This week's Diary of a Submissive tries to cash in on the year's big publishing craze. But it misunderstands what made the original so popular.
If there's one question everyone in the publishing industry has been contemplating this summer, it's this: What accounts for the wild popularity of 50 Shades of Grey—a novel about a man who likes to tie women up and the virgin who falls for him? What secret need or deep yearning has the bestseller tapped into? And, crucially, considering it's become the world's fastest-selling adult paperback—surpassing the Harry Potter books, the Twilight series, and even The DaVinci Code—how can its success be replicated?
In a Newsweek cover story, cultural critic Katie Roiphe, a reliable firebrand and writer I admire, argued—dubiously—that the book appeals so much to modern women because they're so bored and burdened by all the professional, marital, and cultural power they now have that they yearn for someone to order them around in the bedroom. She writes:
It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming ... fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace, when they make up almost 60 percent of college students, when they are close to surpassing men as breadwinners ... a moment when—in hard economic terms—women are less dependent or subjugated than before. ...
Why is it so interesting to surrender, or to play at surrendering? ... it may be that equality is something we want only sometimes and in some places and in some arenas; it may be that power and all of its imperatives can be boring. ... It may be that, for some, the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality.
The people at Gotham Books, a Penguin imprint, must think Roiphe is on to something. Or else they're simply going along with a widespread practice in the publishing world that we'll call The Vampire Law: If one book that becomes a bestseller features characters who are unusual in some way—because they are, for example, vampires, or people who enjoy kinky sex—surely a number of other books featuring similar protagonists will also sell handsomely (or at least enough to make the bean counters happy). This week, Gotham is releasing a new memoir, Diary of a Submissive, by a pseudonymous British journalist, Sophie Morgan, about her experiences with dominant men. The first one she meets gives her a thorough but harmless smacking with the back of a hairbrush, which she enjoys so much it surprises her. The last man she describes is far more severe: He shackles her ankles to a chair, handcuffs her wrists behind her, and clamps her nipples with clothespins before walloping her clitoris 109 excruciating times with a wooden spoon.
The beating was her punishment for being a bad submissive and "disobeying" him by not sending an email she'd promised to send. "[I]t was a kind of agony I had never felt before," writes Morgan. "He made me count off the strokes and thank him for them and his pace was so fast that I was gasping out my thanks as fast as I could speak, as fast as I could process the pain." And yet, despite the physical torture of it, she is turned on by what he's doing: On stroke 109, she has an orgasm "so vicious and painful [that it] ... made me thrash against my bonds in a way that left me with marks around my wrists and ankles that I had to hide ... for a few days." As she goes on to explain, the experience was "freeing, cathartic and yet, at points, terrifying. He pushed me to the very edge of what felt acceptable ... all I cared about was him—pleasing him, satisfying him, not doing anything to give him reason to punish me. He was my world and for the first time I truly understood the kind of submission that consumes you."
Anastasia Steele, the narrator of 50 Shades, doesn't understand that kind of submission, not by a long shot. Nothing in the novel by E.L. James even comes close to the violence or intensity—or psychological novelty—of what Morgan describes. Though Anastasia happens to fall for a guy who considers himself a dominant, she doesn't indulge in "theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender" or find it "interesting to surrender, or play at surrendering." She's an obstinate, impudent young woman (with such a boring mind and unimpressive language skills that made it very hard for this reader to like her) who wishes that her impossibly wealthy boyfriend Christian Gray—a.k.a. "the most beautiful man on the planet"—were into normal sex. Far from feeling any pleasure in submitting to him, she gets turned on when she's in charge: After she initiates a certain sexual act, and notices that he is completely in her sway as a result, she thinks, "I feel so powerful; it's such an exhilarating feeling, teasing and testing him."
Now, sure: Anastasia is so into Christian that she gives some mildly kinky stuff a try, and finds she even enjoys some of it. All the same, she also agrees with him when he remarks that she doesn't have a submissive bone in her body. This novel isn't a fantasy of submission. It's a fantasy about finding a rich, handsome guy who's obsessively in love with you—and knows how to make you come.
As those with experience of such matters have noted, 50 Shades does not accurately portray a relationship between a dominant and his submissive. Rather, it's sadism for soccer moms—about as unnerving and culturally transgressive as the latest issue of Cosmo. (The descriptions of the sex scenes didn't make me feel dirty, but lines like, "My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves" made me want to wash my brain out with soap.) Being tied up and lashed, per se, is surely not what's fascinating the vast majority of the women who make up the 50 Shades fan base—and even if they think they want that, my money is on the odds that they wouldn't enjoy it. What women do want, though they seem to have a lot of trouble getting it, is both very simple and somewhat complicated: intense sexual pleasure of the kind that seems to come very easily to Anastasia whenever her erotically experienced boyfriend is around.
Statistics indicate that plenty of women aren't enjoying their sex lives nearly as much as Anastasia. 10 percent to 15 percent of women report being unable to climax under any circumstances, and between one-third and a half are dissatisfied with how often they reach orgasm, according to a National Library of Medicine fact sheet. Only about eight percent regularly have orgasms during vaginal intercourse; twenty-seven percent never do. That's not a problem for our headstrong heroine; she manages to have an orgasm every time she has straight-up intercourse with Christian—and has no fewer than three the night she loses her virginity.
