In her standup act, comedian Whitney Cummings scoffs at the claim that men like strong women. “Sorry, I’ve watched porn,” she says. “Men like Asian schoolgirls with duct tape on their mouths.” In that vein, consider the popular idea that women want sensitive men who do the laundry without being told. Sorry, I’ve read—and now watched—50 Shades of Grey. Women like men who tie them up and flog them in a Red Room of Pain. With duct tape on their mouths.
I’m only half-kidding. The film’s reviews, like the reviews of E.L. James’s 2011 book, are full of well-deserved snark about its inane dialogue, flat characters, and contrived plot. But the story’s wild popularity suggests that James knows something most of us don’t about the mix of lust, romantic longing, and post-feminist morality that swirls inside the brains of young women today.
It’s a remarkable coincidence that this particular pornographic fantasy has seized the global female imagination at the same moment that rape and sexual violence against women has become a leading social justice cause. The coincidence is heightened by the fact that the story’s protagonist, Anastasia Steele, is a coed on the cusp of graduation. She is in many respects an ordinary, modern college girl. She’s independent, a little boozy, cash-strapped, and working her way through school in a hardware store. She drives a battered Volkswagen beetle. Yes, she is a virgin. But that’s not because she’s a prude—“Holy crap, no!” as the feisty heroine would put it. She just hasn’t found a guy who pushes her buttons. That is, until she sacrifices her virginity and good judgment to the highly practiced sexual power of the brooding and distinctly un-politically-correct billionaire Christian Grey, a man of “singular tastes.”
Ana’s passion for the dominant Mr. Grey has created an uncomfortable dilemma in enlightened circles. The strict line between sex and aggression, and the injustice of unequal gender relations in the boardroom and co-ed dorm, are crucial tenets of modern-day feminism. Fifty Shades ignores them all. In fact, the book and movie’s harshest critics see an attempt to “romanticize violence against women” and to glamorize the rapist. Defenders insist that by depicting (and no doubt arousing) intense female sexual pleasure, the book “empowers” women. Pornography has always been male-centric; now, they say, women have a porn of their own.
More than anything, 50 Shades represents the mainstreaming and feminization of S&M pornography. Once confined to the shadows of the art-movie house, sadomasochism is having its moment in the bright light of the mall. Both critics and fans of 50 Shades miss the essential point about pornography: that it speaks to primitive, pre-rational, taboo desires. Its lure is precisely the refusal to bow to social limits. It doesn’t matter who sets those limits: fathers, priests, or gender studies professors can all have the sort of authority that the unconscious is determined to flout. Nor will gender progress stop the rebellious id. Even a Hillary Clinton presidency won’t rid the nation of libidinous fantasies about dangerous Alpha Males wielding duct tape.
Still, James is clever enough to know that this taboo fantasy is hardly the final word on women’s desires. I’m far from the only one to observe that beneath the outré distractions of the Red Room lies the most conventional of love stories: the emotionally stunted man who finally cannot resist the love of a good woman. In a familiar vein, Anastasia—the Disney-sounding name is no accident—wants “more” (i.e., emotional connection, communication, love, and all that stereotypical female stuff) from this distant man who not only doesn’t commit, but “doesn’t do relationships” altogether. Her triumph over his psychological demons is as far from the multi-partner degradations of the 1954 S&M “classic,” The Story of O, as a children’s game of hide and seek is from Gladiator combat. But it’s clearly a major element in the book’s success.
James modernizes the seemingly outmoded fantasy of her tale through an elaborate performance of consent. Grey presents Anastasia with a contract dense with “fundamental terms” and appendices, stipulating rules of location, time, and meticulously described limits. He even insists that she sign off on various bondage accessories. The contract negotiations give Anastasia a degree of power even as she signs it away.
But if James takes care to make the sex between Christian and Ana so consensual it could pass muster at University of California campus tribunals, she perhaps unwittingly points to the limitations of such consent. Though James wrote her novel before the current spate of questionable campus rape accusations, she all but predicted them. Ana’s consent is shaped not by enthusiasm for Christian’s predilections, but by her desire not to lose him. Consent seems a misleading word to describe this state of mind.
The prevalence of pornography—and, now, of 50 Shades itself—is bound to fuel this sort of youthful confusion. We can and should prize consent, but most 18-year-olds know little about their own motivations. Ply young men and women with images of extreme sexual adventure, barrels of liquor, and empty, unsupervised dorm rooms, and sexual assault is bound to remain in the headlines.