Fifty Shades and the secret compromises of women

There's a reason this retrograde fantasy is so popular

It's an uncomfortable fact that at the very moment the #MeToo movement advocates for equal treatment in the workplace, women are rushing to theaters to watch the final movie of the Fifty Shades trilogy, in which the female protagonist happily marries her obsessive stalker-cum-employer.

For many feminists, it's frustrating that the hardscrabble fight for true equality coincides with fantasies about subordination. It seems to play into the worst myths about women: specifically, that they liked their oppressed status as second-rate citizens, and experience "women's lib" as a burden they long to shrug off. This, after all, is the kind of thinking that leads to schools informing teenage girls they're not allowed to say no to boys who ask them to dance. And to presidents and senators praising men who beat their wives as "hard workers" and "good guys."

That we don't like that something is happening, however, is no argument for ignoring it. We won't get anywhere with these conversations about sex and consent if we can't speak frankly about how women are getting off. And Fifty Shades is how droves of women are getting off — all kinds of women, but cis, heterosexual women especially. Why?

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One possibility is that Fifty Shades captures aspects of the secret compromises many women make that softer romances don't. The fact is, people lie about sex all the time: not always on purpose, and not always for themselves. Many say, for example, that they wanted to give what was taken from them. Why? Because it produces an acceptable story of the self and the relationship. To have had something done to you (like sex, or abuse) without your wanting it? This, in our culture, makes you a victim. It makes your partner a monster. Easier to say you wanted it and convince yourself it's true.

Now imagine doing this and liking it. That's Fifty Shades of Grey.

Let's first establish that the appetite for the Fifty Shades franchise is huge. By 2015, the first volume of E.L. James' trilogy alone had sold 125 million copies. The films have been gigantic box office hits — the latest and final installment, Fifty Shades Freed, grossed $137 million (including international markets) its very first weekend. There's no denying the massive appeal of James' opus about a virginal college senior, Ana Steele, trying to handle the 20-something billionaire, Christian Grey, who wants her to submit unconditionally to him. That the vast majority of consumers are women — and that the material isn't exactly literary (because it's porn!) — has made it easy for people to mock the franchise and its consumers.

But dismissing a phenomenon this powerful as "mommy porn" is a gigantic mistake; it denigrates and dismisses both a genre and a demographic to which we ought to be paying particular attention.

It's also inexact. A 2012 analysis of the Fifty Shades readership found that fewer than 30 percent of people who bought these books had kids at home. The truth is, we don't really know who's reading Fifty Shades. What we do know is that the bulk of consumers are women, that a significant enough proportion are Christian and married to warrant an astonishing amount of religious blogging on the subject, and that the main factor driving sales is word-of-mouth. Women are recommending these to friends.

So if we want to understand why Fifty Shades became a billion-dollar industry, let's just state the obvious. Millions of women are reading these books to help them climax. These are onanistic aides.

That's fine and healthy and worth admitting, because look: Most of what critics say about this franchise is true. It's not great. Much of what happens in it is abuse cloaked in the language of consensual BDSM, i.e. erotic role-playing around concepts of bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sado-masochism. The dialogue is amusingly clunky. The references to Ana's battling superego and id as her "subconscious" and "Inner Goddess" age fast. The worshipping of Christian's wealth are off-putting. And the fact that he's a manipulative stalker is treated as not just charming but correct — every time Ana defies him by doing something he says not to, his reasons for controlling her turn out to have been right.

And much of what happens in the series is genuinely, though unintentionally, funny: It's amusing that Ana was promoted to editor a week or so after being hired at her first job — on her own merit, we are assured. It's funny that the arch-villain expertly sabotaging Christian's helicopter turns out to be the disgruntled ex-editor of Seattle's smallest independent publishing house. There's a lot of silliness here.

But it's hot silliness, with oodles of plot compared to most porn. And its appeal actually is much more complicated than the summary suggests.

Take Christian: He isn't just gorgeous and rich, he's also well-groomed and well-dressed. In a culture that's decided a) that women aren't worth turning on visually and b) that men prove their heterosexuality by not caring about how they look, that's pretty novel.

Then there's the fact that he plans. He plans erotic scenes and fancy dates and takes care of all the details and logistics. The viral success of this GQ article advising men that the best Valentine's Day gift is to "make a plan" suggests this might be appealing to women who are simply exhausted of doing all the planning.

Then there's the fact that Christian actually spends a lot of his time in the book attending carefully to Ana. He's an able and dedicated reader of her emotions and moods and a consummate (and deeply appreciative) reader of her body. That matters for reasons having to do with both pleasure and pain. The pleasure angle is simple: Rather than focusing grimly on her genitals, Christian's "kink" in practice means that he dedicates a lot of erotic attention to the rest of Ana's body.

The pain side is more complex: One of the more curious features of sexual pain is how lonely it is. There's a very particular sadness to watching a partner (especially one you love, like a husband, who ostensibly cares about you) take pleasure in your body while you're in agony. Particularly when he knows you're in pain and continues anyway. Even if you've consented.

