Everyone expresses amazement that Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels have sold many millions of copies all over the world. Yes, sex sells, but these numbers are very rare in any category of the book market.
The story itself is a simple one; and in a way, the characters are simple people -- except for the fact that Christian Grey is extremely rich and handsome beyond description, but isn’t that a common fantasy of the single girl? Anastasia, a 21-year-old college student is not pursuing Christian. She meets him by chance when she helps out a friend who is ill. The friend needs to interview Christian for a student newspaper and Anastasia volunteers to take on the assignment. Christian seems benign; she is a literary major who likes to curl up at night with a British classic. Anastasia is a virgin and has never even held hands with a man.
In the beginning, they are like two exaggerated characters you might find in a summer beach novel. The first hint of something dark comes when Christian sends her a first edition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the subject of Anastasia’s senior thesis. He has brought attention to the question from the text, “Why didn’t you tell me there was danger.”
The danger from Christian is his compulsive desire to have sado- masochistic sexual experiences, with the female partner completely submissive. His traumatic childhood is given as an explanation of this compulsive desire.
There is no evidence of force or brutality or disregard of her unwillingness to participate in this behavior. He makes it clear what the terms are and requests her to sign a contractual agreement to participate.
Why does Anastasia agree? Why do millions of readers, probably many of them women, identify with her, get pleasure from the detailed account of the pain and lack of control? Her willingness to submit?
There are no doubts many theories and conjectures about the popularity of this book. What makes it so compelling? In this age of the active, assertive female, fighting to break the glass ceiling and gain control, what attracts her to Anastasia’s submission?
What came to mind is the research of my colleague, Dr. Barbara Hariton. Thirty or more years ago, she wrote a doctoral dissertation about women’s sexual fantasies. She studied a group of suburban, middle-class women who described themselves as happily married and enjoying their sexual life with their husbands.
Dr. Hariton’s focus was on the sexual fantasies of these women. She reported that a majority of them described that, during sex with their husbands, they frequently fantasized about being sexually overpowered by a strong, powerful male, or group of men, who were neither brutal nor frightening in any way. These encounters were not viewed by any of the women as safe.
There are reports of subsequent research that has confirmed Dr. Hariton’s findings of women’s sexual fantasies – even in a time of even further liberation of women.
What does it mean? Is the research too limited? Does it serve some biological purpose for the male to be sexually powerful to guarantee the continuation of the species?
The questions interest me more than the book.