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:
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!
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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.
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:
(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.