Fifty Shades of Grey: Has It Changed the Way Women Think About Sex?

Photo credit: Todd Mecklem

Photo credit: Todd Mecklem

No matter how you feel about ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ one must admit it has opened up our national conversation about sexuality,” says sex educator Elle Chase.

In response to the recent movie release and blockbuster hit, Elle Chase reflects on the fame of this story and why the book trilogy resonates with so many women. In many ways, she argues, it has actually changed the way women think about sex and sexuality. Elle brings up three very interesting and original points that many critics have overlooked.

‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ has changed the way we think about sex in at least three ways:

  • The book was released during the economic recession. Such hardships have forced many people to reflect on their basic needs, but also find escape from the stressors of work and joblessness. Our carnal desires are something we do have control over, and it has no monetary cost!
  • Due to massive public acceptance of the trilogy, women are finding it easier to openly talk about traditionally taboo subjects like female sexual pleasure and fantasy.
  • It is not a standard love story. It isn’t even about BDSM. It is about a woman’s self discovery. Our sexual experimentations (or lack of experience) play an important role in the process of self discovery for each one of us.

This post was originally published on smutforsmarties.com

BY ELLE CHASE | ElleChase.com

Image from smutforsmarties.com

Image from smutforsmarties.com

By now, you’d have to be living under a rock if you haven’t at least heard of the E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, let alone not read the trilogy. Fifty Shades is Twilight for the “Soccer Mom”, and just as poorly written, yet women can’t get enough of it … in fact, no one can. Sex clubs, sex shops and even New York’s Museum of Sex are having Fifty Shades themed events. Even cottage industries of vanilla-friendly BDSM seminars and ladies nights have popped up faster than you can say “Yes, Sir, may I have another?” Dateline, Primetime, Nightline – all the news shows have covered it since it’s blockbuster release in 2011, including the dependably milque-toast morning shows. Back in 2011, even Psychology Today and People Magazine, two publications that couldn’t be more different, had written articles about the Fifty Shades phenomenon. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about Fifty Shades, and not only did the E.L. James blockbuster birth a movie franchise, but it continues to inspire merchandise, news articles, events and sex toys. In fact, even one of the bastions of conservative family ideals, Target, is selling Fifty Shades of Grey sex toys. But why did a poorly written romance novel, originally self-published as a fan-fiction e-book, capture the imagination and sex drive of American women? Erotica isn’t new, and neither is BDSM.

Why is this particular book resonating with so many women? I have a few ideas:

#1 IT’S THE ECONOMY, STUPID

Timing. My feeling has always been that under times of socio-economic stress or crisis that people tend to move inward and reflect on what they really have in life, what they can call their own. Taking personal inventory and whittling ones needs down to just the basics illuminates within us what we really care about, what we have control over and how it adds to our life. In a time of economic unreliability, we are forced to define what it is that really makes us happen, what we really need and how to pare down all the extraneous trappings of a life distracted by panaceas of success. Without the sparkly diversion of “things” we want or need, discovering that there is nothing more “our own” than our bodies and our sexuality, can be a realization that changes how we look at sex forever. Sex: if we’re not doing it, we’re thinking about doing it because let’s face it … it’s fun, it’s free and it feels good.

To paraphrase John Mayer, our bodies “are a wonderland” … a wonderland of sensation, feelings and hormones that can give us great pleasure. What could feel more exciting and enticing than a semi-subversive roll-in-the-hay with your neighbor? Or, letting go of your Type-A personality and allowing someone else call the shots … in bed? Maybe the scintillating thought of sharing a surruptitous touch with a stranger on a train, has put a little spring in your step or devilish grin on your face? Our sexual desires are inherent, and for some, might not have been exploited to their fullest potential. Feeling free to indulge in our carnal desires, is the gateway to exploring our sexual selves or at least choosing whether we indulge or not. In a recession, there are very few things we feel we have control of, and even fewer that has the emotional and physical potential to bring us a respite from the stressors and the financial constraints of seeking out a living.

