Recently, I was interviewed by Dr. Michael Krychman, a gynecologist and MiddlesexMD adviser, about the 50 Shades of Grey series. In case you’ve been, um, visiting another galaxy for the past few months, 50 Shades is a trilogy that follows the romance of Christian Grey, a suave billionaire with some unusual sexual notions, and Ana, the timid virginal woman who has become his obsession.
While the books make no pretence at literature, they have become enormously popular with women. The raw sex, the romance, the twist in the traditional love affair—Christian is into dominance and control to the point of implied threat. Yet, the books have sold 10 million copies and created a genre called “mommy porn.”
“This book is a revival of the Harlequin romances but without the ‘fade to black’ love scenes,” Michael said in an article in the Washington Post, “which is nice because it helps with creativity and imagination, and can give people ideas that help counter sexual boredom.”
Yup. Those love scenes are there all right, in explicit living color.
In our webcast, Michael and I discussed the effect these books are having on our patients. Michael mentioned that patients come into his office with the cover ripped off the book because they’re embarrassed to have anyone see what they’re reading. But “It allows women to start the conversation,” he says. It’s a form of bibliotherapy, which uses books to help people understand and begin to articulate issues they may struggle with.
I think 50 Shades gives women a sexual voice in a similar way that Sex in the City did. The main character is a woman and the books take readers beyond “vanilla sex” by breaking some boundaries and adding some danger, all within a romantic love story.
So—what can the enormous popularity of these books tell us about how men and women relate as sexual creatures? And how it can enhance our own sex lives?
According to an anonymous online survey conducted by More magazine, while many women fantasize about kinky sex with whips and chains, most (69 percent) of women would never act on those fantasies and actually prefer Christian in scruffy jeans “that hang from his hips just so” rather than with his riding crop.
So, most of you are romantics at heart, but prefer a softer side of sex and aren’t really into submission and dominance.
Female readers love the fact that Christian really wants to please Ana, sexually and otherwise, and that he knows how to do it. She doesn’t have to ask, and she doesn’t have to explain. “Ana is adored by Christian Grey. I think women want to be adored and ravaged,” said one reader.
Of course, in my practice, I encourage women to talk to their partners, communication being a cornerstone of good sex. I tell women to ask for what they want and to be explicit about it. But part of the appeal of this book is that Ana doesn’t have to. “Talking can be difficult, and maybe the popularity of 50 Shades is in part a backlash against the admonishment to talk, a sign that sometimes people yearn for someone who just knows,” suggests one talk-show host. (I was glad I’d read the books when a patient hesitantly asked me about one scene involving vaginal weights! Another instance of someone who knows.)
Some couples, however, are making good use of the book to enhance their own sex lives. As one husband commented in an online forum, “I’m reading 50 Shades of Grey along with my wife, and we are really enjoying the book. It has helped us both open up a bit and start to think about some of these darker desires we both have but never truly expressed.”
Sue, an acquaintance who admits to reading the series, also says that they’ve definitely spiced up her sex life and that makes her husband a very happy camper indeed. Another male caller to a talk show suggested that, if women are embarrassed to discuss the book, they print out the pertinent pages for their partners. “Let the book do the talking,” he says.
“Fifty Shades is getting a lot of people thinking and talking more openly about sex, sexuality, desire, and interest,” says Debby Herbenick, a research scientist at Indiana University, in an article in the Washington Post. “It’s helping many women to feel comfortable enjoying something about sexual fantasy and arousal…. Not only is it okay to fantasize, not only is it okay to read really explicit info about sex, but right now, it’s the cool thing to do.”
Literary quality aside, if the books help couples to talk about sex, if they break down inhibitions and encourage fantasy, if they increase libido, then for us older gals, they’ve done their work.