50 Shades of Grey - Why This Book Feels Good

I don’t get it,” my gay friend Sean stated at my video shoot recently. “Why are women aroused by the fantasy of being submissive and how is this new or controversial?” We were discussing the contentious bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James. This book, a fan fiction homage to the Twilight Saga, has been labeled “mommy porn” due to its unexpected popularity with married suburban mothers, and its erotic theme of dominance and submission.

Sean poses a good question. Why has this book struck a cord with so many American women? While the United States has a thriving BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism, masochism) community, most of the female readers are not likely already participating in BDSM. In addition, the book is not well written, even by the author’s own admission. Yet somehow it became a word of mouth hit online, long before it was even available in a bookstore. I propose there are several important factors in the success of this book, including beautiful characters, strong personalities, titillating sexuality, taboo dominance and submission, and the romantic evocation of “feeling special.” But before I delve into my analysis of the book’s success, let me offer a brief summary of the plot.

Anastasia Steele, a 21-year old virgin and graduating college senior, meets Christian Grey, an incredibly hot, wealthy, successful 27-year old. They quickly fall for each other, and then she learns of his sexual tastes – to fully dominate the woman he is involved with, both physically and mentally. As well, he has an in-house dungeon where he demands submission. Anastasia waffles between giving in to his whims and fighting his control. Her willful confidence amidst her naiveté is new for Christian, which further arouses him to break his own rules. She feels special, valued, and aroused. However, Anastasia is also disturbed and struggles with his mood swings, controlling sexual tastes, and love of inflicting pain. This novel is just the first of the trilogy, and I have only read one volume so far.

I personally discovered that crappy writing is not as noticeable if the content is turning me on! Despite cringing at the writing style, rolling my eyes at the gender stereotyping, and wincing through some descriptions of pain infliction, I did find much of the content arousing and stimulating. It even made me feel more confident and sexually aggressive. I think I was channeling the attitudes of the characters. This is the power of written fantasy – to embody a new way of being for the reader.

A fantasy of perfection and beauty is pervasive in Fifty Shades of Grey. Anastasia is young, white, innocent, intelligent, slender, attractive, and outspoken yet humble. She’s the quintessential Disney character. Christian is a little bit older than her, wealthy beyond imagination, successful, mysterious, bright, with a hot body and beautiful face. The first time Anastasia has sex, she is easily orgasmic. The first time she performs a blow job, she’s a champ. Christian has never slept in the same bed with a woman or introduced one to his family, yet he quickly breaks all his rules for Anastasia. This all adds up to Anastasia being that “special” girl, who wins Christian’s affection, a la “Pretty Woman.”

And I think that’s a large part of the power of this book. We all want to feel special and desired. Being the object of desire feels good. It’s validating to experience unbridled passion from another; let alone being willing to change your identity due to this passion, and have another willing to change for you. This seems to create an emotional context that grants Anastasia (as well as the female reader) permission to be naughty and explore the boundaries of good girl and bad girl, pleasure and pain, control and surrender. If the reader at home is a powerful, confident woman, Anastasia’s submission means the reader can also experiment with letting go, feel the freedom of surrender, and still be true to her values.

Do I think it is dangerous for our society to have a popular erotic novel with sex tied to violence? Is it sexist, disempowering to women, and rolling back the sexual liberation clock? This is a large part of the controversy, and I’m honestly conflicted in responding. If we lived in a society where sex was open, healthy, and normalized, I could accept the novel as fantasy for fun and stimulation. But we don’t. Sex is much too often mixed with shame, embarrassment, exploitation, misinformation, and abuse. So I think it may be difficult for some to separate pure fantasy from their reality. That being said, I love that we’re talking about women’s arousal and discussing taboo sex. And I enjoyed some arousal of my own. If you have read Fifty Shades of Grey, I would love to hear your opinion about what tickled your fancy or turned your stomach.

(This blog was first posted as part of Pacific San Diego Magazine's Sex & Love Blog.)

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sex Therapist, Marriage Counselor, Sexologist, College Sexual Health Speaker

Kink for Women – What are Women in BDSM Doing? #141

Jennifer Rehor talks with Dr. Jenn to share her research into women, kink, & BDSM. She dispels some myths and offers ground-breaking findings!

