E L James’ novel 50 Shades of Grey has become a mainstream hit, in part by shining a spotlight on the world of sadomasochism, otherwise known as S&M. It’s a sexual practice that combines bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, role-play, and pain to foster mutual pleasure between two consenting adults. It’s not new; in fact, the term itself dates back to the late 1800s. But it’s likely that consenting adults have been practicing this particular type of pleasure for much longer, as all of the characteristics of the lifestyle listed above really aren’t that taboo even for partners participating in “vanilla” or “ordinary” sex.
In fact, the wide appeal of the type of sex portrayed in 50 Shades of Grey is evident in the fact that word of mouth alone initially drove 250,000 mainly digital sales of the trilogy of which this first book is a part. With the stunning popularity of the 50 Shades of Grey franchise, its publisher soon announced a printing of 750,000 hard copies of the books. The main title has already been greenlit to become a major motion picture. The steamy, at times violent world of 50 Shades of Grey is so acceptable to most that James just appeared on The View to discuss what some are calling the advent of “mommy porn.”
Why is this work of S&M erotica such a pop sensation?
The appeal of 50 Shades of Grey to modern women, particularly those who don’t practice S&M, likely lies in the romance that surrounds the two main characters of the book, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Steele, a white American recent college graduate, and Grey, a young white American billionaire who far exceeds Steele’s economic class status, find themselves wrapped in a complicated love affair in which they must confront each other’s differences.
On the surface, it looks like the relationship is destined to be problematic, as Grey’s luxurious lifestyle is very foreign and unwanted by Steele. But truly, the two have very different ideas of sex and love, which becomes the main obstacle in their relationship and a challenge to overcome. Grey introduces Steele, a virgin with limited sexual experience, to his obsession with S&M, asking her to be his submissive and to allow him to be her dominant. Prior to this, Steele had barely even kissed another man, but finds herself turned on by the idea of pleasuring Grey, even if agreeing to be submissive to a man goes against her personality DNA as an independent woman.
While the roles of “submissive” and “dominant” would seem rather simple, as the prior obeys the latter’s demands, the relationship is actually quite complex, as James illustrates in the book’s plot. Consent is a mandatory, always present safeguard that protects both the submissive and dominant from doing anything they don’t want to do, and thus, its presence makes the power relationship fluid. The desire to have a fantasy actualized can be stopped dead in its tracks at any moment by either party. And this risk in pushing each other’s limits is a turn on for many.
Even outside of S&M relationships, the balance between dominance and submission in the bedroom, refereed by consent, is what can make sex so exciting. It’s this parallel that James cleverly gets the reader to notice, and thus relate to, regardless of whether they practice S&M or not. Whether in their S&M roles or as vanilla lovers, Grey and Steele are a reflection of many modern couples that are working to find balance, despite the challenge of gender roles, sexual norms, and contemporary definitions of love.
Compromise is one of the underlying themes of the book, and it’s this middle ground that allows the best relationships, S&M included, to work. Many modern women, like Steele, shun the idea of submission, particularly to male partners. But, as Steele’s growth and journey illustrates, submission is not powerless. In fact, it may even hold more power than dominance. It’s so rare for one human being to give another, regardless of gender, complete and total submission in any given moment. Women or men who practice complete and total submission know this, and have become novelties in terms of modern relationships. It is easier and preferable for many human beings to be dominant, whether in their relationships, jobs, or other social roles. It is much harder to be submissive or to find another human being that completely trusts in one’s dominant behavior.
As black women are often depicted and celebrated as being strong, independent, and dominant in their relationships and families, perhaps 50 Shades of Grey could provide encouragement for them to explore submission as a fantasy — particularly when the world often expects them to remain in control at all times. Often expected to hold down a powerhouse career while being an awesome mother (and sometimes a perfectly devout Christian), black women rarely get the opportunity to let their guards down. Instead of taking the lead so often, 50 Shades of Grey can introduce these women to the experience of total trust that comes with completely submitting to a partner in the bedroom. This could help African-American women interested in absolutely “letting go” explore the depths of their sexual selves.
This is what makes the role-play in S&M so attractive for many, but it’s also a lesson for all modern non-S&M relationships. There is power in vulnerability: in trusting your partner 100 percent to make the right decisions, whether in the bedroom or in the outside world. It’s really not as taboo as it seems, which is clearly illustrated by the success of James’ book. Trust requires balance between dominance and submission. Thus, 50 Shades of Grey is a great discussion tool for finding that sweet spot.
Arielle Loren is the Editor-in-Chief of CORSET, the go-to magazine for all things sexuality. She’s also been published as a writer and thought leader in various publications, including The Huffington Post, Jezebel, BlogHer, NPR, EBONY, The Root, AOL Black Voices, Racialicous, and Clutch Magazine. Download past issues of Corset Magazine at corsetmagazine.com and find her on Facebook. Follow Arielle Loren on Twitter at @ArielleLoren.