Why are Women Devouring Fifty Shades of Grey?

The porn industry must be throwing a fit right now. The adult book Fifty Shades of Grey has sold over twenty million copies in record time, and sales are still going strong. How did E.L. James, a first-time author who was a television executive, manage to pull off a feat that has eluded the porn industry—getting women to see sexual cruelty as hot sex? In my interviews with them, porn producers regularly bemoan the fact that they just can’t seem to make porn that appeals to the majority of women.

I can’t say I am surprised that the normally business-savvy porn industry has been bested by a novice, given the somewhat ridiculous advice Adult Video News (the porn industry’s premier trade) journal offered to pornographers interested in attracting more women to their websites. Arguing that only 15% of Internet porn consumers are women, AVN suggests that to attract women, “adult Webmasters need to create sites where the primary elements are interaction and education.” And what would these sites look like? “Such sites would allow women to obtain advice, perhaps during teleconferences with experts, have elements of cybersex, and should play into women’s relationship fantasies” (http://business.avn.com/articles/16315.html).

I can’t imagine women flocking to websites where they can get handy hints from experts mid-arousal. But The AVN article did get something right: women are flocking to a book that plays into, and exploits, “women’s relationship fantasies.” The fantasy they recommended, “a story of how a woman got a rich and powerful boyfriend” because she is good in bed, is very close to the formula James followed. But this story line alone isn’t going to sell to women, as the porn industry knows only too well.

While much of the sex in Fifty Shades is as cruel and sadistic as in mainstream porn, it is expertly packaged for women who want a “fairy tale” ending. In male-targeted porn, the woman is interesting only for as long as the sex lasts. Once done with her, the man is onto the next, and the next, and the next.… She is disposable, interchangeable, and easily replaced. No happy ending here for women.

In Fifty Shades, however, the naïve, immature, bland Anastasia is, for some unfathomable reason, the most compelling woman our rich, sadistic, narcissistic hero has ever met, and he not only kisses her during sex (something you rarely see in Internet hardcore porn) but he doesn’t move on to the next conquest once he has had his wicked way with her.  In fact, he actually marries her and confesses undying love. As one of the female fans I interviewed said, this is like Pretty Woman all over again.

Indeed, Fifty Shades is about as realistic as Pretty Woman. How many prostitutes do you know who end up living in marital bliss with a former john? I would guess about the same number of women who live happily ever after with a man who dictates, in a written contract, what to eat and wear, and when to exercise, wax, and sleep. In my work,
I meet many women who started out like our heroine, only to end up, a few years later, not in luxury homes, but running for their lives to a battered women’s shelter with a couple of equally terrified kids in tow. No happy ending here, either.

In his book on batterers, Lundy Bancroft provides a list of potentially dangerous signs to watch out for from boyfriends. Needless to say, Mr. Grey is the poster boy of the list, not only with his jealous, controlling, stalking, sexually sadistic behavior, but his hypersensitivity to what he perceives as any slight against him, his whirlwind romancing of a younger, less powerful woman, and his Jekyll-and-Hyde mood swings.  Any one of these is potentially dangerous, but a man who exhibits them all is lethal.

And yet women of all ages are swooning over this guy and misreading his obsessive, cruel behavior as evidence of love and romance.  Part of the reason for this is that his wealth acts as a kind of up-market cleansing cream for his abuse, and his pathological attachment to Anastasia is reframed as devotion, since he showers luxury items on her. This is a very retrograde and dangerous world for our daughters to buy into, and speaks to the appalling lack of any public consciousness as to the reality of violence against women.

Fifty Shades also reveals just how pornographic our culture has become over the last decade or so. While the old Harlequin romance novels had narcissistic heroes who toyed, sexually and psychologically, with their much younger prey, however remote and emotionally challenged he was, the hero did not have a torture chamber tucked away in his basement. Fifty Shades of Grey is Harlequin on steroids, a kind of romance novel for the porn age in which overt sexual sadism masquerades as adoration and love. New as this is, the ending remains depressingly the same for real women who end up falling for the Mr. Greys of the world.

GAIL DINES is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. Her latest book is Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality (Beacon Press). She a founding member of Stop Porn Culture (stoppornculture.org).

More articles by:
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It