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fifty shades of grey

By Donna George Storey

The movie Fifty Shades Darker was released just before Valentine’s Day. No one cares. The box office on opening weekend was slightly more than half of Fifty Shades of Grey. The quality of the second movie may be a factor. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson did not return to do the sequel, which lacks the humor and sizzle of the first film, critics say.

Then again perhaps we’ve lost interest in the fate of Ana and Christian because our nation is too busy navigating our own intimate BDSM relationship with a billionaire? “You’ll let me hurt you, because you love me, right?” he snarls gently. “Don’t resist! You’ll enjoy it. Now stop calling your Senators and let me put these handcuffs on you. Trust me, it’ll be something terrific…”

Not sure how that’s been going for you, but I’m learning a lot about myself from this experience.

Indeed I find it fascinating that the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon of just a few years past is suddenly painfully relevant to our everyday lives. This month I’d like to share some lessons from E.L. James’ erotic novels that illuminate the power of fantasy, BDSM and billionaires.

Don’t Bother Fact-Checking A Fantasy

Do you remember all the dire warnings about Christian Grey as a stalker and a dangerously controlling personality? Therapists and cultural critics alike worried that the female fans of Fifty Shades of Grey would be fooled into thinking that the relationship between Christian and Ana was desirable and that these poor women would then seek out sociopathic narcissists who would abuse them physically and psychologically. Many more criticized the bad prose, the passive heroine and the inane plot lifted from Twilight. Anna J. Roberts even analyzed the novels chapter by chapter to show how silly, embarrassing and wrong the story was at every turn (her commentary is highly entertaining). BDSM aficionados pointed out that James’ grasp of power exchange is misleading and amateurish—indeed she has little, if any, personal experience in the kink for which she has become famous.

In other words, Fifty Shades of Grey was fact-checked by therapists, experienced authors and editors, and BDSM practitioners. In every respect, it was found lacking. Four Pinocchios all around.

The fans of the series didn’t give a fig. They loved the story, even if it was “bad” and “wrong.” Adding to the huge audience of true fans were the curiosity seekers. Thanks to them and a celebrity-driven press, Fifty Shades of Grey became—and still is, because I assure you I will get at least twice as many reads for this column as any I’ve written without “Fifty Shades” in the title—a code word for “exciting, kinky sex.” So what if the actual sex scenes in the book are far more vanilla than advertised? E.L. James is still a rich woman.

Mind you, how many of us would appreciate our fantasies being fact-checked? What are the chances that any given neighbor spying on you while you undress is a gorgeous sexpot who somehow knows your pleasure buttons intimately without speaking a word once you finally beckon him or her over to your boudoir? Most of us know this is unlikely to happen in real life, but there’s no harm done if we merely imagine idealized encounters without consequences in moments of privacy.

Yet problems do arise when fantasies are taken so seriously that, say, you vote for someone who promises you a health care plan that covers everybody and costs less and offers more benefits except it’s not single-payer because that’s socialism–and you actually expect them to deliver on the promise.

Therefore, let us take note from the Fifty Shades example, that a “good story” trumps harsh reality when the desire to believe is strong.

The Strict Father and the Republican Party 

The general consensus seems to be that Fifty Shades of Grey is just a standard Harlequin romance that wouldn’t have gotten a second glance except for the BDSM. Apparently the novels finally made it completely okay for the ordinary Jane to think sexual thoughts about cable ties and handcuffs. Unfortunately, this openness has also brought out a lot of misogynistic cultural “analysis,” which says as much about the commentator as the topic. The books’ popularity was seen by some as proof that women naturally want to be submissive because they find their new “equality” in society a burden from which they long to escape into the arms of a billionaire with a secret playroom full of canes and whips. In other words, the Freudians were right that women are intrinsically masochistic.

I’ll let Leslie Bennetts challenge this conclusion most eloquently in “Sex, Lies & Fifty Shades”:

“So when people pontificate about women’s intrinsic sexual nature, I find myself thinking: How do you know? How can we ourselves even know? From earliest childhood, women’s experience of sex is so inextricably intertwined with all forms of male control that submission is forever eroticized in more ways than we can possibly unravel. As females, we have been dominated physically, politically, socially, legally, and economically, and pop culture endlessly reinforces the message.”

So if it’s not that women just naturally like to be dominated straight from the womb, what could be the compelling appeal of BDSM to millions? I humbly present an alternate explanation for the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, and it has to do with the Republican party. I owe this insight to George Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.

Lakoff argues that conservatives in America believe in the Strict Father model of the family and by metaphorical extension, the Strict Father model of our government. In this traditional, patriarchal structure, the father/president has the primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family/citizens. He also gets to whip their butts if they don’t follow his directions.

“He teaches children right from wrong by setting strict rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishment. The punishment is typically mild to moderate, but sufficiently painful. It is commonly called corporal punishment—say, with a belt or a stick. He also gains their cooperation by showing love and appreciation when they do follow the rules. But children must never be coddled, lest they become spoiled; a spoiled child will be dependent for life and will not learn proper morals.” (Lakoff, p. 66)

Under the Strict Father moral order, humans are more powerful and important than animals and plants and the environment, adults are more powerful than children, and men are more powerful than women. Thus, if a woman challenges this hierarchy by assuming male privileges, she is threatening the natural order and must be punished. This explains why those who oppose government regulations on almost everything else are quick to legislate to control women’s bodies–and also why the environment is fair game for whatever we humans want to grab and exploit.

The liberal family ideal, in Lakoff’s terminology, is the Nurturant Parent model. In this type of family, parents of both sexes embrace empathy, nurturance, social ties, fairness and happiness in the family relationship. Parents earn their authority by acting kindly and fairly and setting an example for their children. Children are encouraged to express their needs and opinions. Men and women are equal. This model of the family has been gaining traction, particularly among younger baby boomer parents. The downside of nurturant parenting–and government–is that it’s hard work and involves self-doubt, constant negotiation, and expensive social programs.

The majority of American voters today are likely to have been raised in a family more closely resembling the Strict Father model. This is why conservative rhetoric about family values touches deep chords in so many Americans. Fifty Shades puts the focus on women’s experience of submission, but men, too, must deal with power hierarchies in every aspect of their lives. Those with a Strict Father worldview are especially intimate with hierarchy, authority and punishment for disobedience. Yet while hierarchical power relations start in the family, we find them flourishing in schools, in the workplace, the doctor’s office, the military of course, and pretty much any setting that you’ll find as the unifying theme for an erotica anthology.

Speaking of erotica, allow me to call in another expert to support my argument: Jack Morin, the author of The Erotic Mind: Unlocking the Inner Sources of Sexual Passion and Fulfillment. Morin introduced me to the idea of the “core erotic theme.” You can figure out your personal core erotic theme simply by identifying the sexual fantasy that is most likely to turn you on, especially when you’re having trouble getting aroused.

In my earlier review of Morin’s book, I mentioned that I found this quote relevant to literary erotica writers: “Many find it discomforting to tolerate the ambiguity of the erotic experience, to accept its mixed motivations, or to observe how the erotic mind has a habit of transforming one idea or emotion into another.”

Morin is describing the genesis of sexual fantasy. That is, our erotic minds take material from our actual experience–such as our family or religion-induced guilt about sex, our doubt about our desirability, or frustration about sexual limitations–and transforms it into arousing fantasies that address or redress or overturn the limitations of the real.  In erotic fantasies, we are often freed from the restrictions that rule our behavior in real life.  Lovers are abundant, orgasms even more so.  Even in the submissive role, the dreamer is always, in some fundamental way, in control of the situation as she or he manipulates all of the characters in the sexual drama unfolding on the imaginary stage. Our minds perform the magic of converting desire, humiliation, confusion and powerlessness into sensual pleasure and release.

