50 Shades of Grey

21 Jul

Perhaps many of you are familiar with this title.  Even if you’re not familiar, then it’s fairly likely that you’ve at least heard it mentioned in recent months.  50 Shades of Grey is an erotic novel written by E. L. James.  Allegedly, this started off as “fan fiction” of the popular Twilight vampire series.  This book has garnered an immense amount of attention and notoriety due, at least in part, to the controversy that it has stirred up.

This is an erotic novel that focuses on a BDSM relationship.  This has made the book especially controversial and has caused some groups to label it as “porn” or “lewd” and actually spurred a movement in some areas to have this novel removed from bookshelves.  (The joke was on those people in this instance because that only made the book more popular as people wondered what could possibly be so racy to cause a ban of a particular book.)



As someone who is interested in, has read a great deal about, and studies human sexuality, this entire 50 Shades phenomenon is fascinating to me in several respects.  I’ll just make a few observations here and would love to engage in any sort of dialogue/conversation in the comments section or in further posts.

Disclaimer: I have not read the book in its entirety.  I have, however, read several selections.  Interestingly enough, I have actually read a few selections out loud to a group of people I worked with – eliciting nervous giggles, slight discomfort, and a fascination to hear more.  I have also read several reviews and a few summaries.

Now that we have that out of the way…

-There is an entire (and vast) genre of literature that is devoted to erotica.  This is not the first novel that has been written involving some of these themes or ideas.  For whatever reason, this particular novel just happened to go viral (again, partly because of the backlash which created even more attention for it).

-BDSM includes a huge spectrum of different activities.  Reading 50 Shades does not give you the depiction of what BDSM entails.  BDSM can range from blindfolding, to role playing, to handcuffing, to tying, to clamping, to strapping down, to whipping, to many other things.  There are lots and lots of forms of expression that could be considered BDSM – some of which the people doing them may not consider themselves engaging in BDSM (and that’s perfectly fine!).  The point is, there is not one depiction BDSM (including 50 Shades) that is “right”.

-Individuals who do engage in BDSM almost always know what they’re doing and have set some limits or rules regarding what they are willing to do before they engage in BDSM with a partner.  This includes having some sort of “safe word” that lets their partner know that they need to stop or he/she has gone too far.  I haven’t read enough to know if they do this in the novel, but it’s important to know that individuals who engage (in real life) are not literally being forced – that is part of the “play” as one being dominated – but they have voluntarily entered that role and have a safe word to leave it at any time if necessary.

-The scenes that I have read have not been that extreme.  There has been “digging in of fingertips” (which probably happens in a lot of “vanilla sex”), there has been some dialogue where he instructs her (“you will lay there…” etc.), and there has been some that has alluded to spanking.  I’ve heard that some scenes get more explicit (and potentially more “rough”), but that’s certainly not unusual or extreme for certain sub-genres of erotica.  Perhaps the hype or the expectations color our experiences (it could also be that I haven’t gotten to the “good stuff” yet).

-Many of the reviews have not been terribly positive.  I have seen reviews that have critiqued the writing style, character development, storyline, repetition, its depiction of BDSM, and lack of creativity, among other things.  One reviewer stated that it seemed like 16 year old girls got together to gossip and this story popped out: a self-made 26 year old billionaire, who is dazzlingly good looking and charming, has a perfect body, well-equipped, perfect lover who can cause her to orgasm just by touching her, and oh – by the way – is also working to end world hunger.  I laughed out loud when I read that review, but it does point out the book as a bit overly idealistic when you lay it out like that.  The point – it may not be the best representation of erotica or BDSM.  Unfortunately it may be the only exposure people are getting.

-One good thing: in every selection that I have read thus far, they use a condom!  Yay for promoting safe and responsible sex.  That’s often absent in porn, movies, books, music, tv series – basically any place where sex happens.  And we wonder why condom use is not consistent or correctly done by people – in nealy every message they receive involving sexual activity, condoms are absent.  So kudos to 50 Shades for explicitly mentioning “the little foil square” in every scene that I have read.

-People seem to be shocked, fascinated or even fear this book and the idea of BDSM.  “That’s weird.” “Why would you write that?” “Why would you read that?” “No one does that stuff.”  These seem to be fairly common comments relating to this particular book.  Again, this is not the only book of its kind – it has simply captured the limelight.  If you’re interested, read it.  If you do think it is weird or inappropriate, don’t read it.

