The assumption is that it must be the content, which includes sex scenes involving BDSM (which stands for bondage, discipline and sado-masochism), otherwise known as kinky sex.
The incredible success of the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Trilogy (30 million copies sold and counting…) has sent shock waves around the globe with commentators everywhere trying to explain how this really very ordinary book could have been such a big hit.
How, the commentators wonder, could so many people want to read something that includes such ‘abnormal’ sex scenes? Well, it could be that people like reading about something they have no interest in, or want an excuse to frown upon. But 30 million copies…? Could it be that the content is actually speaking to something that people actually like? Something that, to varying degrees, titillates or arouses us? Could it be that a lot of people are at least a little bit kinky?
We like to categorise people in this society, put them in boxes, label them as one thing or another, especially when it comes to sex. You’re either gay or straight, open-minded or frigid, perverted or normal.
In reality though, it’s not either or, we’re on a continuum. There are spectra of sexuality. Some of us are very open-minded and adventurous and others really quite limited (and it’s likely to vary throughout our lives). Looking at the spectrum of sexual orientation, some of us are completely heterosexual and some of us are completely homosexual, most of us are somewhere in-between.
In regard to the sexual orientation spectrum, at least we can talk about it. Gone are the days when homosexuality was considered a mental problem, an act against God or in any way a perverted abomination. For the most part in this society we accept that it’s normal to be homosexual.
Perhaps acceptance of kinkiness is where we were forty years ago in relation to homosexuality: it’s starting to be accepted, by the experts and the mainstream, that this is not a perversion, it doesn’t need ‘fixing’ and it’s innate in some people and not others. The professionals now accept that if BDSM is undertaken between consenting adults in a safe and respectful manner, then its fine. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but then hey, maybe you drink Earl Grey and they prefer peppermint. That is, it’s just a matter of taste.
So maybe the 30 million plus readers of the trilogy are tapping into the innate possibility of something within themselves. Or maybe it’s giving them permission to accept and explore erotic possibilities. For a lot of mainstream people kinky elements of sex are already part of their sexual play. Plenty of people use blindfolds, handcuffs (even if they are pink fluffy ones), engage in some hair pulling or biting or digging in of nails while in the throes of passion. They may not have a St Andrew’s Cross set up in the corner of the bedroom, but they might have a number of toys and props that heighten sensation and allow them to play in the often delicious borders of pleasure and pain.
It’s just like food really. Some people are complete vegetarians and others are big meat-eaters. Most people are somewhere in-between, and where you are on that continuum depends on your taste. It’s the same with liking savoury or sweet food; eating frequently or sticking to meal times; being a gourmet who puts a lot of time and effort into food, or someone who’s happy with microwaving a TV dinner; being a foodie who loves to try new and different taste sensations or someone who sticks to the tried and true meat and three veg.
Within your home you have to negotiate eating so that everyone’s preferences are met. The frequency you eat, the quantity of food, the availability of food, the quality of the food, the type of food, the way it’s presented, where you eat, who you eat with, when you eat; as well as what you do if you’re not hungry, or if you don’t like the food, or if you’re finding it any way unsatisfying, or you don’t feel like cooking; not to mention who plans the meals, who does the shopping, who does the cooking, who cleans up after…
It’s the same with sex. This I believe is one of the most important, and strongest, messages in the 50 Shades Trilogy: you have to negotiate your sexual relationship with your partner. In the trilogy the two main characters are constantly negotiating and pushing their boundaries around her need for intimacy and his for kinky play.
I have to say that by the third book their endless discussions do make for quite tedious reading, but then, it’s not meant to be high literature. The fact they do it though, is illustrative for every couple.
She's pushing her boundaries re BDSM and he's pushing his through allowing intimacy. It's scary for both of them, they have their freak-outs but they keep working through it. For a start, they both experiment a bit and explore the possibility that they might each like the other’s tastes. It’s not always easy for either of them, yet coming from a place of commitment, with honesty and respect for each other’s struggles, they craft a positive sexual relationship that is mutually desirable and satisfying.
So much of my own work with couples is around this very topic - how to talk with each other about sex. So many couples never do to talk about it, they just fumble along hoping or assuming that their partner is ok with whatever they’re doing; or they stick to same old sexual script that is safe, if a little predictable and dull. It’s rather like serving the same meals over and over again without ever asking whether everyone likes it, or expressing whether you do, and never ever experimenting with variations or whole new dishes.
If you accept that we all have different tastes, and that’s ok (sushi and spaghetti have both at times been looked at with suspicion but are now mainstream cuisines), and that there are spectra of sexuality (having occasional fantasies about same-sex liaisons does not make you homosexual any more than tying your partner to the bed means you’re on your way to setting up a dungeon in the spare room (not that there’s anything wrong with that if you do.)
Sex, like food, is supposed to be enjoyable. More so than food in fact: to get all the health and wellbeing benefits from sex (and by that I don’t just mean intercourse, I mean all aspects of intimate relating), it has to be pleasurable. If it’s not, you don’t get the benefits. Our bodies and psyches are designed to respond positively to sexual pleasure. If we limit our pleasure options, then we won’t reap the potential benefits. Exploring our tastes within all the different spectra of sexuality opens us up to ongoing positive sexual experiences.
The 50 Shades Trilogy might be mostly trite romance, but the main characters do successfully negotiate and craft a positive sex life, and so we assume, do live happily ever after…
This was originally published in MindFood Magazine as Fifty Shades of Sexuality