In real life, there are always restrictions upon our desires and thus feelings of anger and powerlessness to manage in one way or another. No matter how powerful a Strict Father might be, there are always women, profits, federal employees and deals that elude his control. Although men have social privilege in the abstract, millions of individual men don’t experience those privileges for reasons of economic standing or ethnicity or any other quality that might lower status. We each have a complicated relationship with power, and a mind that readily translates these ambiguities into the language of fantasy. Fifty Shades of Grey was the first popular novel to give ordinary people the cover to explore more fully the intersection of power and sex—whether to enjoy it, condemn it or both.

George Lakoff’s Strict Father model is very helpful in understanding the conservative approach to family and government, but we must remember that both the liberal and conservative family models are essentially fantasies in themselves. Human patriarchs are never unassailable towers of strength and rectitude, nor are real-life nurturing parents always perfect models of kindness and equality. Both kinds of authority figures wield power they invariably abuse and both disappoint us.

Our current political situation has allowed us a naked glimpse of the abuses of power in government that is a disorienting blend of reality and fantasy that all too often bleeds into the surreal. However, when you involve another adult partner in playing out your fantasy, it is extremely important to get her or his consent at every step of the way. This is the difference between a purportedly pleasurable BDSM scene and assault and battery.

Where indeed will this unfolding relationship between our Strict Father leaders and our many Ana-like uncertain citizens lead America’s democratic experiment? Might Fifty Shades of Grey have the answer?

Does America Get A Happy Ending?

After much self-inflicted drama and misunderstanding (spoiler alert), Ana and Christian end their travails as a deliriously happy married couple with two adorable children. Their chief problem in life is getting the kids to sleep. Ana, just by being herself and also saving Christian’s sister from an evil Princeton-alum kidnapper, has “cured” Christian of his kink and healed his heart.

That’s the fictional version. So what about our real-life power-kink tale? How will the American people deal with the unprecedented challenges presented by our billionaire Master? Will we live happily ever after in the end?

I’ve decided to be optimistic. In this, too, let’s take our inspiration from E.L. James and move this plot as best we can away from dysfunctional obsession and toward a supportive relationship between government and citizen that honors our Constitution and the rule of law. The “how” this happens is, of course, the most important question for every story.

Yet unlike Fifty Shades of Grey, the citizens of the United States are the authors of this narrative. The ending of the story lies in our hands. Let’s make it good.

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

 By Ashley Lister

Fifty
Shades of Clay: A billionaire sculptor seduces an innocent young potter.

She
placed her hands against the slippery wet clay on the potter’s wheel. With
rising urgency, she moved her leg up and down to operate the pedal.  The moisture on the clay ran through her
fingers as the wheel span swiftly. She found herself holding a thick, undulating
length that made her think of him. Unable to stop herself, she licked her lips.
She desperately wanted to fire his brick in her kiln.

This month’s writing exercise moves briefly
away from poetry and looks at the parody. 
I have to admit, I was inspired for this exercise by something shared on
FaceBook.  The piece suggested a story idea
for Fifty Shades of Whey – the tale of a vegan being seduced by the billionaire
CEO of a large cheese company. 

The piece that was written beneath that
strapline was intense sexual foodplay of the variety that would earn the
instant approval of Kay Jaybee and KD Grace. 
I’ve seen other variations on the notion of Fifty Shades and I wondered
if there could be a fun writing exercise in exploiting this rich vein of parody.  Below, is my idea for a fun writing exercise.

Take one whimsical parody on the whole idea
of the original Fifty Shades title and then expand it with a short strapline.

Fifty
Shades of Sleigh: Santa needs a helper – naughty and nice.

Fifty
Shades of Spay: He’s an uber-successful vet and he’s going to do something
drastic to her pussy.

Fifty
Shades of Crochet: One young woman gets her hook and yarn twisted into a
beautiful new shape.

Fifty
Shades of X-Ray: She was only have been a humble radiologist, but she could see
right through him.  

Once you’ve got a title and a strapline,
write a paragraph from an intense erotic scene in that story.

Fifty
Shades of Monet: She didn’t just model for him – she made an impression.

“No,”
she told him, baring her breasts and showing herself to him. “Stop painting
those damned water lilies and paint me instead.”

Her
heart was pounding as she pushed herself against him. He dropped his brush and
she could see that he had smeared a streak of blue-grey oil paint across her
torso.

“That
needs rubbing off,” he said, nodding at her stomach.

She
straddled him and said, “I thought you’d never ask.”

As always, I look forward to seeing your
work in the comments box below.

By Donna George Storey

I just finished Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!: Of Playboys, Pigs and Penthouse Paupers, An American Tale of Sex and Wonder by Mike Edison (Soft Skull Press, 2011). It was a quick read and a nice change of tone from my usual research for my historical erotic novel these days. The book is about the history of sexually explicit magazines for men; the tone is funny, fearless and conversational, which you don’t usually get in studies of the apartment house in New York in the early 1900s. The familiar, cozy tone is no doubt due to the fact that over the years, Edison worked at Hustler, Screw and Penthouse, so he knows most of his stuff from the inside (and which may be why Hugh Hefner is presented with less affection than the other publishers).

I bought my first Playboy in a bookstore in downtown Washington, D.C. while on lunch break from my summer secretarial job at the IRS between high school and college. Yes, I was self-conscious as I stood in line to pay, although I wasn’t worried I’d be carded or anything. Eighteen wasn’t the hard cut-off it’s become in this day. The middle-aged guy behind me seemed bemused, but hey, it was the “Women of the Ivy League” issue, and I was headed to Princeton. Granted my later purchases have been a few vintage issues from the 1950s, and my enduring interest is in the mass presentation of erotic fantasy and the sensibilities of the men who made fortunes feeding on the sexual desires of men in our fairly repressed society. But frankly, I was thrilled to have my work published and generously compensated for by the Playboy Cyber Club and the print version of Penthouse under its new owners in the 2000’s. I wish I could tell that guy behind me in the bookstore what my brave purchase would lead to….

So, maybe I am unusual compared to the average woman, but I would argue that even though these magazines were not aimed at women as consumers, we, too, were profoundly affected by the new availability of erotic images and especially the manner of their presentation. Playboy, Penthouse and others defined what was sexy in a woman in our culture. It taught us what red-blooded straight men “really wanted.” Over the years I’ve had talks with men about their responses to these magazines, and it’s certainly more complicated than mere slavish acceptance of what Hefner or Guccione liked. However, we must acknowledge that these nationally distributed magazines helps shaped the erotic imaginations of millions, whether we like it or not.

There’s a lot I could say about Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! It rightly points out our debt to the men’s magazine honchos for battling for our First Amendment Rights with their sweat and treasure, for example. But I’ll mention two things that I’m sure I’ll remember, the takeaways from my reading. First, I got a new insight into the role of Hugh Hefner in the grand story of moving the heterosexual erotic impulse from the closet into the public sphere in the twentieth century. I’d always felt Hefner was a good example of how money and power make you weirder than you might ordinarily be, and it’s not just the round-the-clock pajamas. Edison spared no report of Hefner’s weirdness. He even had an epiphany while watching an episode of Playboy After Dark—which aired way back in 1969-1970–and that is: Hefner “hates women.”

Which of course is ironic because someone who celebrates the female form and has slept with thousands of women might be assumed to “love” women. Edison’s epiphany made a small light bulb go on in my head as well. I get where he’s coming from but the word “hates” is a blunt instrument. “Fears” is closer. Hefner created a world where real women are kept at a distance, controlled, their beauty airbrushed into a safe, predictable, tasteful form. By packaging these smooth, clean, unthreatening girls-next-door with decent journalism and “the best” of contemporary literature (every one of the “great” authors Edison mentioned as appearing in Playboy are men), Hefner allowed America to dip its toes in the shallow end of the pool. Hustler and even Penthouse were too raw, low-class and possibly honest about the fantasies of the Average American Male. History shows us that middle-class self-indulgence always seem less threatening to society. We know that proper upper-class men can handle mistresses, French postcards or a glimpse of Pompeii’s brothel art without going mad and raping every woman in sight, unlike their working class brothers whom we must keep carefully in line. So that’s what Hugh did for us: he eased the door open for the millions with a generous greasing of “good taste.”

