It’s rare for a book—especially one that starts off as an off-shoot of fan fiction—to have such popularity as Fifty Shades of Grey has had. It’s still unclear to many why this particular story has created such a buzz. Granted, I know many people who have bought the book, but few who have actually read it and found it interesting. It does seduce with its gorgeous billionaire let-me-grant-your-every-wish-even-before-you-know-what-it-is rescuing the princess (only to perhaps be rescued by her?). Whatever the attraction, there are some serious lessons for everyone NOT to learn from Fifty Shades of Grey, especially women. Here’s what you should learn instead:
1. Sex requires a learning curve.
Anastasia’s character is one who is beautiful and full of life, yet has never had the opportunity to explore her sexuality with anyone else (why not?), and hasn’t bothered to get to know herself either (double why not?). Despite this, we are to believe that her sexual awakening is practically instant and without any missteps. In Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia goes from being unconcerned and unaware of her sexual feelings, to becoming easily orgasmic from practically any type of stimulation. She effectively goes from zero to sixty in about 4 seconds and no bumps along the way—and she miraculously knows exactly how to drive without ever having set foot in the car before! Unless someone’s sexuality is unnecessarily repressed, it usually doesn’t lay dormant until one day someone flicks a switch and all of a sudden it’s turned on (I couldn’t resist that one!). Presenting her character this way could lead both men and women to have unrealistic expectations about how one naturally feels about their own sexuality, the normalcy in exploring it on your own—most commonly through masturbation, and how a person doesn’t usually go from first kiss to complete surrender in one or two moves. It seems to set up an idealistic view of sexual innocence that can actually be quite harmful. (For more info on this, read Jessica Valenti’s book The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women.)
2. Masturbation is healthy and doesn’t take away from sexual desire or relationships.
There is a passage in Fifty Shades of Grey in which Christian orders Anastasia to refrain from masturbating on her own “because I want all your pleasure.” A little too greedy perhaps? A great deal misinformed, actually. Masturbation is not only a way for people to discover what they like—especially women—but it’s also a way to heighten sexual pleasure and desire. Through masturbation, a person stimulates their nerve endings in their genitals that encourages more blood flow. This, in turn, increases sensation and leads to a very healthy sex life indeed. And masturbation does not take away sexual desire or pleasure, but instead builds it up. Women especially benefit from masturbation since they have no refractory period, which means they can continue to be aroused and orgasm after climaxing. Also, in the realm of use-it-or-lose-it, masturbation helps draw out erotic thoughts and fantasies, which primes the brain to be even more interested in sex.
3. Possessiveness is not caring and it is not a sign of love.
Throughout Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian is telling Anastasia that she is his, only his, and that she better not forget it. There’s nothing wrong with loyalty and exclusivity, but the possessiveness presented in the book is quite harsh, to the point where Anastasia’s personal thoughts go to wondering if she wants to be with such a guy. Of course, his good looks and being “hot” win her over every time. In real life however, possessiveness causes misery, anxiety, and sometimes even violence. It’s one thing for your partner to want you to be faithful, but controlling you on every level and threatening punishment is not driven from love or care and never grows into trust. It’s driven from insecurity and the fear of being powerless and/or abandoned. When you encounter someone like this, it often points to a deep character issue that isn’t easily resolved, no matter how many times you call them to tell them where you are, who you’re with, or how much you love them. You can’t fill that hole, only they can fix it. Because the book doesn’t really give any indication that Anastasia understands why this is happening, or that she has ulterior motives for putting up with that kind of controlling nonsense, the reader can only assume that she doesn’t know any better. Don’t fall into this trap in your own relationships!
4. Emotional abuse is hurtful and does not have to be tolerated.
Just because the abuse isn’t physical doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt. There are some relationships that have a considerable amount of emotional abuse—where you are made to feel as if your own feelings, doubts, suspicions, and desires are wrong. In Fifty Shades of Grey, there are several instances where Christian tells Anastasia how she should feel or act, even when they are not very far into the relationship. There’s everything from telling her that he owns her orgasms, to telling her what kind of contraception she is going to use without any opinion from her, to making her feel guilty for planning a trip to see her mother. An emotional environment that is described in her mind as being “too frightened to show you any affection in case you flinch or tell me off or worse” is not a healthy, balanced relationship that caters to the needs of both the partners. If you notice that this happens on a regular basis, you can bet that something’s not quite right. The trouble is that there are many people who are very good at rationalizing and using logical arguments to make the other partner appear to be wrong. A tell-tale sign of this is when you start to doubt your thoughts, feelings, or desires. If you are constantly second-guessing yourself in a relationship, but you never did that before, it could be a sign that the other person is not playing fair, whether they know it or not.
5. Dirty is not the same as seductive.
Erotic thoughts and actions come in all shapes, sizes, flavors, and colors. But there are some things you should not confuse. You shouldn’t confuse sex with love, attention with intention, romance with authenticity, or sexual with seductive. Words that are erotic or sexual are not necessarily romantic or seductive. Perhaps it’s a limit on the imagination of the author, or complete ignorance on the part of the character in the book, but when a man says “I can’t wait to be inside you,” that’s sexual, but not very seductive. Under the right circumstances, that could be arousing. But don’t mistake it for seduction. If there is one art that seems to be dying off is the art of seduction—of putting that effort into really getting into the other person’s head so that you awaken sexual desire in their mind way before you ever touch them. I think it’s important for people to realize this because in the beginning of a relationship, arousal seems to come more easily and you don’t think about all of the mental space given to a date or an encounter. After being in a relationship for a while, however, it requires a little more effort for that to take place. In my book Wanting to Want: What Kills Your Sex Life and How to Keep It Alive, I speak about the benefit of putting in that effort regardless of how much time has passed. This is just one of the important ways to work towards long-lasting sexual desire. Knowing what your partner thinks is arousing is good, but knowing how to seduce them is wonderful.
6. Instant arousal and quick sex are not that erotic or realistic.
Fifty Shades of Grey is meant to be more like erotica than a novel. With that said, it does a good job of imitating porn in one way—the characters seem to be immediately aroused, she being completely lubricated and ready for sex even before she is touched, and he seems to have an erection on demand—even if it’s minutes after the last orgasm. In reality, arousal should not be expected to be so automatic. The idea that it all happens so easily gives people very unrealistic expectations about the importance of seduction, anticipation, and foreplay. This is especially difficult for women who start to wonder what is wrong with them when they can’t get so turned on so quickly. It also usually takes women a little longer to orgasm with a little more stimulation than just a few deep thrusts as portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey. Remember that this is fantasy, not reference material.
There’s always a silver lining—even in Fifty Shades of Grey.
For whatever reason that Fifty Shades of Grey grew to its fame, it has brought the reality of erotica into many women’s lives. Even before the book’s popularity, erotica was the number one selling genre in the United States, and for very good reason. Women, especially, love to get caught up in the details and the line of the story because of how their brains are wired. Some have pointed out that erotica is like porn for women, which is quite fitting. Making erotica seem more accessible to women everywhere helps them have more choices to stimulate their sexual fantasy and desire. And although the details of BDSM are fuzzy in this book (he proclaims that he’s not a Sadist, but then later states that he likes to give pain), and the reader is still left with barely a knowledge of the complexities of bondage/discipline, domination/submission, and sadism/masochism, at least the book functions as a starting point for conversation and discovery for those who want to explore further. If you are going to explore, however, let it be out of your own curiosity and interest rather than feeling pressure to “fit in,” “be normal,” or “do what they’re doing.”