Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard that the Fifty Shades of Grey movie – the one about the BDSM relationship between a young ingénue and her billionaire boyfriend – recently came into theatres and has been busting the box office, primarily due to female movie goers. Much has been written about Fifty Shades, most of it rightfully negative, but I find the overall phenomenon interesting because it seems to have hit us right where we live. And although I don’t believe this was the author’s intention, the phenomenon has opened up a dialogue about women’s sexuality that is long overdue.
First I must make a few caveats lest people think I am defending Fifty Shades. I most certainly am not. For one thing, it’s horribly written. I started to read the first book but was immediately put off by the writing. I even skipped ahead to see if it got better (it didn’t) and then discarded it because it was so awful. I couldn’t believe that such tripe actually got published or that people read this in a serious way. Much to my everlasting disappointment, it was and they do. The fact that it’s a trilogy just blows my mind.
Secondly, the premise of the series is just awful. If you’ve read anything about Fifty Shades, you probably know that the BDSM community has disavowed the work because it misrepresents how they operate. Gone are enthusiastic consent and the trust and respect that are the foundations of that community’s sexual interactions. All that is left is the typical story of a woman tolerating a man’s abuse so that her love can change him. Yuck.
However, as much as that disgusts me, I can’t say I’m all that surprised. It’s a narrative that is fully integrated into our culture. Who among us has not seen (or at least heard about) Beauty and the Beast, Pretty Woman, The Ugly Truth, A Walk to Remember, or any of a number of movies and televisions shows that depict the abusive male jerk transformed into an adoring partner all because of a woman’s love? Harlequin Romances made an industry out of that storyline! So despite the danger for women inherent in such a belief (as thousands of battered women can attest), it is not a new tale.
If you take away the horrendous writing and the terrible plot, all that’s left is the sex. Here is where it gets good because it is this aspect that has a lot of people in an uproar. They appear to be shocked that some women are really interested in sex. I find this outrage absolutely hilarious because clearly, these people haven’t been paying attention. Did they fail to notice the popularity of HBO’s Sex in the City (or, if they did, what did they think the series was about)? Are they unfamiliar with the aforementioned Harlequin Romance books? Have they not seen the thousands of fanfiction stories that are mostly written by young female fans about sex – all kinds of sex – between their favorite characters (which, by the way, is how Fifty Shades started)? Are they unaware of basic biology in which women have a body part solely designed for pleasure? Do they even know their own history?
Perhaps most people don’t know this but the way we view women’s sexuality has changed a great deal over the years. Back in the Colonial era, the Puritans believed that women were lusty, sinful and disruptive. Women were believed to be so focused on the wickedness of sex that church elders insisted that they not be allowed to influence children. As such, once babies were weaned, fathers were considered to be the ones best suited for overseeing their children’s development, care and education. Yes, you read that correctly. Because women were thought to be so enamored with sex, men did all the childcare. Imagine that. This belief is so far removed from what we think today that it is almost laughable. So, what changed? Well, a lot of things (history is nothing if not complex) but you could sum it up in a single word: economics.
When the Revolutionary War, the creation of a new nation and the Industrial Revolution took men out of the home (which was, until that time, a self-sufficient enterprise), someone had to step in and take care of the children. Yet to leave impressionable young minds in the care of sinful creatures would be wrong, so something had to change. Lo and behold, it was discovered that women – to be precise, white women of means – were actually the true purveyors of virtue. Only women could be a source of moral values and offer the warm, nurturing, homey atmosphere to offset the cold, competitive and individualistic nature of commercialism brought on by male economic and political activities. And since sex was not considered moral, white women of means (poor women and women of color were different) could not desire sex.
And so it has been. Sex has been used to control women, either to shame them into silence – women who like sex are tramps, whores, sluts, or (horrors!) unladylike – or keep them from realizing their full sexual potential, which could overwhelm some men or leave them out altogether. Lawmakers trying to restrict women’s reproductive rights: I’m looking straight at you! In fact, I’ve always believed that men who insist on marrying virgins (when they themselves are not) are just worried that they won’t measure up. I guess competition is only good for commercialism.
The sexuality of white women in the mainstream culture has usually been shunted to the sidelines but this time, with Fifty Shades of Grey, something is different. Unlike Twilight, the source material from which it was born, Fifty Shades didn’t play it safe. No, Fifty Shades took the romantic storyline (which is the “safe” outlet for women, one might even say it is the opiate of relationships) and placed sex right in the middle of it. You simply cannot miss it since sex is an integral part of the story. And women, mainstream white women who are not supposed to enjoy sex, especially sex of that kind, are eating it up.
So what does this mean? Are women going to take back their sexuality? What would that even look like? It would actually be pretty revolutionary. Some ideas that come to mind include legalizing prostitution, refusing unnecessary surgeries that change our bodies into something others say looks good and instead being satisfied with ourselves, demanding access to birth control, abortion, and comprehensive knowledge about sexuality (both the how-to and the health parts), crushing the double standard of sexuality (i.e., celebrating women’s sexual interactions the way we do men’s), vigorously prosecuting rapists instead of victims, and refusing to allow sexual names – the aforementioned tramp, whore and slut – to silence us and keep us from choosing partners (however many we want), running for office, wearing clothes we like, becoming leaders, determining marital status, and having sex in the way that we enjoy. Just imagine.
Will all this happen? I doubt it. We’re still light years away from realizing all of those things. But maybe, just maybe, because of this frank conversation about women’s sexuality, we’re a little bit closer.