I guess I’m a little behind the curve in the whips-and-handcuffs department — wait, is there an unintended pun in there?
Despite weeks of media fanfare over “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the Twilight fan-fiction series turned sadomasochistic romance trilogy, it wasn’t until I inquired about a large stack of books behind a Barnes & Noble cash register that the popularity of the series hit me like a leather whip (intended).
“Are those all ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’?” I asked the middle-aged female cashier.
“Oh yeah,” she said, already laughing. “We keep them by the register because someone asks for them every five minutes or so. I don’t get it, either.”
I’d heard of them briefly, but the conversation prompted me to read a few articles online, where I learned that the trilogy occupies all three top spots on The New York Times e-book bestseller list.
Okay, given the Twilight phenomenon and a little bit of reflection, maybe I’m not surprised. Both take excellent advantage of our puritanical mix of fascination and self-loathing when dealing with the taboos of “sexual deviancy.”
But it’s the over-hyped, poorly thought-out criticisms that are more absurd — and more disgusting — than anything you’re likely to find in these grossly-coined “mommy porn” novels.
Most prominently, there’s the idea that these books’ popularity suggests sadomasochism is “going mainstream.” Wrong. Sadomasochism has always been mainstream, just not in public. Unlike Twilight, I didn’t see a large, by-the-front-door display for “Fifty Shades of Grey” at Barnes & Noble. The books weren’t even right next to the register, but kept behind a pillar where customers are no doubt less likely to find it, unless of course they are looking for it. ...
A Florida county is putting the racy romance trilogy "Fifty Shades of Grey" back on its library shelves.
The Brevard County Library System had pulled 19 copies of the best-sellers from its bookshelves earlier this month. County officials said the decision was made after they read reviews of the trilogy initially self-published by the author in e-reader form.
A county spokesman also called the books "semi-pornographic."
On Monday, the county announced that "Fifty Shades of Grey" would be available immediately through the library in response to requests from residents.
Library Services Director Cathy Schweinsberg said the library was against censorship and was reviewing its selection criteria.
Public libraries in several states have banned to book trilogy, saying it's too steamy or too poorly written.
In early May, at a suburban home in Chattanooga, Cindy Faulkner began unpacking one of several boxes, removing lingerie, blindfolds, massage oils, and dildos to display for the half dozen women gathered. Faulkner is a sales consultant with Ohio-based Pure Romance, the Amway of vibrators, and she was the guest of honor at a party of the sort one might normally associate with Tupperware. Before Faulkner could even finish unpacking, two of the guests began asking her about the Fifty Shades of Grey books, the bestselling erotic romance trilogy written by overnight British sensation E.L. James. Did she have any of the toys featured in their favorite scene, including a tickle and whip (a leather riding crop with a feather on one end), blindfolds, and a set of Ben Wa balls (a vaginal exercise device)? Yes. “It’s like waking a sleeping giant for some of these women,” says Faulkner, whose sales and party bookings have increased 15 to 20 percent in the past two months, helping Pure Romance’s 75,000 consultants set a pace for $120 million in 2012 sales. “My business is about to explode.”
Originally written as Twilight fan fiction in 2011, with explicit sex scenes featuring bondage and submission, they were converted by James into a series of books first released by a small Australian outfit called The Writer’s Coffee Shop Publishing House. They gained traction by word of mouth and were republished in April by Vintage Books. In less than two months the story of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey—virginal student meets troubled older billionaire, who turns her into his sex slave and rocks her world through a dizzying array of scenarios—has already sold over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone, split evenly between digital and print, according to Vintage spokesperson Paul Bogaards. In late March, Universal Pictures secured the film rights for an estimated $5 million, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Aside from making millions for Random House, Vintage’s parent company, and James, the books have provided a tremendous boost to the adult entertainment industry, as readers attempt to replicate the characters’ intricate bedroom scenes. Sherri Shaulis, senior editor of pleasure products at the adult industry news network AVN, sees the book’s success as a transformational opportunity for the sector, specifically the BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism) market. “There’s a lot of people who never considered buying handcuffs or a riding crop, and now they all want to do their little version of Red Rooms of Pain,” says Saulis, referring to what Mr. Grey calls his apartment dungeon.
