E.L. James' bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey speaks about women's secret longing to be sexually dominated by a powerful and controlling man. While I appreciate its message and worldwide appeal to women of all ages, I have some deep concerns. Many commentators appear to be assuming that this longing is in conflict with the political, legal and social gender equality that women have courageously achieved.
As a trained sex therapist, clinical psychologist and marriage counselor, I have dealt with intimate sexual connections for over four decades. I concur that the predominant sexual fantasy for many women is to be "taken" by sexy and powerful men who will, of course, ultimately fall deeply in love with them. Those fantasies can take many forms, but they are created within the minds of the women who have created the scripts, therefore they are inherently consensual.
After all, don't we encourage our young would-be princesses to adore their Snow Whites and Cinderellas from the time they are old enough to emulate them? The ultimate goal would naturally be to someday find their prince charming and be carted off to an unknown place, completely safe in the arms of their hero. I don't ever remember thinking that they would be in danger once the prince-rescuer took them over.
I never remember those rescued damsels-in-distress feeling forced to comply. They all seemed perfectly confident that their fate would be nothing but wonderful. More recent fairytale heroines, though still in dire circumstances until their rescuers arrive, are pretty feisty and don't seem in any way concerned that their momentary contract of submission to a male would endanger their power to influence their future relationship. Their heroes have changed somewhat as well; they seem more vulnerable and welcome the egalitarian and shared power that it takes to overcome their common enemy. Think Fiona and Mulan.
There are more and more public examples of shared consensual power between intimate partners as well. The new Duchess of Cambridge was able to get the British Parliament to overturn a three hundred-year-old-rule in England that gave automatic succession to the first boy child regardless if he had older sisters. If her first-born is a girl, she will be first in line for the throne. That's a pretty amazing real-life heroine, despite the fact that her position of power does not seem to in any way conflict with the comfort of being second to her husband in many other ways.
To imply that women's desires to be dominated by their men would be incompatible with the joyful accomplishments of higher education, satisfying careers and gender equality seems presumptuous to me, and I am distressed at how that is being played out in the media.
Consensual dominance/submission in intimate relationships, whichever gender assumes whichever role, has been part of the interaction between the sexes since the beginning of recorded history. In the past, Knighthood of the past often included sacrificing domination and power for the women they served. Princess Bride, the wonderful classic princess-over-servant-relationship and her submissive and agreeable slave's alternate role as the dreadful pirate is a superb example of a contractual dominance/submission role, where both are fully aware of what they are choosing and find comfort in either role.
The assumption that women's deep desire for dominance automatically places their fight for gender equality in question at all can be easily challenged by applying the same standard to male sexual fantasies and what they might imply were we to use the same standards. In my training as a sexual therapist, I was taught -- and later observed in hundreds of men -- that their most predominant sexual fantasy is watching two women making love. I don't believe anyone would immediately assume that men secretly want to be women or a passive observer. I don't believe that anyone would conclude that men are perhaps secretly tired of the responsibilities of hierarchal power and really wanted a more egalitarian, intimate relationship -- or that wanting that would make them seem less masculine.
Why are my female patients the only ones reading Fifty Shades of Grey? My male patients tell me they're really not interested in a woman's romantic sex novel. Why wouldn't more men want to know more about this deep hunger that women have, if their primary sexual fantasy was to play the male dominant role? If they wanted to play the counterpart to the dominance-desiring woman, why wouldn't they be as avid readers of these kinds of novels as women are?
Please understand that I am not taking sides here. My first understanding of the genders was primarily about men. I spent many hours as a child in my father's elite barber shop in Beverly Hills. Waiting for him to complete his workdays as "Barber to the Stars," I was privileged to sit quietly in a corner in the barber shop, seen but not known. I was also taken along when my father practiced his art on movie sets and in the privacy of powerful men's homes. I learned about these high-achieving men and what they found important, yet never formed the biases that many of my female friends had. I understood consensual and non-consensual contracts, and knew which one I wanted when I grew up.
The span of the years I've been married has covered the transition from I love Lucy to Desperate Housewives. The sexual revolution and the woman's movement, fought for elegantly by courageous and forward thinkers, only served to underscore what I already knew in my heart. There is a huge difference between consensual contracts and one-sided dominance, and both men and women often exchange roles in the former and have no say in the latter. True egalitarianism just means that both partners have more options to enjoy life when they help each other. I was never interested in accepting any role definition that had to remain fixed, no matter who it benefited or deprived.
Raising three would-be princesses who became successful and prominent strong women never seemed to be a conflict for me as a mother, or for them as women. They have shared with me that men who are comfortable with strong, self-defined women are harder to find, and that makes them sad at times. But they have also met men who welcome the sharing of power that also allows them to feel vulnerable without a loss of value. They want their men to stay confident and strong in the presence of their partner's own strength. Maybe that's where we should be searching for true answers in our own complex experiences, not accepting automatic assumptions.