Fifty Shades: Lonnie Barbach / Tania De Rozario / Avital Norman Nathman / Russell J Stambaugh

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My article Beyond the Hype of Fifty Shades of Grey features the expert opinions of ten professionals who comment on the cultural implications of the series, and share their recommendations for quality sexual literature.

I received some VERY lengthy and passionate responses, which I have compiled here on my blog, divided into three different posts. I could only feature excerpts in the above article, due to space constraints. Here are the full responses of the guest contributors #4-7!

P.S. Check out Part 1 and Part 3 for the full replies of the other guests.

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4. Lonnie Barbach, couple’s therapist and intimacy expert:

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Lonnie’s entire response is included in the article, so here is a short bio instead:

Dr Barbach’s work as a couple’s therapist for more than three decades and the publication of Going the Distance: Finding and Keeping Lifelong Love crafted with David Geisinger, Ph.D., her partner of 25 years, has defined her as an acknowledged expert on intimate relationships.

Dr Barbach has appeared on hundreds of local radio and television programs as well as most nationally televised talk shows, many several times, including Oprah, Good Morning America, The Today Show, CBS Morning News, and Charlie Rose.

In 2012, her first book, For Yourself: the fulfillment of female sexuality was recently ranked the #1 self-help book across all surveys carried out by the National Register of Health Care Providers in Psychology, the major credentialing organization for psychologists.  For Each Other: sharing sexual intimacy was ranked #4.

5. Tania De Rozario, award-winning writer on issues of gender and sexuality:

TaniaDeRozario

Well, I had the misfortune of hearing some excerpts from [Fifty Shades] before I got a chance to read it…and they put me of it forever. There’s good sex and then there’s bad writing.

I think there’s a lot of good writing to be found off the internet, actually. But you’ve got to sift through a fair bit of stuff to find it. And it’s usually from unknown authors :)

6. Avital Norman Nathman, a writer, advocate, and contract employee with the Yale School of Public Health:

avital

I’m happy to lend a few thoughts. I think women in particular deserve better in general. There’s a general sense that women readers will accept and enjoy sub-par quality, especially when it comes to erotic writing, and that’s simply not fair. There’s definitely an art and skill to writing in that genre and why shouldn’t folks receive the best, especially when they’re paying for it? Fifty Shades is an interesting case because it had a built in fanbase before it was even a published book. I think a lot of its popularity grew from the tight-knit community of  fanfiction readers that were there from it’s conception (as a Twilight fanfiction called Master of the Universe). And while the concept of the story is interesting, the execution could have been stronger. The good news is — there’s a ton of great erotica out there just wait to be read!

Instead of recommending just one book, I’m happy to point you to this roundtable I facilitated that offers some great suggestions!

Part 1: http://www.thefrisky.com/2013-08-27/real-talk-on-literary-erotica-part-1
Part 2: http://www.thefrisky.com/2013-08-29/real-talk-on-literary-erotica-part-2

7. Russell J Stambaugh, clinical psychologist and chairman of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) AltSex Special Interest Group:

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The Fifty Shades series is genre fiction. As such, the conventions of the genre have trumped realistic representation and good sex education at many points. While the vast majority of readers have not taken the novels as a call to action, either to try kink at home, or to seek out kink organizations where quality education about BDSM can be found, such organizations have seen a spike of interest attributable to the book series.

Market theory says people automatically get the entertainment they deserve. Aesthetic theory suggests mostly that they deserve better. Certainly, experienced denizens who enjoy BDSM lifestyles and sex play have created lots of critical discourse about how Grey and Steele are depicted, and problems with their communication. They think BDSM deserves better depiction.

