Fifty Shades: William Giraldi / Jennifer Hamady / Lily Zheng

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A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I was working on an article about quality sexual literature.

The article is titled Beyond the Hype of Fifty Shades of Grey, and can be viewed in full at the OpEdNews website:

http://www.opednews.com/articles/Beyond-the-Hype-of-Fifty-S-by-Jess-C-Scott-Books_Culture_Sex_Sex-140814-381.html

The article features the expert opinions of ten professionals in the fields of academia, psychology, and media communications, 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 first three guest contributors!

P.S. Check out Part 2 and Part 3 for the full replies of the other guests.

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1. William Giraldi, professor at Boston University and Fiction Editor for AGNI:

William-Giraldis-Bunker

William Giraldi | Image from TinHouse

I’m not certain that men and women deserve better than Fifty Shades of Grey. Emerson once quipped that “people do not deserve good writing, they are so pleased with bad.” And I rarely disagree with Mr. Emerson. I’d tell men and women to put down these books because they are bad for their health, but people never listen to advice about their health.

Quality sexual literature can be found among the poems of Sappho and Catullus, in the satires of De Sade, and in the novels of Nicholson Baker. The Story of O and Venus in Furs are not masterpieces but they have some psychological depth and the prose isn’t toxic. I’d caution that the best sexual literature knows what to leave to the imaginative and what not.

2. Jennifer Hamady, voice coach, psychotherapist, and online columnist at Psychology Today:

jennifer-hamady

Jennifer Hamady

Thinking aloud, I don’t think the question is necessarily about whether people deserve better than Fifty Shades of Grey. In general I think wrong vs. right arguments aren’t the most helpful. Rather, I’d say that in our culture, which isn’t entirely open about and comfortable with sex, a book like Fifty Shades — or any book — can tend to have a more powerful influence than it might in a healthier context. I will say that the more violent aspects of the book concern me because — again — our current cultural context does not hold women on an equal footing to men (watch any music video if you need evidence). Whether or not it is intentional, the book therefore can be seen as agreeing with the idea that violence against and the subjugation of women is sexy, and even necessary for young women who want to be in relationships.

3. Lily Zheng, president of Kardinal Kink, an advocacy and support group for the kink community at Stanford University:

Stock Image from Dreamstime

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

Fifty Shades of Grey enjoyed so much success because it talked, frankly and explicitly, about the type of sexual and sensual encounters that our society idealizes but outwardly condemns. In the existing social landscape of almost Puritan-esque opinions on sex and intimacy (sex is something that, if enjoyed at all, can only be enjoyed a certain way) the existence of Fifty Shades was disruptive and subversive in many ways. Not only the book itself, but the surprising number of men and women (women, mostly) who purchased it indicated that the book was fantasy, a fantasy that resonated especially well with its fans.

Erotic literature is necessary because it fulfills desires; erotic literature is necessary because it helps create a culture in which the sensual is more normal, in which physical intimacy is as much a diverse and varied staple as emotional intimacy.

And that precise reason is why Fifty Shades isn’t good enough.

Fifty Shades of Grey is ultimately a tale of nonconsent. As the relationships between characters develop, nonconsent becomes increasingly stamped across interaction after interaction. There is no negotiating of scenes, no establishing of hard and soft limits, not even a facsimile of the consent rituals and focus on safety that the real life kink and BDSM scenes feature. Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t a story that could or should happen in real life. Fifty Shades is fantasy.

To some extent, that’s okay. It’s perfectly fine for fantastical or improbable tales to exist, and many are excellent in their own right. It becomes a problem, however, when people begin to mistake fantasy for reality. People read erotica to experience it. We seek the sensual because we project ourselves into the stories we read, and envision ourselves — tied up, gagged, begging for release, our bodies burning like firebrands — through the lens of the words on the page.

We deserve erotic literature. We deserve good erotic literature. We deserve realistic erotic literature. Argue all you want the Fifty Shades is “good,” but it’s unmistakably unrealistic. Worse still, most people who read it don’t know that.

Most people who read Fifty Shades find themselves fantasizing about or imagining the nonconsensual, dangerous interactions as legitimate, as positive, as desirable. Almost every young adult (and their mother, apparently) knows the general plot of the novel.

“It’s kinky BDSM stuff, right?”

But Fifty Shades is to kink as rape is to sex; they may both look the same on the outside but the differences are fundamental, substantial, and potentially dangerous.

The inaccurate and fanciful depiction of kink in Fifty Shades of Grey hurts both the existing kink and leather communities and nonkinky people alike. The wrong type of kink is normalized by this book, and whether or not we fancy ourselves purveyors of good literature, we deserve to read better novels.

(2) On quality sexual literature:

Quality sexual literature can be enjoyed in more than one way. Quality sexual literature engages with the reader aesthetically — the prose flows well, the flow is dynamic, the descriptions are vivid in lush, practical and concise exactly where they need to be — and viscerally — the writing evokes a physical or bodily reaction from the reader, whether that reaction be sexual, sensual, or emotional. However, the best sexual literature is these two things and more: the best sexual literature is relatable.

There is a difference between imagining the abstract notion of “bondage” and being able to conceptualize the excited negotiation, the handpicking of rope, the vocalizing of desires and fears all laid out bare on the bed long before any clothing comes off. There is a difference between imagining rope on your body and understanding the meaning of the tightness on your skin, the significance behind the vulnerability, the worth of that “yes, sir!” or “yes, mistress!”

Owning Regina, a novel by Lorelei Elstrom written in diary format, is a story about kink that meets that bar. Unlike Fifty Shades of Grey, there is no magic telepathy between people, no porno-levels of endurance, no “perfect” interactions or scenes, no encouraged nonconsent. Rather, this book displays kink as it is in real life: consensual, communicative, and imperfect, a dance between people.

The realism in this novel is impressive. The conflict feels real and pressing; the characters are deep, well-developed, and likeable, and most importantly, the writing tingles with that uncertain excitement that I can most accurately describe as the moment before knocking on the door of partner’s house. This is a diary — it’s not hardcore erotica, but it’s not a documentary either. It’s gritty, dirty, raw, and satisfying in a way that neither of the two are on their own.

I recommend this book because it isn’t fantasy kink. The triumphs the characters exult in are triumphs many practitioners of BDSM and kink, veterans and casual play partners alike, experience. The conflicts are conflicts everyone who has experienced kink with a partner must go through.

Kinky literature tends to be marketed towards those who have never experienced kink, with most people in actual kink communities scorning that brand of erotic literature. For that reason, when kinky literature succeeds with both kinky and nonkinky people alike, it is especially important to acknowledge and understand why.

Owning Regina is one of those few novels I have found that manage to meet the bar I have set for kinky literature.

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:

lonnie_barbach

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:

russell_stambaugh

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.