When Fifty Shades of Grey hit the theatres, critics on the right and left were already lifting their poisoned pens to dis the film adaptation of this massively popular BDSM novel.
Detractors on every side are predictable and miss the point. On the right, Fifty Shades confirms that we are further along on the path to hell than previously assessed. On the left, stigmatized communities that engage in the story’s “shocking” sexual practices — bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism — cry foul in that the foundation for these activities: mutual respect, communication, and ensuring consent — are absent from the relationship between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. While among feminists, the film is yet another example of violence against women being glorified and sold as sexy.
Why Was Fifty Shades So Popular?
None of this gets at why the book was so wildly popular in the first place: we live in a culture that thrives on power grabs, power imbalances, and violence. Recent work in epigenetics confirms that we are not only living with the current theatre of power exploits, but that our grandparents’ experiences of slavery, displacement, rape, and war have actually been passed on to us in our very cells. All of this, while our conscious life demands more and more attention to a moral imperative toward “equality.”
Which is why nobody is having the sex we want. Fifty Shades tears the lid off our biggest sexual secret: there is a gap between our values — who we say we are — and what we want to do in bed. Being unwilling or unable to explore that gap is a recipe for bed death.
As a sex coach, I have spent decades listening to clients talk about their desire a certain socially acceptable way, only to discover through the coaching process that their true desires are something else altogether. For example, some of the women in my practice have confessed — despite a life-long commitment to equality in their daily lives — an overwhelming desire to dominate in the bedroom. Football heroes have admitted a desire to submit or be penetrated. Gay people have revealed their love of straight sex. Voyeurs have outed their inner exhibitionists. Pacifists have whispered a yearning to hurt or constrain.
Over time, I developed a process called Desire Mapping to help my clients abandon their false sexual veneers for sexual truths that would enliven their libidos and lead them to the sex and partners they long for. Like Anastasia, my clients often find this a confusing, but ultimately thrilling, path.
The simple fact is that because our society is so steeped in power struggles, our sexualities have often been shaped by moments of humiliation and powerlessness. In our shame, we lock these stories — whether they are big, life-changing moments of degradation and loss, or tiny childhood slights — far into the back of our memory file cabinets. And while my clients consciously avoid any possible collision with their shame, they often unconsciously yearn to provoke or encounter shame with a sexual partner. Finding ourselves in self-hating, helpless territory with someone we love can be an extremely liberating place on our sexual and intimate journeys. Through Desire Mapping, we take a deep breath and dive back into those forgotten or banished territories.
What Fifty Shades Tells Us About Our Desires
The gift of Fifty Shades is that it has brought a widespread, largely hidden longing to play with power in our sexualities out from under the porn stash, and onto the kitchen table. So, let’s make a few important distinctions as we move on from here.
First off, in the real world, dominant/submissive relationships are created by all kinds of people, those who have survived childhood abuse (like Christian Grey), and those who have not.
And second: it is possible to pursue the desires described in Fifty Shades in consensual, equitable, and mutually satisfying sexual encounters or relationships, whatever your gender or childhood experiences. Many, many people do, whether in brief encounters or long-term marriages.
So, if you decide to watch the movie for yourself, try to figure out what is interesting about Fifty Shades for you — not based on whether it is real, but on whether it has anything to tell you and society as a whole about the gap between our authentic desires and who we say we are. Let’s consider whether we are willing to unlock that file cabinet and shake out what’s useful and compelling in our sex stories and our psyches so that we can have the sex we actually want.