The bondage-inflected romance novel 50 Shades of Grey has topped the New York Times bestseller lists for 10 weeks, followed at numbers two and three by its two sequels. It's been most popular with women, especially moms, leading many to call it (dismissively or worshipfully, depending on their point of view) "mommy porn." So on Friday, SiriusXM convened a radio fan forum, moderated by Kim Alexander and "Just Jenny" host Jennifer Hutt, to determine what about the book gets moms so hot.
The sex in 50 Shades is great, said a caller named Lisa, but what she really liked about the novel wasn't the bondage. It was the way wealthy businessman Christian Grey does what his lover, the young student Anastasia Steele, wants: "Most guys are like, 'All right, give me a blowjob.' [...] He takes care of her."
In the book, Christian Grey washes Ana's hair, he puts money in her bank account, he gets her to eat — and, of course, he does everything she wants sexually. And while Hutt and Alexander thought Grey's behavior sometimes verged on the "stalkerish," fans who called in were captivated by the fantasy of a man who does everything his lover needs — and does it without being asked.
A caller named Deena, a stay-at-home mom, said the books had inspired her to new heights of vibrator overuse: "My vagina is sore." She was "jumping" her husband more often too, but he wasn't tying her up like Christian. "If anyone was going to do the tying," she said, "it was going to be me, because I'm more the initiator." She said she wasn't completely satisfied with this state of affairs — and perhaps Grey was an appealing hero for her in part because he took matters (literally) into his own hands. Hutt said that for women, especially moms, this kind of take-charge attitude had a lot of power: "Ana is adored by Christian Grey, and I think that moms want to be adored and ravaged."
Of course, not every man is Christian Grey. A caller named Carl, a truck driver from Washington, D.C., said guys "don't know what to do" to please women sexually: "You've got to be real open about it," he explained. But Hutt opined that part of the appeal of the trilogy was that Ana didn't have to say what she wanted — Grey just knew what to do. For women, she said, the need to always communicate their desires can be a "burden": "Why does there have to be a fucking instruction manual to fuck me?"
It's become generally accepted that communication is the key to good sex — communication tips have become a cornerstone of sex guides for everyone from Christian couples to sex slaves. But talking can be difficult, and maybe the popularity of 50 Shades is in part a backlash against the admonishment to talk, a sign that sometimes people yearn for someone who just knows. A Seattle woman expressed this sentiment in a Craigslist ad that went viral in 2008, under the heading, "Just fucking fuck me, already." And so did Jessa, of Girls, when a man she picked up in a bar asked if it was okay to put his hand in her pants, and she responded, "Never ask me that again in my whole life." Maybe 50 Shades of Grey speaks to women's desire not to have to speak.
Katie Roiphe opined in Newsweek that the book's popularity showed that modern women, successful at work, secretly yearned to be submissive in bed. But the fans at Friday's event seemed less interested in submitting than they were in being effortlessly, totally understood. The emphasis on communication is at least in part a response to restrictive mores that told women they shouldn't voice their desires at all. But speaking up can also be hard work, and it's no surprise if overworked women — especially moms, who spend a lot of their time pleasing others — want their sexual needs fulfilled without having to spell them out. For fans like Deena and Lisa, 50 Shades may be less about giving up power than about giving up responsibility, less about being dominated than about being served.
But as Carl points out, men aren't mind-readers. 50 Shades of Grey is a fantasy, and real people usually aren't as naturally in sync as Christian and Ana. And this may be an area where the book can actually help — a caller named Shawn said that in his dating life, "This book has taken the learning curve of knowing someone to step 10." He said when he met fellow fans of the book, he already knew they might be interested in more adventurous sex. And, he said, "The book has given us permission to do the naughty things that so many conservative ideals in our lives have kept us from doing."
Hutt advised him to be careful, because not all women who liked the book were interested in being tied up (of those who called into and sat in on the show, none said they actually enjoyed bondage). Still, maybe the book can function as a kind of shorthand, a way for women to talk about what they want without having to spell everything out. Carl suggested that women print out sections and hand them to their partners so they know what to do. And while this may not be for everyone (Hutt said her husband would make fun of her), for some women, 50 Shades could take some of the pressure out of communication. Maybe the book can do the talking for them.