THE BLOG

Fifty Shades of Feminism: Hot Sex and the New Fairy Tale

02/23/2015 01:28 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015
Jupiterimages via Getty Images

I was in Paris last week for the opening of the movie, Fifty Shades of Grey. There were over 2,000 advanced tickets sold for the opening night in Paris, and almost 5,000 tickets sold for the 2:00 p.m. show.

The movie opened to over $100 million in worldwide sales. Tickets will continue to sell out and men, women and couples of all ages will see this film for months and maybe even years to come.

As I walked through the underground Metro there are movie posters on the wall with Christian Grey holding Anastasia's arms above her head and kissing her passionately. There is another of her biting her lip, seductively, waiting.

The words in French make it look romantic. But is the movie romantic? Is a movie about a man who abuses his power over a young woman supposed to be romantic? And why is it grabbing the heartstrings of so many viewers? Is this a reflection of women in our western culture giving up their power and a step back for feminism? Or is Fifty Shades a true modern-day fairy tale?

The timing of the release of the movie is important, with pre-screenings several days before Valentines Day and the official opening, on lover's day, February 14th. This lends the movie a fairy tale feeling, creating a romance about love and eroticism that reflects the popularity of the sales of the book.

The book and its popularity has been a sexual barometer, a reflection for women of our place in society today. Because the book represents a dominant submissive relationship it does show a partnership where the man has power over the woman. He has permission to hurt her for his pleasure, and although there are limits set in the book, it is not clear what they are in the film and it may not be clear to the younger viewers what exactly a true BDSM relationship would look like.

A BDSM or a bondage, discipline or domination, sadomasochistic relationship means that a couple agrees on the power dynamic ahead of time, they arrange for their sexual role play, and they both receive pleasure during the act of giving or receiving. In the book, Anastasia "lets" Christian Grey do things like spank her, but Anastasia doesn't enjoy it. It hurts, she grits her teeth but she puts up with it.

In a good spanking, the dominant partner would work up to a swat and do it slowly, starting with soft pats. He would check in with his partner's breathing, her sexual response, and then move up to a more intense spank. He would go slowly, because the act of intensity is the key issue, not the pain.

Intensity can be experienced as pleasure in the brain when it is intersected with the game of seduction. But the power is never with the dominant partner. The submissive always has the power.

Both agree prior to the acting out of the spanking to a safe word, a word she can use if the "play" gets to be too painful. The submissive can say the word and stop the experience at any time. She always decides what is too much and how the experience will play out.

The risk of the movie, particularly for young girls or beginners who want to try some BDSM in their own relationship, is that power must be used with permission and with a safe word within a trusting partnership. This may not be clear in the film.

One of the reasons that the book has been such an overnight success is that it hits a combination of sweet spots in our history of feminism and erotic power, crucial to our role as women.

But do not underestimate or mistake our desire for ravishment by a strong man for weakness.

We are not giving up our power; we are taking back our power. We are coming into a time of real authority, recognizing our own internal strengths and finding real choices. We don't want to give our power away to men. We want to open ourselves to a man who can handle it. We want sexual satisfaction and we will not settle for less.

And we want it from a man who is totally monogamous. This series is about a man who has eyes only for Anastasia. He is a wounded, vulnerable man, albeit quite codependent, but he is not the typical ladies man in the bodice ripping romance novel who has to be tamed to decrease his wild, cheating ways. Christian Grey is rich, handsome and totally in love with Anastasia from the start. He reveals himself to her and only she sees those inner vulnerable parts of him, like no one else can. This enables her to reveal secret parts of herself, and to trust him, and she pushes her edge to explore those places within. But she does it through being receptive and trusting.

For over 50 years now feminism has meant that women have tried to find their power through acting like men. We have worn shoulder pads, we have worked on being physically strong, we have fought our way into the boardroom of corporations, we have taken control, and we have stepped into leadership. Today, in Fifty Shades, we find a new strength. The power to be submissive and still be in control. There is a power in being dominated, and yet not losing the ability to say "stop" or "no."

Nowhere in the book does Anastasia really give up her "no." As women we retain our rights to make the decision to let a man in, to give them our real fantasies, to say "yes" and to kiss back.

And yet there is a risk here. Anastasia signs a contract with Christian, ostensibly giving up her rights to her own sexuality. In a true master/slave BDSM relationship this "contract" would include her pleasure as well, which in the book is not really considered.

The fear she has of giving up, of giving over herself, may represent all of our fears of giving up parts of ourselves to be in a relationship, to let ourselves go in order to be in love. Like any fairy tale, perhaps we should see this as a metaphor for sacrifice and not focus on the "fake" legal document in their committed partnership.

In all relationships we give up part of ourselves. We give up our secrets; our promises and we let go of ourselves in order to truly connect with another. Love demands that we are present in ways we might not understand until we are actually present for another person's demands.

The real risk is showing up. When we find a partner who demands of us to be our true selves, someone who forces us to look at our real fantasies, and our inner desires, someone who shows us our fears and brings us to the edge, we must take a risk and trust them. This commitment to a relationship allows us to let go, utterly, and as a result we can look at our own limits and our own unmet needs in a way that keeping our masks on would never allow.

This movie, Fifty Shades of Grey, will challenge us. It will be a turning point. It will begin a fight for women in many ways. Lots of reviewers will claim it is a back step for women. Some will claim it promotes violence. Some will claim it mistakes power for eroticism. But I think at the heart of it, and one of the reasons it is so wildly popular (and will continue to be) is that women want to trust themselves and their own intuition, and their own sexual power.

Women can find their power in many ways; be it submissive, dominant or in whatever fantasy world they want.

Women have the power to love, to fight, to protect themselves, and to know the difference between yes and no, and they can create their own healthy and sexually erotic relationships.

Feminism today means that no one has the right to tell a woman what she should want, think or be turned on by. Anyone who says it is not feminist to let a man tie a woman up in bed or spank her for fun may not understand the truth of what it means to be the Princess in the true fairy tale here.

Once a Prince who isn't afraid to unleash her awakens a woman's sexuality, she can't be tied back up. You can't tell her what to feel, what to desire, or what to want unless she tells you to.

After fifty years of fighting, women have found a little bit of their own power. They have more power at work; they have power at home. They actually may -- eventually -- have the power to run the world.

The one place they don't want all the power is in bed.


Dr. Tammy Nelson is a Board Certified Sexologist and a Licensed Relationship therapist with a private practice. She is the author of The New Monogamy and Getting the Sex You Want, and can be found at www.drtammynelson.com