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.

A Very Brief Look at Sex Toys in Popular Culture

Despite its problematic elements (and OH GODS there are a lot, TW for biphobia, transphobia and racism in that link,) Sex & the City was groundbreaking for its time. In 1998, when the episode “The Turtle and the Hare” aired featuring the women discovering the Rabbit sex toy, a frank discussion of vibrators on a prime-time, hugely popular TV show was a big deal. A few years later came The L Word – queer women’s answer to Sex & the City, which I devoured when I was in my late teens, low-key ridiculous though it undoubtedly is. Alice asks her girlfriend Dana to penetrate her with a strap-on. Sex toys then feature as a recurring theme throughout their relationship.

DivaInner G-Spot Rabbit vibrator with box, for a post on sex toys in popular cultureBut let’s face it, the portrayal of sex toys in popular culture hasn’t been hugely positive.

In the fairly recent past, sex toys in movies and TV were treated as the butt of a joke. 2001’s Not Another Teen Movie, for example, famously opens with Janey getting caught masturbating by her entire family (and for some reason a few random children and a priest.) The idea of a woman masturbating – especially a geeky, not-classically-beautiful young woman – is supposed to be hilarious in itself. The “Rabbit” episode of SATC depicts Miranda’s friends shaming her for using a vibrator instead of having sex with a man. (“You can’t take it home to meet your parents!”) Later they stage an intervention to stop Charlotte using hers, treating her like an addict.

In The L Word, Dana’s shame around using toys is an ongoing theme in the depiction of her relationship with Alice – including a cringe-inducing scene where they go through airport security. (“Yup. Nipple clamps.”) Later, a jilted Alice dumps out a box of toys in front of Dana and her new girlfriend, who recoil in disgust. It’s a dildo, guys! It’s not going to hurt you!

Thankfully, things are starting to improve.

The wonderful Sense8 features a beautiful scene of two women having sex using a strap-on dildo. Netflix’s Grace and Frankie feature the two main characters trying to design sex toys for women over 60 – and older women’s sexuality is not treated as gross or as a joke. And, of course, Broad City’s pegging scene became such an instant classic that there is now a line of sex toys themed around the show.

This is all a great start. I’d really like to see more positive portrayals of sex toy usage in popular media going forward. Give us joyful depictions of female masturbation, divorced from shame or guilt or narratives about being addicted, a nymphomaniac, or unable to find a man. Give us sex scenes in which partners reach for toys and no-one thinks it’s weird, gross or offensive. I’d even like to see vibrators casually sitting on female characters’ night stands without it being a big deal.

Popular culture has begun to catch up, but still has a way to go in the sex positivity realm.

Luckily, sex toys themselves have (s0metimes) improved tremendously in the last twenty years. The infamous 1998 SATC “Rabbit” is made of some kind of translucent jelly material, which is certainly not body-safe. Jelly toys are softened with phthalates, plasticiser chemicals which are now banned in children’s toys in many countries as they are known carcinogens. They’re also horrible for the environment! Unfortunately, the adult product industry remains largely unregulated, allowing unscrupulous manufacturers to keep making cheap, dangerous sex toys. There have been documented cases of people getting chemical burns in their genital area from unsafe toys!

Fortunately, there are reputable adult brands out there dedicated to offering body-safe and eco-friendly toys. DIVAINNER is one of them, creating intimate products of the highest standard such as this fab G-Spot Rabbit, out of exclusively premium, body-safe materials such as non-porous, phthalate-free silicone! Despite the silly stereotypes, it’s impossible to get addicted to a sex toy – so you can let go of your inhibitions and have as much fun as you want.

This post was commissioned by DivaInner and first appeared on their blog. Featured image is property of DivaInner. All opinions, as ever, are my own. Want to see YOUR company, brand or product on these pages? Get in touch!