Currently, Fifty Shades of Grey—an Australian e-book by an unknown female author with no marketing budget—is fourth on USA Today’s Best-Selling Books list, behind only the “Hunger Games” trilogy. Grey’s two sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Free, have also climbed into the Top 20. And panic is gripping the nation, because these books, which are being enjoyed by The Ladies, are about The Sex.
In the past few weeks, several news pieces have addressed the issue of women getting off on these books and what that means. “Will Fifty Shades Of Grey Make ‘Mommy Porn’ The Next Big Thing?” asks Forbes. “Fifty Shades of Grey has America’s national thong in a twist,” declares USA Today, adding, “However you categorize it—mommy porn, erotic fiction, Twilight fan fiction gone rogue, a symbol of moral decay—British writer E.L. James’ NC-17 bondage trilogy has gone from e-book cult favorite to publishing phenomenon.” “Everyone from so-called “mommy bloggers” to hardcore feminists is hailing the tome as a triumph for women, in spite of the book’s strong themes of female submission at the hands of a high-powered man,” says FoxNews.com. The article also goes on to use the now-inescapable phrase “mommy porn.”
Captain Obvious would point out that there is no such thing as “daddy porn,” presumably because dads remain men, even after procreating. Once they give birth, women apparently morph into “mommies,” neutered creatures who may be venerated but don’t need to be taken seriously. Hence their easily-dismissed “mommy blogs” and now their “mommy porn.”
The phrase, even more than the phenomenon of married ladies reading smut on their Kindles, raises all sorts of interesting questions about how women’s sexuality is viewed by society at large. By modifying the highly-charged word “porn,” are we diminishing its power because we remain deeply uncomfortable with the idea of even adult, married women having erotic needs? According to the breathless news coverage, the answer seems to be, “Kind of, yeah!”
There is a long and storied history of women reading to build up, and blow off, steam. I first learned that “romance” was merely a polite literary euphemism for “porn” when, on a sleepover in sixth grade, a friend showed me her secret stash of paperback Harlequins, over which we stayed up for hours, wide-eyed and red-faced. In seventh grade, I found out that “historical fiction” could be another, more high-brow mask for “porn” when I stumbled on Jean M. Auel’s Earth Children series. (Plot synopsis: pre-historic hottie Ayla, raised among Neanderthals, meets sensitive Cromagnon Jondalar. Pausing only to invent throwing spears, awls, and probably an early version of the iPad, Ayla hanky-panks with Jonadalar across early Europe.) Auel’s books have sold over 45 million copies worldwide. Harlequin is one of the most profitable publishing companies anywhere; according to the New York Times, they make hundreds of millions of dollars in sales every year.
That sex sells, even to women, should not, in 2012, come as a surprise. Yet something about this publishing phenomenon seems to have gotten under our culture’s skin. What’s different about Fifty Shades of Grey? It’s kinky.
The sex in Harlequin romances tends to be extremely tame. The rugged, beefy, All-American men bursting out of their shirts on the covers of the paperbacks telegraph to the reader all she or he needs to know about what’s going to happen in the bedroom (or on the grass, or aboard the pirate ship): straight-up, classical seduction. Jondalar, who is, coincidentally, described to look like a dead-ringer for Fabio, never expresses a desire more risqué than giving Ayla pleasure. Even Sex and the City, which expanded our society’s understanding of women’s ability to both enjoy, and speak freely, about sex, portrayed women who were pretty traditional in terms of what turned them on. No main character had a hidden fetish or a desire to dominate or be dominated. In Grey, a young woman signs a contract giving an older man control over her life. The readers in Grey’s universe are not in the Kansas of Harlequin novels anymore, or even the sanitized New York City of SATC; they’ve crossed over into the darker, edgier world of the 2002 indie/cult-favorite Secretary. Except that, for the first time, their support has helped something marginal cross over into the mainstream.
Grey’s success has communicated to the news media that some women’s taste runs to BDSM and power play—enough women, in fact, to get the attention of the Gray Lady herself. To some degree, this is old news. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight, both bona fide phenomena, spawned reams of fan fiction by drawing on similar themes (especially Buffy’s Season 6, which you can hardly watch without overheating); the original draft of Grey was, in fact, Twilight fan fiction. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series leans heavily on explicit sex scenes that are anything but square. And for power play, it’s hard to beat the unorthodox use of cigars in the Starr Report, now fifteen years old. Ultimately, the BDSM buzz around Grey seems like a red herring. What shocks the media is not that women are paying to read about a naïve college student submitting to a relative stranger; it’s that women—even adult, married women with children—are jonesing to read about sex at all.
As a society, we tend to ignore Harlequin’s massive success, or treat it as some kind of anomaly; and we seem more comfortable with the long-running joke that Porn for Women is men doing housework than the idea that women also like their raunch, including material that’s less-vanilla and more Karamel Sutra. Porn is porn! Lots of people consume it and, as with sexism, we know it when we see it. Most importantly, moms don’t hang up their gonads after their kids are born; they remain sexual beings. Ye gods! Where do you think babies continue to come from? If you really don’t know, I have a book or two I could recommend.
ETA: This piece also appears on the Huffington Post! Read it here.