Why Do Women Love the New Smutty Novel Fifty Shades of Grey?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 7 2012 1:37 PM

Book Club Erotica

Why do women love the new smutty novel Fifty Shades of Grey?

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Whether this constitutes an insult to thinking women everywhere is sort of beside the point. James is not aiming for social commentary; she is instead writing a textbook female fantasy long recorded by sex researchers but embarrassing to feminists. Decades of liberation have not erased the very taboo fantasy among women of being sexually overpowered. Researchers say this is because women’s desire is not, as many people assume, necessarily connected to close intimate relationships, as Daniel Bergner pointed out in his  New York Times magazine cover story, “What Do Women Want?” Instead the desire is narcissistic, meaning that women want to be the object of someone else’s overwhelming lust and need. Women want to be wanted, and if they are not they lose interest quickly. “What really turns women on is being so sexy that someone can’t help but transgress to get to you,” says Marta Meana, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada.  These desires, she told Bergner, are a real dilemma. “Women want to be thrown up against a wall but not truly endangered. Women want a caveman and caring.” Their ideal man, she says, is someone like Denzel Washington, someone who seems like a mensch but also truly in charge.

Christian Grey is the ultimate gentleman predator. He is a scary control freak who insists on monitoring every aspect of Anastasia’s life, down to her clothing. Yet around mousy Ana he can’t control himself. “There’s something about you. I can’t leave you alone.” “I’m like a moth to a flame.” “I want you very badly, especially now, when you’re biting your lip again.” Do you have any idea how much I want you, Ana Steele?” He beats, flogs, and otherwise physically overpowers her and then asks, “Are you okay? Seriously, are you okay?”

James has created perhaps the most relatable dominant and submissive couple to date, the Ross and Rachel of  BDSM (for bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism) fiction. When faced with a room full of cables and hooks, Ana has the same reaction any average woman would have. She decides that Christian is a freak and a pervert with serious problems. Over the next few chapters her “thinking brain” is at war with her “subconscious,” which wants her to relent. “Stop thinking so much Ana,” Christian warns, sounding like an inspirational life coach, or Tim Gunn, and eventually she gives in, and of course, she is more “sated” and empowered than she’s ever been.

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One of James’ goals seems to be to make women the world over fear their own subconscious. If so, I have this to offer as consolation. Thankfully the BDSM subculture is extensively and often pedantically documented online. A quick Google search will reveal that in the real world of red rooms, men seem to vastly prefer to be dominated.  And the latest fetish seems to be something called “ballbusting,” which is exactly what it sounds like, and proof that women have nothing to fear.

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