The Illusion of Sex: On the Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy

By Gioconda BelliJune 29, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

ORGASMS ARE SHORT, unfortunately. Clearly the allure of sex does not reside in its climax alone; sex is a manifold experience constantly nourished by socialized eroticism. As natural and instinctive as sex is, it’s also a highly developed form of human interaction and intimacy, forever in need of reinvention. Much of the sexual experience takes place in our imagination.

The history of sex is also a literary history. From Catulo and Sappho to Candy and Fanny Hill or the Marquis de Sade and Story of O, the way we make love owes a lot to our curiosity, to the voyeuristic side of our nature and the many forms of artistic representation that allow us to peek into the forbidden or daring practices of others. Clothes, movies, porn sites and the like do their part, but books are still unrivaled in their capacity to evoke fantasies and fuel the erotic imagination. A book does not allow the reader to be just an observer; it requires the intrinsic complicity of the mind, which stages a mental production based on the often sparse notes of the author, fantasies woven by words forcing the reader to bring into play his or her own desires or experiences.

Having said this, what are we to infer from the sudden bestseller popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey and the two sequels that compose E.L. James’s trilogy? In spite of their sophomoric tone and less than lucid writing, the story of (the oh, so beautiful) Christian Grey and Anastasia Steel, and their cat and mouse sexual game of sadist predator and virginal prey, has touched a chord in the collective imagination of readers, most of whom are women.

In a country where Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts have such huge followings, we shouldn’t be surprised. Truth be told, to characterize E.L. James’s novels as “soft porn” — in itself a contradictory and porn-defeating word association — is to misrepresent them. The Fifty Shades novels are nothing but erotic romance novels. They lack the kind of passages that elicit the mix of disgust and intense sentiments associated with pornography. All three Fifty Shades read easily, like those many uncomplicated paperbacks read on planes or long train journeys. There are very descriptive sexual scenes, but in their own way they are quite proper, so proper that the first person protagonist often refers to her feelings of arousal as sensations “down there.” Whatever the protagonists are doing, it is never made to sound dirty or vulgar. In fact probably these books owe their success to the way the writer weaves the description of physical pleasure with the emotions they elicit in a woman who is discovering her body and her feelings simultaneously. It is this mix that makes these books stand apart from porn and makes them quite erotic. The sex is narrated in the voice of a protagonist who is experiencing it with intense emotional reactions, as many women do. To top it off, the author has no qualms introducing a number of interesting and different sexual possibilities. No wonder it has sold ten million copies in two months!

It’s hard to reproduce the overall effect with just a few quotes because the writing, in spite of its sometimes unnerving simplicity and predictability, relies on a prolonged build up. But a few random paragraphs can serve as an example:

His touch sends shivers down my spine, waking every nerve ending in my body. He’s standing behind me, so close that I feel the heat radiating from him, warming me, warming me all over. He pulls my hair so it’s all hanging down my back, grasps a handful at my nape….He runs his nose down my exposed neck, inhaling all the way…The muscles in my belly clench, carnal and wanting. Jeez, he’s hardly touched me, and I want him.

His words are like some kind of incendiary device; my blood flames. He leans down and kisses my lips gently, and he sucks at my lower lip…”Please Ana, let me make love to you.” “Yes,” I whisper, because that’s why I am here. His smile is triumphant as he releases me and takes my hand and leads me through the apartment.

It’s such a turn-on knowing that it’s my body making him feel this way. Ha…not your mind, my subconscious sneers. I shake off the unwelcome thought.

What is truly soft in the book is the alleged sadism it contains. Christian Grey’s mysterious childhood is supposed to provide the past that would justify his desire to objectify women. Early on, during a speech he gives at Anastasia's graduation, as patron of the University, he reveals he's “known what it’s like to be profoundly hungry.” For her this is totally unexpected:

My jaw falls to the floor. What? Christian was hungry once. Holy crap. (…) Adopted at age four, I think. I can’t imagine that Grace starved him, so it must have been before, then, as a little boy. I swallow, my heart constricting at the thought of a hungry, gray-eyed toddler. Oh no. What kind of life did he have before the Greys got hold of him and rescued him?

The kind of life he might have had is hinted at again and again. He refuses, for example, her attempts to caress or touch his chest, even when they are making love. In time, Anastasia is able to observe him close enough to remark: “I notice again the small, round, white scars on his chest(…).and I know, I know that someone stubbed cigarettes out on Christian. I feel sick.” In the prologue of the second book in the trilogy, a dream sequence reveals a terrifying memory of a child witnessing his mother being beaten by a man and the paralyzing fear he experiences when the man discovers his hiding place:

He turns and I can see his boots as he stomps into the kitchen. He still has the belt. He is trying to find me.