Those numbers resound when we consider surveys about the use of vibrators, the gateway drugs of sexual toys for most women. Only about half of the women in the U.S. have tried them, according to a 2009 study, even though vibrator use is a "significant predictor" of female sexual satisfaction.
It seems, in other words, that far too many women haven't sufficiently investigated their erotic preferences and desires, either alone or with their partners; surely, that helps to account for a significant amount of their sexual frustration or dissatisfaction. What may interest female readers of 50 Shades, then, is the promise it holds that they too might someday be able to reliably get off, and to find a man who can help them do it.
Though Anastasia isn't a bona fide submissive, she is open to sexual experimentation—and if there is anything to admire about her, it's that. There are no vibrators in 50 Shades, unfortunately, but when Christian gives Anastasia a set of Ben Wa balls or kegel balls—small spheres that a woman can insert to enhance her sexual pleasure (and are not designed to cause pain)—she finds they make her "needy, needy for sex." Though she doesn't like being bossed around, she does enjoy sex with Christian when he ties her up (which, incidentally, happens all of once, if I've counted correctly, in the first novel of the trilogy), for instance, and also finds herself aroused when he delivers a light whipping with a riding crop.
Could it be that 50 Shades is so alluring because it's a mainstream book—being read by celebrities, housewives, and co-workers—whose popularity gives straight women permission to think about what they might enjoy in bed, and to ask their partners to explore alternate sexual scenarios with them? "I think that's right on," says Carol Queen, a sexologist who works at Good Vibrations, a San Francisco-based adult toy and education company. "I don't for one minute think that most ladies are secret bondage-hounds waiting to be unleashed. To the degree that BDSM"—an abbreviation for Bondage and Dominance, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism—"is integral to women readers' response to 50 Shades, it's in the way ... [that] erotic roleplay allows a [woman] to feel really consumed, powerfully desired."
But don't just take it from Queen, or me. Consider the anecdotal evidence. For a recent piece about the phenomenal success of 50 Shades, a Chicago Tribune writer noted that 29-year-old Rebecca Salerno had never so much as visited an adult toy store before her introduction to Christian and Anastasia. "The book," the writer continued, "perhaps because it's so silly ... made her feel more comfortable talking about and experimenting with sex toys, 'and it gave so many good ideas.'" An unnamed 40-something female who was referenced in a similar Washington Post article talked about having a frank sexual discussion with her husband for the first time after reading the book. "I've never really thought about what I liked in the bedroom, and certainly never felt comfortable talking about it, until reading this book," she said. In a piece for London's Daily Mail, 22-year-old Liya Step said, "50 Shades has opened people's eyes to all sorts of new things. It has made us all a lot more adventurous in the bedroom." She added: "I don't think many couples are copying some of the extremes in the book, but they are mixing it up a bit and experimenting. It is fun."
Reports from the people who work on the floor at the three Good Vibrations stores in San Francisco also indicate that 50 Shades fans aren't interested in hard-core BDSM stuff as much as some other sex toys mentioned in the book, especially the Ben Wa balls—which are what most 50 Shades readers ask for when they shop, according to one Good Vibrations sales associate. Another says that lately, a lot of men who come in say something like this: "My wife is reading this book that really makes her want to try this stuff out. Any suggestions for beginner toys? I want to surprise her, but not scare her."
The erstwhile timidity of Salerno and other women like her surely has to do with the way women's sexual pleasure has been generally ignored for so long. Though just about everything else goes in the pop culture candy store that is modern life, there's a dearth of information about how 50 percent of the world's population can achieve sexual pleasure. Women's magazines—the go-to resources for many women who have questions about health, sex, and psychological well-being—focus obsessively on what women should do to please men, but typically say little or nothing about what they can do to enjoy their own sex lives. That's especially galling given how difficult it is for so many women to climax reliably. Meanwhile, movies and TV shows—which give so many young people their sense of what good sex should be like—encourage the misperception that all women should be able to have orgasms by way of traditional intercourse. As Elisabeth Lloyd, a science historian at Indiana University, Bloomington, and author of The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution expressed a similar ideas when she told Monitor on Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association: "Very few women can climax through intercourse alone, but in Hollywood, [the number] ... is portrayed as 100 percent."
Anastasia seems to be one of the rare birds that can climax, regularly, through vaginal intercourse alone—another reason to hate her—and in that way too, 50 Shades helps to further promote an impossible standard. But, as gynecologist Michael Krychman, executive director of the Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship Medicine, told the Washington Post, the book also "helps with creativity and imagination, and can give people ideas that help counter sexual boredom." So while there is a lot about 50 Shades to criticize—including the way it seems to perpetuate false myths about people who enjoy BDSM—what's great about it is the way it's turning women on to their sexual options, and encouraging them to figure out how to get themselves off.
While Diary of a Submissive is far superior to 50 Shades in every regard, particularly when it comes to the quality of the writing and the uncommonness of the narrator, it's not going to be the next runaway bestseller. Female readers don't want to get deep into the head of someone as kinky as Sophie Morgan. They surely wouldn't mind another light-hearted, superficial romance about sexual experimentation, however. This time, instead of making the hero a guy who's into the BDSM scene, they might consider making him a vibrator salesman.