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Porn Lit: Why the S&M "50 Shades of Grey" Is Freaking Everyone Out

The erotic lit-sensation is nothing new, but a collection of classic archetypes about gender and sex.

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If you want to go back even further into literary history, you'll find this story echoes even more classic tropes; the seduction plot is an essential part of the English novel's long life. You can certainly find echoes of of Samuel Richardson's  Pamela in Fifty Shades' ploddingly written pages. Pamela is one of the most important early English novels, whose plot consists entirely of our virtuous servant heroine writing letter after letter to her parents relating her master's repeated attempts to rape and seduce her (over and over again for hundreds of pages). Her ever-successful resistance results in her falling in love with him despite the whole rape attempt thing, and finally convincing him to marry her.

Around the same era as Pamela made pages turn throughout Britain, the underground literary sensation was Fanny Hill: Or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the first mainstream porn novel, all about an innocent country girl's eventually willing corruption into the sinful libidinous lifestyle of the big city. It all sounds familiar, doesn't it? A less kind reviewer might say that Fifty Shades is a combination of clichés rather than archetypes, but clichés are common for a reason--people like them. 

Fanny Hill'sspot in the literary annals, along with sexually explicit gothic novels like The Monk, demonstrates what snobs who dismiss Fifty Shades don't want to remember: readers have always read for pleasure, in its most literal sense, as well as for edification. There's nothing unexpected about readers of all gender persuasions liking their obvious fantasies-- or as Maya Dusenbery points out, fantasies that interact with social rules and norms. As any sex expert will tell you, domination and submission are common fantasies with both men and women. As "Leader of the Pack" and its ilk reminds us, women finding the lost boy beneath the hard man is an ever-present cultural theme. And there's a correlating fantasy out there with gender roles reversed--think about that age-old genre of male-penned rock songs about mysterious women who are really just sad girls (Cat Stevens' "Sad Lisa" or anything by the Counting Crows).

But here's the thing: when fantasies cater to readers who are not straight white men, they're treated differently. Imagine a thousand concern-trolling pieces about James Bond and spy novels: "Do men just want to be spies and seduce women because of the recession?"

 As Ester Bloom notes at the Huffington Post, the hubbub is a gender thing:

Ultimately, the BDSM buzz around  Grey seems like a red herring. What shocks the media is not that women are paying to read about a naïve college student submitting to a relative stranger; it's that women--even adult, married women with children--are jonesing to read about sex at all.

As a society, we tend to ignore Harlequin's massive success, or treat it as some kind of anomaly; and we seem more comfortable with the long-running joke that Porn for Women is men doing housework than the idea that women also like their raunch, including material that's less-vanilla and more Karamel Sutra. 

Exactly. And as for the sex scenes in the novel themselves, author E L James gets to have her sex-positive feminist cake and eat her patriarchal normativity too. Anastasia loves a lot of the kinky sex--loudly and repeatedly, and even has dreams about it. But she also repeatedly claims she's mostly submitting out of love, or should I say passionate "lurve" for Christian. To which I say, this is unsurprisingly exactly like the reason readers love Fifty Shades' parent YA novel,  Twilight: it's selling women a titillating read that comforts and reaffirms socially prescribed gender roles at the same time.

 
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