Fifty Shades offers an appealing alternative: If pain is going to be an aspect of your sexual experience anyway, here's someone who a) perfectly reads your body's pain and pleasure signals b) understands exactly how physical sensations connect to emotion and c) knows how to translate pain into pleasure. A lot of people might give away a lot of control to feel that understood — to have their pain witnessed, made meaningful, and incorporated into the pleasure they've been told they should be feeling.

All that said, Fifty Shades isn't your typical romance story. You can't explain its appeal by only talking about Christian's grooming habits, his attentiveness, his sexual skills, or his planning abilities. This book is centered on BDSM, and we have to talk about that — specifically, the power dynamics involved.

The erotic charge from BDSM stems partly from the temporary total transfer of power from one person to another. For example, the powerful partner (known as the dominant) might claim complete psychological and physical control over the powerless partner (the submissive) within agreed-upon parameters. These are often formalized in a contract.

If it is indeed true that married women are Fifty Shades' primary consumers, this might partly explain why: Consent is a thorny problem in marriage, and the trilogy — the first book especially — is erotically obsessed with contract theory around that very thing. Newcomers to this story might be surprised to learn that the first book is structured around the strikingly legalistic question of whether or not Ana will sign Christian's BDSM contract. The joke is that she never does; she holds out for the "hearts and flowers" of marriage. The subtext is that the BDSM contract and the marriage contract share a lot more than anyone quite likes to admit.

Take a deep breath. Still with me?

Okay. The scandal of the BDSM contract — the forbidden premise that thrills Ana to her core — is that it appears to ask the impossible. Christian's contract essentially asks the signatory to sign over ownership of herself. (It's that old paradox: Can you consent to give away your ability to consent? Can you agree to give up your right to disagree?) But the terms are actually neither as transgressive nor as alien as they sound, particularly if you live in a culture steeped in Christian marriage traditions.

"The Dominant accepts the Submissive as his, to own, control, dominate, and discipline during the Term," Christian's BDSM contract states. "A woman must learn in quietness and full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; she is to remain quiet," the Bible reads.

"The Dominant may use the Submissive's body at any time during the Allotted Times or any agreed additional times in any manner he deems fit, sexually or otherwise," says Christian's contract. "Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands," wrote Paul, adding that the church's submission to Christ models how "wives should submit to their husbands in everything."

"The Submissive shall serve the Dominant in any way the Dominant sees fit and shall endeavor to please the Dominant at all times to the best of her ability," says Christian's contract. "She who is married cares about the things of the world — how she may please her husband," says the Bible.

"The Dominant may discipline the Submissive as necessary to ensure the Submissive fully appreciates her role of subservience to the Dominant and to discourage unacceptable conduct," Christian's contract states. "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth," says God to Eve. "In pain you shall bring forth children; yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."

Fifty Shades makes this parallel explicit: At one point, staring at the word "obey" in the contract, Ana realizes it also shows up in the bride's traditional vow to "love, honor, and obey," and expunges that word from their vows when she and Christian marry.

But here's the surprising thing: What few cracks appear in these parallels between bride and submissive make the BDSM contract look like the better deal. In contrast to God's punitive sentence, the pain the submissive experiences is expressly for her pleasure. The Safeword proviso means that she has complete liberty to stop what's happening at any time, no questions asked. Unlike marriage, the term is limited to three months, and the submissive (who actually, as Christian explains, has "all the power") is free to end the contractual relationship at any time.

In short, the BDSM contract explicitly codifies, in a pleasingly shocking way, what much of the marriage contract hedges around but also — implicitly — expects. It's odd precisely because it seems to ask the impossible. Much in the way marriage does.

In The Sexual Contract, political theorist Carole Pateman defines a contract as "an agreement between two equal parties who negotiate until they arrive at terms that are to their mutual advantage. If marriage were a proper contract, women would have to be brought into civil life on exactly the same footing as their husbands." Historically, of course, they weren't. Pateman points out this didn't stop marriage "contracts" from happening anyway, or being called contracts, even when they were merely ceremonies: Brides were provisionally given just enough legal standing to consent to an arrangement that would once again subordinate them.

If you got married in the progressive era, you're perfectly conversant in the strange contortions we resort to when trying to reconcile contemporary expectations of equality in marriage with the hierarchical premise of the ancient institution. Take the question of the name change. Marriage is when two people become one, but maybe a little more him than her, and of course we all understand this is just a pretty fiction, but yes, you probably should actually change your name. It's just symbolic. Well, and literal. But you keep your job and your identity! (Except for your name.) Etc.

If you married and happened to have feminist leanings, you likely occupy a world where there's simply no universally acceptable answer to the question of the name change. Half the world will judge you because you didn't, the other half because you did. Fifty Shades actually explores this: When Ana gets married, she wants to keep her maiden name at work. Christian insists she change it, and so she does. But because she is proud, a college graduate, a professional woman, she has to rationalize the coercive dynamic that led to this erasure of her identity into something she actually wanted and chose. Otherwise, it would be pretty horrible.

