Yes, I Have a Problem with Fifty Shades… But It’s Not What You Think

It’s actually more accurate to say I have several problems with Fifty Shades of Grey, the infamous erotic trilogy (plus rewrites-with-the-pronouns-flipped) about the kinky-ish love between naive college student Anastasia Steele and young handsome billionaire  Christian Grey.

A block of grey paint samples in reference to Fifty Shades of GreyYes, I’ve read the first book, and enough of the second and third to get the gist. I’ve also read Cliff Pervocracy and Jenny Trout’s recaps (which are hilarious, by the way). Make no mistake: these books are horribly written and I did not find them erotic in the slightest. The sex depicted in them is either boringly vanilla, dubiously consensual (or straight up rapey), or both. The main characters are both awful people and the dialogue is about as sexy as a root canal. As a kinkster, I hate that people think this is what we’re about. As a writer, I think it’s a travesty that Ms James has made more money than anyone ever needs in a lifetime, while genuinely talented artists are underpaid and undervalued every day.

So yes. I have issues with this book. But they’re not that it’s an unrealistic kinky romance between a virginal college student and a vampire billionaire.

“But it’s fantasy!” fans cry.

And yes. It is. Look, I’ll be the last person to tell you that you can’t have your fantasies, even your problematic ones. Fantasy is not reality and fantasy exists to enable us to escape from the real world for a while. And nowhere is that more true than in sexual fantasy.

A huge part of the reason that erotica and porn should only be accessed by adults is that adults, typically, understand the difference between fantasy and reality. Jaime Mortimer wrote a really good post on this recently.

I’m not going to infantilise everyone who reads Fifty Shades or any other problematic book and tell you that it’s going to turn you into a rapist or make you leave your husband for an emotionally stunted billionare (or a vampire in a Volvo). I read plenty of erotic fiction and plenty of it has themes that would be super problematic if they were real – doctor/patient scenarios, professor/student scenarios, consensual-non-consent roleplay, voyeurism and exhibitionism, public sex and more are just some of the themes I’ve enjoyed in my sexy fiction.

Guess what? Fantasy. And again: adults, overall, have the capability to understand the difference between fantasy and reality.

So enjoy Fifty Shades, if it’s your thing, as a fantasy about a naive young woman being seduced by an dude with more money than God and pants that hang from his hips (yes, this is an actual line in the book). Enjoy the light BDSM, the sexy  helicopter rides, the grumpy, brooding, damaged male lead if you want to. I’ll be the last person to judge you for enjoying some silly escapism or some improbable erotica if that’s what gets you off.

My problem with Fifty Shades is actually in the social and cultural narrative surrounding Fifty Shades.

Because this is not a great love story. This is not something to which young women should aspire! And the problem is that it’s being sold that way.

There is tonnes of erotica (and straight romantic fiction) out there that relies on problematic tropes and scenarios that are hot in fiction but would be a terrible idea in reality. That’s fine. Again: fantasy is cool, y’all!

But none of that has the marketing power behind it that Fifty Shades does. Ms James and her publishing team have made their collective fortunes not on selling Fifty Shades as fluffy erotic fantasy, but on selling Fifty Shades as a style of relationship to which we should all aspire.

And that is what is dangerous about this book. Not the fantasy it depicts, but the marketing power that sells that fantasy as genuinely aspirational. Because make no mistake, the relationship between Christian and Ana is very often abusive.

How many young women do you think have watched this movie, and decided that if this is romance, my boyfriend obviously only super jealous and controlling because he loves me? Or, Ana loves Christian out of abusing her, so if only I behaved better my husband would stop hitting me? Maybe not in quite so literal terms, but make no mistake – these messages are out there, and victims of abuse are listening and absorbing.

You might think this is hyperbole, but it’s not. This is the kind of power that massive marketing budgets, ingrained cultural narratives about love, and a total lack of sensible sex-and-relationships education has.

I don’t blame Fifty Shades for my own experience in an abusive D/s relationship, of course. But I do partly blame growing up surrounded by the idea that if a man hurt me, my job was to heal him so he could love me properly in the end.

Fifty Shades is far from the only story to suffer from this phenomenon

We have always built collective cultural narratives around these deeply problematic stories. I am reasonably confident in saying I doubt that Shakespeare intended Romeo & Juliet to be considered the greatest love story of all time. If you read it as a love story and analyse it for more than three seconds, it’s a ridiculous play. If you reread it as a satire about “love at first sight” and teenage stupidity, though, it becomes utterly brilliant. (While we’re at it, Wuthering Heights isn’t a great love story either. And Christian Grey bears a passing resemblence to Heathcliff in a variety of ways.)

