Fifty Shades of Grey has joined the likes of Lady Chatterly's Lover and Tropic of Cancer in the annals of erotic books. It's been banned by the libraries of Brevard County, Fla. as just too dirty for the local citizenry to consume. This may only enhance the book's explosive sales -- the three volumes of the triliogy are currently number one, two and three in sales on Amazon's best seller list.
But what should we make of the fact that American women have made a huge bestseller out of a novel that might be titled Fifty Shades of S&M?
Should we cheer because women now feel free to push the boundaries of sexuality without feat of being labeled as sluts and "bad" women?
Or should we worry that a sado-masochistic novel in which a lot of violence is directed at the heroine is selling like hotcakes?
Maybe the answer is a bit of both. It may well depend on the attitude of the women readers. If they are saying to their partners "Tie me up, give me lots of pleasure and then it's your turn to do dishes," that's one thing. If they are behaving like pop star Rihanna, who allegedly tried to get back with her singer-boyfriend Chris Brown after he'd given her a brutal beating, that's quite another.
Shades of Grey reminds me a bit of Jane Eyre -- if Rochester and Jane were tying each other up in the basement while the crazy wife was sequestered in the attic. Good woman rescues tortured man and teaches him to love. That is the theme of many romantic novels, where brutal (but ravishingly handsome) men are redeemed and turned intro pussycats by the true love of a good woman,
Fifty seems to share that fantasy; the young innocent college girl who endures a cruel billionaires' kinky sexual desires thinks that she will save his tortured soul even if it means she has to put a lot of Ben Gay on her bottom.
That's quite different from the S&M classic, The Story of O, in which a French woman is brought by her lover to a creepy castle where sadistic males work out their fantasies on her body. O endures, but doesn't seem to enjoy it much, and in fact, her soul is gradually destroyed as she becomes little more than a vessel for male fantasies.
Some critics have written that women are glomming onto Fifty because in real life they are stepping out of their true nature as submissive females by getting good jobs and making money. That's an old chestnut that won't fly any more -- the notion that when women leave traditional roles, all of society goes to hell. My favorite tome in that genre is the 1947 best seller, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, which decreed that when women sought good jobs, their bodies would revolt by killing their embryos. (I kid you not.) The book states: "Male emulating careerists have such anxiety about pregnancy that their glands secrete chemicals that destroy fertility." A return to a 'normal role in society would soothe ovaries that spew defective eggs.
But Fifty does raise the issue of the growing pornification of sex in our culture. Too many of the images we see in mainstream media more than hint of violence against women. Italian Vogue ran a picture of Rihanna bound and, more ominously, gagged in the aftermath of her beating by Brown. In a picture in Elle, Miley Cyrus aged out of Disney wearing black S&M gear, lying on a table as if she were about to be sexually assaulted. Christina Aguilera posed bound and wearing a huge, studded gag -- a classic porn image -- silencing and immobilizing women. This theme echoes through "gangsta" rap. Eminem sings, "Slut, you think I won't choke no whore / 'Til the vocal cords don't work in her throat no more?! Shut up slut, you're causin' too much chaos."
Increasingly, younger and younger girls are being sexualized. A major report on girls by the American Psychological Association found the media emphasizing young women's sexuality "to a stunning degree." It found that if girls learn that behaving like sexual objects gains approval from society and from people whose opinions they respect, they may begin to "self-sexualize; in fact, to become their own worst enemies as far as their health and well-being are concerned."
A mother I know heard her teenage daughter and her friends debating whether oral sex was really sex -- and agreeing it was not. But younger and younger girls seem to feel an obligation to give males sexual satisfaction -- without considering their own pleasure.
So I have no worries about forty-something housewives grooving on Fifty Shades of Grey, trying to put a little spark in their sex lives by getting their hubbies to tie them to the bedpost with strips of satin. (Or cut-up old sheets. )
But I worry about young girls getting the message that male fantasies and desire are paramount, even when they hurt.
Ah, for the days of the plain brown wrapper.
Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the co-author, with Rosalind C. Barnett of The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About our Children. (Columbia University Press.)