I'm not interested in pronouncing on the naming question; what I'm trying to describe is a tortured space in which some women end up lying about their own desires in order to sanitize a story that would otherwise look oppressive or even abusive. You must say you want it in order not to be judged for accepting it.

This is not peculiar to women, by the way. It's a form of social desirability bias, a tendency by which people, rather than answer questions honestly, give the response they think looks best. There are two components to this tendency: One is impression management (you want people to think well of you). But the other, more pernicious one is self-deception: This is the story that you need to be true in order to hang onto your sense of yourself. Only an idiot would consent to be oppressed, therefore I must not be. Ana reasons that she wants to make Christian happy, and Christian wants her to change her name at work. Therefore, by a kind of transitive property that finesses her own desires on the matter, she must be fine with changing her name at work.

These mental contortions will be familiar to many women who have had to convince themselves they want what's already happening in order to obscure a coercive dynamic. In her article The Difference in Women’s Hedonic Lives: A Phenomenological Critique of Feminist Legal Theory, legal scholar Robin West calls this a transformation from the kind of "liberal self" we imagine when we talk about contract theory — the kind we expect to selfishly advocate for her own best interest — to what West calls the "giving self," a person who remains psychically and physically intact by giving to others what they want and might otherwise take.

West traces the root cause of this change partly to a woman's ambient fear of being abused or raped, and partly to her fear of the self-annihilation that would result if she directly confronted more intimate forms of coercion, especially in contexts that are supposed to be loving. What if your husband has sex with you when you don't want to? Call it "obligation sex" and make it something you've chosen to give. This is slippery terrain, especially in the context of marriage, an arrangement you entered into willingly. To protect the narrative of the marriage you chose, you pre-emptively change your entire sense of yourself.

If this is true (it certainly rings true to me), it might have serious consequences for our discussions about consent. Consent is contract theory; it presupposes that both negotiating parties are driven to maximally satisfy their own selfish desires. But if one party's experience of the world has led them to redefine themselves as a "giving self" in order to pre-emptively sanitize dynamics that would otherwise seem abusive, that contract gets wobbly. One party will not act in the service of her own desires because, realizing that her desires will not be respected, she stops having them. As West puts it:

[S]he embraces a self-definition and a motive for acting which is the direct antithesis of the internal motivational life presupposed by liberalism. The motivation of her consensual acts is the satisfaction of another's desires. She consents to serve the needs and satiate the desires of others. [The Difference in Women’s Hedonic Lives: A Phenomenological Critique of Feminist Legal Theory]

Many women fall into this way of being because it's self-protective. Our culture admires female self-abnegation, but it judges female victims to be stupid, pathetic, and weak. The result is that many people — particularly, but not exclusively, those with histories of abuse and sexual trauma — will wholly redefine themselves so as to avoid being so labeled and so judged. That redefinition has a cost: It alienates women from their own desires. If you can't want things and remain psychically whole, one solution is to stop wanting. Subordinate your desire to someone else's, channel your desire through theirs.

It seems to me that one problem plaguing our discussions of consent right now is that while some women tacitly operate mostly as "giving selves," and others as "liberal selves," the vast majority are caught somewhere between these two models, trying to make them both true. Many women strive to be confident self-advocates honoring their own desires. In other contexts, to cope with the thousand hidden insults to their bodily autonomy, this adaptive mode kicks in. They give so as not to be robbed.

It does not necessarily follow from all this that women deep down hate being able to vote and long to be beaten. What it means, I think, is that one fantasy many women share is the reconciliation of their actual orgasms with the impossible rules of the society they grew up in. Women have always tried hard to erotically assent to the lies they're told about how you get good sex, whether through marriage, or submission, or even our current theories about consent. None of it quite works: Bad sex was and remains a problem in America; behind every man's joke about a "frigid wife" is a woman who's done pretending otherwise. That the woman's side of what bad sex means is only now being discussed is both a sign of progress and an index of how exhausted women are from trying to sustain social fictions old and new about how women are supposed to get off. They're tired because social change is onerous. Because women have necessarily shouldered the bulk of that social adjustment. And because it still isn't done.

Rejecting the very system that programmed you is hard and constant work. It's exhausting to perform the confidence and competence you've been raised not to feel in the name of a change you hope is coming but aren't quite sure you deserve.

It makes sense, then, that many women are finding release in a story that pretends that all the stories the culture tells women about how sex is great if they just submit to men are true. The real fantasy of Fifty Shades is that turning yourself into a "giving self" will produce all the rewards the culture promised, great sex included.

The Danish radical feminist Maria Marcus once said of The Story of O, a 1954 bestseller similarly premised on retrograde fantasies, "I know no other book expressing so well all the contradictions involved in our image of womanhood. It features them so sharply and intensely that we cannot avoid feeling them in our bodies and deep down in our souls."

Fifty Shades is this generation's version of The Story of O. It's a story so upsetting that people find it erotic precisely because it's unembarrassed about unsayable compromises — and because, as potent fantasies do, it manages to translate that secret pain into mind-blowing, orgasmic pleasure.

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