50 Shades Right


DOES IT SHOVE the cart over the horse’s ass to say that first there was 50 Shades and then there was BDSM? Practically speaking, I say nah. At the very least, E L James’s best-selling trilogy has put that loaded term in play, publicly and in polite company, all the way from our own 50 states to the People’s Republic of China, where it’s a contraband hit. Bam! Someone give E L a massive collective slow clap. Strike up the band. ‘Cause what we’ve just witnessed amounts to a black tie, black frock coming out party for S&M-flavored kink. Clink-clink, Bottom’s up!

I knew for sure that the genie was too mighty a monster to cram back into the bottle one day last year as I watched a beautifully turned out, mature businesswoman (wearing the New York colors, black and black) enter a car on the uptown 6 train during evening rush hour, grab the pole, pull from her couture bag (not a knockoff, I’m a Citykid, I know the dif) a copy of James’s first title, flip it open at the bookmark, and take up where she’d left off. No plain brown wrapper, no e-booking for this dame: She stood there, front and center—just out there! big as you please!—blithely, flagrantly getting her erotic chick-lit fix. And I’d been spotting seated readers so engaged for weeks, toting up another similarly stamped VIB(usiness)W(oman) that same day on a morning commute. So why now and whither?


De Sade’s Justine, Desclos/Réage’s The Story of O, Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs―all are just so much befogged pre-history in terms of this discussion. We women had hundreds of years to embrace the literary sexual thorns, and we never did, in any appreciable numbers, until now. Before 50 Shades/2012, one could skinny dip in no deeper pond of uncool than the practice of BDSM. There was just about zilch-zero acceptance, and one publically into BDSM would have been the lone figure singing “I did it my way” as s/he circled down the drain.

But, yes-yes, secretly, privately, hush hush-ly, women have always harbored and relished these D/S fantasies—surely among the delectable dumplings in humankind’s primordial soup. Author Nancy Friday’s 1970’s rebel yell call-out to women, soliciting accounts of their sexual fantasies for a non-fiction book treatment, blew up her tin mailbox with, dun dun dun, yep: confessions of rape fantasies galore. “Rape does for a woman’s sexual fantasy what the first martini does for her in reality,” Friday wrote in the resulting ’73 classic My Secret Garden. ”Both relieve her of responsibility and guilt. She gets him to do what she wants him to do, while seeming to be forced.”

A decade later, way post-sexual-revolution 60s, in the decadent 80s, Anne Rice wrote her S&M-themed Sleeping Beauty trilogy and still felt compelled to publish under a pseudonym (A. N. Roquelaure). It wasn’t until last year, after 50 Shades had broken the ice, that the trio was re-released under her own name, with much marketing fanfare, and surged into best-seller territory. Glory be!

“I wanted with my pornography to write something that was not grim,” Rice told an interviewer, “some playful fantasy in which the ‘slaves’ were presumably enhanced by their ‘service’ and admitted they enjoyed it, where the relationships between the dominated and the dominating were fluid. I think I achieved it with the Trilogy … I was striving for a more comfortable, flexible, durable fantasy.”

Still, what Rice turned out was highbrow erotic fantasy, not the romantic stuff of what’s come to be known as “mommy-porn” (a term, need I point out, that sexual-freedom-fighters find denigrating to women’s interest in sexuality), fantasy that transfixed readers breathlessly awaiting a ring-on-the-finger happy ending to Ana and Christian’s love story—what one ethnologist has charmingly tagged “Cinderella-kinky.”

“But now the pendulum has again swung,” Rice perceptively continued in interview. “Fifty Shades of Gray (sic) proves it. Independent women, a generation that takes feminism and its liberation achievements for granted, is entirely open now about ‘liking’ S&M porn or fantasy. Men have been open about it for years. By the way, the Beauty books always had their supporters who pointed out the differing gender combinations in the books, and that they were in their own way politically correct because they made no biased statement whatsoever about one gender or the other “subconsciously” desiring to be passive. On the contrary, they invite members of both genders to enjoy the fantasy”.

As Rice acknowledges, it took writer James to broach that final frontier—of popular acceptance—to score with the break-out plunge and stake claim to the tipping point. Having avowed that the time was right for toppling the last taboo, I hold also that, with her trilogy, she toppled it soundly and surely. As of July 2013, 50 Shades was in its 60+ printing; held 25% of the adult fiction market (20% male, in the U.S.); had spawned endless knockoffs, companion guides (including mine), parodies such as 50 Shades of Chicken—I laughed out loud at that one till I clicked on the stats, #1 on the NY Times best selling cookbook list (check out the naughty trailer, pure genius); prompted endless advertising taglines; was universally credited with a spike in sex toy sales (encouraging couples to experiment) and accessories, even rope sales at hardware stores; and begat the author’s own 50 Shades wine collection. Attendant developments included media reports that 50 Shades was to be the subject of a course at American University in D.C.; that S&M clubs are steadily gaining membership on Ivy League campuses, including Harvard, where last year the Munch Club was officially sanctioned as a student organization by the university. And let me not snub 50 Shades/The Movie, cunningly set for release on Valentine’s Day, 2015. Stay tuned, in other words: What’s a hotter medium than film for commercializing appetites?


