I have a confession to make. I am that girl. Yep, the one you’ve spotted glancing over each shoulder, making sure the coast is clear, before slyly unzipping my purse and grabbing a well-hidden item. Though my covert behavior may appear to be the product of years of CIA training, sadly, I haven’t been entrusted with some international secret. I am not, in fact, the next Jason Bourne. I am just reading 50 Shades of Grey.
Over the past 3 days, I have embarked on a bit of a social experiment. My task? To read the bestselling erotic romance in various locations around campus and see what kind of response I get. And I’ve seen it all. Double-takes from professors along Middle Path, giggles from first-year girls in Peirce, narrow-eyed glances from guys in the KAC, and remarks from friends in Wiggin Street Coffee.
I had resisted the phenomenon that is the 50 Shades Trilogy for so long. I didn’t feel the urge to indulge in what has been dubbed “Mommy Porn,” even as it climbed the bestsellers list and even sold more copies than the Harry Potter books. I was embarrassed by the thought of reading such an explicit book in public, figuring it was intended only for the unabashedly sexually adventurous.
I knew very little about the novel when I found myself taking on this assignment. Before I knew it, I’d landed myself in the check-out line at the Columbus Barnes & Noble with my Mom, 50 Shades in hand. I was already red in the face when my Mom said “I’ll just be over here...I don’t really need to be associated with you when you buy...this.” Seconds later, the cashier wished me “happy reading” and gave me a knowing look. Suddenly, I felt myself start to panic. Everyone in Barnes & Noble could tell what I had purchased. They could see through the opaque green shopping bag and straight into my guilty, porn-purchasing mind! Fight-or-flight kicked in, and I jogged back to the safety of my hotel room, where I shoved the book into a drawer and hoped the housekeeping staff didn’t find it.
Come Monday, back in Gambier, I knew what had to be done. I had to open the book. I convinced myself it couldn’t really be that bad. Sure, I knew it had been banned in libraries across the nation. I even knew that designer brands had introduced lines of 50 Shades book-covers, specially made to conceal the novel marketed to “mature audiences.” Now, 514 pages later, I am 50 shades of red. Color me embarrassed, disturbed, and angry.
I entered into this experiment expecting entirely different results. I thought, okay, this trilogy was steamy and erotic, and was also turning on Moms across the nation. I planned to test the limits of our acceptance of sexuality by reading it in public, and prepared to write an argumentative article all about the harm we do to decades of feminist accomplishment by judging other women who have every right to read something sexy. If the book had been nothing more than erotic, that is the article I would have written.
However, 50 Shades is anything but a turn-on.
It is explicit and erotic, which, to be honest, made me a little uncomfortable, but not appalled. However, by page 98, I was in the thick of a contract between the submissive and dominant in a BDSM relationship. I was reading about whips and red rooms of pain, spankings and punishments. Ana, the novel’s protagonist (and a new college grad) agrees to let her dominant (Christian Grey) rule each aspect of her life. After meeting Grey only twice, Ana has agreed to work out 3 times a week and obey his mandates on what to eat, when to sleep, and where to wax. In James’ book, Ana’s smart and vibrant character became a subservient sex slave willing to subject herself to all kinds of pain and torture for the pleasure of the mysterious and alluring Grey.
I winced at descriptions of Ana enduring flogging as a punishment for rolling her eyes at Christian and after pages of flirty emails from Ana addressed to “Sir” (as the contract demands she refer to Grey.)
On the other hand, arguments have been made been made that Anastasia is brave and forthcoming, feminist and strong. The Daily Beast’s Katie Roiphe, in her article “Spanking Goes Mainstream,” states that “the current vogue for domination” actually stems from the feminist rise to power in the workplace. Ana is, according to this reading, freed by her exploration of sex, and strong in her decision to give herself over to Christian. It is important to add that this relationship is entirely consensual, and that Anastasia knows, on some level, what she’ll be getting herself into. However, I quickly found that I did not agree with this interpretation of the book.
The idea of a promising young woman surrendering her entire life to explore the “pleasures of pain” disturbs me. Before I read the book, I expected to admire James’s intrepid entrance into the open exploration of sex. Though I understand that, for some, BDSM is a turn-on, 50 Shades lost me at “submissive”. Instead of sexual freedom, I saw a lack of love and an abundance of pain. Furthermore, the idea of our Mom’s generations falling in love with the disturbed and sadistic Christian Grey concerns me.
In a day and age where we try tirelessly to convince young girls that they are worthy of the best that love has to offer, when we work so hard to teach teenagers that real love is about respect, how can we explain the sales of a book that encourages the submission of women and the allure of pain and torture?
Please, put down the book and pick up a love story.