While the sex toy industry has seen individual products spike in the past—Vibratex sold millions of its Rabbit Pearl vibrators after it appeared on Sex and the City—the difference with Fifty Shades is that it specifically references an entire category of products. That’s a boon for companies like Sportsheets International, a California-based manufacturer and distributor of entry-level bondage gear, with more than 500 products well suited for the book’s adventurous fans. “It really hit our industry in the past four to six weeks,” says Julie Stewart, Sportsheets’ vice president and co-owner, who claims the company does $10 million in sales annually and will see growth this year of 20 percent to 30 percent, double the average. Much of that growth is expected to come from the company’s Sex & Mischief bondage line, which Sportsheets plans to pair with a copy of the book as part of a promotion.
Retailers have been quick to jump on the Fifty Shades bandwagon, sensing a rare opportunity to attract mainstream customers. Babeland, a sex toy retailer based in Seattle, has launched a mini-site “inspired by” Fifty Shades of Grey that suggests dozens of items, from a scented massage candle to a set of vibrating nipple clamps. Claire Cavanah, Babeland’s co-founder, says the books have breathed life into the moribund BDSM category, noting that sales of bondage gear jumped 375 percent in April.
“Now we have an event called Fifty Shades of Hot Sex,” Cavanah says, offering practical demonstrations on spanking and bondage. “About 150 people have responded in the SoHo store [in Manhattan], maxing out capacity. We had to add another section to take overflow.”...
It's that time of the year again, when thousands upon thousands from the LGBT and leather/BDSM communities come together for International Mister Leather, a long weekend convention in Chicago that's part tradeshow, part beauty pageant and mostly party. This will be the 34th annual if you can believe it, and the massive event returns to entirely take over Chicago's largest hotel, the 2,020-room Hyatt Regency (which is also the largest Hyatt in the world).
Typically the event is all fun (and it's the fifth most profitable convention that happens in Chicago) and a Chicago contact reveals that two weddings will be held at this year's shindig. Ah, but there's a dark side as IML falls into the midst of a heated debate between the Hyatt hotel and its union staff who've repeatedly protested, including this big walkout.
According to Buzzfeed's Shift blog, the union is really putting the heat on International Mister Leather to move venues. Alas, IML has a contract they can't afford to break and IML will continue like normal.
Still, as someone who's dropped in on the conference both of the last two years, we know that not only does the IML book up the whole place, but the visitors from around the world even spill over to other hotels. And, during the conference, the hotel operates with a skeleton crew since its daily services are limited with a huge variety of guests. There's simply no other option for IML, short of relocating to another city. But would Chicago let that happen? No way, José.
The country's biggest leather fetish convention is at odds with a major hotel workers' union.
A major national union may picket an unlikely venue this weekend in Chicago: International Mr. Leather.
The hotel workers union UNITE HERE has demanded that the convention abandon a hotel in the midst of a labor dispute, and their pressure on the leathermen has prompted a series of bitter charges and counter-charges.
For 33 years, men from around the world have converged on Chicago to compete for the title of International Mr. Leather, awarded to the contestant who most impresses the judges with his leather attire, his interview skills, and his "pecs and personality." Many contestants are gay, but the event has expanded from a celebration of the gay leather subculture to a larger meeting of kink, BDSM, and fetish enthusiasts. In addition to the competition, this year's convention will include a 12-step meeting, a Shabbat service, and two weddings.
The Hyatt Regency Chicago, site of the recent competitions, has been at the center of a bitter a contract fight with workers represented by the union UNITE HERE since 2009. The workers, union spokeswoman Annemarie Strassel said, want one room per day subtracted from their quota to compensate for the fact that they have to get down on their hands and knees to clean floors, rather than using a long-handled mop. They also want better job security. UNITE HERE brands Hyatt "the worst employer in the hotel industry," and it asks that supporters "not eat, meet or sleep at Hyatt."
