I started reading Fifty Shades of Grey during an exceptionally long subway ride one Friday evening. I teared up twice before I got to my stop. By Sunday night, I'd finished the Fifty Shades trilogy and was sitting on the kitchen floor bawling (I mean, not crying or weeping or even sobbing, but bawling) to my roommate. It was not how I'd expected to respond to a book marketed as a Twilight-inspired erotic BDSM romance.
I downloaded Fifty Shades of Grey in the first wave of the media hype: according to the coverage, moms all across America were reading this book, whispering to each other about something called a "Red Room of Pain" and buying their husbands grey silk ties for Christmas. Of course I wanted to read it: here was a peek into The Secret Lives of American Moms; it seemed silly, titillating, and fun. I'd just broken up with someone and was not happy about it so I wanted to read something silly, titillating, and fun.
Right, so then the crying happened. As I mentioned, I was in a delicate emotional state due to some romantic complications. If you are in a similar state, do not read Fifty Shades of Grey if you aren't prepared to cry.
With the rise of e-readers, sales of sexy romance novels have grown dramatically. E-books are inexpensive, purchases are private, and no one can tell what you're reading in public. From a recent New York magazine article, romance is a $1.4 billion industry, surpassing every other publishing genre by hundreds of millions of dollars, and "Fifty Shades’ pre-titter sales were no major anomaly." Fifty Shades may have been the subject of a publishing bidding war, Vikings Books may have purchased it for seven figures, Universal Studios may have acquired the movie rights — but apart from its stratospheric success, the E.L. James trilogy is a typical romance novel: it's about two people falling in love and, in the process, copulating, as a new couple is wont to do in this day and age.
The novel's much-trumpeted "kinky sex" is presented as an obstacle to the main characters' budding relationship. Nonstandard acts are more often talked about than acted upon; in the novel's very first sex scene, the protagonist, Anastasia Steele, eagerly loses her virginity to the very considerate Christian Grey. They are in the missionary position. He goes slowly. She has an orgasm. She thinks, "Wow…that was astounding." On the level of erotica, this stuff is not shocking, but it is fantasy: it's the perfect losing-your-virginity experience, and many people may remember their own to be, even if nice, more complicated and less pleasant.
Here's a common argument: female sexual arousal has an emotional component. Women are more likely to be turned on, enjoy sex, and reach orgasm if they are emotionally invested in either their partner, the sexual experience, or both. That's why pharmaceutical companies say they've had such a difficult time developing female Viagra: for women, increased blood flow in the genitals does not, in isolation, translate to sexual excitement, as it does for men; something has to happen in our brains.
When women seek out erotic material, they are less likely to be interested in standalone sex, more likely to be drawn to sex which is situated in an emotional context — sex between two people with separate and often conflicting desires and needs. Romance novels tend to include more fully fleshed-out characters than the typical online porn video; some women may watch internet porn, but anyone that's happened upon a porn site knows that it's mostly a world made for men, by men. The readers of romance novels are 91% female: it's a world made for women, by women.
Sex plays a large part in the Fifty Shades plot, it's basically the only problem in the early stages of Anastasia and Christian's relationship. And even then, the problem is that the sex is really hot, but it's unclear whether or not it will be less hot or more hot if they have it differently. Christian is a sexual dominant, and his prior sexual experiences have been extremely rough and violent — but that's only because he's emotionally damaged, and as soon as he comes to accept his love for Anastasia, he is transformed. This is maybe the ultimate female fantasy, and one responsible for more bad relationships than any of us can count: that a woman can change a man.
Some other non-problems and their corresponding fantasies:
- He has a jealous and possessive streak because he's crazy about her, but it's not a big deal because she's a virgin and also fiesty so they balance each other out perfectly. (The fantasy: that you get to have problems like, "He loves me too much.")
- He is very wealthy but she wants to make it on her own. (The fantasy: that you get to have problems like, "He has too much money.")
- From time to time, someone tries to kill them but they have tons of security and very good luck. (Fantasy: maybe none? This is just to keep the plot moving so that the reader doesn't get bored by all the other bliss. Or, if someone wants to kill you and your lover, they will not succeed.)
The Fifty Shades sex scenes are explicit, but they are not as truly pornographic as the central love story, which sensationalizes any and every unrealistic expectation a woman could ever have about relationships with men — the same way porn sensationalizes any and every unrealistic expectation a man could ever have about sex with women. It's emotional smut, and it works: that's why it made me cry so much.