Fifty Shades of Grey - A Guest SSL Review
As I have mentioned before, it is my dream to live in a world where people recognize when books, movies, tv, and other media are depicting or discussing female sexual response in ridiculous and unrealistic ways...and then call them out for it. I couldn't have been happier when a spectacular lady approached me with just this type of criticism for the breakout Fifty Shades of Grey book Trilogy by E.L. James. I was even more excited when she agreed to air her thoughts out in this blog. Today, friends, may I welcome the first guest SSL review by the mysterious and perceptive, Ms. Kat von Sass!
Kat von Sass has a degree in English and is finishing another in Nursing. She’s spent most
of her life on stage doing something or other. You can rest assured that she’s down with
words, bodies and sex.
First off, I think we should acknowledge that this is a specific brand of escapist fantasy. It's Twilight fan fic - for ladies who weren't - ahem - satisfied by the Mormon values-laden tween romance series. But it is also a much broader phenomenon, because just about every girl I know has asked me if I've read it and made a comment about the benefits it would yield for my marital relations. So much has already been written on why women like the idea of submission, why this type of erotica appeals to a certain responsible, partnered, exhausted American woman, etc., so I won't rehash that. But it's clearly there. Secondly, according to the avid researchers of Wikipedia, this was published in varying stages on fanfic websites, on its own website and then by a virtual publisher as an ebook and as a print-on-demand paperback. It seems highly questionable as to whether professional editing was part of the contract in any of these scenarios. Editing is an important part of publishing books. We might not notice if it has been done well, but if it hasn't been done at all (as seems likely in this instance), it's highly irritating.
What annoyed me most, however, was the lack of a certain degree of ... reality. Verisimilitude, if you will. I'm not that worried that young college graduates are going to start interviewing absurdly young, wealthy and hypersexualized CEO's in an attempt to land their own Fifty Shades, but it seems like every lady I have talked to has taken these books straight into her marriage bed to spice things up (which I heartily endorse and support, naturally.) My friend base is primarily married and often has children, so we are right in the target demographic. Generally speaking, we all have a pretty good idea of what happens in a bedroom and are in solid partnerships that could perhaps use a little spicing up. This book seems to fit the bill, playing on an established franchise and selling so well that everyone is reading it while at the same time offering an introduction into sexual practices that are somewhat outside the norm. What concerns me is that this book is written by a woman for the express purpose of titillating and arousing other women (and presumably their partners), and yet seems to fall so firmly into patriarchal images of female sexuality.
Central to the book is great discussion about consent, hard and soft limits and safewords. For the sake of plot the time Anastasia should have safeworded due to physical pain she doesn't and at that point they aren't even having sex. The only time she safewords in a sexual encounter is when he denies her orgasm and she feels that he is being emotionally cruel to her. Birth control is discussed often although it isn’t employed very skillfully. They start with condoms, which he handles beautifully, then try the mini-pill and then Depo- Provera. Christian calls the doctor, he pays for the house call, and gosh darn it if Anastasia doesn't get a) too distraught over their break up to remember her pill and b) just too busy to get her next shot. Her assistant has been rescheduling her appointment every time she asks her to clear her schedule, so even her appointment is not her responsibility. She is not responsible for her own reproductive choices and doesn't even realize she's pregnant until the OB chases her down a hallway in the hospital and forces her to sit down and take a test because she's late for her shot.
Christian is solely responsible for Anastasia’s sexuality; she's been practically asexual before she met him at the age of 21. Let's take the scene where Anastasia loses her virginity, for example. Multiple times she uses the language “gave him my virginity”, making it clear this is an honor she's bestowed upon him. What an honor it is. Prior to this experience, the heroine has been kissed twice by other boys, and once by our hero. He approaches her to begin a BDSM relationship under a very legal sounding contract, then discovers she is a virgin after giving her a tour of his 'Red Room of Pain'. Upon her shocking confession, he decides to “fuck the paperwork” and take her virginity outside of the bounds of the contract - because of course he is already emotionally involved despite his traumatic childhood and emotional scars. He orders her to touch herself, to show him how she pleasures herself so that he can give her a more satisfying experience. Awesome! Rock on. Except that she doesn't touch herself. Ever. Has no idea what that's about. They start to get down, and he makes her come from nipple stimulation alone. I haven't researched this particular brand of orgasm but it seems to me highly unlikely. I'm sure someone out there can do it, but someone out there can also swallow knives and someone else can wiggle their ears. Most of us are neither of those people. We are told over and over and over again how she is instantly wet, always ready, so responsive - just because. Her second orgasm comes from vaginal intercourse, after he touches her clitoris for about three seconds. His initial entry is pretty brutal - she uses the phrase “rips through my virginity” with only “a weird pinching sensation”. Uh... right. He happily pounds her for a few minutes, she loves it, can't get enough, yadda yadda, and then he whispers “Come for me, Ana” in her ear and voila! Orgasm numero dos. Almost immediately after this delightful interlude, she asks to do it again. He obliges, this time
with a brief pass by the clit, a little g-spot massage, some hair pulling and a rear entry. Another command to come, and she does, for the virginity-losing hat trick.
