Fifty Shades of Grey

The movie streets

Posted Feb 13, 2015

I was in Berlin when the movie Fifty Shades of Grey had its world premiere. The movie critic of a local paper sniffed that the audience began to rustle as Christian buys rope from Ana in the hardware store where she works because they know what lies ahead.

Yeah, and handcuffs too lie ahead, and the BBC News reassures us that the police and fire brigade are ready for calls to "spike" as the newbies discover they can't get the handcuffs off. (Intellectuals have a low tolerance for bondage, especially when it's done by the masses.)

The novel of the century is followed by the movie of the decade, and the chattering classes are disoriented. Michel Foucault didn't predict this, and feminist theory as well is at a loss. Fresh evidence of the oppression of women?


What is happening is that fetish/bdsm are moving mainline. Ten years ago nice people would have turned up their noses at porno. Now the beginners' bondage kits are flying off the shelves of the adult-toy makers. And PinkCherry, the adult toy company that bought the North American license for the Fifty Shades brand, is featuring an "official collection," with "Inner Goddess Silver Metal Pleasure Balls." This is going to be huge.

And why not? These things bring new sensations to millions of people. Far from being tawdry artifacts of K-Mart sex, as the intellectuals muse, these toys enlarge the erotic imagination. Many people who see Christian's Red Room in the movie, for bondage play, will want one of their own. A host of new possibilities for sex play are rushing on stage, and many of those who have started to feel a tad weary of the old sex at 11 pm on Saturday night routine will delect these new sources of pleasure.

I find this totally cool.

Fifty Shades has become part of the adult entertainment industry. And the really interesting question is whether adult, as it is called, merely activates tastes that have slumbered long latent in the brain, or whether it creates new tastes? I lean towards the latter. It stretches belief that the millions of otherwise average women who have delighted in the novel, and now the movie, are sadomasochism freaks. I simply don't believe that they have always yearned to be paddled and tied up, and now have a template for imagining this. I think that pleasure at these fetish/bdsm scenarios arises de novo, out of nothing save new discovery.

Yet the soil has to be watered for these new seeds to sprout. And what has prepared the ground is the onrush of women's economic success in the workplace and economy.  Many women now make more than their husbands. Virtually all middle-class women now have the expectation that they will succeed in jobs and careers, that they will be powerful. And they want to feel powerful. This is so unimaginably different from thirty years ago.

But here's the thing. Fifty Shades puts the concept of the exchange of power on the table. And women can of course opt to be bottoms, like Ana. Yet they can also opt to be tops, to dominate the sex scene rather than passively accepting the submissive role.  And there is in fact evidence that many newly empowered women, who would never have dreamt of downloading "pornography," are in fact getting into topping their partners. I follow the chat boards in adult (because I am in fact writing a book about this).  And the bondage toy makers are going gangbusters with this new female audience.

In the world of sex, there is indeed something new under the sun.