As a fellow creator in the world of sex and erotica, I’m glad when other women in the industry garner great success for their work. Not only does it help to promote our work within the field as a whole, but it offers more female perspective on the topic of sex, which can only be a good thing! So with that in mind, I thought that Fifty Shades of Grey could be a massive help to women authors of erotica to gain some recognition within a widespread audience. But inevitably, the success of the novels inspired lots of criticism, little of which led me to believe the books had any real merit beyond ‘being a hot read’. What a shame that others in my field not only admitted that, as a cultural phenomenon, the books were considered required reading despite it’s terrible quality, but also that they were capitalizing on a very unrealistic story of BDSM. That in turn only furthers the divide between what erotica is being popularized now versus what other women are writing, thereby hurting the cause for women authors rather than supporting it.
In my first piece for the Huffington Post, I wrote about the positive aspects of a BDSM sexual relationship. As I outlined, the most important components to safe and fun kink are open communication and enthusiastic consent, which obviously applies to every other kind of sexual relationships as well. Imagine how dismayed I was then after finding out that this wildly popular series not only represented a relationship devoid of those components, but also some of the most male-driven fantasies and sexual stereotypes!
First, there’s the ‘virgin’ thing: I mean how many women out there truly have a romantic notion of the first time after the fact? I recently heard an anecdote that went something like, “sex is a lot like making pancakes, the first one off the griddle is never the best” and for most I think that holds very true. So, this is definitely a male fantasy of initiation. In addition, although Christian, the dominant male protagonist, makes it clear that he wants a BDSM relationship by presenting Anastasia a contract, she never signs it, indicating both a lack of interest in the practice, and refusing to communicate what her needs and preferences were by even negotiating the terms. Finally, there is the classic element of a woman dealing with abuse (which is essentially what it was, given a lot of his behavior and her refusal to sign the contract or otherwise indicate her consent) with the ultimate goal of saving the damaged man. And that’s really the most stunning part of the story to me: suggesting that the only reason Christian practiced BDSM was because he had faced some sort of trauma, which doesn’t paint this type of sex in a flattering light at all. How can it simultaneously entice readers by promising erotic scenes of spanking and bondage, whilst simultaneously transmitting the message that you’d have to be sick to enjoy it?
So I guess what I’m actually disappointed by isn’t even the bad representation of BDSM, but the use of it as an angle and guise for what is really a story of traditional chauvinist values. The blend of the two very opposite things, and the resulting popularity branding it as ‘mainstream’ is totally perplexing. It really reminded me of how conflicted I felt after Kathryn Bigelow was awarded ‘Best Director’ at the Oscars – so happy that a brilliant woman was finally recognized in an industry dominated by men, with which I can definitely sympathize, and yet disgruntled that it was in recognition of a war movie devoid of any female protagonists or perspective. Doubtless her direction was brilliant, but I truly wonder whether the masculine subject matter made the decision to award her easier… as opposed to say, Sofia Coppola or Jane Campion, both of whom were nominated for, but failed to receive, the same award in 2003 and 1993 respectively, and whose movies represent more feminist themes and feminine perspectives.
If you’re like me, and the whole idea of the popular trilogy just leaves a bad taste in your mouth, I suggest looking into other erotica – and there is a huge, well-penned selection out there that represents a more fresh and modern take on sex, rather than just a Disney fairytale that’s dressed up in leather. A great compilation of suggested titles by sex-educator and blogger Violet Blue can be found here. And if you’re more of a visual person interested in the true sex appeal of BDSM, check out my 2009 short, Handcuffs, filmed in Barcelona and based on true events.