He stoops down and grins. He smells nasty. Of cigarettes and drink. There you are, you little shit.

Paradoxically, Christian Grey attributes his salvation from this obscure past not so much to the generous couple who adopted him, but to the older woman who introduced him at fifteen to the pleasures of dominance in Sadistic relationships. Anastasia nicknames her “Mrs. Robinson,” as in the movie The Graduate. Throughout the first book of the series, the threat of Christian Grey becoming a monster looms large: he presents her with a written pact of submission to sign, which states she will obey his wishes and if not, will allow him to punish her physically. He possesses the instruments to fulfill a sadistic role — a medieval style “play-room” mix of boudoir and torture chamber. However, this obscure and perverse Grey never materializes. He tries a few things, like spanking, but Anastasia Steele, an inexperienced 22-year-old virgin, reacts quite forcefully and defiantly. His guilt and subsequent redemption are much more important throughout the trilogy than the short episodes where he attempts to live up to the expectations built around his character. Anastasia Steele rapidly develops a healthy appreciation for sex, erotic toys and some kinky practices, like allowing him to tie her up (which nowadays must not even count as sadism) but she never signs the submission agreement, and smitten Christian quickly gives up sadism. Miss Steele even manages to sound a bit disappointed:

“So, you don’t want to take me into your playroom?”

He swallows and pales, all trace of humor gone. “No. I don’t”

“Why not?” I whisper. This is not the answer I expected.

And yes, there it is – that little pinch of disappointment. Her inner goddess stomps off pouting, her arms crossed like an angry toddler’s.

“The last time we were in there you left me,” he says quietly. “I will shy away from anything that could make you leave me again. I was devastated when you left. I explained that. I never want to feel like that again”

The story we read then is of a man that falls in love with the woman he has chosen as prey.

I must admit I was relieved to realize that sadism is only a teaser in these novels. In a world where violence against women is responsible for so many crimes and horrors, to find so many women readers fascinated by a male’s cruel dominance and his demand for female submissiveness would have been appalling to say the least.

The Marquis de Sade, who did write seriously pornographic and transgressive books, was in his debauchery very much of a male chauvinist in his conception of women as humans who existed to be dominated and obey men’s biddings. Yet he also argued for their sexual freedom, and decried morality as an absurd construct in so much as it derived from an “immoral” state. Sade’s belief was that both men and women have to follow the calls of their raw natural instincts. Therefore, men should be free to exercise their desire to dominate. In his Philosophy in the Boudoir, Sade writes:

If, then, it appears beyond contradiction that Nature has given us the right to carry out our wishes upon all women indifferently, it appears equally that we have the right to force her to submit to our wishes, not in exclusivity, for then I would contradict myself, but momentarily. It is beyond question that we have the right to establish laws which will force women to yield to the ardors of him who desires her; violence itself being one of the results of this right, we can legally employ it. Has not nature proved to us that we have this right, by allotting us the strength necessary to force them to our desires?

The contradiction Sade alludes to here is based on the measure of “equality” he proclaims women are entitled to:

I claim that women, who have far more violent desires than we for the pleasures of lust, should be able to express them as much as they wish, free from the bonds of marriage, from all false prejudices of modesty, completely returned to the state of Nature. I want the law to permit them to enjoy as many men as they like; I want the enjoyment of both sexes and all parts of their bodies to be allowed to them as to men; and under the ruling that they suffer themselves to be enjoyed by whoever wants them, they must also be allowed the freedom to enjoy whoever they think is capable of satisfying them.

As Angela Carter, in her book The Sadeian Woman, says of Sade:

He creates, not an artificial paradise of gratified sexuality but a model of hell, in which the gratification of sexuality involves the infliction and the tolerance of extreme pain. He describes sexual relations in the context of an unfree society as the expression of pure tyranny … the one constant to all Sade’s monstrous orgies is that the whip hand is always the hand with the real political power and the victim is a person who has little or no power at all, or has had it stripped from him. In his schema, male means tyrannous and female means martyrised, no matter what the official genders of the male and female beings are.

