From Andrew Sullivan I learn this morning that the mommy porn fan-fiction novel Fifty Shades of Grey has sold 10 million copies in six weeks — and is now going to be a major motion picture. What’s the book about? It’s a badly written (as the reviews universally say) erotic fantasy about a woman who gets sexually involved with a man who introduces her to the world of bondage/domination/sadism/masochism (BDSM) — in other words, taking sexual pleasure in the giving and/or receiving of physical pain and emotional violence.

Sick stuff. But according to Katie Roiphe in Newsweek, Fifty Shades may be a popular phenomenon, but its fans are concentrated among a certain demographic:

As it happens, the prevailing stereotype of the Fifty Shades of Grey reader, distilled in the condescending term “mommy porn,” as an older, suburban, possibly Midwestern woman isn’t entirely accurate: according to the publisher’s data, gleaned from Facebook, Google searches, and fan sites, more than half the women reading the book are in their 20s and 30s, and far more urban and blue state than the rampant caricature of them suggests.

The current vogue for domination is not confined to surreptitious iPad reading: in Lena Dunham’s acclaimed new series, Girls, about 20-somethings adrift in New York City, a similar desire for sexual submission has already emerged as a theme. The heroine’s pale hipsterish ersatz boyfriend jokes, “You modern career women, I know what you like …” and his idea, however awkwardly enacted, is that they like to be dominated. He says things like “You should never be anyone’s … slave, except mine,” and calls down from a window: “If you come up I’m going to tie you up and keep you here for three days. I’m just in that kind of mood.” She comes back from seeing him with bruises and sheepishly tells her gay college boyfriend at a bar, “I am seeing this guy and sometimes I let him hit me on the side of my body.”

Her close friend and roommate, meanwhile, has a sweet, sensitive, respectful boyfriend in the new mold who asks her what she wants in bed, and she is bored out of her mind and irritated by him; she fantasizes instead about an arrogant artist she meets at the gallery where she works, who tells her that he will scare her in bed. So nice postfeminist boys are not what these ambitious, liberal-arts-educated girls are looking for either: they are also, in their exquisitely ironic, confused way, in the market for a little creative submission.

More from Roiphe:

Recently on talk shows there has been a certain amount of upstanding feminist tsk-tsking about the retrograde soft-core exploitation of women in Fifty Shades of Grey, and there seem to be no shortage of liberal pundits asking, “Is this what they went to the barricades for?” But of course the barricades have always been oddly irrelevant to intimate life. As the brilliant feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir answered when someone asked her if her subjugation to Jean-Paul Sartre in her personal life was at odds with her feminist theories: “Well, I just don’t give a damn … I’m sorry to disappoint all the feminists, but you can say it’s too bad so many of them live only in theory instead of in real life.”

In her controversial and revealing meditation on her own obsession with spanking in the New Yorker, Daphne Merkin speculated about the tension between her identity as a “formidable” woman and her yearning for a sexualized childish punishment. She writes, “Equality between men and women, or even the pretext of it, takes a lot of work and may not in any case be the surest route to sexual excitement.”

It is perhaps inconvenient for feminism that the erotic imagination does not submit to politics, or even changing demographic realities; it doesn’t care about The End of Men or peruse feminist blogs in its spare time; it doesn’t remember the hard work and dedication of the suffragettes and assorted other picket-sign wavers. The incandescent fantasy of being dominated or overcome by a man shows no sign of vanishing with equal pay for equal work, and may in fact gain in intensity and take new, inventive—or in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, not so inventive—forms.

BDSM is deeply perverted, but it’s nothing new. There is no improving, if that is the word, on anything the disgusting Marquis de Sade wrote in the 18th century. As Roiphe avers, there is something in the human psyche that responds to this stuff. The erotic imagination wants what it wants, and no ideological scheme imposed by the Church or the Women’s Studies Department is ever going to eradicate it. That said, we can cultivate our desires, learning to suppress the disordered ones (and I would suggest that taking pleasure in the giving or receiving of pain is highly disordered), and to encourage those that are life-giving. Some women undeniably get a cheap thrill out of Fifty Shades of Grey, just as some men enjoy BDSM porn, but the point of civilization is to repress the barbarian within. That a book like this — one that is widely denounced as artless — has become so popular among American women is not a sign of progress, but of its opposite.

Advertisement