by Ava Mir-Ausziehen
While I have yet to read 50 Shades of Grey myself, I have read a lot of erotic fiction, often of the BDSM genre. The amount of press surrounding this book is curious. It seems that once a work of sensual intrigue is picked up by middle-aged women, suddenly it’s a buzz. In reading reviews of the book, I saw predictions of everything from a post-hippie neo-sexual revolution to the overturning of all feminist progress as we know it. Few erotic products with a predominately male following are talked about with such a tone of revolutionary potential (good or bad), save the periodic moral panics around female sex workers and their male johns.
I think it is the audience of 50 Shades of Grey, more so than the content, that is truly disconcerting to people. The fact that the series is being referred to by the infuriating moniker of ‘mommy porn’ speaks to the de-sexualization of mothers. The attitude is that middle-aged mothers enjoying erotica is equal parts cute and discomforting, and this diminishes the sexual autonomy of mothers. It’s as if women are presumed to lose all sexual adventurousness once
they have children, and if they don’t, there is either something silly, or worse, perverted about them. Such an attitude can leave a lot of women feeling ashamed of their less ‘polite’ sexual curiosities.
In such a climate, erotic fiction is an excellent way for women to connect with their sexual fantasies and explore possibilities. It has the entertainment potential of pornography, but by being written rather than filmed, offers up more aesthetic control to the reader through their mind’s eye. Reading or seeing the existence of ‘inappropriate’ fantasies confirmed outside of us works as an antidote to shame. No wonder women are bonding over their shared appreciation of the book. I think shame is the #1 killer of good bedroom vibes. Once someone feels ashamed, dirty, silly, or disrespected, there is little chance that they will feel comfortable letting go and enjoying their sexuality in all of its manifestations.
When couples have been together exclusively for a long time, it can sometimes take a little kick in the pants to get in bed together, especially with the stress and fatigue of parenting. This, compounded by the de-sexualizing of parents, particularly mothers, might lead women to not feel so sexy. Or they may presume they shouldn’t be very interested in sex in the first place, that motherhood should meet all of their emotional needs. We are often taught that everything we require for a fulfilling sexual life should come from within us, and that bringing in exterior sources of stimulation is tantamount to infidelity or a sign of some personal shortcoming. This is a disastrous lesson, and leads many to feel inadequate. Reading a dirty book, watching a dirty movie, dressing up and role-playing the sexy characters, trying out sex toys or games together, sharing fantasies and secrets, or simply fantasizing that your partner is someone else (honest, this is OK!) are ways to access and share desire with your partner. The key to any of these working out well is respect for each other’s desires, even when they are confusing or surprising. Knee jerk judgemental reactions will not lead towards a fuller understanding of our erotic desires.
In order to be honest about our desires, we need to stop presuming that there is a direct and explanatory link between our sexy selves and our day-to-day selves. For a long time, Western thought has perceived sexuality as the ‘key’ to understanding our truest, deepest impulses. Sexuality is but one element of our personalities, and needs to be respected as such – it does not determine our moral character any more than other aspects of our lives. Like the assumption that non-normative sex practices are evidence of abuse or signify pathology, this determines a far too causal relationship between how we like to get off and the rest of our inner self. I think it is detrimental and downright ridiculous to presume that a woman who wants to be tied up and spanked by a man is by extension a self-hating misogynist suffering a false consciousness and desiring male domination in all aspects of her life. It is equally ridiculous to suggest that this clearly points to some sort of biologically determined characteristic of every person with a vagina. But such are the fears of some conservative feminists. To believe that women are only capable of a monkey-see/monkey-do relationship with erotica is the most anti-feminist thing I can think of – women are fully capable of reading fantasy, recognizing it as such, and integrating it into their lives in a way that is in accordance with their own desires and boundaries. That may mean a little silk blindfold (great for blocking out pesky distractions, visual and mental, so you can focus on pleasure alone – to help forget, momentarily, the kids soccer practice or that pile of laundry) or a full-fledged, corset-wearing night of submission – or domination.
Conservative views have argued that the book portrays unhealthy values of male dominance. This ignores the actual nuances of erotic power play. Before folks criticize submission and domination in itself, they really need to have a less black and white vision of how power operates in these relationships. It is because power infiltrates so much of our life that eroticising it is so potent. Erotica and porn are not intended to make simple or ideal political messages. Part of what makes fantasies hot is the fact that they are politically or socially incorrect – they transgress certain cultural boundaries, and disrupting those borders is titillating, freeing, and amusing. We can not ask of any one book or film to be both sexually arousing and politically bullet-proof. If we supported a culture that spoke more freely of erotica and pornography as valid forms of entertainment, we could openly discuss and critique the messages that we receive through them. The majority of people consume porn and erotica at some point, and the reason there is such anxiety about the messages contained therein is because there is a resistance to allowing an open, critical dialogue about those messages. In regards to mainstream media, we can talk about the inherent sexism, racism, violence and so on that emerges from the plotlines, and therefore teach ourselves and each other to be good, critical consumers. But since the consumption of erotica, particularly for women, and especially for mothers (virgin/whore syndrome, anyone?) is still fairly shrouded in shame – or at least seen as inappropriate to discuss at the dinner table – people don’t engage in open critical conversation. Without this conversation, the messages of erotic works cannot be brought to light and deconstructed.
If the gains of the women’s movement are about granting women (and men) the right to feel empowered and respected in all of their sexual choices, to then criticise women for having ‘politically incorrect’ sexual desires and fantasies is terribly hypocritical. We fought for the right to any consensual sexual choices, not just those approved by outside forces. When people stop being told what they should find hot – from men, from women, from partners, from self-important feminists, from daytime television hosts, from politicians – shame and stigma can be shucked off and happy, joyful sex can flourish.