In 2011, Fifty Shades of Grey arrived at such a time of economic upheaval. It’s no accident that it garnered it’s initial success by word of mouth as a free online publication. Mostly hetero/cis women sought out distraction from the hamster wheel of daily life and, in the face of joblessness, foreclosures, war and waning affordable healthcare, and made this book a must-read. Easy and inexpensive escapism into a world of passion, lust and romance … as J. Lo says “Love don’t cost a thing,” and that is precisely the appeal of a Rabelaisian fantasy like Fifty Shades of Grey.

#2 WE’RE MAD AS HELL AND WE’RE NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE!

For far too long in western culture, women’s sexuality has been at the very least marginalized and at the most extreme, vilified. In modern society, women are not portrayed as wanting sex. In fact, if you grew up during any part of the women’s movement, you might’ve been led to believe that ‘sexual freedom’ for a woman only meant she had the right to say “no.” However, as a woman and a feminist, I have benefited from the freedom of choice to say “yes,” to my control over my sexuality, “yes” to how I choose to express it and “yes” to sexual pleasure. It seems that Fifty Shades was just the gateway for some women- women who may have felt stultified sexually, to give themselves permission to explore an enjoyable sex life.

Nature dictates that we are all sexual and sensual beings. It’s beginning to dawn on the modern woman that sexual pleasure isn’t just acceptable for men, but just as acceptable for women. Because of the popularity and the subsequent main stream media frenzy of Fifty Shades of Grey, women are feeling more empowered to talk about what sexual pleasure means to them, regardless of whether they are, or are not into “BDSM.” This is a huge step in the evolution of female sexual acceptance where shame had shrouded it for centuries. Through the public acceptance of Fifty Shades of Grey, women have started to give themselves permission to accept and seek out sexual pleasure. These same women began to feel as free to explore their sexual urges as men had been doing for since time immemorial.

It stands to reason, that women who have found sexual liberation in the E.L. James’ books, might possibly be more open to teaching their daughters that sex and the pleasure we derive from it is healthy, and that their right to express it verbally or physically is nothing to be ashamed of. Without trying to, Fifty Shades of Grey has taken away a bit of the taboo for a certain segment of the female population. Women who normally didn’t discuss “such things” are now sharing the titillation and thrill they get from reading modern erotica. Because this book has been so popular, the discussions have started and have even freed a great many women from the bad kind of ties that bind.

#3 THIS IS NOT ABOUT BDSM

Quotation-Tristan-Taormino-freedom-sexuality-human-feminism-Meetville-Quotes-21462-300x205Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t a book about BDSM. It’s not even a love story. At its core, this book is an allegory of one woman’s unexpected journey of self-discovery. The heroine, smart yet un-experienced, yields to her feelings, and follows Mr. Grey on a titillating sexual adventure. She’s not an idiot, she recognizes how extreme and foreign her situation with Mr. Grey is, and struggles with it. Yet, measured, she feeds her desires and discovers, in the process what she does, and does not like about this specific kind of sex.

Experimenting with our turn-ons and turn offs is an essential part of discovering what kind of sex we like best and, therefore, having a satisfying sex life. After all, how do we know what we like, if we don’t even know what we don’t like? We try out what makes us curious in other parts of our lives; like trying new foods or choosing an exercise we enjoy (or at least don’t hate). Why should it be any different with sex? E.L. James has given us a sort a heroine’s journey of sexual self-discovery and we see ourselves in that journey. It’s empowering.

Even if we don’t identify with the characters in the book – we want to, it’s the pull of sexual pleasure. For some of us, we’ve masked the seduction of sexual adventure and enjoyment, putting it on the back-burner in order to (perhaps) build a career, take care of a family member or build our own families. Because of this, the tug of this pilgrimage can come late in life, if we allow it to at all.

Regardless of when we feel compelled to go on a sexual discovery journey, we all must. We all deserve to experience passion, discover what leads us to it, and recognize there are many different roads to take and ways to travel there. Fifty Shades of Grey illuminates just one of those paths and ignites in the reader a contemplation of one’s own passage through the hallowed halls of our sexuality.

Unsure what size

elle Sex educator, writer and coach, Elle Chase is best known for her award-winning and highly trafficked sites, LadyCheeky.com (NSFW) and SmutForSmarties.com, which have both garnered multiple awards, including LA Weekly’s Best Sex Blog 2013. Elle’s focus is on positive body image, reigniting sexual expression and better sex after 40. She speaks nationally at universities, conferences, and teaches workshops about all things “sex.” Currently, she is hard at work on a book based on her popular workshop “Big, Beautiful Sex”. Find Elle on facebook.com/TheElleChase and follow her @TheElleChase or @smutforsmarties.

