The DAY AFTER issue of On The Issues Magazine; Fall 2012
Success on equality and justice takes activism in every season -- in and beyond elections. Our writers and thinkers zoom in on core concerns and ideas for our future in On The Issues Magazine Fall 2012.

50 Shades Of Grey, Erotica and the Bondage Craze
by Elizabeth Black


The erotic novel, 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James, has taken the public, media and the literary world by storm.

This summer, the book became the bestselling Kindle book of all time. It beat out the Harry Potter series and it's surpassed the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo triad. Its influence has resulted in a 400 percent increase in sex toys sales. Some women who read erotic fiction, including 50 Shades, claim that it has put spice in their marriages.

I surveyed women readers about why they enjoy erotic fiction. Facebook friend and reader Ursula B. wrote, "I'm not into BDSM and do not have any experience in it, so I wouldn't know much. I hate to admit this, but after being married to the same man for over 30 years, erotic romance novels do give one ideas in how to spice things up, so to speak."

Facebook friend and reader Patti Pusateri wrote something similar: "After reading a hot sexy scene, it takes me back to those days when we first met and found it hard to be respectful in public sometimes. They are also really good for getting fresh ideas or helping me refocus when I have lost the mood."

The media calls 50 Shades of Grey "mommy porn," acting as if erotic fiction is the New Kid On The Block.

The Masses Eat It Up

Erotic fiction is nothing new. It's been around for eons. In fact, 50 Shades Of Grey isn't very good erotica. There are many better-written erotic books out there. 50 Shades Of Grey has made erotic fiction mainstream. Now your average Sue Who Lives Down The Street, who never touched an erotic book in her life, may discover more of these books after reading 50 Shades.

The popularity of these books among women is a not-very-well-kept-secret that exploded when e-book readers hit the market. Now, women may enjoy their sweaty smut without nosy onlookers peeking over their shoulders to see the glistening male torsos and heaving bosoms on the covers. Women now have their privacy so they may read their smut in peace. Women are reclaiming their sexuality by reading erotic fiction and demanding more from their sex play with their partners. These books open up an entirely new world for many women, and the Happily Ever After endings keep them coming back for more.

While genres come and go in erotic fiction, 50 Shades has resurrected interest in BDSM. BDSM stands for Bondage and Discipline (BD), Dominant and Submissive (DS or D/s) and Sado-Masochism (SM).

50 Shades is not an overly erotic book. Heroine Anastasia Steele refers to her genitals as "down there" and hero Christian Grey's penis as "his essentials". According to Victoria Coren for The Guardian, "[t]his book is ubiquitously described as "erotic"; something, evidently, is turning people on. But what? It can't be the sex scenes. They are brief, sporadic and tamer than a Legoland tea party. Basically, there's a lot of chat about bondage that doesn't happen. It may seem kinky at first glance, but look again: this is a book that puts the "b" into anal."

Books give permission to
be sexual

The scenes involving food may be what is enticing the women who rave about this book. Eating is a very erotic act, and Christian Grey has food issues. He orders Anastasia to eat, and becomes quite angry when she doesn't. The descriptions of food in the book are decadent – heaping stacks of pancakes drowning in syrup. Oysters – long considered aphrodisiacs. Grey grew up an abused and starved child and he becomes quite irate at wasted food, so he forces Ana to eat.

Coren states that's the irony: "A masterful man who demands, constantly, that our heroine eats." Women have long been taught by parents, friends, and society that to gorge themselves is slovenly and not feminine. This book, with Grey's dominance regarding Anastasia's eating habits, gives women permission to eat a healthy amount of forbidden foods like fattening pancakes with maple syrup.

Feminists Split on Bondage

Some feminists believe that BDSM is harmful to women in that it reinforces patriarchal sexual stereotypes of the most damaging kind. Two major criticisms are that abusers and other predators find cover and a safe haven in BDSM communities, and that men and women in D/s [discipline] power-exchange relationships are only reinforcing patriarchal social roles.