Christian checks in with her several times to make sure that she's okay, and even asks her what she wants during the third go round. She answers, "You, please" which he interprets as a request for harder/deeper/faster. I guess that's what she meant, because it works. Since he entered her for the third time we haven't been given any reason to believe she's getting any stimulation from anything but the super erotic mystery electricity they share. In fact, we’re told that she is totally immobilized in this position so she's not even getting to rub on the bed. It takes hundreds of pages for Anastasia to speak up and say, "ooh, gentle”; after a very brief pause she’s ready for more hardcore action. There’s never "a little to the left" or "I could use a hand" or “yikes! That’s sore!” Especially irksome for me is that our mysterious, tortured, emotionally withholding hero is actually talking through most of this. “You are mine”, “only mine”, “no one else’s”, etc. For someone who speaks so formally that it's commented upon, who informs our heroine that he doesn't make love - he "likes to fuck. Hard" and who has never had a non-BDSM sexual relationship, he says 'baby' all the time. Baby this, baby that. Maybe that floats people's boats. I wouldn't mind being called baby by my lover if I were emotionally overwrought, ill, or exhausted - but not when I am unleashing my 'inner goddess' (who is almost a character in the book, I can't explain it, you'll just have to read it.) It seems wrong in the first book, mildly irritating in the second, and by the third – meh. I guess I can buy it.
As I’ve pondered this over the past few weeks, I keep coming back to my central question – why? Why is Fifty Shades of Grey the fantasy that is revving everyone’s engine? What is it about this girl’s sexual relationship that is so attractive to us? I’ve tried and thrown out a variety of theories, and I think I’ve settled on one. I think this book addresses a deep- seated fear: that women’s sexual pleasure is too much work. In real life it’s not going to happen ‘just because’, in the general way of things, if he’s just thrusting in and out. I think we have a very deep concern that asking for what we want, telling him what we need in order to orgasm is going to be… boring? Tiresome? Unsexy? And it’s going to affect how desirable we are to our partners. For women who are running households, staying on top of bills and raising kids and generally keeping the show on the road, are we a little bit afraid to ask for more or less or in a different direction or position? Is it akin to asking him to take out the trash one more time? In this book we have a woman who is intensely desired by an incredibly handsome, rich, and fucked up man who conducts his sex life as a rather time consuming hobby. He has a drawer full of toys in a room custom built for sex games; he’s the expert on the subject of her genitals and they obey his every wish. Of all the potential partners in the world she’s found the one who seems most prepared to go the extra mile for her orgasm – and yet all he has to do is whisper in her ear while he pounds away. Our fantasy man is doing almost all the work when it comes to their sex life – and is still reassuring our heroine that she is more than enough to hold his interest. I think that’s the real fantasy payoff right there, as I think that most women are feeling the burden of keeping their sex lives hot and thriving and their men communicating and their marriage generally on the up and up. I can’t decide if Ana’s asking for clitoral stimulation on top of all the work that Christian’s doing just seems greedy, or if the idea is that we would all become orgasmic prodigies if our partners were so devoted and rich and sexy and sent such witty, flirty emails.
I am happy to acknowledge that I mostly enjoyed it and read all three books in two full days while I babysat my house during some improvements. If I hadn't been grounded I don't know that I would have gotten so wrapped up in it, because it really is rough. With the right editor I think I would have enjoyed it more than Twilight. In the end, Ana is a much more sympathetic and strong character than Bella, and she negotiates her way to a relationship that suits her. He has real emotional and psychological issues and they address those with the help of his therapist; a happy addition to many relationships by my way of thinking. I think that for most people, the appeal of the story is the emotional connection the characters share, and the erotica is just the hook that keeps you hanging in there until that bond is developed. The second and third books are really more like a conventional romance novel than erotica. That being said, there are some steamy passages and it did provide me with some things I might want to add to my own repertoire. I’m pretty sure that my spouse wouldn’t register the effect of the book on our sex life, though. So it was, on the whole, effective. It just wasn't very sexually feminist - which wasn’t that surprising for a book about how a woman who 'doesn't have a submissive bone in her body' gets everything she ever wanted by submitting to a man.