Bravo Mike Edison for giving me a new look at Playboy. But I have a beef with him as well. When describing the many business mistakes made by Penthouse publisher and chief Pet photographer, Bob Guccione, Edison pointed a big fat finger at Viva magazine, co-edited by the Gooch’s wife, Kathy Keeton. He described Viva as “a porn magazine for women (always a bad idea).” He hinted that the main readership of Viva was gay men, as is often claimed of Playgirl as well, and this is why it failed.

Sorry, Mike, I think you and society at large may be guilty of the very same failing you attribute to Hefner—that he never listened to real women or cared what they really wanted. We hear it over and over again. Women don’t like pornography. Women don’t respond to erotic images. Don’t waste your time trying to make tons of money from women’s sexual fantasies. It’s a mistake.

I loved Viva as a teenager. Maybe gay men were buying it, but so was my older sister, who made no effort to keep her issues from my curious hands. I didn’t question the magazine was meant for women to read. I figured young, worldly women were interested in the content: sexual fantasies and sexuality itself and feminist politics and sophisticated articles about the waning glory of England’s Royal Family and other provocative discussions of the early 1970s. I spent some very enjoyable summer afternoons perusing the articles, the “analyzed” sexual fantasies, and the pictorials. I learned a lot about myself and my desires.

Now I will agree the photographs of nude men didn’t do it for me the way Playmates and Pets apparently seared into the libidos of my male peers. But one very important reason may be that all the penises were flaccid. Even in my state of inexperience, it struck a false note. Looking back through the issues now, I get anxious when I see these beautiful young nude men and women embracing (including Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson as very young lovers) and the guy’s dick is soft. Something is wrong here and it’s hard, so to speak, to get drawn into a lustful fantasy when the man clearly is not aroused. 

On the other hand, I have to admit if Mike Edison means the type of pornography produced for men is unlikely to be profitable if the exact same thing is slapped with a label “for women” without deeper inquiry, then I agree with him. But “women don’t like pornography” suggests we don’t enjoy erotic images at all. That is not true for me. Is it true for you?

So instead of saying all women don’t like pornography, how about this? Maybe women don’t “like” or buy what has been on offer, because it’s a spin-off of the recipe for males and we respond to a different sensibility? Women don’t buy jock straps or mustache combs because they aren’t made for our needs. Has there ever been mass-distributed pornography that has “listened” to women’s wants and desires without fear? Who and what in our society are threatened by the idea that women might genuinely get turned on by erotic images?

Instead we get Fifty Shades of Grey. It certainly made plenty of money and caused nearly as much to-do as Playboy and Penthouse in their day. The heroine of the Fifty Shades is the special one-and-only rather than the endlessly replaceable pet of the month. The woman’s experience is important and she gets lots of orgasms, perhaps not won honestly for a virgin who never masturbated, but still. Oh, right, and those muscled torsos on erotic romance covers, which seem rather too literal of a riff on the Playboy centerfold, all unnatural bulges and oiled tan skin. Perhaps we need our own female version of Hugh Hefner to get that revolution going, with or without the twenty-four-seven pajama look?

I guess what I really take away from Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! is that the public acknowledgement of our culture’s sexual desires is still in its infancy. We have so much more to learn about female and male desire, if we can resist the temptation to retreat to worn formulas and truisms—women all like this and don’t like that, men want this and never want that. Each story we write or cover we choose can take that exploration further. In some sense, that discovery is what’s kept me writing for almost twenty years now.

Let’s keep making history!

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

by Donna George Storey

They say you have to have a provocative title to get eyeballs, but I couldn’t seem to come up with anything involving Fifty Shades of Grey this month and still keep my self-respect. Yet we all know there’s been a seismic shift in publishing over the past years, and few are certain where we’ll be when the rubble is cleared away.

Let’s face facts, “literature” and publishing are not what they used to be. Or at least not what I thought they were supposed to be as an undergraduate English major, dutifully paying homage to the Great Authors in my literature classes and paying somewhat more cynical, but nonetheless respectful, homage to the Possibly-Great Contemporary Authors who came down from New York to teach creative writing classes one afternoon a week.

Back in those golden days, being published meant your work was chosen by an eminent publishing house, carefully shaped by an expert editor, lovingly shepherded to market, and eventually taught to dewy-eyed undergraduates as a deathless example of the heights to which human creativity could climb.

I started publishing my more-or-less-literary work in 1997 when the vestiges of that old mirage were still quivering in the desert air, but I quickly learned that when your work is published, most (all?) authors, get a different view of the matter. Simply put, publishing is about making money, and any artistic value is secondary. Case in point: Fifty Shades of Grey.

Is anyone to “blame” for this turn from our higher nature toward the baser rewards of profit? Whether you see an impersonal historic force at work or prefer to find mustache-twirling villains, it’s always entertaining to point fingers. Onward to the first culprit.

Villain #1: The Agent

A literary agent is the traditional gatekeeper to elite publication. In the fantasy version, she or he selects talented new authors from the hopeful queries s/he receives, becomes best friends with said authors, and loyally supports their inevitable enshrinement in the literary canon.

In reality, of course, agents take a percentage of their clients’ earnings and thus, to make a living, need clients who actually earn something. A friend recently took a query-writing workshop from a relatively successful agent and came away with an interesting lesson. Agents care far less about the synopsis of your novel than your “platform,” or what you can contribute to profits through your established reputation, professional connections and marketing savvy. 

Agents are said to like “comparables”—that is a comparison to commercially successful works as in “My novel is a cross between the Bible and Fifty Shades of Grey” or “Harry Potter, Twilight and Pride and Prejudice.” This, of course, encourages a highly conservative approach to choosing clients. If everything must be comparable to a previous commercial success, where is the room for something different? Hollywood since Jaws gives us the answer… nowhere.

Still one can’t help but pity literary agents, whose jobs are clearly threatened by the Internet. Publishers Weekly recently posted an announcement from HarperCollins to the effect that they are starting a “digital-first” imprint to publish “new authors of visionary and transformational fiction” (like Fifty Shades of Grey?). This imprint, HarperLegend–a poignantly hopeful name–is open to unagented manuscripts, although the publishing house affirms it still deals mainly with the agented kind. But, really, why not hire more young college graduates to mind the slush pile and cut out the middlewoman?

Agents may deserve some blame for the death of the value of art over money, but like it or not, at least they’re going down with the ship.

Villain #2: The Reader

In my research for my historical novel, I’m learning about leisure pursuits before the advent of radio, television and the Internet. By 1890 or so, public entertainments—dance halls, amusement parks, and picture shows—were rapidly gaining in popularity, but most good clean fun was still had in the home where families sang around the piano and read aloud from edifying works while the ladies did their needlework by the kerosene lamp.

Writing short fiction for commercial magazines was still profitable enough to make F. Scott Fitzgerald a handsome income in the 1920s and as late as the 1970s, I remember that novels by Philip Roth, John Updike and Saul Bellow were must-reads for anyone who claimed the slightest cultivation.

Who reads now?

Sure, there’s free stuff on the internet, but what makes a reader shell out money to produce those profits the publishing houses require? Perhaps it was always so, but the main motivation seems to be “what’s in it for me?” Are we talking a self-help book that will assure instant, painless weight loss or immediate financial bounty? Did a celebrity write it? Is it already a bestseller all my friends are talking about that includes child abuse and tattoos? Did it win a literary prize and also come with the requisite child abuse and suicide? Can I make my own decision about what I want to read rather than rely on someone else’s opinion? (Nah, too much work. I rely on Amazon one-star reviews myself. If the pans are smart, I pass.)