UNITE HERE has been asking International Mr. Leather to relocate its convention since at least 2010 — and last year, one LGBT website accused the organization of "crossing picket lines" by continuing to hold events at the Hyatt.
The convention leaders, however, dismiss the union's charges — and accuse the union of playing on popular discomfort with their subculture. Jon Krongaard, coordinator of International Mr. Leather, says "there is no picket line," and all he and his organization have seen are "random walkouts."
"This is not our fight," Krongard said. He added that his organization is locked into its contract with Hyatt, and they can't afford the $700,000 he says they'd pay for breaking it.
Krongaard also accuses UNITE HERE of using questionable tactics to advance its agenda. He said that in years past, convention vendors had been "harassed" and "subtly threatened" by union supporters and that several had been contacted at their homes or places of business by name and leather title, effectively outing them to coworkers and neighbors as participants in the leather subculture. Specifically, Krongaard says 2010 International Mr. Leather winner Tyler McCormick was called at work and identified by name and leather title to the company switchboard. He also says the stress of dealing with protests contributed to the death of former IML coordinator RJ Chaffin in 2011, of heart failure.
McCormick has not responded to a request for comment, but Strassel told me that what Krongaard described was certainly possible. She couldn't speak to specific incidents, but said that "we have a boycott and it's important that we make people aware of it," and that one way the union gets a hold of people is by contacting them at work. ...
It did not escape the notice of Tim Cole, the collections manager for the Greensboro Public Library in North Carolina, that “Fifty Shades of Grey” was “of mixed literary merit,” as he put it with a heavy helping of Southern politeness.
He ordered 21 copies anyway.
His customers had spoken, Mr. Cole said, and like other library officials across the country, he had gotten the message: Readers wanted the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy. In recent weeks they have besieged libraries with requests for the books, signaling a new wave of popularity for these erotic novels, which have become the best-selling titles in the nation this spring.
In some cases demand has been so great that it has forced exasperated library officials to dust off their policies — if they have them — on erotica.
In April the trilogy, which includes the titles “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed,” was issued in paperback by Vintage Books, part of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, sending sales through the roof when the publisher printed and distributed the books widely for the first time.
That enthusiasm has carried over to libraries. At many, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” by the previously unknown British author E. L. James, is the most popular book in circulation, with more holds than anyone can remember on a single title (2,121 and counting last Friday at the Hennepin County Public Library, which includes Minneapolis, up from 942 on April 9).
But despite misgivings about the subject matter — the books tell the tale of a dominant-submissive affair between a manipulative millionaire and a naïve younger woman — library officials feel that they need to make it available.
“This is the ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ of 2012,” Mr. Cole said. “Demand is a big issue with us, because we want to be able to provide popular best-selling material to our patrons.”
But some libraries have been caught on the other side of the issue. The Brevard County Public Library in east central Florida pulled copies of the books from its shelves after library officials decided they were not appropriate for the public.
“We have criteria that we use, and in this case we view this as pornographic material,” said Don Walker, a spokesman for the Brevard County government.
In Fond du Lac, Wis., the library did not order any copies, saying the books did not meet the standards of the community. In Georgia the Gwinnett County Public Library, near Atlanta, declined to make the books available in its 15 branches, saying that the trilogy’s graphic writing violated its no-erotica policy.
Last week a group of organizations that included the National Coalition Against Censorship formally responded, sending a letter to the library board in Brevard County scolding it for refusing to stock the book alongside standards like “Tropic of Cancer” or “Fear of Flying.”
“There is no rational basis to provide access to erotic novels like these, and at the same time exclude contemporary fiction with similar content,” the letter said. “The very act of rejecting erotica as a category suitable for public libraries sends an unmistakable message of condemnation that is moralistic in tone, and totally inappropriate in a public institution dedicated to serving the needs and interests of all members of the community.”
Joan Bertin, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said in an interview that it was unusual for a library to remove a book from its section for adults.
“The vast majority of cases that we deal with have to do with removing books to keep kids from seeing them,” she said. “That’s what makes this so egregious. There are some possible arguments for trying to keep kids away from certain kinds of content, but in the case of adults, other than the restrictions on obscenity and child pornography, there’s simply no excuse. This is really very much against the norms in the profession.”...
