Whether you love it or loathe it, Fifty Shades of Grey has certainly sparked a societal conversation. Increasing our dialogue about sex and desire, specifically what turns women on and what women want from their sex lives, is a profoundly good thing for our culture.
But we could use a better conversation starter than Fifty Shades of Grey.
The novel is touted by some as being an exploration of BDSM. This is misleading, because in actuality, all it does is perpetuate a lot of negative stereotypes, misinformation and shame about these erotic activities.
The heroine, Ana Steele, often expresses bafflement, ambivalence and downright disgust for Christian Grey’s interest in dominance and sensual pain. She goes along with his proclivities because she believes it’s a way to ‘keep her man.’ Trying to be something you’re not in order to make someone love you is a deeply unhealthy, dysfunctional reason to stay in any relationship – BDSM or otherwise.
The ironic thing is it’s probably the very kinky activities that turn Ana off that are turning on the millions of readers who’ve put Fifty Shades of Grey on the bestseller list. The book would not have become such an overnight success if it hadn’t touched a deep nerve in its audience.
Research suggests that it’s actually very common for women to have fantasies of being sexually dominated, ravished, ‘taken,’ etc… and there’s nothing unhealthy about these fantasies. It in no way implies that women want to be raped or hurt non-consensually in real life. In the same way, fantasies of dominance and being the one in control, sexually, can also be perfectly healthy. However, to take these erotic desires out of the realm of fantasy and explore them in real life requires a couple to have exceptionally mature, clear, honest communication.
I wish these novels had more to offer readers who want to explore a genuine interest in erotic power-play. Unfortunately, Ana and Christian are pretty terrible role models in terms of how to create erotically fulfilling relationships in real life.
I was disappointed that E.L. James portrayed Christian’s interest in BDSM to be a reaction against the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. This is an inaccurate portrayal – people involved in BDSM are no more likely to have been victims or perpetrators of abuse than the general population.  It would have been braver, and more interesting, to create a character for whom this lifestyle came from a place of genuine self-expression, rather than from a reaction to trauma.
The foundation of BDSM is consent – and real, informed consent requires clear communication. There’s a lack of open, honest, two sided communication between Ana and Christian, and I think it’s the reason their relationship becomes abusive. In Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian creates a ‘contract’, outlining the kind of dominant / submissive relationship he wants from Ana. ‘Contracts’ and ‘checklists’ are frequently used in the BDSM community to communicate which activities are on the table and which are off limits. However, what’s disappointing in the book is that Ana doesn’t bring anything of her own to these negotiations, which are meant to be a two way street. It would seem that E.L. James wanted to portray her as ‘innocent’ and inexperienced, however, even if Ana lacks sexual experience, surely she’d at least have her own fantasies, her own desires, her own ideas about what she might like to experience? Bizarrely, in the book, she’s presented as a nearly blank slate before she meets Christian. There’s a trope in romance literature of the hero who ‘just knows what to do’, who effortlessly pleases the heroine without her having to communicate what she wants. I think this trope is so seductive because it lets people off the hook, lets us have the fantasy that hot, kinky sex will just happen magically on its own – without the communication necessary to make it happen.
Ever since Fifty Shades of Grey topped the bestseller list, sales of BDSM sex toys, and even plain ole’ rope from the hardware store have skyrocketed – so obviously, a lot of readers want to ‘try this at home.’ I hope that in addition to buying copies of Fifty Shades of Grey and rope from Home Depot couples are also having the kind of open, honest, intimate conversations necessary to bring these fantasies to life in a way that’s fulfilling for all involved. It can take courage to have these kinds of conversations. It can take courage to name your desires and to share them with a partner – but the reward is real intimacy – and it’s that kind of intimacy which can lead to ecstatic, soulful sex.
A final word: There’s been a worry that Fifty Shades of Grey will be an unhealthy influence on young people, who might not have the maturity to distinguish between consensual play and an abusive dynamic (see “Fifty Shades of Concern”- http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/finding-your-voice/201208/50-shades-concern). This, again, is where communication is key. We should be engaging young people in conversations about their desires – rather than turning a blind eye. The message young people need to hear is that ‘it’s ok to feel turned on by ‘dominant and submissive’ fantasies like Fifty Shades of Grey – there’s nothing wrong with that – as long as you act on it in a safe, sane, consensual way.’ I’d love to see more support from the psychological community around this. Healthy, consensual BDSM was removed from the DSM in 1994 and is no longer considered a ‘disorder’ by psychologists – this is a great first step, but I’d love to see more research on what constitutes a positive, empowered BDSM relationship.
There are a lot of resources on how to engage in these activities in a way that’s safe, as well as hot, for all involved. T.E.S (The Eulenspiegel Society)( http://www.tes.org/) in New York City is an over forty year old organization that offers training and guidance on how to engage in BDSM safely. For young people, age 18-35, there’s T.N.G (The Next Generation)( http://www.nyctng.org/). Bottom line: there are many better resources out there for people who want to explore dominance and submission than mediocre novels like Fifty Shades of Grey!
 Richters, Juliet; Visser, Richard De; Grulich, Andrew; and Rissel, Chris (2008). “Selected Abstracts of Presentations During the World Congress of Sexology, 2007: Demographic and Psychosocial Features of Participants in BDSM Sex: Data From a National Survey”, Journal of Sex Research, 45(2), pp. 90–117.