The CSPH: Sex Advice for Intersex People

From the documentary film Intersexion (2012)

From the documentary film Intersexion (2012)

Intersexuality is not uncommon, it’s just rarely spoken about or represented in everyday media and conversations.

Not many people go public announcing their sexual identity or gender- especially if it’s marginalized. However, according to the Intersex Society of North America, approximately 1 in 1500 births require a “sex differentiation specialist” to be called. Many more are born with subtler forms of sex anatomy variations.

Considering the shame and stigma surrounding bodies that do not neatly conform as male and female, finding intersex-based resources, arts, and communities can be difficult. In this article, The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health (The CSPH) unearths and recommends some quality gems from within the intersex community.

This article is for both those who identify with intersexuality and anyone who want to learn more. Don’t miss the links to some incredible documentary films!

This article is originally published on The CSPH website as part of their Q&A series.

BY The CSPH | theCSPH.org

Q. Any sex info/advice for intersex people? I can’t find any positive porn, info, or stories about intersex people’s sex lives anywhere on the internet.

A. Note from the author: This response is partly for the person who asked the question, and partly to be informative to those who might be reading it and do not know much about intersex individuals.

Unfortunately it’s not that common for individuals to be “out” as intersex, and what is considered intersex varies widely even between doctors; what one physician would classify as intersex, another would consider a minor variation of biology and may not even mention it to the patient. Each doctor’s approach to treatment of an intersex individual (if required) is subjective as well. This, in turn, impacts the amount of sex advice, writing, and pornography that’s available.

What is intersexuality?

The term intersex refers to the biological condition of having reproductive and/or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the usual definitions of male or female. There are many misconceptions  regarding intersex people but intersex anatomy differs from person to person  and can include having in-between male and female genital characteristics (e.g., a scrotum shaped like labia, a noticeably large clitoris, etc.) or having male physical traits externally but female anatomy internally. While intersexuality can be identified at birth, sometimes intersex anatomy is only found at puberty, in adulthood (e.g., during infertility testing), after death (when autopsied), or not at all.

Our bodies’ biological/physical sex does not always define our gender or the societal roles we play (i.e. man/woman/other identity). This is the same for intersex individuals and such a nebulous term may or may not be used to define their gender. Some live their entire lives completely unaware of their intersex anatomy; however, others may be “assigned” a gender at birth, determined by the most prominent gender traits, via reconstructive surgery and/or ongoing medical treatments. Some may transition from one gender to another and use the label transsexual or transgender instead of intersex. Some define themselves based on their intersex anatomy while others have no obvious physical traits of their intersex anatomy and instead identify as male, female, queer, trans, femme, butch, or various other labels.

Sex advice for the intersex person

With so many variations, every intersex person’s biology may impact their sex life in different ways, or not at all. A good start are books or sites that provide great general sex information and also address aspects of your unique sexual anatomy:

Though not all intersex people are trans* or identify that way, there may still be valuable information on trans* sites. Anatomy and the impact it may have on your sex life is often discussed in the trans* community, such as this post from the Self Made Men blog.

If you’re an intersex individual and comfortable talking about it, we encourage you to start posting some advice you wish you’d had at the start of your sexual journey. Honest, sex-positive information for everyone can only become widespread if all communities are heard and not just “talked about” by professionals and “experts.”

Note: if you have a medical condition associated with your intersex diagnosis, the Accord Alliance Advocacy and Support Groups list  can help you find a support group with more specialized information for that condition.

Many of the sites listed encourage new questions, so drop them a line if you can’t find what you’re looking for. If you have a very specific question, don’t hesitate to get in touch with your doctor or find a sex positive practitioner here.

Intersex positive art and writing

Though they don’t focus specifically on sex, there are some amazing writers and artists talking about their intersex life and experiences:

Other recognized “out” intersex individuals include Cheryl Chase (intersex activist), Alec Butler (playwright and filmmaker), Stanisława Walasiewicz (Olympic athlete), Caroline Cossey (model), Eden Atwood (jazz singer), Eva Robin’s (actress), Sarah Gronert (professional tennis player) and many more .

