Please accept this as gospel: I do not like censorship. I am not a book burner. I will stand up for my right and your right to read any book we choose. Also understand that I fault no one for selling or reading E.L. James’s erotic novels, the Fifty Shades series.
In fact, I’m in that latter category. I bought a copy of the first book in the trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, a few months ago, eager to see what all the fuss was about. The books, after all, are a phenomenon. They’ve sold more than 10 million copies, even surpassing the Harry Potter series as the fastest selling paperbacks of all time. The movie based on the first book is being cast, some speculating that Twilight star Kristen Stewart will play naive college student Anastasia Steele. Angelina Jolie is rumored to be considering directing.
That’s not all; women are saying reading the book is rekindling their interest in intimacy. One morning on The Today Show, I watched a soccer mom insist the book had reignited her sex life with her husband. What could be bad about that?
The books are so successful, that they’ve spawned an increase in sex toy sales, and some hardware store owners are having a tough time keeping cotton rope (used by Christian Grey to tie up Anastasia in the book) on the shelves. You see, handsome billionaire Grey, the title character, is into BDSM, an acronym for bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism. In other words, the books’ hero enjoys tying his partner up, dominating her, and inflicting pain.
A mother of two who says she wrote the books to put her own fantasies on paper, James has said that she didn’t expect such success. How could she? This is the stuff of authors’ dreams. Not only fame, but just think of the royalty checks James is cashing.
Wait a minute while I calm my imagination and my racing heart.
The problem is that ever since I read James’s first novel, I’ve been troubled. Is anyone else out there wondering what I am: Do middle-aged women, the main audience for this book, really view the threat of violence as an aphrodisiac? And isn’t it dangerous to turn a BDSM-addict into a romantic hero? Would we want our daughters dating Christian Grey?
It’s true that the physical pain Anastasia endures in the books is by her own consent, so much so that before he spanks her for the first time Grey hands her a contract. Will she agree to being tied up, to being whipped, to being caned? And those other possibilities, including the use of clamps in places we won’t discuss. You get the picture. This is presented as a negotiation, and Ana exercises her prerogatives, crossing out some activities she deems as nonnegotiable. One of the questions on the contract: “How much pain is the Submissive (Ana) willing to experience?” This is to be judged on a scale from one to five.
There are two assumptions running through that first book. One is that Grey’s obsession with violence isn’t really his fault. He’s a man flawed by his past, someone who has been abused as a child who has latched onto BDSM as a way to channel his confusion and anger. The second is that Ana, a virgin until she meets Grey, will find a way to change him.
A disclaimer: I didn’t read the second or third books. I didn’t want to. But I’m told by friends who did that by the end of the trilogy bad boy Grey is saved by the love of a good woman, and Ana is rewarded for enduring the turmoil and physical pain inflicted up her with a life of luxury with the reformed man of her dreams. Sounds like a fairy tale. Of course, it is.
What I find unsettling is that in Christian Grey I see the attributes of so many of the men I’ve written about over the years, the ones who abuse and sometimes even end up murdering their intimate partners. Experts have said for decades that rape is more about control than sex. What I’ve seen over and over again is that a man who needs to dominate, humiliate, and physically abuse a woman isn’t a hero. He’s not doing it out of love. That guy isn’t the man of any woman’s dreams. He’s a mistake, one she won’t end up rehabilitating but fleeing.
So there, I’ve said it. I know some of my friends will say that three decades as a crime writer has warped me to the point that I don’t understand a book like James’s. Perhaps they’re right. But I do find it disturbing. And I wonder what it says about our society that these books are so incredibly successful. What do you think?