Why “50 Shades Of Grey” Is Good For Women

It finally has the world talking about female sexual desires. Shift’s Amy Odell and Anna North discuss the latest critique of the book in the new issue of “Newsweek.”

Amy: So people are getting upset about this cover story by Kate Roiphe in “Newsweek” about what sexually submissive fictional characters in pop culture say about our times. Like, the protagonist in “50 Shades of Grey” and Hanna in “Girls.”
Amy: To me it’s like, yes, women fantasize about sexual submission. Yes, that was a theme of “50 Shades of Grey.”
But it’s not news or a new cultural trend.
Anna: Yeah it’s not new, nor is anyone worrying about it.
I mean, I do think that pop culture and also porn have gotten very good at satisfying the fantasies of men, and have not paid much attention to the sexual fantasies of women.
Amy: Yes, agreed.
Anna: Much attention has been paid to the consumerist fantasies of women, a la “Sex and the City.” Having a giant apartment full of shoes.

Carrie Bradshaw’s closet, as immortalized in a blog post.

Amy: For all the world knows, fashion is our porn.
Anna: Right.
And so anytime anything strikes any sort of sexual nerve with women, and is also popular, everyone is like WHAT DOES IT MEAN.
Amy: But porn, generally, isn’t intended for women. It’s not made with our desires in mind, usually.
Frankly, “50 Shades of Grey” is great in that regard — getting people to talk about female fantasies.
Anna: Right. Breaking: women have them.
They are not always about men vacuuming, or about shoes.
Amy: Yeah, I hate where the conversation went with the book.
THIS IS BAD FOR WOMEN.
No, not really — it’s normal to want that kind of sexual role with a partner.
AND to fantasize about succeeding at work. And succeed at work. They don’t necessarily have to have something to do with each other, as Roiphe suggests.
Anna: Right.
Amy: I don’t think we should act like that is shameful.
When so many women think sexuality is a thing they should conform to
I.e. with consumerism, overarching notions about pleasing men sexually, etc.
Anna: Also I feel like if you talk to people who do S&M, they are frequently much better at communicating their desires than people who have vanilla sex, because they have to be.

Rihanna in her “S&M” video.

Amy: A lot of women don’t have the balls to voice their sexual desires at all with their partners. A lot probably don’t even know how – or realize they’re not.
Anna: Frankly, I do think pop culture bears some blame.
Amy: I do, too.
Anna: Because you rarely see a woman saying what she wants, and if she does, it is usually about the relationship — not about sex.
That’s fine too, of course.
But it’s not like women only want marriage and babies.
Amy: Nope.
Anna: I guess what I wish is that “50 Shades of Grey” had inspired a conversation about “what is the state of women’s erotica?”
“Is there better stuff out there?” (Yes.)
So why isn’t it more visible?
Why isn’t more sex in movies from a woman’s perspective?
Amy: The thing is, people KNOW what men like, generally.
No one’s CONFUSED about that.
Hence we don’t have 10,000 analytical essays about it whenever some piece of the zeitgest relating to it comes around.
Also, men aren’t nearly as scorned for, like, wanting to ejaculate on women’s faces.
Anna: There actually are think pieces on facials.
Amy: Not on the cover of NEWSWEEK.
Anna: Also I feel like men’s sexuality is treated as sort of inevitable. Like, well, that’s what they want. What are you going to do?
Women’s is supposed to be malleable.
Amy: Yeah.
Anna: Like, oh should she want this? Maybe not. Time to change what she wants.
You see this, for example, in all those books that tell you to be with someone you’re not attracted to.
No one tells men that, because it is assumed that they will not do it.
Or will be totally unhappy.
Amy: Yes.
Anna: I think it takes girls a really long time to distinguish between what they want and what other people want from them. (Obviously those things are intertwined.)
Amy: Women also have such a hard time knowing and articulating their desires that they might flail with a partner when a situation arises when they need to do just that.
And it’s normal for that to become: “she got crazy so I moved on.”
The message with that (and we see that archetype in pop culture all the time) is that it’s not okay to express what we want, so don’t bother learning how to do it.
Anna: Totally. You know what I like about this whole “50 Shades of Grey” thing? Is that I’ve seen women go into my local bookstore and just ask for the book by name.
Without any embarrassment.
This book that is widely known to be all about S&M sex.
The bookstore got so many requests from women that it’s like right in front now.
So even if it’s not high-quality, at least women aren’t shy about asking for it. That’s maybe a step.