Porn and intersexuality

Finding positive porn about any orientation, gender, race, or body type can be difficult as there is no shortage of bad porn. On top of that, pornography fetishizes deviations from the “norm”; whether it’s hair color, orientation, or anatomical differences. Among the most popular fetishes are adult films that showcase “Trannies, Shemales, and Hermaphrodites.” Those are all terms that should NOT be used to refer to intersex or trans* people as it is a maligned, incomplete, and offensive view of their sexuality. In fact, those films usually feature performers with penises and augmented breasts, some of whom may identify as trans*, rather than biologically intersex individuals. Furthermore, it’s important to note that the aforementioned terms are also incredibly offensive to the trans* community. (Still, here at the CSPH we encourage self-definition and if someone uses those terms to refer to themselves, we support their autonomy.)

A quick search for “intersex porn” brings up very few results, but by looking at sites and studios that support a diverse view of sexuality and gender, we find more options:

Starting with sex and body positive pornography will lower your chances of coming across any triggers and maintain a more respectful view of intersexuality. If you’re still having trouble finding films that suit your erotic tastes, try altering the way you search. Start off with a genre of film (e.g. lesbian, oral sex, BDSM, etc.) and then include terms like “intersex” or “trans” to help you find more options.

Additional resources

Keep an eye out for Intersex Awareness Week events near you!

csphThe CENTER for SEXUAL PLEASURE and HEALTH (The CSPH) is designed to provide adults with a safe, physical space to learn about sexual pleasure, health, and advocacy issues. Led by highly respected founder and director, Megan Andelloux, The CSPH is a sexuality training and education organization that works to reduce sexual shame, fight misinformation, & advance the sexuality field.

What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Senior Sex

"Harold and Maude". Image from The Atlantic.

“Harold and Maude”. Image from The Atlantic.

Our cultural values and notions around sex and sexual health are partially framed and reinforced by media representations that connote ageist and ableist messages. As stated by Melanie Davis, co-president of the Sexuality and Aging Consortium at Widener University, it is extremely rare to come across a narrative in which senior sex is portrayed as dignified and pleasurable. Instead, it is the norm for elderly bodies to be depicted with disgust, devoid of any legitimate sex drive. Such sexual activity is often the brunt of jokes.

Despite media representations, the truth is sex and sexuality do continue into older age and elders can have fulfilling sex lives.

In this excerpt from Davis’s commentary with The Atlantic, she offer practical narrative strategies that would better represent senior sex in a more realistic and positive fashion.

BY MELANIE DAVIS, PhD | MelanieDavisPhD.com

The re-release of cult-classic film Harold and Maude, 30 years after it was first seen by audiences, had reporter Maura Kelly wondering whether Hollywood has changed in its depiction of older adults and sex. The resultant story can be read here. I was quoted in the article about what movies give us and what I wish we’d see more of. For example:

“Enough with the constant references to Viagra!” says Davis, who’s also sick of all the jokes about adult diapers. She wishes filmmakers would show an older character massaging his partner’s arthritic hands, or a senior couple making love gingerly so as not to aggravate a sore knee or hip. “I would like to see more longing—more interest and desire, even if it goes unfulfilled,” she says. “I’d like to see grieving over loss of a partner—not only for the companionship, but for the sex. I’d like to see conversations about how sex isn’t the only thing that changes, but that intimacy does, and that how we feel about our bodies and what we expect them to do change. Performance may be less important for some people. Closeness may be more important.”

Our expectations of sexuality in our later years is framed not only by the people in our families and communities but also by what we see in the media. Perhaps if we were given more realistic portrayals of senior sex, people wouldn’t assume that good sex is only for younger people.

melanie_davisMELANIE DAVIS, PHD, consults with individuals and couples to help them build sexual knowledge, comfort, and pleasure through the New Jersey Center for Sexual Wellness. Through her firm Honest Exchange LLC, she provides professional development in sexuality. She’s a popular speaker on self-esteem and body image, and the sexual impact of cancer, menopause and aging. She’s an AASECT-Certified Sexuality Educator. On Twitter @DrMelanieDavis