated, and it is exciting that Ana’s enjoyment of some soft-core sexual sadism to complement Christian’s passionate devotion to her sexual pleasure is portrayed as healthy and fun, as it should be.
However, and this is a big however, the books are far from perfect. My biggest complaint is with the portrayal of BDSM-style Domination, and Christian’s character as a whole. A person who likes to sexually dominate their partner, even in a painful or sadistic way, should not be assumed to have had a childhood filled with abuse from their crack whore mother’s pimp. Without belaboring the point–if we commend Christian for his careful and attentive gift of physical pleasure, why should we pathologize his (possibly even more) careful and attentive gift of physical pain? Sex is unique to every two people, so needing to preface a sexually dominant or even sadistic character with an abusive childhood is unnecessary and presumptive–if sadism is consensual as a way of enhancing the sexual pleasure of its recipient, doesn’t that simply make Christian selfless, not “50 shades of fucked up”?!
Although I have other issues with the books, ranging from the tired phrases used to convey Ana’s sexual naivete (“oh my” and “holy shit/fuck/crap/hell” being the most common phrases used when Ana is surprised by a new sexual realization, occurring 79 and 172 times in the first book, respectively; to the annoyingly emphatic use of birth control (I am definitely all about safe-sex, but there is no need to describe rolling on a condom like that act alone will give the housewife next-door multiple orgasms). I definitely don’t love Christian’s insistence on spending exorbitant sums of money on Ana, and have an even bigger problem with Ana’s bashful schoolgirl reactions (“omg Christian, thank you for teaching me about fine wines that I could neverrrrr afford on my own!!”). And although I get that it’s his way of exerting his Dom control, the whole force-feeding thing really isn’t hot, it’s just boring.
As with any so-called “controversial” read, both sides have plenty to say about this series. The overall point I’m trying to make is that we should use 50 shades as it is intended to be used–as an exciting form of erotic fiction that stimulates female sexual desire as well as romantic craving. The series may not be perfect, and not all the messages are on par, but the female empowerment, honesty about sex, and advantage of being able to read a socially-acceptable and even trendy (heyyy) form of porn is well worth it.