The book 50 Shades of Grey, penned by E.L James, is the fastest selling paperback of all time, surpassing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. It had conquered nearly all the bestseller lists by the summer of 2012, when word of its sensational story spread like wildfire, igniting imaginations and conversations that, heretofore, had never been mainstream.
This book is not about a lovable orphan fighting the dread forces of evil, but a BDSM romance between its main characters, Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. Of course nobody, not even the author, calls this a BDSM romance. Yet, on every level and every page, it explicitly explores themes of dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism. While this is not necessarily new in erotic or even romance literature, the overwhelming public reception and conversation around the book heralds a sea change in the attitudes surrounding these once taboo practices.
On her website, EL James, now a millionaire many times over, calls her work “provocative romance.” Keen cultural observers and some in the publishing world regard it as the rise of “mommy porn,” a literary genre all but uncharted until now. For revealing this invisible territory, at the right time and in a way that is palatable to the mainstream, E.L. James was listed as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time magazine in 2012.
Connecting the idea of mothers as sexually frustrated women with disposable income and time to hit the sex shop between play dates with the underworld of BDSM, even when it involves the key ingredient of romance, is a shocking proposal. Yet, this is what the book has accomplished and its appeal appears undeterred even by age. Women kept saying the same things: “I heard about it because my mom read it and then gave it to my sister” or “My grandmother read it, then gave it to me.”
Soon after the book blazed up the bestseller lists, Asheville stores such as Malaprops , VaVaVoom, and BedTyme Stories started to feel the heat. Brian Kirk, co-owner of VaVaVoom, a local erotic boutique, reports that sales in Ben Wa balls and cuffs “of all kinds” jumped significantly and remain high. This echoes a national surge in the sex industry after 50 Shades’ publication. He adds, “We couldn’t keep the book in the store so we had to send people up to Malaprops.”
At Malaprops, each book of the 50 Shades series is displayed prominently in their erotic literature section. Authors and publishing houses are pimping the 50 Shades effect for all its worth. For instance, there is a 50 Shades of Chicken cookbook exhibiting a trussed chicken on the front. And Malaprops is stocking its shelves with a popular literary spin-off 50 Shades of Dorian Gray. Smash Pictures created what it bills as the XXX satire of 50 Shades in 2011. The movie was recently sold out at BedTyme Stories but was available in a rather expensive “gift pack” that included items such as cuffs and blindfolds. And last year, the Asheville Tantra School organized a class for those who wanted to explore the book’s themes in a safe, educational environment.
To some, the effect of 50 Shades is a short-lived wagon for the band before it rolls onto something new. Yet, many people, both nationally and locally, acknowledge the book’s far-reaching effects. Controversy, particularly in the realms of relationships and human sexuality, flares in its wake.
Brian at VaVaVoom argues that the book is “not a good model for anybody.” He contends that there is “a healthy way to explore kink and BDSM” and retain healthy boundaries, something that the book does not illustrate very well, if at all. Some reviewers and readers have argued that it is in fact, the emotional relationship between the characters that makes the book so compelling. If this is the case, then that has alarmed some people who practice and try to educate others about kink and BDSM.
Micci, a local woman who identifies as submissive, says, “I have a lot of issues” with the book. Overall, she can see why people like it as a general romance, but there is a “huge consent issue—Anastasia tries to express herself and he comes across as not respecting her. This is the foundation of abuse.” Yet Micci readily acknowledges the effect of the book. “I have friends who read it who would not have been exposed to BDSM otherwise. It made it easier for me to talk and explain my sexuality to my friends.”
Another kinkster, who identifies as a “switch,” someone who is either dominant or submissive, recounts, “Random people have been talking about it; they’ve been titillated by it without really knowing what kink is like.” She adds that they “need to do research so they can explore safely and consensually.” She admits the book did affect her even though she has not read it because it brought what she does into mainstream awareness.
Another woman who identifies as having a kinky sexuality notices that even though the storyline was interesting it failed to show the characters communicating in healthy ways about their kinky relationship. “They don’t converse about how the kink affects them,” she says. “That’s the thing. There’s a lot of talking in BDSM because you can’t take anything for granted. The book does not demonstrate that.”
A leader of the kinky scene here in Asheville says, “I have noticed more people at our public fetish events. The book was actually the motivation to do an event that was more public and accessible.” She also notes that, given the chance, she would thank E.L James. “Not every author fact checks every detail of their book. I don’t get mad at them. Thank you for putting kink, any type of kink, onto coffee tables and into talk shows in a positive manner.”
Cynthia Lindeman is a working writer in Asheville. She’s currently writing a group of prose poems and she maintains a writer’s notebook and log at cynthialindeman.wordpress.com.