Amy: Totally, yeah.
Like, guys aren’t shy about watching porn.
Or going to strip clubs
It’s expected. But it makes women blush.
Anna: Every guy would assume that it’s fine if he watches porn.
Amy: Yeah. And, honestly, so would their girlfriends. It’s expected that they are doing it — with frequency!
Anna: Completely.
Amy: And the thing is, if we’re going to obsess over the meaning of this “50 Shades” phenom, we shouldn’t discount what all that porn means for The World.
Because it often depicts a certain type of woman, which may be like who some people are, but not others.
Anna: Also a certain type of sex. Women coming really easily with little assistance.
Amy: Oh yes, that’s the worst. The WORST.
So many men in real life are surprised when it doesn’t just happen after a few minutes of intercourse.
Anna: I think it really gives young guys the idea that if girls don’t come immediately there is something wrong with them.
Amy: I think a lot of women struggle to understand that there is not “something wrong” with you if you can’t come through seven minutes of sex.
Anna: Yes. Maybe guys should have to read “50 Shades of Grey.”
Or some better erotica.
Amy: Haha yes! Women have fantasies and needs in bed, and men should consider those as much as their own.
Anna: So they know what women actually fantasize about.
Amy: Or… ask their partners what their fantasies are.
Anna: Right or that — a simpler approach.
Amy: There is a lot of discomfort surrounding those discussions, even between people in relationships, I feel.
Anna: I agree. And to be fair, on both sides, I think neither men nor women really learn how to talk about sex super well.
Amy: Nope. They don’t.
Or that fantasies are okay?
Especially women. They’re just a healthy part of sexuality that maybe we don’t act on.
Anna: This is one area where close friendships between women are super important.
Because that is a good way to learn that most women fantasize, that most women masturbate, that it is okay to not think about your boyfriend every time you masturbate.
All those things are easy to feel like are totally taboo unless you can talk to other women about them.
Amy: Totally.
Anna: And in that way, “Girls” is totally uplifting.
Because even with the gross sex, it shows women who are super close and care about each other and talk about everything.
Amy: Right.

Lena Dunham in “Girls.”

Anna: However Katie Roiphe, like many people, took only the grossness of the sex from that show.
When really Hanna on that show doesn’t seem to know what she likes or wants.
Amy: And is probably hanging out with this guy out of boredom.
Anna: Right. Or just wanting to feel wanted. Which are both common.
Amy: But also, if you want to have casual sex, that’s fine. It’s hard for women to understand that, too — that they can have casual sex with a guy, without committing to him, even if they know he kind of sucks. Maybe he satisfies a healthy need that they have?
Anna: Yeah and I think that message has gotten really misunderstood, so that people think feminism is telling everyone they MUST have casual sex all the time.
When really it is just about making it okay, permissible. As it has been for men for decades/centuries.
Amy: Yeah — figure out what works for you. If it fits into your life, great.
If not, fine!
Anna: Right. And in “Girls,” while her friends think the guy is not treating her well, which is true, it’s also clearly a show about someone figuring out what she wants.
She likes him (or thinks she does) although she is pretty clearly not getting off.
The reason it’s sad is: they are having casual sex, he is getting what he wants out of it, and it’s not clear that she is. She is not getting an orgasm, for instance.
Amy: Ugh. That’s the problem with casual sex!
Women feel like they can’t ask for what they want because there is no commitment.
Anna: And guys feel like they don’t have to try, maybe, because there is no commitment.
Amy: I do think a lot of men want to please their partners, whether they’re committed or not —
Anna: That’s true — I do think the guy on “Girls” is much worse than most dudes.
Amy: Which is something that we also don’t talk about. Like, a man’s level of desire to please his partner is largely a mystery. But a woman’s isn’t.
Anna: Also in porn the women are always having explosive orgasms, which clearly is hot to men.
They want the woman to get off.
Amy: Yeah. (Even though at least some of that has to be acting.)

Anna: But I do think that both men and women would be happier if it were easier for women to say what they wanted.
Amy: Yes, totally.
Anna: Because you’re right, I think guys do want to fulfill that.
Amy: Men commonly wonder what their female partners want. It’s just perhaps less a part of the mainstream dialogue we have about sex/relationships/dating. Because it’s not “oh no a SINGLE MAN” the way it is with single chicks.
I guess “50 Shades” is so popular because it articulates female desire.
Anna: That in itself is so rare that when a book does so, even poorly, it is big news.
And if only a book or movie or something actually did so well, it would be great.
Maybe “Girls” will do that.
Amy: Yeah, I hope so.
Anna: I hope what everyone realizes from “50 Shades of Grey” is that women’s desire can be big business, and that they act accordingly.
Amy: I would also love for the de facto reaction to popular thing written by a woman not be such instant scorn.
And focus on “what it got wrong.”
Anna: Yes.
Amy: We always look for the negative. But there is a very positive element to this book, as you just stated so well.
Anna: There is.
Amy: Yes, it might not be of quality.
Anna: But hopefully it paves the way for stuff that is
Amy: Totally. So have we reached peak vagina in this chat?
Anna: I think so.
Amy: 50 shades of vaginal!
Btw, have you seen the “that’s vaginal” cat?
Anna: Um no.
Amy: STOP.
Amy: This.
Anna: No I have not seen it. Watching now.
That is not a real cat.
Amy: Haha no. But it’s articulate.
Anna: That is true
Amy: Anyway if you need real cats, I’m pretty sure our website has you covered.

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