The story of 50 Shades of Grey happens just over the course of a six weeks at the end of the narrator, Anastasia Steele's last year of undergraduate studies and transition into working life, during which she meets and becomes infatuated with the rich and handsome Christian Grey who has some dark secrets. Being a work of erotica, the focus quickly moves to the characters' strong attraction to each other, and the conflict between Anastasia's virginal confusion about her relationship needs and Christan's insistence on a strict Dominant/Submissive sexual relationship with her because it is the only way he is able to handle a relationship due to his childhood trauma (and honest enjoyment of the lifestyle). Needless to say, she is not a virgin for long and the two enjoy many sexual adventures throughout their romance.
To break down all of the conflicting reviews of the first book in the trilogy, which brings the BDSM lifestyle into the mainstream, student therapist intern & blogger Dhyana Coil sat down with Certified Sex Therapist Lisa Meyers to discuss our reactions:
Dhyana: So tell me your overall impressions of 50 Shades of Grey.
Lisa: I read them because I knew clients would be asking questions and I wanted to be able to have an informed opinion. I enjoyed all of the books immensely and got swept away in the fantasy. I think that Christian and Anastasia can be sexually empowering role models.
DC: Wow, I have to say that I struggled more to get into it and agreed with a lot of the criticism about the writing quality. What about them did you find sexually empowering?
LM: Well it’s true that the books are not the highest quality of writing, not your highbrow erotica. First of all I think anything that brings sexuality into the forefront is good, that it got people talking about these things that they couldn’t before. I love the way that it normalized sexuality, especially things like period sex, anal sex and tasting your own fluids.
DC: I couldn’t help but notice a lot of parallels between Christian Grey and Edward from Twilight: they both have incredibly mature personalities in sexy, young, auburn-haired bodies, they are both incredibly attentive and protective boyfriends, they both happen to be rich and powerful. Do you have any thoughts on these parallels between the two most popular objects of female desire lately?
LM: The author, E.L. James has always been very candid about the fact that the books are fan fiction loosely based on the Twilight series. They are also both located in the Pacific Northwest.
DC: Ah well that explains it! We actually received a couple of advice questions that are either explicitly about the book or about dominance and submission in general. The first one is:
Is it possible to have multiple orgasms EVERY single time? And how common is it to climax together as a couple? Because if everything Ana experienced was true then I have really been missing out!-girl needing more multiple orgasm nights
LM: People need to remember that this was a fantasy. When couples climax together it is typically due to coincidence or luck. However, just as with having multiple orgasms, you can definitely work on it as a couple and learn to communicate and notice the physical cues to help that happen more often. But no, it was a fantasy and I wouldn’t tell anyone to expect either of those to happen every time in real life.
DC: I also noticed a lot of Ana being able to orgasm “on demand,” whenever Christian said that he wanted her to. What do you think of that phenomenon in light of using them as role models?
LM: I think it is evidence of their power dynamic. In this fantasy Christian has been trained as an expert lover, so at this point in his experience he is able to pick up on her physical cues when she is aroused enough to be ready. Since the whole story takes place in just the first six weeks of their romance, they are still in the “limerence” phase, that obsessive infatuation, where you really can just be that excited by your partner all of the time. The hormones of that phase don’t last for people in real life, but it makes sense to me that she could be so into him at this point that hearing him say that he desires her to climax would send her over the edge. Keep in mind, he knew her body response well enough to know when to state the request. It wasn’t random!
DC: Ok, we had another question that relates to the themes in “50 Shades”:
How can you reconcile being a feminist and enjoying being dominated/submission stuff? Or can you? Is there a line that a good feminist should draw?
LM: I don’t believe that the two have to be mutually exclusive. It sounds like the person asking that question is struggling with society’s hangups, and I believe that is a lot of what Ana wrestled with too – feeling like she should want something different or more traditional. But what society doesn’t understand is that in true BDSM, it’s the submissive that has all the power. They are the one that control the experience, and most BDSM relationships have better communication about what each partner does and doesn’t desire than people who only have vanilla sex, because they have to in order to be safe.
DC: Yes, it seemed very obvious to me that Christian wanted to be absolutely clear about what Ana was and wasn’t consenting to, and that he would stop the instant she revoked her consent no matter what was going on. That is in line with feminist values, and very different than an abusive relationship where the abuser continues to cause pain and suffering no matter how much they are asked to stop. I like how Christian explains it in this quote:
“What I think you fail to realize is that in Dom/sub relationships it is the sub who has all the power. That’s you. I’ll repeat this – you are the one with all the power. Not I. In the boathouse you said no. I can’t touch you if you say no – that’s why we have an agreement – what you will and won’t do. If we try things and you don’t like them, we can revise the agreement. It’s up to you – not me.” (James, 2011, p.400)
LM: I am glad to hear you got that impression from it as well. I know that some people feel like the book is promoting or condoning domestic violence, but when I hear that I wonder if they have actually read the book or are just going off of rumors of what they think happens. As you read the book, you can understand how some people can choose to mix a bit of pain with their pleasure and absolutely not have that mean it is the same thing as abuse.
DC: You know I have read about how a lot of high-power executive men will pay for a dominatrix to create an experience that doesn’t necessarily even include sex, just because they crave the feeling of not having to be in control and figure everything out. In that light you could almost see the dominant partner as giving the submissive the gift of whatever experience they are craving. Do you see it that way too?
LM: Yes that’s interesting, I would definitely believe that the kinds of people who are under such high pressure all day to be in charge would need relief. Being a submissive means that you don’t have to think about what to do, making it easy to just feel and experience. You are still in control, but you are able to just exist, just be.
DC: As somebody who was disappointed with the quality of writing and the repetition of the phrase “my inner goddess,” I was wondering there was other erotic fiction you would recommend to people.
LM: Absolutely! I would recommend Nancy Friday, Cherise Sinclair, and Sylvia Day.
DC: I happen to be a big fan of Anais Nin, and the Smut volumes by Nerve.com. Is there anything else you want to tell people curious about “50 Shades”?
LM: I want to make sure they understand that it is fantasy, it is not a BDSM 101 manual. But if it is something they are interested in, I would recommend they do some research, get some basic education in BDSM, start meeting people in the community who have been living the lifestyle for a while, and communicate their desires with their partner.
DC: Wonderful, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about this fascinating topic!
James, E. L. (2011) Fifty Shades of Grey. New York, NY: Vintage Books.