Now the thoughtful reader has been a dying breed for quite some time. In her biography of Mary McCarthy, Carol Brightman writes of the critical response to The Group, a 1963 best-seller that frankly (for the time) explored the erotic lives of eight Vassar graduates:

“With reviews and parodies such as these, a new chapter in American literary life had begun, one in which the prominent reviewer wielded more power than the author, not because of the priestly functions of criticism but because fewer people took reading and writing seriously, and thus reviewers got the last word—especially when they were also famous authors, blocked, for the moment, from the ‘creative stuff.’ Dealing in reputations rather than texts put them in the cockpit of a world where reputation, meaning celebrity, was the common coin of the realm.” (Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World, p. 461)

Perhaps the thoughtful reader was never as abundant as we’d like to imagine, but we see that celebrity was certainly an important factor in publishing long before Rob Lowe took up his pen.

Villain #3: The First Fifty Pages

As those of you who have approached literary agents know, a fortunate query will be followed up by a request for the first fifty pages of the manuscript. If the agent believes these pages suggest a selling book, s/he will request the complete manuscript. Thus, it is very important to make sure the beginning of your book promises commercial success. The leisurely novel openings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are a thing of the past. The reader must be hooked as quickly as possible.

I recently read that it is likely that surprisingly few publishing insiders actually read the entire book. Certainly don’t expect the marketers, promoters or critics to do so. Recently I realized that this focus on the early hook explains a lot about my dissatisfaction with many of the books I read, whether fiction or nonfiction. Far too often, the promising, lively opening chapters fall flat so that by the end I feel duped and resentful of the author for betraying his promise. From now on, I’m going to pay attention to the timing of this downward dip of art and interest. I wouldn’t be surprised to find the decline beginning somewhere around page 51.

Here’s where we writers need to take responsibility. Yes, we must polish up those first fifty pages to be noticed by the professionals in the industry, but the rest of the book should be worth reading, too. Worse still are successful authors who are cajoled into reprising their bestsellers with sequels that seldom live up to the original. This is the saddest con of the publishing business.

In the end, however, I would suggest that the greatest villain is a naive, idealized view of the publishing industry, a view to which I must plead guilty in my life before my work was published. Books may seem like friends, but they were born of the bottom line.

Thus, a solitary writer cannot control the market, the publishing procedures, agents, editors or readers. We can try to write for reasons other than profit, even as we must pay some mind to marketability so that our work has the chance to reach a broader readership. Each of us can, in our own individual way, try to rebuild the fine art of storytelling as a way to connect with our readers in the spirit of trust, not profit.

By the time the tremors of new technologies in communications have subsided, publishing may end up a very different business, or it may have more or less the same fundamental characteristics in new wrapping. Yet readers will always love and appreciate a good story well told. All we have to do is write it.

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

by Donna George Storey

I’m fascinated by sex.

I think about it a lot and enjoy it in the flesh as much as is possible given the constraints of real life. I write about it for fun and sometimes profit. And I read about it whenever a book on the topic catches my eye, although I will admit I’m more selective in that area now because experience has shown that a lot of these volumes, whether in the guise of scientific analyses or guides to great orgasms, are the same old sexual tease that ultimately leaves a reader unsatisfied.

Fortunately this month I’d like to talk about a book I do recommend, Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. The book is not perfect, and I’ve noted a few reservations below. However, rather unusually, it did give me a fresh perspective on several key areas of my favorite topic. In other words, I’m glad I read it. This is by no means always the case.

Come As You Are has much to recommend it, but I’d like to focus on one topic that stands out as my personal take-away: the dual control model of sexual desire.

Nagoski makes an excellent point that “most of what our culture teaches us about women’s sexuality is Men’s Sexuality Lite—basically the same but not quite as good.” (p. 66) Thus, because Viagra provides men with a use-me-all-night woody which has revived the sex lives of millions of older men in particular, there should of course be a pill that will do the same for women (although I shudder to think of how a “horny pill for women” would be abused by frat boys among others). Nagoski argues that this pill is unlikely to be developed because sexual desire is not just about plumping up the genitals. Rather it operates under the aforementioned dual-control model. Humans have a sexual accelerator, or a Sexual Excitation System, that processes information and tells the genitals to “turn on.” But we also have a sexual brake, or Sexual Inhibition System, that notices all the potential threats in the environment (STI transmission, grandmother in the next room, doubts about potential partner) and sends signals to “turn off.” Each of us has a unique level of sensitivity in both our SES and SIS, and thus it is not surprising that due to cultural training as well as hormonal response, more men balance out with a stronger accelerator and more women have stronger brakes.

For me, the articulation of the dual model is less a new discovery than a confirmation of my own realization some decades ago that I need a transition period between real life and being ready for a hot time in bed. And now I understand that this period is when I ease up on my brake. Since I began writing erotica, I’ve found it much easier to make that transition because I have a go-to place in my head where I feel comfortable being erotic. In any case, being aware of this dynamic is important, and I believe it might help many couples who experience what the media characterizes as a desire gap, usually portrayed as the dynamic between an amorous, initiating man and a woman who is too tired from doing the double shift to be interested in anything but sleep.

Now I know this is a complex issue. Cases of women desiring sex more than their partners are doubtless under-reported, and there may be many reasons a partner of either gender might be less interested in sex–a relationship that is troubled out of bed as well, for example. But when we consider the dual control model, other ways to frame the situation are suddenly possible. First of all, turning off the brake is not as simple as whining, “Just relax!” which is a pathetically common prescription for any kind of sexual inhibition. Our brakes deserve attention and respect and Nagoski believes that desire issues are more likely to be solved by focusing on the SIS.

The accelerator-brake model also points out that the initiating partner has already stepped on the accelerator and turned off the brake, while the propositioned partner is starting at “ordinary life” settings. Thus it might be a tad unfair to label the latter as inferior in desire. Indeed in another sex book I read for historical reasons, What Really Happens in Bed: A Demystification of Sex by Steven Carter and Julia Sokol (1989) the authors found from their interviews that “men were no more thrilled by having women start tearing their pants off when they were trying to watch the evening news.”

Taking time to sympathetically ease up on that brake and create a comfortable context for sexual pleasure is well worth it. (Remember, “Just relax!” is not a sympathetic way to do this). Again this is where erotica—whether reading it alone or together or remembering favorite experiences or fantasies—can be helpful. Full confession: I mentioned Fifty Shades of Grey in my title because whenever I do, I get five times more reads than for other blog posts. But it is relevant because many husbands of the female readers of the book mentioned their wives were much more interested in sex with images of Christian and Ana in their heads. I’m sure all of us at ERWA hope our own books can be the portal to sexual bliss as well, but it is worth considering how erotica might work to ease us from the real world to Sex World.

The dual control model is but one of the thought-provoking points in Come As You Are including: the emotional context of sex, a sex-positive life in a sex-negative world, and the fact that lubrication and erections are not signs of desire but rather reflex reactions. However, I do have a couple of critiques of Nagoski’s book. Every time an intriguing issue is presented, it is briefly discussed, but then we are told we will hear more about this in chapter three and learn practical steps to deal with it in chapter ten (as an example). This happens over and over again. It might have been less frustrating to the reader to organize the book so that we can fully consider one issue in detail in one chapter. Or at the very least, give us the page numbers of the later discussion so we can create our own coherent consideration.

My other critique derives from a cultural convention that is certainly no fault of the author. Basically our society allows us to take on one of three personas when we talk about sex in published form.

First, we can be serious experts, either scientists who use jargon, statistics and studies or historians who’ve dispassionately combed through documents kept in the Private Case Erotica Collection in the British Library.

Or we can take on the surrogate lover persona, which is the role adopted by most eroticists and porn star experts, in that we speak of sex with the hope of, or at least no fear about, sexually arousing the reader.

