Fifty Shades of Pop (Porn) Culture

So I finally read 50 Shades of Grey a few weeks ago to understand what the hype is all about. I know, I know I’m a sucker when it comes to giving into the mainstream and in all fairness, I need to admit up front that I did read all three books. Guess you could say it was my time to waste. But, wow allow me to applaud…that is some effective hype machine. Apparently, it is enough to sell millions of copies to millions of women and put all 3 books on the New York Times bestsellers list, but I still fail to understand the intrigue and excitement around this novel, if you can even call it that.

A friend of mine gave me a little history on the author, E L James. Apparently, this book or series of books came to fruition because Ms. James wrote what they call fan-fiction for Twilight. The idea behind fan-fiction is that people rewrite chapters or they write entirely new chapters based on characters already developed by another author, i.e. re-writing the story to play out the way someone else wants to see it. These pieces are shared on the Internet for anyone to read and enjoy. Ms. James used to write chapters based on the two characters of Bella and Edward. Enter in Anastasia and Christian Grey. Her work became quite popular and she drew a large following (ah that Twilight crowd…) which ultimately led to publishing these chapters in a book and one book became three. And now Ms. James is wealthier beyond her wildest dreams.

But allow me to share my opinion on the book. First don’t expect much, it’s poorly written. Think back to something you might have written in English 101. There’s no substance to it. Geez, if a book like that can sell, what’s holding me back? But secondly it’s hard-core erotica. Full stop. This is not a romance novel. It’s not a character book. It doesn’t have a truly functioning plot outside of the sex. It’s basically a bit of action and relationship development thrown in between sex, kinky sex, BDSM, and more sex. Amazon calls it a romance. I would suggest it’s erotica with a little romance to give you a break between the sex scenes. A girl can only get off so many times in 10 pages.

Maybe we should stop here and actually define erotica. Here are some definitions I found:
1) Literature which takes an artistic view of sex as content. 50 Shades – check.
2) Literature or art tended to arouse sexual desire. 50 Shades – check.
3) Evoking erotic arousal or depicts scenes of lovemaking includes paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, music and writing. 50 Shades – check.

Wait, so then what’s porn? I got curious and had to look up that definition as well. Pornography is defined as something of no literary or artistic value whose only point is to stimulate sexual desire. 50 Shades – check. Hmmm??? Seems like a fine line.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with erotica for adults. I am, in fact, a fan of erotica and sex in general. (Ohhh…shock! Horror of all horrors! I am so glad my mother is reading this!) Let’s face it, erotica has been around for a long time. You know those stuffy, prudish morals in the Victorian era had to lead to some type of sexual outburst on the down low – what better way then books. But let’s call a spade a spade. This is not the type of book that is going to appear on the top 100 reading list of all time.

What I actually find fascinating about this book is the role it plays in impacting our cultural beliefs around sex and society’s attitude towards erotica, especially women. In the past, erotica has been treated in a similar vein as porn, in the sense that it is often something to be ashamed of, to secret away and not to talk to others about. Erotica was only minimally available in bookstores, if at all or you had to buy it at specialty sex shops. Covers were often black and brown paper packaging was a must. It’s only in the last decade that erotica has focused efforts towards targeting women. Women enjoy the story behind the sex and the imagination that comes into play when one reads. Whereas, we all know men are the more visual type.

So imagine my surprise when I read this book and realized it was a book of erotica. Here was a book that I bought at Barnes & Noble prominently displayed on one of the front tables, but I’d also seen it at King Soopers, well within eye level and easy reach. For a culture that seems to pride itself on protecting its youth from pornography, sex, bad language and other indiscretions, this book was surprisingly warning free and easily accessible to anyone. As a society, we aim to protect our children by blocking the cover of sex magazines, blurring images of sexual body parts, provide ratings for movies and TV to notify when contents contain nudity, profanity, violence or sexual imagery, and even music is given a rating if the lyrics are deemed inappropriate. And yet as much as we strive to protect our children, the fact is that sex, sexual imagery, and sexual connotations are increasingly around us and our children on a daily basis. It’s not hard to find. Go to the Internet. Watch nighttime TV or cable TV. Listen to the Howard Stern. It seems the more we try to squelch exposure to sex, the more pervasive it becomes.

I am digressing here. My real point was that suddenly it seems as if erotica has become mainstream and acceptable. I don’t hear any conservatives or concerned parents or religious groups talking about banning the book. Maybe those days are long gone. But no one’s talking of putting a warning label on the book or selling it only to those above the age of 18. Instead this book is marketed and sold well within reach of anyone who can read and it’s freely publicized by women all over the US. What better marketing plan is there? Erotica has even become the next big thing in the book business. Publishers are seeking out these writers and knock offs of 50 Shades are already appearing in your local grocery store, with suggestive, romantic titles like Burned.

So maybe the real question is: does the high profile and success of this book suggest that women are missing something? Something about this book has attracted women by the thousands, not only to read the book but also refer it to other women in droves. It’s a clear indication that there is something women want and are not getting in real life. Isn’t that why we all read books or watch movies? For the escapism, entertainment, education or to experience something through someone else that we otherwise never would. Is this a signal that women are living unsatisfied sexual lives and thus appear eager to live vicariously through characters in the book? Is this a way of being more vocal about their possible sexual needs or desires? Or have we really just come to a point where we’ve given up the pretense that erotica is a bad, shameful thing and started to embrace it?

The only real public discussion I’ve heard around the book is the insipid theory that this means women want to be spanked, taken care of and controlled by a man. Come on! Women are sexual beings. We all have our own fantasies and desires. Just because you read something in a book doesn’t mean you want to act upon it the next day. That’s part of what makes it a fantasy. And if some women did want to be spanked, taken care of or controlled is that so bad? Sometimes giving someone else control is a good thing. To each her own. Again, we all have our own desires. What tips your fancy may be difficult for someone else to stomach. Different strokes for different folks. That’s part of what makes us human. As long as you’re not harming anybody else and your participation is consensual, what you do in your bedroom is your own damn business!

So maybe women just want to spice things up? Maybe this is something for the men to actually ponder. Are you satisfying your woman? And if you answered yes, my question is how do you know? Because clearly there are a lot of women out there who are looking for something extra in their sex lives.

So read the book or don’t. (Obviously, despite my critique I got something out of it, since I read all 3 books. Must admit that I did like the email repartee, no matter how unrealistic it seemed with all that instantaneous response.) Enjoy it or not. (I enjoyed it for what it was – erotica.) Be shocked, awed, disappointed or entertained. (For all the hype, the sex was really fairly vanilla. The contract itself was more suggestive than the actual sex.) Criticize or praise. (You’ve heard my thoughts. Feel free to share yours.) Ultimately, I do think it’s a demonstration of a turning point in our culture, for good or for bad.

Laters babe!

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