We have all the evidence we need to declare the times an “anything goes” era, what with simpatico serial killers, weed-selling mommies, and polygamist family reality shows filling the cable channels, with same-sex marriage legal in nearly a third of our U.S. states, with multiple genders listed on mainstream dating sites—transsexual-transgendered-girl-boy-LGBTQ multiple sexual preferences polyamorous-bisexual-pansexual–homosexual-hetrosexual-asexual—have I missed one? All of which has certainly given a heave-ho leg-up boost to the kinky saddle and crop, and off we go, primitive hungers and lust unbridled, cantering with loosened reins into 2014.

But there’s a suasive backstory here, as well, and it shakes down like this: In tough economic times, when fearfulness defines the state of the nation, horror sells. The most iconic of the monster movies all were produced during the Great Depression—Dracula, Frankenstein, and King Kong, released just as our ship of state was at a dangerous tilt. Then the next wave of screen horror hit during the 70s, with release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, slice-dab in the middle of the 1973-75 recession.

Why should a related accounting not include the consequent frisson of thrills, chills, excitement, and unpredictability of a lip-smacking, psyche-satisfying S&M role-play session? “To invoke a vividly apt, cinematic metaphor” (this, from my own book),

… I offer the blood-pulsing, edge-of-your-seat thrills of a horror movie. None of us voyeurs really wants to be killed by the fat guy with the chainsaw chasing you through a cornfield. But we like feeling like we might be killed by the fat guy in a cornfield with a chainsaw. For the moment, shuddering in the role of chasee, the sensation of fright feels really real, but we always know we are in a movie seat and that we will leave the theater unharmed. Visualization, a powerful tool in DSRP (dominate & submissive role play a/k/a bdsm), can conjure the same state of arousal: electrifying and thrilling yet safe—sweet! And I trust you’ll come up with something hotter than a lumbering maniac with dishonorable intentions.”

Whether the release is orgasmic in nature or more a purge of anxiety, à la the disgustingly apropos-ly titled horror flick The Purge (“scared away the box office competition” last summer) is debatable. Does it matter?

As economists study and chart how social mood drives trends in the market, social scientists likewise use their pulse-taking methodologies to read the cultural tea leaves. Presently, with downer pictures on macro (eek! the job numbers) and micro (eek! the mortgage payment) economic fronts running concurrently with cultural tumbles in the belief in marriage, the rise of moral relativism, rampant consumerism, the diminution of stigma as a restraint on bad behavior—what some see as a collapse in values—the pageant of social life presents as a riotous, enticing field of study. And how easy the social media sites make those efforts!


There’s a rather esoteric Freudian theory that, I believe, hands us the tiny silver bullet key to the metal handcuff thrill of the trill, i.e., how it is that pain may be pleasurable. And more to the point, how it is, that the wayward message of 50 Shades spoke so compellingly to so many of us.

With his Spool observation, Freud sought to shed light on the riddle of pain/pleasure release. The answer to this paradox came from an unlikely place: a child’s game witnessed by Freud, who describes the event from a clinical observation that speaks to the need to repeat. A young child (Freud’s grandson) frolics with his mother in his room. By and by, the mother puts the toddler back in the crib and leaves the room. The kid is clearly upset, confused, and stressed when his mother leaves. He grabs a toy, a spool of string, and tosses it over the crib’s edge, still clinging to the string, as if a yoyo. As the spool is cast away, the kid screams “fort” (gone) and is in visible emotional pain. Then he pulls the thread to retrieve the spool and utters the joyful pleasure word “da” (there), smiling. Willfully, the child repeats the fort-da game multiple times, his emotions alternating between distress and delight. Pain/pleasure, terror/release…this is a natural way to purge our anxieties and/or work them out, Freud theorized, as he saw his grandchild quelling his anxieties, his pent-up frustrations and fears, through the satisfying push-pull exercise of the spool game.

This is much like the deriving of pleasure through BDSM, where an abiding sense of tremulous anticipation, as well as the give and take involved, is a large part of the thrill. Loss/absence raises excitement and expectation (hunger) with an eventual payoff (the return of the spool/emotional or sexual release). In this sense—in sensual role-play as in the spool game—we are able to stage our own excitement, to control our fears and pleasures, turning our dreads, worries, and difficult periods into something pleasurable. Terror (in Danse Macabre Stephen King describes it as “the finest emotion,”) can be gratifying and enjoyable, if you are “pulling the strings” and controlling the circumstances, as you feel fear and the rush of doubt yet know you can count on the relief of being safe when it is all over. Like the spool game, which produces desire and distaste in equal measure, BDSM and the lighter DSRP (dominance and submissive role play) are indulgences that offer a beguiling roller coaster of illusory danger and emotional risk.

My prediction is that, come Valentine’s Day 2015, sell-out crowds at the 50 Shades of Grey movie premiere will swoon to a lovers’ soundtrack full of “forts” and “da(aaaah)s.” Sounds relished among passionate devotees comprising the 50 Shades fandom and reverberating as “spank me, slap me, fuck me,” way way way past the theater walls.



About Alexis Lass

Alexis Lass (@ALassTrbojevic) is the author of The Posh Girl's Guide to Play.
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