Emily Nagoski consciously chooses the third option, which I’ll call “The Dr. Ruth” persona. That is, she has an accessible, accepting attitude toward sexuality expressed in a tone of relentlessly cheerful humor. Dr. Nagoski is the Director of Wellness Education at Smith College and thus it is her job to make young adults feel comfortable discussing their intimate sexual fears and concerns. In order to achieve this standing, however, the speaker must not be what our society considers “sexy.” Indeed her author’s photo shows a plump, bespectacled young woman whose smile promises caring friendship rather than seduction. Again this is less a criticism of Nagoski or Dr. Ruth and their upbeat, nonthreatening energy than an observation that in our society, sex is dangerous when it’s sexy and of course the intellect and sensuality must always be divided in a public presentation to keep us all safe. So, in spite of the “progress” that this book represents in its content, its formal conventions show that we still have a long way to go before our culture fully accepts that sexuality and sensuality exist in all of us.

That said, however, Come As You Are is a book on sexuality that is well worth reading, one of the few that does, for once, fulfill the promises on its cover.

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

by Donna George Storey 

Remittance Girl’s farewell column this month got me thinking—as always and sadly for the last time here at the ERWA blog. What effect has the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon had upon erotica writers? When the tidal wave first hit back in 2012, there was hope expressed that the novels’ huge readership would seek out the works of other erotica writers now that they’d been exposed to the pleasures of sexually explicit stories. I also hoped we’d all rise together, but didn’t really believe it would happen.

All signs suggest it has not happened.

Not that Fifty Shades is the only oppressive factor in the radically changing publishing world, but it’s certainly played a role. I appreciate that this may be a romantic recasting of history, but my exposure to erotica began with the mainstream publication of Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus in 1977. Of course I’d read Penthouse and more avidly its sister publication Viva, which was supposedly aimed at women, but Nin’s work showed that erotic stories could be beautifully written and gain some respect, or at least a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review. That erotic writing could be intelligent and literary was a revolutionary concept for our society.

A decade later, literary erotica, especially that written by women, was much more widely available and I’d even say the variety and quality of writing was celebrated. In the mid-1990’s I was personally inspired to write erotica by Maxim Jakubowski’s 1996 edition of The Mammoth Book of International Erotica and Susie Bright’s Best American Erotica 1997. I was particularly taken with a piece in the latter entitled “Lunch” about a man who pays for a private luncheon show involving spinach dressed in the female lubricant of a woman who is aroused by a dwarf rubbing a scarf between her legs. Pretty creative as it goes, but the real draw for me was the friend who introduced the narrator to the show—a guy named Drew who was shamelessly intimate with his own sexual desires. I wanted to be Drew. Writing erotica promised a path to that self-knowledge.

After a lot of labor and the requisite callous rejections, I eventually began to be published by the erotica webzines like Clean Sheets, Scarlet Letters, Fishnet, Oysters and Chocolate and The Erotic Woman. Eventually my original inspirations, Maxim Jakubowski and Susie Bright, published my work, as well as great editors like Violet Blue, Rachel Kramer Bussel and Alison Tyler with publishers like Cleis and Seal. My work even got me checks from places I’d never dreamed I’d penetrate like Penthouse and the Playboy Cyber Club.

None of this ever made me rich. In fact, the day I got my Penthouse check, I was pulled over for running a “red light” while making a left turn (I swear it was yellow, but the cop didn’t buy it) and the generous fine ate up the entire payment for my story. Crime does not pay, obviously. However, I did enjoy being part of a vibrant community of writers, many of whom write columns here today.

Then, somehow, the webzines, the publishers, the interest in a variety of well-written erotic tales, it’s all disappeared.

Can we lay the blame on the Fifty Shades phenomenon? I think so. Certainly we can blame the publishing industry, which has seen that “erotic writing” can make tons of money, so therefore the only kind worth publishing is that which will make as much as Fifty Shades. Of course, since no one really knows why a certain work catches fire, publishers play it safe and back projects that are like Fifty Shades at the expense of other kinds of stories, ignoring the lesson of history that the real next big thing will not be a copycat, but will come from a different direction. Most importantly, we must remember that commercial publishing has never been about giving the public high-quality writing. It’s about making money with as little risk as possible.

In his column this month, Garce reminds artists that if we focus on being rock stars rather than musicians, we’ll lose our creative souls. There are some writers who genuinely love to create the kinds of stories that are seen as marketable today, and these people have found their time in the wake of Fifty Shades. For those of us who feel more inspired by stories about X-rated salad dressing, well, let me put my own cock-eyed optimism out there. The urge for erotic expression is always with us, no matter whether the official culture is Puritanism, Victorianism, Freudianism or FiftyShadesofGreyism. I believe our time will come again or at the very least, there are readers out there who will appreciate our stories.

Writing makes me feel more alive. It enriches my world in ways money never can. In certain moods I do despair that Fifty Shades has placed expectations on our genre that few if any can meet. But that’s only when I’m not writing what I love.

And writing what we love, what we were born to write, is always the answer.

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

by Donna George Storey

Just to bring closure to last month’s column, I did indeed see the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey and I enjoyed it just fine. No doubt Universal held back some extra sex scenes to add to the DVD release. I predict the movie will top $1 billion when it goes to instant download and DVD. Viewers who are too embarrassed to be seen in their local theater will indulge their curiosity—many of these viewers will be men—and if there are extra sex scenes, lots of people who saw it in the theaters will be back to see if this time Hollywood really, truly changes our lives forever with a choreographed show of two more or less naked people pretending to have sex. My fingers are crossed.

Now, I hear you, my dear readers, we’re all sick of Fifty Shades of Grey. But I’m still reeling from all the hate out there, which seems so out of proportion to its target—a humble erotic-romance novel that, in spite of its purported BDSM theme, isn’t nearly as violent as most of the stuff we see on TV. I’m kind of taking the hate personally, to be honest, as an erotica writer, a woman and a person who believes all of this fear, shame, and anger around sexuality is harming the world. Thanks to the bullying curriculum in today’s schools, I know an honorable bystander is supposed to intervene when they see someone being victimized. So to finish up my Focus on Fifty Shades series (this is my last column on this topic and that’s a promise), I felt I had to stand up for five special victims whose rights and well-being are suffering from the phenomenon.

Victim #1: Traditional Publishing

All of us here write and publish erotic books. So how come people all over the world aren’t clamoring to write scathing reviews about how our work is stupid and badly written and people only want to read it to masturbate and also destroy Western civilization, so the reviewer didn’t actually read it, but recommends no one else does either?  We wish. Of course, first we have to sell over a hundred million copies of the various books in our trilogy, become a household word, and thus draw the attention of the voracious and endlessly snarky media. In fact, I’d argue that one of the more important reasons for all the snark is that the traditional power structure of publishing is under attack by hoards of sex-crazed women, both menstruating and menopausal.

Alas, the traditional ways were so elegant and righteous. Aspiring writers would genuflect before teachers and agents and editors and marketers and publishers who would tell them if they were good enough, mess with their stuff to make it more salable, skim off a cut, and conveniently blame the author if money wasn’t made. In return, the power structure would give readers deathless prose, edifying stories about family dysfunction and sex that is always punished, and an endless supply of the “new voice of our generation.” This indeed gave us many first novels by brilliant young men who masturbate with the English language, thus assuring that the reader is too confused to replicate the physical act at home. Morality was thus preserved.

But along comes E.L. James with a built-in fan base and the negotiating power to avoid the usual slave-labor contracts and insist the “experts” keep their hands off of her story. Plus her fans are not behaving like ladies. They are refusing to be shamed. Best-selling popular novels are not new, but novels that get there without the midwifery of the establishment are far more shocking than whips and chains. No wonder everyone in the literary establishment is in a bad mood about it, archly observing in so many words, “Maybe E.L. James will learn to write well after the Revolution.” I wouldn’t predict that editors and publishers will totally disappear, but the power dynamics are in interesting flux and many are running scared. Let us bow our heads for a moment for the passing of the old ways.

