The Wall Street Journal
I don't read romance novels anymore, so until the "Fifty Shades" trilogy became the fiction du jour, I was unaware of a relatively new and popular subgenre known as erotic romance or romantica. Now, having read the first of E.L. James's novels, I confess to being somewhat baffled by the appeal of a romantic hero who, while filthy rich and preternaturally handsome, gets sexual pleasure from beating his girlfriend with a belt.
"Fifty Shades of Grey" actually belongs to a subgenre of romantica that involves consensual sexual relations between dominant and submissive partners (sometimes called BDSM for bondage, discipline, sadomasochism). In Ms. James's books, the dominant partner is Christian Grey, "the richest, most elusive, most enigmatic bachelor in Washington State." His prey is Anastasia Steele, a newly minted college graduate who describes herself as mousy, wide-eyed and uncoordinated and whose idea of cussing is "Holy hell," "Holy Moses," "Holy cow" and "Holy crap." She might have a hot body—Christian Grey certainly thinks so—but her bulb is strictly low-wattage. Not to mention that she managed to get through four years of college not only without her own computer but without even an email address.
Unlike the librarians of Brevard County, Fla., who temporarily removed all 19 copies of "Fifty Shades" from their shelves to protect their borrowers' sensibilities, I say if women want to read about getting tied up and hit, that's none of my business. But the popularity of these books did make me wonder if there's something in the culture now—or the water?—that draws women to fantasies of submission.
In an article in "Psychology Today," a sex therapist, Sari Cooper, points out that "subs" and "doms" are nothing new and that throughout history, men and women have occupied both roles. In Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novella "Venus in Furs," for example, it is the man who desires domination by a woman. (The novella has been adapted as a play, "Venus in Fur," now playing on Broadway.) Ms. Cooper warns against looking at "Fifty Shades" through a "socio-political lens"; this is an "adult form of play," she says, that often takes place only in fantasy.
Fair enough. Yet there's something deeply unsettling about Christian Grey being a romantic hero for contemporary women. Talk about the man in the empty suit. Grey may have luxuriant hair and other robust body parts, but his only topic of conversation is himself and his feelings. He doesn't go to movies, bars or the gym, he doesn't watch television, read, discuss current events or have friends. He plays the piano, but only "oh-so-sad music." When pressed about his boyhood, he describes his mother as a "crack whore."
The question of why E.L. James has reportedly sold some 10 million books in the U.S. alone has been chewed over by many cultural commentators and psychologists. Some have theorized that so-called mommy porn appeals to women who wish their partners would take charge in the bedroom. In a 1973 article in "Psychology Today," a researcher, E. Barbara Hariton, concluded that "force" fantasies are not about rejection or abuse, but "appear in dominant and independent women" who imagine themselves desirable and attractive. The "Fifty Shades" books, some psychologists say, give women permission to express their sexual desires without shame. ...
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