Despite being for children, even Disney movies sell us some pretty horrible messages about relationships. Think about it: marriage is the ultimate goal for any girl. Once a man chooses you, you’ll live happily ever after.  Cinderella tells us to be good and subservient and pretty until a man rescues us; The Little Mermaid tells us that what we have to say is the least valuable thing about us; Sleeping Beauty suggests that kissing a sleeping stranger is totes a sensible and romantic thing to do… and so it goes on. We’re drip-fed these messages from earliest childhood, so is it really any wonder that so many of us grow up with totally screwed up ideas about what relationships are actually supposed to look like?

Don’t ban – educate

In closing: I don’t support the banning of Fifty Shades or other problematic stories. Fantasy is important and something we should all be able to have access to. Instead, we need a greater cultural understanding and greater education around separating fantasy from reality, and understanding what healthy relationships actually are.

I’d be much happier with the thousands and thousands of twenty-something women enjoying Fifty Shades as sexy, escapist fantasy if they weren’t already surrounded by a culture that teaches them if he hits you, it’s your job to be better so he can heal from his fucked up past.

CK & Exhibit A on… Dick Size

I did a discussion-based joint post on pegging with the awesome Exhibit A for his site a while back, and it was so much fun we decided to reconvene for another one. Inspired by our friend who wrote in about being insecure about his girlfriend’s toy usage, this time we’re talking everything to do with dicks, and specifically the size of them.

]Note: we use some cis-centric language here, referring to people with penises as men. This is due to the experience we’re writing from (EA is a cis man and I’m a cis woman who has fucked a lot of cis men) but we acknowledge this shortcoming. In no way did we mean to imply that women can’t have penises, men can’t have vulvas, or that these are the only two gender options.]

A half uncoiled tape measure on a red background. For a post on Dick Size with Exhibit A

Exhibit A lives in London, describes himself as an “urban fox,” and likes to “write stories and get naked (usually not at the same time.”)

Here’s what we had to say about dicks.

CK: So this conversation started because of a reader question I answered, where the person was jealous of/intimidated by his girlfriend’s sex toys, specifically because he feared her using toys meant his penis isn’t “big enough.”I approached it from a very much “you’re fine as you are, talk to your partner and work on your insecurities” angle but, as a vulva-owner, I don’t really get the penis insecurity thing. Especially because, for me at least, dick size is such a tiny factor when it comes to whether or not I want to have sex with someone! But I think you had some thoughts to add to this as a penis-owner?

EA: Well yes – when it comes to dick, I have lots of thoughts, some of which are about size. On this occasion, what I found interesting about your answer (especially in light of what you just said about your own preferences) was that you didn’t give the generic “hey, size doesn’t matter, your penis is definitely big enough so stop worrying” response that other, more mainstream sex columnists might have gone with. You sort of acknowledged in a tacit way that size is important to some people, and that it’s fine for that to be the case.

CK: Yeah, because I have no way of knowing what his girlfriend’s preference is. I did tell him that his dick is fine as it is and that all genitals are beautiful, because this is what I believe, but whether it’s actually “big enough” for HER personal preferences? That I can’t speak to because I’m not her.

EA: Yep, exactly that. I thought it was quite a nuanced way to handle the question, and the (sensitive) issue of dick size more generally. In his position, I think I’d find that perversely reassuring. It’s often helpful, when you have a nagging worry (whether it relates to your body, your job, your friendships, whatever) to have someone around who won’t sugarcoat things or BS you with stuff they think you want to hear. Makes it easier to say “ok, what am I actually going to do about it?” And when it comes to dick size – or more specifically to a gap between what one partner has and what one partner might (in an ideal world) want, there’s PLENTY you can do about it, of course.

CK: Yeah, that’s really true although one obviously has to be VERY careful with it because: self esteem is fragile. There’s absolutely loads you can do about it – including, ironically, toys!

EA: Yes! Toys are awesome for this and they’re awesome in their own right, which is kind of the point. It sounded like your correspondent was intimidated by them because he saw them as a penis replacement – as a way of his girlfriend getting something he couldn’t provide – rather than as something that could enrich their sex life in a more holistic sense.

CK: Yes, exactly – and I tried to tackle that as well by suggesting he try using toys in their sex together and possibly also in his solo sex life. So tell me: is it true, in your experience, that the majority of men are hung (heh) up on their dick size? And if so: why?

