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
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