Victim #2: E.L. James’ Control in All Things

There is an irony in James’ desire to “exercise control in all things” Fifty Shades, or so the news stories present her as protective of her story against those who want to “improve” it. However, once any story becomes this popular, it belongs to everyone. Although Fifty Shades is soundly criticized for the weakness of its prose, sometimes an author’s distinctive voice can get in the way of making a story our own. Few readers can maintain hours and hours of pure admiration of someone else’s wordplay (Finnegan’s Wake?). We want a story that comes to life in our own heads.

Recently there actually have been thoughtful articles about the book and movie, some even by men. The few males who aren’t compelled to slam both lest their testicles shrink to the size of chickpeas do something similar to what fans do. They explore how the story is personally relevant to them. A.O. Scott’s “Unexpected Lessons From ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’” compares the movie critic’s role to Christian and the audience’s unpredictable tastes to Ana. Robert Hoatson’s “Fifty Shades of Grey is about the trauma of childhood abuse, not sex” empathizes with Christian’s shut-down emotions. And Richard Brody’s “The Accurate Erotics of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’” points out, without contempt, that one thing Fifty Shades has that most movies don’t is foreplay. The story has taken on the stature of public myth, becoming much more than itself.

I’d like to talk about one of the ways I personalized the story. I’m a hopeless analyzer. I get through the superhero movies my kids choose for family outings by analyzing the arc of the fight scenes and measuring the contrived sentimental punch of the scenes with dying parents and lonely, but gifted children. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of my favorite parts of Fifty Shades, book one, is that much-maligned contract Christian presents to his submissives. Many people call it boring, ridiculous and unromantic. For me it was the first time I felt a real connection to the book and decided to keep reading. Some readers and critics have been outraged that Christian would seek to control Ana’s schedule, clothes, grooming, eating habits, and sexuality, including masturbation, and justify it all as being for her own good. Around the “Availability” clauses, it struck me through the legalese that all women must negotiate these issues as we take our place in a patriarchal society. Ana’s lucky enough to be able to negotiate directly, but the rest of us have to find more creative ways to say no, some of which bring dire consequences to our well-being. And the enforcers in real life—our families, our peers, our religion and, worst of all, women’s magazines–are often more exacting than boyfriends. Throughout history and across cultures, women are constantly under scrutiny to look right, eat right, and limit our sexuality to the proper partner. The whole series of novels is about Ana’s negotiation of a contract, which she never signs. In real life women don’t have to sign to be shackled in those handcuffs.

By the way, there’s an equally problematic version of the social/sexual contract for men, including expectations about work, emotions, sexuality and so forth. It would probably be more authentic for a man to explore this in detail, but Christian’s character is a decent illustration of these expectations and how they can mess you up.

Victim #3: The Pretense that Women Get Respect in our Society

Some of the loudest voices calling Fifty Shades a danger to society are those that argue it encourages women to pursue abusive sexual relationships and more damaging still, read bad prose. In an effort to save us from this fate, so many commentators have felt compelled to insult women and female tastes without restraint. One particular critique amused me. Basically this man said we all know Fifty Shades is written badly and the story is stupid. But we also have to figure out why it works so well so we can duplicate its success. Excuse me, but how can you expect to understand, not to mention bank on, something if you despise it?

Now I know one of the main ways we define ourselves as cool is to feel contempt for others. But as a recovering I’m-too-good-to-read-Fifty Shades snob, I’m really glad I read the books. At the very least, it means I’m not a total jerk for opining about something I know nothing about.

As Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in “Men, stop lecturing women about reading romance novels” (a rebuttal to William Giraldi’s infamously misogynistic screed against Fifty Shades in The New Republic), “Romance novels are attractive not just because they are a gratifying escape but also because they sometimes feel like a respite from the significant hostility that a lot of literature shows women.” Isn’t it the truth? All too often female characters are ornamental girlfriends, the reason for the hero’s quest, or the evil castrating witch, but seldom a character we can relate to and respect. Okay, maybe if we look good in a black leather bodysuit, we’ll get the token female lead in the superhero buddy film. In any case, Rosenberg continues, “Romance novels are a tonic, a form of reassurance that someone is interested in ordinary women’s inner lives and is rooting for us to resolve our conflicts about work, love, and what we deserve from our relationships.”

So, yes, if you want women to buy your writing—and women are the fiction market by a big margin–you have to create a compelling story that treats female characters and their concerns with genuine respect. Should be easy for you, right, buddy? Now go get rich.

Victim #4: Christian Grey

We’re all familiar with the characterization of Christian Grey as a stalker who creepily appears at Ana’s side at whim, due in part to his vampire ancestry. Some insist that thanks to the popularity of Fifty Shades, controlling, abusive men will now have women lining up outside their doors.

If we allow that the Fifty Shades novels are guides to real-life relationships as these critics apparently do, I think we need to look at Ana’s behavior as well. In the first book and movie, she insists Christian show her the worst the pain can be in his playroom. He–though not very wisely for a supposedly experienced Dom dealing with a very inexperienced sub–whips her six times with a belt on her bare ass with no warm-up. She then calls him a sick pervert and breaks up with him. Did this bother anyone else? Not the belt part, because Ana explicitly asked for something that. But if you pressure someone you care about to make himself vulnerable then immediately recoil at his repulsiveness without any meaningful discussion or processing, this is emotional abuse. So, to all the young men out there, let this be a lesson—if a woman does this to you, it is not a promising foundation for building trust in the relationship.

Except of course, it turns out to be the right move for a continuing relationship because (spoiler alert!) Christian decides to let her determine the nature of their sexual encounters, thus giving up the sort of BDSM he was trying to sign her up for. Yet Ana is hardly more trustworthy emotionally in the later books. From a “realistic” view, Ana is in her early twenties and has never had a boyfriend. But Christian gets blasted for his possessiveness and jealousy, when she is just as guilty. Her deep love is supposed to be the salve to heal Christian’s damaged heart, but she is jealous of every woman past or present who even makes eyes at her handsome but romance-novel-loyal boyfriend, so jealous that she regularly contemplates leaving him. The second and third novels swing between Ana wanting to save his wounded inner child with every fiber of her being then wondering on the next page if she should dump him when the going gets even a teeny bit tough. Another shockingly thoughtless act is when she forces him back to the playroom because of her own curiosity, although he has avoided it like a recovering alcoholic stays away from booze. Christian’s life was ruined by a “crack whore” birth mother and a Mrs. Robinson type who seduced him into the BDSM lifestyle at 15. These are bad ladies to have in your life, but I wouldn’t be so sure his luck with women had changed all that much with Ana.

Our young men deserve more maturity and kindness in their relationships. I hope the guardians of our social order will speak up for their welfare when the sequels come out and it’s Ana now jerking Christian around by the emotional leash.

Victim #5: Me-Too Books and Movies

There are some benefits to getting older. I know when something is advertised as the sexiest book or movie ever, it won’t be. Or when a magazine promises to teach me the four tricks that will blow a man’s mind in bed, I won’t learn anything new. And I know that because of the success of Fifty Shades that New York and Hollywood will green-light many projects that won’t do so well. The decision-makers will not conclude that in their rush to cash in, the appeal of Fifty Shades was not carefully analyzed and respected. They will more likely say that women actually don’t like sexy stories as much as we all thought or feared. Having lived through several cycles of excitement over the profit potential for erotica followed by disappointment when a project that receives no support doesn’t sell, I sense we’re bound for another round of the same.

I don’t want to end this column on a negative note by suggesting that all erotica writers will suffer when the publishing and movie industries make the same mistakes all over again. In other words, that we are victims of the Fifty Shades frenzy. I prefer standing up for the victim rather than identifying as one. Let’s just say I hope the clear evidence that women will pay good money to see their fantasies and desires portrayed in the media will create a permanent shift in our favor in the plans of the powerful scions of the Imagination Business.