EA: I already heh’d earlier at your ‘dick size is such a tiny factor’ comment – apparently we’re all about the puns today.

CK: I am ALWAYS about the puns, especially if they involve cock.

EA: I don’t know that the majority of men are hung up on dick size, but I’d certainly say that for most guys it’s a consideration we’re aware of. Cultural considerations play a big role in that. Whether it’s Sex & the City, suggestive TV advertising, columns in women’s (and lads’) mags, dick size is very much seen as fair game for discussion, analysis, (occasionally cruel) humour, and fetishisation. As a guy, you absorb all that and of course it has an impact on the relationship you have with your own penis.

CK: Absolutely. And it seems to be an easy/lazy attack to throw at a guy.

EA: An attack, and vice versa – having a big dick is seen as something to be proud of, or to brag about. So of course we do, especially as teenagers and young men, whether we actually have one or not.

CK: I kinda think “you have a small dick” to a guy is the equivalent of “you’re fat” to a woman. Whether it’s actually true is irrelevant (and the body positive amongst us know that neither of these things are bad anyway!) but it’s an easy way to hit someone’s self esteem. With one exception, all the guys I’ve had PIV with have been on the bigger side. I don’t know why, because it’s not something I look for! Interestingly, the one who was on the smaller side had a really big complex about it, while all the others didn’t seem too fussed one way or the other.

EA: I spent years in the changing room at school trying to hide my lower half when I got (un)dressed, because I was convinced that a) I had a small dick, and b) people would laugh/take the piss out of it.

CK: That’s really sad but seems to be a really common experience. Can you talk about how your relationship with your dick has grown (hehe) or changed over the years?

EA: To form that insecurity at the age of 14/15, before I’d had sex, and before I’d even really been exposed to porn and the kind of content where dick size is openly discussed, invites an interesting discussion about where it comes from, I think. Both my dick and my relationship with it have grown since I was 15!

CK: Oh gosh yes! Do you think that insecurity came from the kind of harmful “banter” you were just talking about? Hearing other guys bragging?

EA: Perhaps. Perhaps I’d also absorbed cultural messaging without even realising it. There was also some residual insecurity, I think, from being the only circumcised boy in my swimming class at primary school, and having other boys openly stare/draw attention to that, in a negative way. But yes, over the years I’ve come to love my penis for what it is, and to stop worrying about what it’s not.

CK: Yes, cultural messaging is all around us for sure… a bit like the way really young girls are now super insecure about their bodies and thinking they need to diet.

EA: Some of the change was just growing up, I think. Some of it was reading about dick size – like, getting the facts, rather than just believing my mate in the lunch queue when he casually mentioned that 8 inches was average. And inevitably a lot of it was affirmation, love, and happy sexual experiences with/from sexual partners. In an ideal world, none of us would need external validation/affirmation to feel good about our bodies. In the world we live in, of course it tends to help!

CK: Absolutely! That’s one reason I wish we had more comprehensive and accurate sex ed. Such a simple way to make a lot of teenagers more secure about their bodies and stop them absorbing quite so much toxic false information. Apart from more good information, what else do you think would help guys feel more secure about their dick, whatever size it is?

EA: I’ll say this, actually – one additional thing guys have to deal with is the harmful trope that penises are ‘ugly’. If you’re already worried about size, the idea that it’s just making your dick even less attractive from an already low base is pretty depressing

CK: YES! I don’t believe so many people think genitals are ugly, they’re gorgeous – especially when they’re attached to a human I like.

EA: It really helped me when I started to have partners say things like “your dick is beautiful” or “I love the way your dick looks”, rather than just ascribing it a practical/functional value. Getting my head round the idea that women could (and do!) find penises aesthetically pleasing/attractive was a big (and happy) thing for me…again, pun absolutely intended.

CK: So people who have sex with people with dicks definitely have a role to play in this issue?

EA: They do, yes – though it’s important to qualify that by saying they’re not ultimately responsible for the body/penis image of men with dicks. As guys, that’s ultimately down to us.

CK: I think it’s everyone’s responsibility ultimately to work on their own insecurities/hang-ups, with the help of partners and loved ones for sure… but it has to come from within.

EA: But sure, the more external support/affirmation we get, the easier it becomes to ignore any negative messaging, whether that’s coming from within us or from the wider world.

CK: So what IS a guy to do if he’s smaller than his partner would ideally prefer, but they love each other and want to have great sex? And, conversely, if he’s bigger than average and this makes sex difficult? Because my first sexual partner was way above average size and that shit HURT when I was 16 and didn’t have access to lube or proper information.