But when you get down to it;  when genuine BDSM lifestyle practitioners describe the erotica they like, it doesn’t meet very high standards of Safe, Sane and Consensual practice, nor Risk-Aware Consensual Kink standards either.  Here are some things they liked:

The Story of O is very popular.  For years no one knew who Pauline Reage was.  Eventually she was revealed to be a writer/editor Anne Desclos at a European publishing house who wrote it for her male paramour on a dare.  He had made the rather French and arrogant claim that no woman could write decent erotica, so she wrote it somewhat to his tastes.  When the novel became a serious commercial success, their private debate was taken up by the critics, many of whom, thoroughly embedded in pre-feminist sensibilities, refused to believe that the author behind the pseudonym was actually a woman. It is by no means a catalogue of best kink practices.  Still, untold numbers of submissives have dreamed of an extended stay at Roissy, SSC or not!

Venus in Furs was Leoplod von Sacher-Masoch’s then scandalous novella of female dominance that so impressed physician Richard von Krafft-Ebing that he gave Masoch’s name to his new clinical syndrome sexual masochism.  Masoch’s early training as a lawyer and his active fantasy life led him to invent the first masochistic contract.  This is a cornerstone of play in Sacher-Masoch’s real life adventures, his book, and in Fifty Shades.  Christian administers the contracting process a great deal more like an End-User Licensing Agreement than a real kinkster would, perhaps because he’s a technology magnate.  More likely, however, it is because James couldn’t imagine keeping the contracting process sexy and foreshortened it to get to the good stuff.

The works of the Marquis de Sade are  probably better consumed as radical critical theory about personal freedom than as erotica.  It is easy to see how The Divine Marquis, imprisoned for genuine violence against women under l’Ancien Regime, then freed by the French Revolution got himself re-imprisoned for criticizing the Directorate for using the guillotine to dispatch opponents for purely abstract and political reasons, rather than proper passion.

Reading de Sade literally and then acting on his advice is an effective recipe for incarceration today.  His relentlessly transgressive vibe and explicit depictions still make de Sade a popular pornographer.

Excellent scene writers like Pat Califia, or Laura Antonieu have written much-admired works like Macho Sluts and The Marketplace that BDSMers find genuinely hot.  Calfia’s work has the special strength of crossing gender boundaries, an importsnt dimension of life in many BDSM communities that are not reflected in Fifty Shades.  For extra-credit, do not write Laura asking for the actual geo-location of The Marketplace.  She already gets plenty of such requests.

Finally, I would personally recommend the work of Mary Gaitskill, particularly Bad Behavior, a collection of short stories and Two Girls: Fat and Thin.  Gaitskill writes with economy, precision and feeling about outsiders and their sexuality.  By most, she will be read as serious fiction rather than erotica.  Bad Behavior contains ‘The Secretary,’ from which the screenplay for the Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader movie (2002) was adapted.

Fifty Shades: Russ Linton / Cliff Burns / Nick Shamhart

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My article Beyond the Hype of Fifty Shades of Grey features the expert opinions of ten professionals who comment on the cultural implications of the series, and share their recommendations for quality sexual literature.

I received some VERY lengthy and passionate responses, which I have compiled here on my blog, divided into three different posts. I could only feature excerpts in the above article, due to space constraints. Here are the full responses of the guest contributors #8-10!

P.S. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 for the full replies of the other guests.

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8. Russ Linton, speculative fiction writer and former FBI Investigative Specialist:

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Hi Jess: Glad to have inspired you in your writing and I’m amazed that anyone ever found that comment of mine buried on Bransford’s high traffic blog. While I have much respect for any writer making it in this tough industry, I couldn’t fathom the Fifty Shades apologist responses. The book was poorly written. I won’t deny it was extremely successful, but to argue it was -not- poorly written was hard for me to understand.

I’m not sure I’m an expert on the subject. I am a writer and I read enough of Fifty Shades to know it was badly executed. I don’t regularly read erotica, however.

But, to answer your questions (may require a bit of editing):

Of course people deserve better. We deserve better books, film, television — all manner of stories which explore sexuality.