In the meantime, we must keep writing what we love and support each other and a sex-positive culture. The fight for honest erotic expression continues!

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

by Donna George Storey

It’s a professional hazard, but many people have asked if I’m going to see the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey. The answer is yes, tomorrow, a date night with my husband who willingly agreed with no fear for his manhood. I’m not expecting the jaw-dropping sex or exquisite emotional subtlety Hollywood usually offers its moviegoers, but I am “curious” to see how Dakota Johnson makes Ana even bearable as a character and how a female director’s eye translates the story onto the screen. The Fifty Shades phenomenon has inspired lots of people to make lists of “truly” sexy books and movies, but it’s so personal. I myself didn’t find that Vox or Secretary or 9 ½ Weeks did it for me. The one movie I can think of that sent me home with a dark, confused but decidedly sexual buzz was Yimou Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern, which is no less a model for healthy female erotic expression than Christian’s Contract of the Patriarchy. Now that I think about it, the most shocking sexual scene I experienced in a movie theater was the lesbian scene in Lenny. You could hear a pin drop until an older female voice croaked out, “Oh my god.” I was a precocious kid who liked grown-up movies like The Godfather and Cabaret, but I think my parents regretted bringing me to that one.

In any case, I know a lot of people are sick of talking about it, but recent columns here have shown there’s still plenty to say. What we’re talking about when we talk about Fifty Shades is our entire culture’s concepts of sexuality and romance and the varied responses to these assumptions. In the process we can’t help but reveal our own feelings about sex and sexual fantasy: That it’s dangerous, especially for women; that we should take fantasy literally; that it must be elevated by elegant prose or tasteful lighting; that we like what we like, and it’s no one’s place to regulate our desire. This topic is always of great significance to everyone, especially erotica writers.

Besides, there’s something I really want to say about the tampon scene.

Ah, the tampon scene, otherwise known as the “infamous” scene. The “most controversial” scene. The scene that the people who made the movie never once considered including on screen; they didn’t even talk about this most “talked about scene.” I wasn’t able to find all that much online about the content of this “talk,” except people found it gross, but admittedly I missed the first round of discussion when the book was published and my take on it might not have gotten much traction in the press.

By the way, if you find menstruation the most disgusting thing ever, you may want to stop reading right now. If not, I hope you’ll stay with me, because I’m going to talk about the only truly taboo-breaking scene in this notorious erotic blockbuster that is in so many ways quite conservative.

For those who haven’t read the book, Christian Grey, the young billionaire composite of Sergey Brin and Elon Musk and every other reasonably attractive high tech Midas (not Bill Gates, though, do you want to see him shirtless?), is so obsessed with innocent Anastasia Steele that he flies across the country in his private jet to see her when she’s visiting her mother. Ana goes to his hotel room and as always they quickly get naked. Christian nonchalantly asks her—and given his attention to detail, he was probably tracking her cycle—when she started her period. When she tells him it was yesterday, he replies, “Good.” Then he pulls on the “blue string” of her tampon, gently removes it and tosses it into the toilet. My mom told me this is asking for a plumbing disaster, but that’s the worst of it. Christian doesn’t use the tampon to paint Native American designs on his face. He doesn’t shove said hygiene product in anyone’s mouth. He simply has intercourse with Ana, without a condom, “skin against skin.” In the midst of her passion, Ana doesn’t mention any inhibitions about the blood, but the topic comes up in post-coital conversation.

“I’m bleeding,” I murmur.


“Doesn’t bother me,” he breathes.


“I noticed.” I can’t keep the dryness out of my voice.


He tenses. “Does it bother you?” he asks softly.


Does it bother me? Maybe it should… should it? No, it doesn’t. I lean back and look up at him, and he gazes down at me, his eyes a soft cloudy gray.


“No, not at all.”


He smirks. “Good. Let’s have a bath.” (FSOG, p. 431)

When I read this exchange, I paused and let this thought form in my head: As much as I’ve been resisting this on so many levels, Christian Grey is indeed every woman’s fantasy.

Imagine, a man who isn’t bothered by menstruation. He isn’t grossed out. He doesn’t treat you like toxic waste. He wants to know how you feel about it. He’ll even take a bath with you on your second day, which, I don’t know about you, but is usually when I get out the super-size tampons and stick to showers. This guy wants you so much, he’ll have sex with you during your period—happily. “Red sex” is not tolerated even by most erotica editors, yet here is E.L. James getting away with something the rest of us can’t, as she seems to do with everything else about Fifty Shades.

But more power to her—and she has a lot right now–here’s my point. Christian Grey embodies an ideal of a man’s acceptance of the female body and its natural rhythms. Have you ever met a real guy who is so laid-back when you’re having your period? Some are more chill than others, but shrugging and saying, “It doesn’t bother me”?  Okay, the reality of red sex was not portrayed for sure. Real is a college boyfriend wiping himself off with the laundry service towels and observing, “They’ll think I was slaughtering pigs in here.” Perhaps with all the vampires, zombies, Game of Thrones dismemberments and M-rated video games abounding, guys today are more sanguine about the sight of blood, but then again given the icky-eeuw reaction in the media, maybe not.

As a writer, there’s another important question to ask about these two pages of unspeakable audacity. If E.L. James had gotten her book published in the traditional manner, with gatekeeper editors shaping the content because they think they know what the reading public wants–rather than loyal fans who actually know what they want–do you think that tampon scene would have remained in a novel aimed at a popular audience?

No way in hell, baby.

But it did survive. Of course, this genuinely transgressive moment in Fifty Shades cannot go unpunished. It has to be made “controversial”; the one part of the story–so loyally shepherded by its author to the screen–that cannot be portrayed or even hinted at on film. Clearly society at large wants us to keep the I’m-not-bothered-by-menstrual-blood lover boy in his proper place—erased and silenced.

Good thing I don’t have to keep quiet. Thanks to Fifty Shades, everyone’s giving her or his opinion about sex and romance, how we like it delivered and how we don’t. So I say forget the floggers and cable ties, the abusive childhood and the healing power of true love, it’s the tampon scene that redeems Christian Grey for me… even if it is the hotel doing the laundry.

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

Fifty_Shades_of_Grey_1 
Fifty Shades of Grey is the first mainstream film based on an ‘erotic novel’ in quite a while; the last one I can recall was  Secretary, loosely based on a short story with the same title by Mary Gaitskill, but I could be wrong.

There
have been numerous recent art-house films considered to be erotic, like
Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Colour), and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend but none of these, to my knowledge, were based on written prose. All are more explicit than Fifty Shades of Grey,
and the last two mentioned are certainly, in my opinion, more erotic.
But they are also not as accessible to mainstream movie-goers since both
films focus on  same-sex couples. I admit to being bored to death by Nymphomaniac, but the opening sex scene of Von Trier’s Antichrist
still sticks in my mind as one of the most explicitly erotic pieces of
film I’ve ever seen. The rest of the movie was in need of a stricter
editor, but that initial scene is raw,  feverish and terrifying, which
is probably a telling clue as to my tastes.

Explicitness, it seems, is relative. There has been a great deal of television – True Blood, Spartacus, Deadwood, House of Cards, etc. – that is just as explicit as this movie, but those works don’t expressly promise to turn you on. Fifty Shades of Grey sells itself specifically as an erotic film.
First,
I’d like to draw a distinction between erotic film and pornography
because it helps to explain why it’s not the lack of explicitness that
rendered Fifty Shades of Grey unerotic for me. I watch porn – I sometimes get myself off to porn – but I seldom consider it erotic.