EA: I was just about to bring it back round to that by saying that I have had relationships – casual and more serious – with women who have been open about their preference for larger dick than I’m packing.

CK: Ooh! And how does that work for you?

EA: Hmm, I actually found it quite easy to rationalise/deal with in the end. I think there are a few keys to overcoming it.. 1. It’s important to acknowledge that whether you’re talking appearance, personality, job, wealth, hobbies, or whatever, our real-life partners are never going to match up in every area with the ideal partner we might create in our head.

CK: That’s SUCH a good point for life in general.

EA: 2. Once you accept that, it becomes easier to kind of interrogate your insecurities. To ask yourself ‘well ok, would I be this bothered if she told me she typically went for really tall guys, just because I’m only average height?’ Or on the flip side, to remind yourself that you tend to eye up women with brown hair, but still fancy the pants off her ‘even though’ she’s blonde. 3. We are the sum of our physical features, our personality traits, our experiences…we can’t and shouldn’t reduce ourselves to one element of them. Obsessing over the fact that your girlfriend prefers hung guys means ignoring all the things she finds hot or attractive about you, and all the reasons why she fucks you, rather than Johnny Big Balls with the 9″ monster cock.

CK: So much yes to all of that.

EA: Also, by focusing solely on the disparity between the dick you have and the dick you imagine she wants, you’re making sex all about…well, all about dick. And that’s a pretty gross way to look at it. When I was in those relationships, it never crossed my mind that my partner wouldn’t enjoy sex with me, just because in a fantasy world where genies came flying out of lamps, she might add an inch or two to my cock.

CK: Also if your partner reduces you to just your dick size or any other physical attribute, they’re kinda… well, being a dick.

EA: She enjoyed sex with me because we had awesome chemistry, and similar kinks, and gave each other great oral, and loved to kiss for hours, and all those other awesome things. Reduce love or sex to any one element and you risk going down a very dangerous path, IMO. I focused on being the whole package (heh) for her in bed, knowing that actually, dick size expectations was one of the easier hurdles to overcome.

CK: That’s such a great approach to sex.

EA: Going back to toys, I would gleefully fuck the shit out of her with an 8-inch dildo while she sucked my cock, or tie her up and stretch her slowly with something thick, knowing that she’d find something equally awesome to do to/with me afterwards. It’s a lot harder to find ways around other problems someone might have with you. Or rather, other preferences someone might have.

CK: Absolutely. And therein you’ve captured perfectly why I advised our insecure friend to use toys with his girlfriend!

EA: I hope he took your advice! By the way, while there are definitely wrong ways to go about doing it, I actually have a lot of time for women who aren’t ashamed/afraid to declare a preference for larger dicks. If they do it in a sex-positive, happy way, rather than a sneering or mocking one, well, I think that takes a fair bit of balls and some good self-awareness/knowledge of their own bodies/preferences.

CK: Yes, that definitely makes sense. I also wish that women who stated we don’t really care/don’t prefer huge dicks would be taken at face value about our preferences!

EA: Women get so much shit for loving sex (or being greedy about it, or wanting to ‘fuck like men’) that to hear someone come out and say “fuck it, I love big dicks” is kinda hot. What you just said, though, that’s the irony of our collective male insecurity about dick size: w’ve cultivated it to the point where women who come out and say “I don’t actually care either way” or even “I prefer smaller/average dicks” – messages that should be music to our ears – simply aren’t believed! Moral of this story? Believe women when they talk about what they do/don’t want. It will be much easier for all concerned.

CK: Also good advice for life. to be honest. Believe people about their own preferences!

EA: Fuck yeah. And talk about those preferences with them! Don’t just assume that “I prefer this” means “it’s my #1 preference, it’s an absolute preference, it exists independently of any/all other preferences, and because you don’t conform to it, I can’t find anything else in you to love/fancy/desire.”

CK: Preach! (Example: my partner prefers naturally hairy women but ultimately having body hair is a small part of the whole package of what he’ll find attractive in a person.)

EA: We all have a preference set. They’re often fluid, nuanced, interdependent, and liable to shift as we experience new things. That’s part of the beauty of being human, and of having sex with other humans.

CK: So the thesis is basically: genitals are great. Dicks are hot. People have different preferences and we should listen to each other. And TOYS ARE GREAT ALWAYS.

EA: Nailed it.

Thanks for reading and we hope you enjoyed our second co-authored piece. Remember to check out EA’s blog and, if you like the work I’m doing here on Coffee & Kink, consider becoming a sexy patron.