Attention '50 Shades' Copycats: Rip Off the Orgasms, Not the Whips and Chains

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This week's Diary of a Submissive tries to cash in on the year's big publishing craze. But it misunderstands what made the original so popular.

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If there's one question everyone in the publishing industry has been contemplating this summer, it's this: What accounts for the wild popularity of 50 Shades of Grey—a novel about a man who likes to tie women up and the virgin who falls for him? What secret need or deep yearning has the bestseller tapped into? And, crucially, considering it's become the world's fastest-selling adult paperback—surpassing the Harry Potter books, the Twilight series, and even The DaVinci Code—how can its success be replicated?

In a Newsweek cover story, cultural critic Katie Roiphe, a reliable firebrand and writer I admire, argued—dubiously—that the book appeals so much to modern women because they're so bored and burdened by all the professional, marital, and cultural power they now have that they yearn for someone to order them around in the bedroom. She writes:

It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming ... fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace, when they make up almost 60 percent of college students, when they are close to surpassing men as breadwinners ... a moment when—in hard economic terms—women are less dependent or subjugated than before. ...

Why is it so interesting to surrender, or to play at surrendering? ... it may be that equality is something we want only sometimes and in some places and in some arenas; it may be that power and all of its imperatives can be boring. ... It may be that, for some, the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality.

The people at Gotham Books, a Penguin imprint, must think Roiphe is on to something. Or else they're simply going along with a widespread practice in the publishing world that we'll call The Vampire Law: If one book that becomes a bestseller features characters who are unusual in some way—because they are, for example, vampires, or people who enjoy kinky sex—surely a number of other books featuring similar protagonists will also sell handsomely (or at least enough to make the bean counters happy). This week, Gotham is releasing a new memoir, Diary of a Submissive, by a pseudonymous British journalist, Sophie Morgan, about her experiences with dominant men. The first one she meets gives her a thorough but harmless smacking with the back of a hairbrush, which she enjoys so much it surprises her. The last man she describes is far more severe: He shackles her ankles to a chair, handcuffs her wrists behind her, and clamps her nipples with clothespins before walloping her clitoris 109 excruciating times with a wooden spoon.

The beating was her punishment for being a bad submissive and "disobeying" him by not sending an email she'd promised to send. "[I]t was a kind of agony I had never felt before," writes Morgan. "He made me count off the strokes and thank him for them and his pace was so fast that I was gasping out my thanks as fast as I could speak, as fast as I could process the pain." And yet, despite the physical torture of it, she is turned on by what he's doing: On stroke 109, she has an orgasm "so vicious and painful [that it] ... made me thrash against my bonds in a way that left me with marks around my wrists and ankles that I had to hide ... for a few days." As she goes on to explain, the experience was "freeing, cathartic and yet, at points, terrifying. He pushed me to the very edge of what felt acceptable ... all I cared about was him—pleasing him, satisfying him, not doing anything to give him reason to punish me. He was my world and for the first time I truly understood the kind of submission that consumes you."

Anastasia Steele, the narrator of 50 Shades, doesn't understand that kind of submission, not by a long shot. Nothing in the novel by E.L. James even comes close to the violence or intensity—or psychological novelty—of what Morgan describes. Though Anastasia happens to fall for a guy who considers himself a dominant, she doesn't indulge in "theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender" or find it "interesting to surrender, or play at surrendering." She's an obstinate, impudent young woman (with such a boring mind and unimpressive language skills that made it very hard for this reader to like her) who wishes that her impossibly wealthy boyfriend Christian Gray—a.k.a. "the most beautiful man on the planet"—were into normal sex. Far from feeling any pleasure in submitting to him, she gets turned on when she's in charge: After she initiates a certain sexual act, and notices that he is completely in her sway as a result, she thinks, "I feel so powerful; it's such an exhilarating feeling, teasing and testing him."

Now, sure: Anastasia is so into Christian that she gives some mildly kinky stuff a try, and finds she even enjoys some of it. All the same, she also agrees with him when he remarks that she doesn't have a submissive bone in her body. This novel isn't a fantasy of submission. It's a fantasy about finding a rich, handsome guy who's obsessively in love with you—and knows how to make you come.

As those with experience of such matters have noted, 50 Shades does not accurately portray a relationship between a dominant and his submissive. Rather, it's sadism for soccer moms—about as unnerving and culturally transgressive as the latest issue of Cosmo. (The descriptions of the sex scenes didn't make me feel dirty, but lines like, "My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves" made me want to wash my brain out with soap.) Being tied up and lashed, per se, is surely not what's fascinating the vast majority of the women who make up the 50 Shades fan base—and even if they think they want that, my money is on the odds that they wouldn't enjoy it. What women do want, though they seem to have a lot of trouble getting it, is both very simple and somewhat complicated: intense sexual pleasure of the kind that seems to come very easily to Anastasia whenever her erotically experienced boyfriend is around.

***

Statistics indicate that plenty of women aren't enjoying their sex lives nearly as much as Anastasia. 10 percent to 15 percent of women report being unable to climax under any circumstances, and between one-third and a half are dissatisfied with how often they reach orgasm, according to a National Library of Medicine fact sheet. Only about eight percent regularly have orgasms during vaginal intercourse; twenty-seven percent never do. That's not a problem for our headstrong heroine; she manages to have an orgasm every time she has straight-up intercourse with Christian—and has no fewer than three the night she loses her virginity.

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Maura Kelly is the author of Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-So-Great Gatsbys and Love in the Time of Internet Personals, a hybrid of advice column and literary criticism. Her op-eds, essays, and other writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Daily, Slate, and Salon.

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