Mostly we deserve better quality in literature, especially from traditional publishing houses which continue to claim some sort of supremacy over self-published authors. If they want to maintain the illusion that they are the gatekeepers of that quality, they can’t then snatch up poorly written work and sell it solely based on the titillation factor. If they want to legitimize sexuality in writing, they should find a manuscript that isn’t an absolute train wreck and put their resources behind those authors – they do exist.

Fact remains, however, that erotica is firmly a self-publishing and indie publishing pursuit. As a society, we are much more willing to let mutilation, murder and blood letting of all kinds infiltrate our fiction than we are to allow people to explore their sexuality. Amazon has shown its contempt, along with many distributors, by tightening rules on erotica and at no point did traditional publishers come flying to the rescue. So the “better” stuff is out there if you want to look beyond the high-profile, traditional channels who have only opportunistically grabbed the spotlight of this genre.

I have to recommend the work of fellow critique partner, Jennifer August. I’d recommend any of her books as I’ve critiqued her prose and even learned from her detailed writing and plotting processes. She writes erotica, but at the same time, is concerned about the craft as much as she is the authenticity of the experiences which her characters share. Well-written, well plotted, character-driven smut of the best kind.

9. Cliff Burns, (outspoken) literary pioneer and founder of Black Dog Press:

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YES, men and women deserve better than Fifty Shades of Grey. Because the sexual act, regardless of your orientation, is a ballet, a perfectly breathed and measured poem. It is peerless brush technique and faultless meter and syntax. It reveals the paucity of talent in the Mona Lisa and makes a mockery of the Grand Canyon. It is NOT a tuneless, idiot orchestra, conducted by a tone deaf four year old. It deserves better than Crayola scratchings of sexual congress, stick figure intercourse. Cheap graffiti in a filthy toilet stall. Sexuality is our most fearless and pure expression as human beings. Fifty Shades reduces it to a mere bowel movement.

The hottest sex scene I can think of, at least on paper, is a torrid moment about forty or fifty pages into Terry Southern’s Blue Movie. There are also erotic poems like Yeats’ “Leda & the Swan” and verses of quiet yearning by Sappho. Long, sumptuous passages in D.H. Lawrence’ silly, pornographic “routines” scattered throughout the work of Wm. S. Burroughs. Henry Miller’s up close and personal couplings, genital lice and all. Something for all tastes.

* Cliff Burns’ thread on LibraryThing contains more suggestions for quality sexual literature.

10. Nick Shamhart, public speaker and contributing writer to Esquire and Vibe:

nick_shamhart

(1) On whether men and women deserve better than Fifty Shades of Grey:

Art is of course subjective. Personally I shudder to label a Bodice Ripper as art, but some people consider Robert Mapplethorpe to be an artist. It’s a matter of personal choice — the externalization of the internal.

That said, to tear apart the Fifty Shades trilogy would be unfair. The phenomenon that the books stirred about had little to do with the quality of story telling, the prose, or the presentation. What happened was that the populace brought it upon themselves. Worldwide reading trends are quite sad. Entertainment on demand fired a bullet pointblank into the floundering corpse that was the publishing industry. The statistics for the USA are nothing shy of terrifying. 58% of Americans will not read a book after high school. One in ten thousand Americans is an avid reader, meaning they read more than one book a month.

What happened with the Fifty Shades books was a direct result of those numbers. When people don’t read they have little to use as a basis of comparison. So, instead of E.L. James’ books being swept into the growing heap of erotica, with the likes of Steele, Collins, and other ladies that have been working that trade for decades, people took notice.

Social Media, and its fickle trends helped word spread about the books.

It was the same ecumenical ripple effect that Rowling’s Potter books had. They were fine for what they were, in that case fantasy for Fifty Shades erotica, but for true avid readers that could compare the books to a much broader and larger personal library they were nothing special.

That’s why children like simple, brightly colored toys. They are stimulating, and the child has no previous experience to say whether the toy is good or bad. Most of the staunch supporters of the Fifty Shades book that I have met read very few books annually. Half a dozen at best, so if they have read less than a hundred books in their lifetime. Who is to say what they are basing their love of Fifty Shades against?