Certainly the male figure in Fifty Shades of Grey has all the qualities associated with power. He is filthy rich (he tells Anastasia at one point that he makes a hundred thousand dollars an hour); he owns cars, planes, helicopters; he buys the companies where she works “to protect her,” he buys her dresses, computers, iPads, phones, a car, Thomas Hardy’s first edition of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. He has money to have her every move watched, her past investigated, her likes and dislikes monitored, her friends’ backgrounds thoroughly researched. This model of the Sadistic Male is, however, provided with redeeming features: he wants to use his money for good causes, like developing sustainable methods of farming for third world countries. His company does food drops in Darfur. He is very casual about his possessions, generous. Christian is a tremendous gentleman, caring for Ana’s well being, her food, her interests, arranging first class flights for her, pampering her, making sure she’s safe; he plays piano barefoot at night, all alone and lost in melancholic thoughts; he knows his weird sexual tendencies are a curse; he is not proud of them and warns Anastasia against himself as soon as he begins to like her. Christian Grey, in spite of his creator’s attempts to portray him as a tormented soul, is very far from resembling the Marquis de Sade, who lived 32 years of his life in one prison or another before he died at 74 in 1814. Much of his writing was done while incarcerated. Simone de Beauvoir, in an essay titled “Must We Burn Sade,” comes to the conclusion that Sade’s debauchery stemmed from his desire to find in the extremes of sexual experience an authenticity capable of relieving him from “the separateness of individuals”: “In his revolt, the tortured object asserts himself as my fellow creature, and through his intervention I achieve the synthesis of spirit and flesh which was first denied me.”

Had Fifty Shades of Grey manifested this kind of philosophy and still sold so many copies, we could have interpreted it as a sign of a time when isolation has made us all so egocentric that only in the contemplation of the pain of others can we affirm their existence and ours. But Fifty Shades is very far from such disturbing notions. Derived as it is from the fan fiction spawned by Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books, it has the appeal of featuring two real-life protagonists, instead of vampires, which makes the fantasy feel more modern and accessible. With no offense to J.K. Rowling, one could say that these novels are Harry Potter for sexually active female adults.

E.L. James does have a knack for describing the intensity of sexual anticipation, the adolescent exhilaration that, regardless of age, has to be one of life’s most memorable and pleasing experiences. It’s not difficult to sympathize with Steele when one reads:

He parks the SAAB in the Escala garage and turns off the engine. Suddenly, in the confines of the car, the atmosphere between us changes. With wanton anticipation, I glance at him, trying to contain my palpitating heart. He’s turned toward me, leaning against the door, his elbow propped on the steering wheel.

He pulls his lower lip with his thumb and index finger. His mouth is so distracting. I want it on me. He’s watching me intently, his eyes dark grey. My mouth goes dry. He smiles a slow sexy smile.

“We will fuck in the car at a time and place of my choosing. Right now I want to take you on every available surface of my apartment”

It’s like he’s addressing me below the waist….

These days Sade’s voyeuristic enjoyment of pain is to be found in movies rather than books, in those blockbusters where blood flows and heads are chopped off, to the delight of mostly male audiences. Many articles and reviews, in Newsweek and elsewhere, have assumed that the success of Fifty Shades indicates a desire on the part of women to be in submissive-dominant relationships where men tie them up and even torture them in a sexual way, as if that would deliver a more manly man more fitting to women’s fantasies. Such notions are, in my opinion, not only demeaning to women but also a dangerous invitation for men wishing to prove their male identity. But in any case, this misreads the sadism in Fifty Shades. It is really not much more than a tension building trick, not as transgressive, finally, as the other forms of sexual play in the novels, including a lot of toys that I think even many men haven’t heard of: butt plugs, vaginal balls, exotic vibrators.

What is interesting about erotic books is the reflection they create, the image in the mirror that can be glimpsed when so many come to drink from the same well at the same time. The image we get from E.L. James is an affirmation of the willingness of women to forgo cynicism when it comes to love. We like stories where guilt is followed by redemption and sex is tied to emotion, not pornographic tales of domination and submission. Having a traumatic backstory to explain the inexplicable, and having love transform a would-be predator, are formulae that have worked throughout the history of romance literature and obviously continue to do so. We can expect E.L. James's version to beget many followers. Let us hope that the offspring of this erotic rebirth arrive better spoken.


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LARB Contributor

Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan poet, writer and political activist. She was involved in the Nicaraguan Revolution from a very young age and occupied important positions in the Sandinista Party and in the revolutionary government. She left the Sandinista Party in 1993 after Daniel Ortega’s turned it into his fiefdom and is today one of the most notable critics of his government.  She’s written six novels, a memoir, six books of poetry and two children’s books, aside from essays and political commentary, and she has been awarded many prizes and honors for her work.  She lives in Los Angeles and Managua.


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