Erotic
narrative – filmed or textual – can be explicit, but it doesn’t have to
be. It doesn’t serve to remind our bodies that we’re mammals who seek
pleasure in the vague and often failed hope of conforming to our
biological imperative. It addresses our cultural mind and talks, not of
sex, but of what we as humans have made of it: not urge, not drive, but
desire. Eroticism is seldom about the pleasure felt or the orgasm; it’s
about the desire to get there, all the cultural and personal detritus in
which we wrap that pilgrimage, and the curious delusion from which we
all suffer that there is some tremendous, epiphanic mystery that lies
beyond that moment of pleasure.  We settle for less. We settle for the
orgasm and the intimacy and the delusion fades, until the next time.

Much
like watching animals fucking, porn works on my lizard brain. It works
at a very uncritical, unthinking and physical level – it speaks to my
muscles and my glands but not my brain. Porn that made attempts at
narrative always put me off because it was invariably facile. People
used to put narrative into porn as if they needed an excuse to show
people fucking, but we’ve gotten past that. Now we just have video of
people achieving orgasms in various ways. For me, porn is a bit like
running the faucet in an attempt to encourage urination; sometimes it
works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not as if we don’t remember how to pee
theoretically, but the sound of that water running kind of bypasses the
understanding part and nudges the bladder to take the jump.

Romance
is about love – a cultural construction but no less powerful for that.
It often has a sexual dimension, and this is undoubtedly true for Fifty Shades of Grey:
the story of a young woman who falls in love with a very rich man whose
sexual practices are – even if she is intrigued by the trappings –
repugnant to her. So, essentially, Fifty Shades of Grey is, for
all it’s superficial focus on sex, neither pornography, nor erotic
film. It’s a love story. Some might consider it a very conservative sort
of love story, because the main character (not in the movie, but by the
third volume of the novel) trades the sexual relationship she would
prefer for love. This is what women have done for thousands of years.
For
anyone who has practiced BDSM, the book and the film are both rather
offensive parodies. Like spies who watch espionage thrillers, or
soldiers who watch war films, or doctors who view medical dramas, there
is always a sense of the false depiction of their lived realities. Fifty Shades of Grey
portrays a highly fictionalized and poorly researched approximation of
BDSM. All the props (too many, in fact) and none of the soul. There is
none of the visceral understanding that BDSM is not a game of sexual
‘Simon Says’ but an erotic experience that people go into very
willingly, driven even, to ‘queer’* the biological imperative and revel
in the ways that culture has embellished it.

There has always been
dominance and submission in mammalian sex, BDSM unpacks it and examines
it, dissects it and revels in the dichotomy of humans as animals and
humans capable of making a conscious choice in the power dynamic.
Similarly, there has always been pain and danger in the nature of
biological sex; instead of trying to mitigate or overlook it, BDSM
reveals it, gazes into it, glories in it. Semiotics – the many layers of
meaning we ascribe to any given word, act, person or event – are
central to BDSM, even when we don’t explicitly acknowledge them. The
handcuffs, the crops, the floggers, the wooden spoons, the sterilized
needles, the corsets, the gags are not tools without context. It is
their historical and social semiotic baggage that makes them erotic.
BDSM is an erotic defiance of allowing things, people and acts stay in
their socially and historically ascribed places. That’s why it’s
fundamentally obscene and immoral to whip a non-consenting individual
and deeply erotic to whip your consenting submissive lover. It may
appear sexist and unfeminist when a male is dominant and a female
submissive, but consider that both parties have made a deliberate choice
of positioning, in disobedience of what cultural norms are now or what
they have been in the past. We didn’t have a choice. Now we do and we
exercise the choice consciously. It is an intentional transgression, a
defiance and sometimes a parody of the status quo.

What makes the trappings of BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey
so upsetting to practitioners is not just the absence in both the book
and the film of any sense of BDSM’s complexity, but the knowledge that,
for many people in the mainstream, this is their first encounter with
something purporting to be BDSM. Sociologist Eva Illouz points out that
erotic romance in general and Fifty Shades of Grey in particular is being consumed as a kind of dramatized, sexual self-help guide.

Fifty Shades of Grey
serves up a heady cocktail of paradox. It glamourizes BDSM, adorns it
with conspicuous consumption, bling, polish and muted lighting, while
responsibility, agency and choice are hauntingly absent. Meanwhile,
subtextually, BDSM is pathologized, criminalized: Christian Grey is into
it because he was abused. The only other practitioner we even hear of
is his first lover – a dominant, pedophilic woman who initiated him at
the age of 15. So the message is: the sex is hot, the toys are
expensive, and the only people who really enjoy this are sick. It’s not
difficult to see why so many in the BDSM community are ambivalent about
the book and the film. Much like EMTs who complain about the way film
portrays CPR. Of course, if you performed CPR on film with veracity,
you’d risk cracking someone’s ribs while boring the audience to death. 
If the BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey was performed with any
level of veracity, there’d be a lot more sweat, snot, welts and
screaming. It’s likely there’d be a few more obvious orgasms, too. I’m
sure neither of the starring actors would be willing to expose themselves
quite so thoroughly, even if those sorts of details had been in the
book.

Personally, I’m not so concerned. Hollywood is constantly
producing films where women are innocent victims with little or no
agency – this is just another. It’s also constantly pumping out films
where characters make monstrous compromises in order to be loved. I’m
sure many filmgoers will return home after seeing the film and attempt a
bit of tie-me-up-and-spank-me’, and most will survive it. A very few
may find it immensely erotic and seek out more informed and detailed
sources of information. It may lead to some undesired and upsetting
bouts of rough sex, but so does going to a bar and by all accounts, so
does attending many universities. It might even result in a few
break-ups as partners find their tastes are incompatible. But, let’s be
honest, anyone with even an inkling of interest in BDSM may seek out far
more explicit and harrowing videos on the net.

Fifty Shades of Grey is just not that important a film. Go see it. Just don’t expect to come away with a new lease on your sex life.

True
to the book, the dialogue is pretty cringe-worthy. Jaimie Dornan came
across as a joyless, humourless, self-important pedant. He reminded me
of guys who tell you they’re ‘Doms’ but turn out to be bitter, mean,
self-pitying and entitled little boys. But, in all fairness, that’s how
Christian Grey is written in the novel. Dornan’s far, far sexier as a
serial killer in the British series The Fall. However, I found
Dakota Johnson much easier to stomach than her textual counterpart; she
did the best she could with the lines she had and I found her smile
rather contagious (even when I was trying hard to dislike her
lip-sucking). She really does have a very erotic mouth. Finally, if
director Sam Taylor-Johnson does a poor job of visualizing the eroticism
of BDSM, she more than compensates for it by making helicopters,
gliders, Audis and interior decor look sexy as hell. My guess is that she
finds wealth a lot more erotic than kink. But then, sadly, so do most people.

by Ashley Lister

You may tie me up tight if that suits your need

Suspend me by piercings through my bare skin

Spank me so hard that my flesh starts to bleed

Make me go shopping with a butt plug still in

I shall surrender to your every sin.

You may use or abuse me howe’er you want

You can make me send mails in comic sans font

Whate’er you fancy I’m sure would be groovy

There’s only one act that I’d find repugnant

Please don’t make me watch the Fifty Shades movie.

The Dizain is ten lines of rhymed poetry following a
pattern of a b a b b c c d c d.   Usually this form is presented in iambic
pentameter, although other variations work equally well. The majority of the poem
above consists of eight syllable lines. Originally a French form, the Dizain has
a stylish rhythm that works well with erotic subject matter.

Let me put my lips around it.

I’d like to taste it with my tongue,

I want to coat it with my spit,

I need to suck it all night long.

This deviation keeps me young.

Now I’m on my knees before you

And you know what I want to do

Not too hasty. Let’s take it slow.

First I’ll slip off your small shoe

Then spend my night sucking your toe.

 

If you fancy sharing your interpretation of the Dizain,
please leave one in the comments box below.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica

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