So there are some of my (slightly scattered) thoughts regarding this controversial book.  In the end, I think that it’s important for people to have an open mind when it comes to sexuality.  Lots of people have lots of interests and that doesn’t make them “right or wrong” or “good or bad.”  Consenting individuals have a right to explore and pursue their interests in a safe manner.  So if you’re interested in 50 Shades, give it a read.  If you aren’t, don’t.  And in either case, don’t let that one particular book shape your entire view of erotica or BDSM.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments section!



Posted by on July 21, 2012 in sociology


Tags: , , , , ,

6 responses to “50 Shades of Grey

  1. trokspot

    July 21, 2012 at 3:05 PM

    PS. A shout out to Abbey for bringing the book to OLAB!


  2. G

    July 21, 2012 at 3:45 PM

    Interesting comments. The book certainly has been controversial!


    • trokspot

      July 21, 2012 at 4:55 PM

      Yep! For whatever reason it went viral and people have been taking strong stances one way or another!


  3. Jeff

    July 21, 2012 at 5:15 PM

    I’ve read the book. And I think the only way it “works” really is as a piece of fan fiction (which is not alleged: The desire to “protect” Ms. Steele through their love contract parallels Edward’s desire to protect Bella. And that’s the dorkiest, nicest thing I’ll say about this book.

    I think you’d gain a lot from reading the novel. I think James is trying to ease the reader into the sexual subculture along with Anastasia. Through the emphasis on the contract, we get a glimpse into the Dom/Sub culture, and the establishment of boundaries and safe words.

    That being said, the book reads like a very personalized fantasy. There is no attempt to build Anastasia as a character that is not an extension of the author’s insecurities and apprehensions. She’s bumbles over herself, constantly self-deprecates, and lives in one cliche after another. Of course her roommate/best friend is perfect leading to comparisons. Of course Anastasia is a book nerd and with a never-been-kissed complex. The scenes are nothing if not repetitive. How many times must we see Anastasia “shocked” by a sexual advance or suggestion leading to a will I or won’t I sign the contract inner monologue? How many times will she purposefully step “out of line” to piss off Grey? How many “witty” email subject titles do I really have to read, Ms. James?

    The book poses many other questions: First, does the author realize what “murmurs” means? Second, doesn’t the phrase “Double crap” usually follow “crap”? Why does James skip the “crap-double crap” construction every time but one time in Anastasia’s inner monologues? Last (to avoid spoilers) why is the book this long to get to the point we get to at the end? I know there are others in the series, but c’mon. Too much of the same thing to get what we get at the end.

    I wonder about this work in terms of feminism. It seems all about sexual liberation, but Anastasia is such a problematic figure for feminist, I would think, that the liberation women may get from consuming the book, may be offset by the critiques that have to be leveled on the protagonist. Maybe in the others (whose titles suggest more emancipatory images for Ms. Steele) we’d get a different story, but summer isn’t long enough and my desire to read another painful book in this series is about at zero. To be clear, I don’t think Subs are by default anti-feminist. I think Anastasia Steele is probably a problematic character for feminists, though.

    You had to know I’d bite on this.


    • trokspot

      July 21, 2012 at 6:04 PM

      Knew you would and glad you did bite! Your review here seems to mirror a lot of the reviews that I skimmed through, which are generally scathing.

      There must continue to be some sort of appeal though, because those things are still selling like crazy, which is nuts. Maybe it’s just the thrill of reading anything overtly sexual for those who never have (even though the critical or erotic/sex-educated reader may find it repetitive and numbing). Maybe it’s just the continuing controversy surrounding it. Who knows…

      I think the feminist point is good to bring up. There is probably always a fine line to walk when being a sub and remaining a feminist. It doesn’t surprise me that James may not have walked this line successfully (based on your and countless other critiques of her lacking writing skills and character development). Being a sub – as you say – does not make one an anti-feminist by default. I read other reviews that make similar points from various feminist positions about how problematic the book is.
      It also begs the question, is it a good thing that this book drummed up some conversation about sex/BDSM, even if incorrect in a lot of ways – because it then allows for knowledeable individuals to correct some of the misrepresentations?
      Or, would it have just been better off untouched and generally off the average person’s radar?

      As I said, I probably only read 4-5 of the sex scenes or so, and to me it wasn’t anything to write home about (as being particularly titillating or extreme or creative, etc.). Maybe I should go ahead and give it a quick read in the waning weeks of the summer…. I’ll let you know if I do!



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