Swingers, like polyester leisure suits, seemed to have their heyday in the '70s. But couples who openly swap partners for a night of passionate sex with strangers, are becoming a growing trend in a sort of new sexual relationship revolution -- and those who swing say the rest of us monogamists are missing out.
"Nightline" went inside the top secret world of swingers -- as guests, not participants -- to a highly provocative masquerade party at a hotel in New York City hosted by a group called Behind Closed Doors.
Forget the notion that swingers parties are full of middle-aged folks who are bored stiff by years of marriage. Behind Closed Doors selects its members based on attractiveness and age. The younger the better, and not everyone makes the cut.
The couples said they don't find anything wrong with monogamy, but they were looking for something more exciting and raw.
"Our best sex is with each other," said Sara of Eatontown, N.J., who was at the party with her boyfriend Michael. "We have pretty amazing sex at home when we're alone. When we come here it's a physical attraction, not an emotional attraction."
Michael, a 28-year-old construction worker, and Sara, 24, who works in a doctor's office, have been in a committed relationship for more than a year but they do "full swaps," complete with intercourse, but they refuse to kiss strangers.
"Sex is more of a primal, more of an urge-based," Michael said. "The kissing is more intimate so we like to keep that for us."
National surveys suggest as many as 60 percent of marriages involve cheating. One study conducted by the University of Washington Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors showed that in the last two decades, the number of unfaithful wives under the age of 30 increased by 20 percent and number of unfaithful husbands under 30 increased by 45 percent.
Yet every swinger "Nightline" spoke with said they have a cure for that. They said their relationships are more spicy, more honest and more secure because they swap partners.
"People that are of a certain degree of attractiveness are probably looking to interact and swap partners with other people that are a certain degree of attractiveness so they are a good-looking person," said Nicole Cray, a self-described swing school instructor for Behind Closed Doors. "If you're not a good-looking person, it's probably not the right party for you."...
Over at Babeland, a New York sex shop, the best-selling trilogy “Fifty Shades of Grey” has shifted from erotic fiction to how-to guide. On a recent Friday, a hundred or so women, four men, and one Chihuahua crowded into the SoHo store for a class inspired by the books. “I found out about the books because people kept coming into the store and asking about specific products—floggers, restraints, paddles,” said Claire Cavanah, Babeland’s co-founder.
The series, which is light on plot, centers on the lives of Christian Grey, a young businessman, and Anastasia Steele, an innocent college student, as they enter a dominant-submissive relationship. (The conflict comes when “Ana must somehow learn to share Christian’s opulent lifestyle without sacrificing her own identity.”) Cavanah says that she’s seen a twenty-per-cent increase in sales of B.D.S.M. gear since the books’ début. The only analogous moment she can recall during her twenty years at Babeland was when the characters on “Sex and the City” discussed a rabbit vibrator: “There was a run on the store!”
The “Fifty Shades” guests, as they waited for the class to start, tooled around the displays while sipping cocktails (cranberry juice and vodka) and avoiding eye contact. On display were such items as a “pinwheel” the size of a cooking thermometer (twenty dollars, no explanation), sienna patent-leather handcuffs with a matching paddle, and various chains that recalled a rappelling device. “My kids would love these,” one woman from New Jersey said, picking up a bag of phallic-shaped sour-patch candies. “What is this?” A woman wearing black loafers and a blazer asked her friend. They both tapped inquisitively at a gray cannister with a pink, rubbery filling, their lips curled. “Now that’s gross,” the friend concluded.
E. L. James, the author of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, is a mother and television executive in her forties. The series started as “Twilight” fan fiction; James has said that she modelled her two main characters after Bella and Edward. Yet, even though her characters are college-aged, the books have resonated most strongly with James’s contemporaries—mothers, wives, “The View” enthusiasts—women who, if they owned riding crops, would store them in the garage between the skis and mountain bikes. The promise of erotic reading may be the initial draw, but, for many readers, there’s the added fantasy of E. L. James herself—the working mother and fan-fiction writer turned overnight success. ...