We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of something kind of… interesting, and important. Fifty Shades of Grey first topped the New York Times Bestsellers list in March, and stayed there until September.
Interesting, no? I mean… it’s certainly interesting to me.
First, since people I know—both in real life and online—keep asking: no, I haven’t read them. Nope! No, I just… haven’t read them. Second: no, I’m not going to, because—like most adult readers—I can read a book summary and tell when it is simply not for me. But I am really glad they were written, and I’m really glad they made it big.
This is not in any way a statement intended to imply any value judgements of the content of the books themselves; again, I haven’t read them, so I’m not qualified to have all that much of an opinion on what goes on in them, though it sure seems like there’s plenty there to have opinions about. But think about this, for just a second: an erotic novel, a series of erotic novels, in fact, written by a woman, for women, topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.
An erotic novel. Written by a woman. For women. Topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.
Here’s the issue with Fifty Shades of Grey: it’s easy to criticize. And, I mean, I think we should criticize it, where it merits criticism (which, again, I am reluctant to do in any very specific sense, because I haven’t read it, and don’t intend to). It’s important to talk about sexism, and about what constitutes healthy and consensual behavior in BDSM and fetish contexts and what constitutes abuse; and it’s important for authors to work to not make their style make their own writing become a parody of itself—an issue which I struggle with daily, for the record, and I’ll be really fucking impressed if you can show me an author who doesn’t. It’s important to talk about why this book, and not all the other erotic novels out there written by women, for women, was the one to make it big. It’s important to think about what we do and do not permit women to desire.
What bothers me about the criticism of Fifty Shades of Grey is this kind of stuff: phrases like “mommy porn,” tossed about in quote marks so that no one has to take responsibility for the offensiveness of it as a term; or discussions of the content of the books by people—like me!—who haven’t read it, but who are nonetheless experts on how degrading its content is to women. I’m not saying the content isn’t degrading to women; I haven’t read the books, and lots of stuff out there is degrading to women, so I’m perfectly willing to nod along if you say this is. But specifically why Fifty Shades of Grey gets lambasted so universally is because it made it big, and because it’s about sex. It’s about a woman having lots of sex. And—as far as I can tell, because, again, I haven’t read it, but I understand that orgasms feature largely—enjoying it. A woman, enjoying sex. Enjoying lots and lots of sex. In a book written by a woman. For other women.
Women are constantly—constantly—subjected to a broad and public discussion about how they are and are not allowed to have sex, or enjoy sex, or think about sex. All women enjoy oral! But if you just do it long enough and hard enough, they’ll come from vaginal, too! Women don’t get off on images of hot people, having hot sex; they only like textual descriptions of love and romance! Straight women only desire manly, manly muscle-bound manly men! A feminist woman could never want to be tied up and flogged! Dominant women are all crazed maneaters with limp, pushover male partners! Butch or femme? So she’s the man, in the relationship? Do you just like, eat each other out in heels all day or—fisting?! And, I mean, you must like anal; all women like anal—unless you’re a lesbian—except no women like anal, because anal is what gay dudes do with each other, and also it’s gross because that’s where the poop comes out. That woman will give it up to absolutely anyone. I can’t imagine a woman looking like that ever having sex with anyone. That woman is so uptight; what she needs is a—
This shit? Makes me sick. And I hear it all the time. And a lot of the time, I hear it from other women.
Sure, men have a really intense interest in controlling and dictating how women do and do not experience desire, that’s old news; but—and this alarms me just as much if not more—so do other women. For example: consider the Wikipedia article on Tribadism (contains NSFW images). If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s the more-or-less parallel term, for women, to frottage, for men: i.e., focused genital rubbing for the purposes of having totally rad orgasms. Tribadism is sometimes referred to as scissoring (though scissoring is used sometimes to describe a very specific position [image, NSFW], as well as tribadism in general; this leads to confusion). The Wikipedia article notes that “Some lesbian and bisexual women… feel that [the scissoring position] is not representative of lesbian sexual practices and is more attributable to the male fantasies of the heterosexual porn industry,” and that it is “a position debated among lesbians.” It also quotes The Raw Story in order to note that “Whether [the scissoring position] describes a traditional or even common lesbian act remains up for debate.” All of this is of course perfectly true: most women who have sex with women, like other human beings, do things in bed that others don’t; many women who have sex with women, like other human beings, aren’t into doing stuff in bed that others are just totally nuts about. But it’s very interesting to note that the Wikipedia article on a sex act performed between women reflects some pretty substantial anxiety whether or not that sex act is mainstream.
Isn’t that interesting? Yeah, I think it’s real fucking interesting.
Here’s what I have to say about Fifty Shades of Grey: I look very sweet and innocent and about twenty years old, so I prompt certain confidences that I think maybe you don’t prompt if you don’t look sweet and innocent and about twenty years old. And a lot of women who bring Fifty Shades of Grey up with me really, genuinely find it salacious. And titillating. And exciting. And I think that’s fantastic! I think it’s awesome that there’s a book that everyone knows the title of that is about fucking, written by a woman, for other women, so that lots of women could read about fucking. I think that it’s fantastic that a lot of women read it and got a little hot and bothered. I want more women to get hot and bothered, over whatever it is that gets them hot and bothered. Maybe Ana is their avatar! But… then again, maybe Christian is. Any woman who reads a lot about gay dudes having sex knows that it is definitely possible to be turned on reading about something being experienced by someone with a different gender. Maybe these readers have some fantasies that they thought were just totally weird and out there, like, oh, I don’t know, receiving pain or humiliation or submitting to someone, or inflicting pain or humiliation or dominating someone, and this was the first book where they really started to wonder if maybe it wasn’t quite so weird or out there after all. And maybe they started to talk about that stuff and then maybe they started to, I don’t know, Google. Maybe someone gave them recommendations for further reading, both fiction and nonfiction. I hope so! I mean, I do my best, but my reading proclivities (i.e. mostly gay and lesbian, and only rarely BDSM) don’t tend to make me the ideal person to hand out reading assignments to women who thought Fifty Shades of Grey was spicy and delicious.
But what I really hope didn’t happen, but almost certainly did, is that people said, Oh my God, how can you read that crap? I hope that those women, who got hot and bothered over Fifty Shades, weren’t told that the sex was badly written, not hot, not accurate, sexist, demeaning, a terrible representation of what women want, and—God, this phrase pisses me off—”mommy porn,” complete with air quotes, as though the idea that a woman who has given birth might potentially enjoy a little pornographic fiction while the kids are at soccer practice is just too hilarious for words. God, cut a woman some slack; once you’ve given birth I feel like you ought to have hot models of your preferred gender(s) hand-delivering you care packages of porn to your door, all right? It seems like the least the universe could do in thanks for pushing something the size of a melon out of your vagina. Come on.
Basically, I think it’s great that Fifty Shades of Grey got written, and I think it’s great it got published, and I think it’s great it made it huge. It’s not my thing. I think if there are incidents and lines and depictions in it that are problematic—as I have been reliably informed there are—we should absolutely talk about why those incidents and lines and depictions are problematic. But I think it’s insulting and inappropriate to talk about how uniformly terrible the books are, because there are women out there who found it hot. They read it. They thought it was sexy. And that’s something that women are prevented from doing often enough.
Oh, and for the record, I’m a woman who sometimes has sex with other women, and scissoring is fucking amazing.