Jonalyn Fincher, who writes on feminism and faith at RubySlippers says, "BDSM divides feminists right down the middle because it pits two core beliefs: privacy of sexual choices against the sacred value of the woman's body. Our hierarchy of values gets fleshed out by which we choose first." It is possible to desecrate the human body. "The permission or even request of degrading actions, even for sexual pleasure, does not substantially change the effect on a human body," Fincher says. "Some practices in BDSM are done to humiliate and subjugate the female body."

The feministblogger, Rage Against The Man-Chine, doesn't mince words. "[K]ink, at its core represents an attempt to derive as much excitement and titillation out of sex as possible while avoiding real intimacy," she wrote. "It involves the eroticization of an oppressed group's submission." As she aptly states, "orgasms don't necessarily equal progress."

One problem with 50 Shades Of Grey, according to BDSM aficionados and erotic writers who pen BDSM books, is that the book paints an inaccurate and damaging picture of BDSM. Since this book is the introduction to BDSM to many readers, they feel the need to emphasize the inaccurate portrayal. For example, it's important to have rules and to respect and trust partners to keep each other safe in BDMS. Two fundamental qualities of BDSM are RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) and SSC (Safe, Sane, and Consensual). 50 Shades Of Grey ignores those elements of safe play. It isn't all play: there are discussions, negotiations and self work inherent in BDSM.

No longer content with Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma'am

Erotic author Victoria Blisse, quoting Sophie Morgan, author of The Diary Of A Submissive listed several reasons the book isn't true-to-life, including "being submissive doesn't mean suppressing your personality, nor it is oppression." She has written "not all punishments are equal, nor is a beating automatically BDSM -- it could also be the behavior of an abusive partner."

Practitioners of BDSM cite the activity as a viable choice. Some say it's even a feminist choice. Dana Goldstein wrote for The Nation that a basic contention of sex-positive feminism is "asking for what you want in bed is a feminist political act -- whether you want to tie your partner up, be spanked by him/her or be tenderly made love to with lots of kissing."

Madison Young states in CarnalNation that "you are engaging in sex-positive feminist bondage because this is a part of your identity and you are aware of, embrace and are ultimately in control of the sex you are having, the BDSM you are taking part in, and are able to engage in and play with power structures because of your strong sense of self."

Rachel Kramer Bussel, who has edited over 40 anthologies and is the "Best Sex Writing" series editor, says that feminist criticism of BDSM is misplaced. "The criticism that by default, female submission is anti-feminist, is insulting, infantilizing and condescending," she wrote. "It conflates what happens in BDSM play under consensual and desired conditions with abuse, which is the opposite."

Whether or not you believe BDSM is harmful, it can't be denied that women read erotic fiction of all sorts, and that it is helping them to reclaim their sexuality. They are demanding what they want in the bedroom and these books give them permission to be sexual. No longer content with Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma'am, women who read erotic literature are fueling sex toys sales, according to some outlets, and becoming forces to reckon with when it comes to their sexual needs. In the long run,50 Shades Of Grey only made these trends more obvious to the general public.

Elizabeth Black, a pseudonym, is a sex writer and erotic fiction writer who lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son and four cats. Her articles have appeared in On The Issues Magazine, Alternet, CarnalNation, Sexis Magazine, The Huffington Post, the Circlet Press blog, the Good Vibrations blog and Ms. Magazine's Blog. Friend her on Facebook, visit her website and view her Amazon Author Page.

Also see: No Dancing: The Right Aims to Take Down Sexual Liberation by Amanda Marcotte in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see: Victims of Gender Violence Find Solutions Slipping Away by Juhu Thukral in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Read the Cafe for new and updated stories.

terry kocjan posted: 2012-10-24 13:16:48

I have not read the book and do not intend to. I would read a book about sex and intimacy, or something erotic but have not come across any. So the solution is to write this book.

Join the conversation. Leave a comment.

All comments will be reviewed before being posted live. All fields REQUIRED.


Follow us on:

Choices Women's Medical Center Banner Ad
Print page      Bookmark site      Rss Feed RSS Feed


1983 - 2015 On The Issues Magazine; No Reuse without permission. • Complete Table of ContentsPrivacyLinks of Feminist and Progressive Interest