There is much ado these days about E.J. James’ Fifty Shades series. While some folks are defending it as sex-positive, others condemn it for promoting female powerlessness and submission. The problem with much of the commentary is that since nobody wants to be a jerk and give away the story, most stop at the Red Room of Pain and the BDSM contract between 27-year-old Christian Grey and 21-year-old Anastasia Steele. This is tantalizing, but it leaves those who have not read the books with the impression that the Fifty Shades series is simply a retelling of Story of O. This is a knee-jerk reaction that tells us a lot more about how narrowly our society defines normative sexual behavior than it does about the actual content of the series. So, here is my warning: if you want to know what I think about the series, you need to know how it ends. If you don’t want to know how it ends, then stop reading now.
First, let me address the comparison to Story of O. In this 1954 short story, the unnamed main character, “O,” is swept away by her lover to a remote country house where she is raped by masked men, chained to the wall, and subjected to various measures to humiliate and control her. She never protests; instead, she gives the illusion of consent. Her surrender of self is so complete that the book’s ending leaves the reader with the understanding that O is about to be fucked to death. There are segments of O that (some) readers might find arousing, but somewhere it crosses a line that (most) readers can’t breach. When a woman has consented to having her buttocks branded with the initials of the man who owns her, when she has been mutilated with a device meant to lock up her clitoris and vagina so that only he can access them, it’s hard to want to be in her shoes. Perhaps O-the story is the perfect metaphor for patriarchy, but O-the-woman certainly is not an admirable heroine.
Anastasia Steele is not O. Christian Grey is not the men who rape and humiliate and mutilate O. Fifty Shades is not a story of sexual possession. It’s a tale of sexual awakening and self-ownership. The main character in that transformation is not Anastasia Steele; it is Christian Grey.
Let me give you a little context: the series began as Twilight fan-fiction, so the plot is filled with all sorts of fantastical elements that straddle that line between beach-reading and eye-rolling. This is not brilliant literature. But there is much in the story that captivates. Fifty Shades tells the story of two young people who meet rather unexpectedly. Both are well educated, smart, and ambitious. He is debonair and sophisticated, with copper hair and gray eyes. She is a clumsy, petite brunette who has no idea how adorable she is when she bites her bottom lip. She thinks she has met Prince Charming, but it turns out he has a dark side.
Christian discloses his interest in “kinky-fuckery” before he does more than kiss Anastasia. He gives her a detailed contract outlining his sexual preferences and requests that she note hers. A sexual novice, Anastasia turns to Wikipedia to decipher much of the contract. She understands that even if she signs it, it is not legally binding, and she would be free to leave at any time. On the night that she is to sign, Christian gives Anastasia a tour of his playroom (she calls it “the Red Room of Pain”) and sits her down for an honest and thorough discussion of their soft and hard limits, their fears and desires, and their sexual histories. When Anastasia reveals she is a virgin, Christian freaks out.
Why does Christian freak? The answer is complicated, but really comes down to two issues. First, he wants his partner—his submissive—to enjoy sex with him. Yes, he is into BDSM, and no, he has never had “vanilla sex,” but he does value his partner’s pleasure as highly as his own. Christian recognizes that without a more traditional introduction to sexual pleasure, it is unlikely that Anastasia would ever enjoy the Red Room. Thus, from the moment he learns that she is a virgin, he goes to great lengths to make certain that her sexual initiation is the pleasurable experience that it should be for all women.
This brings me to the second reason he freaks. To avoid giving everything away, I will simply state that Christian had a very unhappy childhood, and as a troubled teenager his adoptive mother’s friend introduced him to BDSM as way of relieving his rage. He, too, was a virgin. The implication is that on some level he recognizes that this is part of what made him “fifty shades of fucked up,” and he does not want this for Anastasia. Faced with the realization that he mistook her innocence for submission, Christian neither abandons Anastasia nor forces her to submit. Instead, he abandons his Red Room and, ultimately, all of his emotional hard limits, in order to please her. The result is a saccharine story of an emotionally tortured young man learning to love.
Coincidentally, Fifty Shades is a hot topic at the very moment that the American Psychiatric Association is preparing its fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). In the DSM-V, the section on paraphilias (non-normative sexual attraction, i.e., exhibitionism, sadism, masochism, necrophilia—until 1973 homosexuality was included on this list) has been updated to include, for the first time ever, a distinction between paraphilias and paraphilic disorders. The new definitions of paraphilic disorders in the DSM-V are not that different from the previous definitions of paraphilia. The real significance lies in the new rationale, which clearly asserts that “paraphilias are not ipso facto psychiatric disorders.” Paraphilias may be “non-normative,” but they are not pathological either. Paraphilic disorders are the pathological expression of paraphilias. But paraphilias, even those that are not socially acceptable, are not inherently unhealthy.
Take, for example, the new definition of Sexual Masochism Disorder: “A. Over a period of at least six months, recurrent and intense sexual arousal from the act of being humiliated, beaten, bound, or otherwise made to suffer, as manifested by fantasies, urges, or behaviors. B. The person has clinically significant distress or impairment in important areas of functioning.” Anastasia does not meet the second criteria, and I think it would be hard to claim that she meets the first as she does not “suffer” by Christian’s itchy palm. There are only two instances in which she does not experience pleasure with Christian. The first time, she leaves him and only returns when he tears up the contract. The second time, she safe-words, demonstrating the distinction between a paraphilia and a disorder: because she is no longer enjoying it, she demands that he stop, and because she asks him to stop, Christian does so. Both may have a paraphilia, but neither has a disorder. Thus, there is no victim, but rather two consenting adults with complementary paraphilias.
In other words, the sexual relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele is, according to the new definitions set by the American Psychiatric Association, not pathological. It might be “non-normative,” as it does not reflect what the majority of heterosexual Americans report as their standard sexual practices, but this does not mean that it is not normal. Sure, Christian and Anastasia engage in a little kinky-fuckery from time to time (even after they settle into domestic bliss), but not any more than I think a lot of couples do (or want to do) but won’t admit to. That is the thing about Fifty Shades that I think really makes so many people uncomfortable. It challenges the reader to consider her own soft and hard limits. Fifty Shades makes you ask yourself, if you had a lover that you trusted without hesitation, that you knew wanted only to please you in every way, what would you let him do?