Sexual Fun Fact
What happens to a male anglerfish after it mates? (It will blow your mind :)

Special Den Sex-tion
Ithyphallophobia - What's THAT word?

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus -- San Diego Sex Therapy, Marriage Counseling, College Sexual Health Speaker

Eating Sushi Off of a Naked Woman – When Fetishes & Feminism Collide

Would you eat sushi off of a naked woman? How about cake and fruit? Depending on your perspective, this experience might be: sexual or just sensual; demeaning or liberating; uncomfortable or light-hearted fun. There are times when my feminist philosophy is in direct opposition with my sex-positive beliefs.  These are confusing and uncomfortable moments, but moments when I see clearly that no belief system covers the full range and complexity of female sexuality.

Nyotaimori - Naked SushiNyotaimori, which means body sushi in Japanese, is not new, but I recently experienced it for the first time at a small birthday party. A very clean, naked woman, who was face-up and blindfolded, lay on blankets on the living room floor.  Six of us gathered on cushion around her, placing sushi roles around her body. Using the woman’s body as a table, and even referring to her as “table” was initially shocking.  When I’d heard about nyotaimori before, it seemed demeaning to the woman, and objectifying.  However, I was in a household where alternative sexualities were embraced, and BDSM and fetishes freely explored among consenting adults.  The blindfolded naked woman on the floor had clearly consented to be our table for the party. Was it right for me to judge that her blindfold and silence seemed so submissive? I wondered within what paradigm of female sexuality she consented?  A submissive woman, from a feminism perspective, is oppressed and disempowered. A submissive woman within the BDSM/fetish/kink world is potentially pleasuring herself and experiencing liberation or healing. Can both be correct? I’m not saying I am a slave (pun intended) to either of these belief systems, but that I like to think critically about both, as they inform my world view.

So the six of us decorated the blindfolded nude woman with sushi. Gratefully my vegetarian philosophies were not ALSO challenged here, as there was veggie sushi! Then we ate the sushi from her, with hands, chopsticks, or our mouths.  I felt very conscious of wanting to be respectful of her body and feeling of touch, yet I wasn’t sure what motivated her to be our table.  The dinner conversation was of the normal variety, albeit with more themes of body image, nakedness, and sexual beliefs in America.  At the conclusion of dinner, the hosts cleaned the woman with warm washcloths. On to dessert! 

For dessert we gingerly placed a full sheet cake (I kid you not) on her torso, and covered the rest of her with vanilla frosting, sprinkles, fruit…and little plastic animals and toy soldiers (once again, I kid you not). I would not have imagined that plastic figures would be appropriate, but I actually loved that part.  We created a path of evolution (from foot to breast) of dinosaurs, to barnyard animals, to the mingling of both on the cake top.  The “table” giggled at times, such as when a blackberry was placed between her toes, or when we made amusing comments while decorating.  Once our masterpiece was complete, we ate from her body with our hands. The cake was quite tasty, with a creamy pudding filling.  Later two of us smeared the rest of the cake and frosting over her body, in a thick mélange of color and sweetness.  Our “table” eventually showered to clean up and warm up.

Did I enjoy myself? I actually did, quite a bit. One, for the simple reason that I like sushi and cake. Second, I appreciate opportunities to practice what I preach and step outside my comfort zone regarding sex and bodies. Third, I loved the creative aspect, feeling like a child with food and toys and a new terrain. We laughed a lot, within a sensual, appreciative, and respectful context. 

And now that I’ve experienced that, it feels like not such a big deal.

P.S. I’ve received some questions regarding sushi and soy sauce. No, we did not use her belly button for dipping :)

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus -- Sex Therapy, Marriage Counseling, & University Sexuality Speaker, in San Diego, CA

Spanking for Pleasure

What is the fascination with spanking? Do you have it in you to be sexually stimulated by this "painful" act or do you use spanking for pleasure? Dr. Jenn slaps around the subject of spanking and looks at why some people find the practice enjoyable.

THE DEN RECOMMEND:
Try using props with your next sexual encounter.