Harry Potter has finally been vanquished, but it wasn't at the hands of He Who Must Not Be Named. Instead, E.L. James whipped and flogged him off the best seller list when industry publishers recently announced that her romantic/erotic series 50 Shades of Grey ousted Potter from Amazon U.K.'s number one spot.
I work in a small independent bookstore, which might make me an unlikely supporter of the series. I read the books for 'research purposes,' of course, and it's a good thing I did. I have been stopped at the pool, on restaurant patios and on the street by people who ask, "Have you read this book?" as they slyly show me their copy. At an airport book kiosk, a middle-aged man stared longingly at the book for what seemed like an hour. Our eyes met and his brow went up as if to ask, "Should I?" and I said, "Buy it. If you have a partner, he or she will thank you for it."
In our small-town bookstore in Winona, Minn., everyone wants to know what I think about 50 Shades of Grey. A woman sidled up to me in and said, "Have you read this? Have you seen the author? Can you believe SHE wrote THAT?" James is a pretty, size-14 brunette with the figure of an average American woman. I bristled at the insinuation that, basically, E. L. James was carrying too many pounds to write these books. Part of the reason these books have been so successful is that no matter how our shape, size, and level of beauty might be judged by others, one fact remains: we are all sexual beings. Day-to-day life seeks to smack this fact down as we trudge through our laundry list of things to do... so much so that I think many of us forget it.
Today's world is constantly sending us mixed messages about women's sexuality. Churches and schools teach that sex is supposed to be sacred yet sex sells everything from web domains to hamburgers to car parts. Watch TV and movies and you know that only thin beautiful people are sexually desirable while the rest of us rot in a corner. Meanwhile, debates about contraception that we hope to use to support our sex life are happening without our input.
It's no wonder that women often don't know what to say about sex. And, when, if ever, do we just talk about sex for the thing that it has always been... an intimate act that, when you are with someone you trust, can be quite fun?
50 Shades of Grey has reacquainted people, especially women, with their individual sexuality and it has certainly provided them with plenty of things to discuss.
Women's book groups around the United States, including one called Mormon Stories, are taking it on. Increasing numbers of "passion" or "intimate toy" parties are being hosted around the country so women can examine and buy sex toys. Dr. Oz devoted an entire episode on the effect of 50 Shades on women's libido .
Why it's this book and whether you like the book or not does not matter. We simply cannot account for taste or a phenomenon. Nearly 10 million digital and physical copies sold strongly indicate that our sexuality is not dead and we have needed this vehicle to find our voices on a topic that we haven't quite known how to approach.
Anything that re-kindles a connection in a relationship or serves as a gateway to a sensitive conversation with your partner is not a bad thing at all.
There is no shame in having a healthy sexual life, and if we believe this truth, we must walk the talk. Our daughters are watching us. I hope we don't cower as they ask, "What's this? What's it about?" With confidence we can say, "Well, this is just one person's fantasy, but it's about two committed, consensual people who have a few problems and a lot of sexual fun. And it's normal to have fun with sex."
I admit that having this conversation with my own 11-year-old daughter makes me cringe, but I do wish to be honest. Too many of us lived in a cloud where that sort of conversation would be a bigger fantasy than the 50 Shades series. If this book pushes us a little closer to a more honest exchange with our partners and our girls, then I say have at it.
Suffer no illusions that the Shades of Grey series is a literary masterpiece. Potter may be temporarily ousted, but he will reign once more to stand the test of literary time. Until then, it certainly doesn't mean that we can't have a little fun along the way.