“Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey yet?”
I was sitting across from my college ex-boyfriend in a Starbucks near Times Square. In the politest, don’t-you-remember-I-was-an-English-major tone I could muster, I responded, “Uh, no.”
“You should, I mean,” he shifted in his seat and adjusted his tie, “it’s good for women to explore their fantasies.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“It’s important! Women all over the country — they’re talking about it, and,” he paused, “you remind me of the main character.”
“Oh,” I said, politely.
“In college, at least,” he hastened to clarify.
Each time I see the well-meaning #50DollarsNot50Shades campaign, I want to share my story. To throw the entire Fifty Shades of Grey series under a blanket of abuse is not only ignorant, but it’s also dangerous. To suggest that women cannot tell the difference between a work of fantasy and actual rape is the definition of patronizing and paternalistic.
It had been seven years since my ex and I last spoke; things didn’t end well. I spent the first few years wondering if there would ever be a day when I didn’t think of him. A Google search told me he settled in New York City after college, and when I moved there myself, I couldn’t help looking for him around every corner.
In the later years, I gave up on the notion that our lives would ever cross paths again. Until one day, on the corner of 47th Street and Sixth Avenue, I bumped into him.
That’s how I ended up in the Starbucks trying to hide my shaking hands while talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. Of course I knew that women all over the world were reading the book. The year was 2012, and the novel had already sold 40 million copies. The average New Yorker could hardly board a subway car without noticing it in the hands of another passenger.
Friends giggled over the sexual content of the book while I looked uncomfortably on, refraining to read the novel based on the pretext that it was below my literary taste. The truth is, I was afraid to read it.
My BDSM inclinations were at that point a deep dark secret: I was convinced that those desires arose from some shameful predilection for abuse. But as soon as my ex mentioned the book, a little light bulb went on in my head: Maybe, just maybe these thoughts aren’t so shameful after all.
I can trace that part of my sexuality all the way back to prepubescence. After puberty, those inclinations exploded into full-fledged fantasies involving submission, power play, humiliation and pain.
When I tentatively probed the subject of BDSM with my therapist, she responded, “Oh, you don’t want to get into that. You can get very, very hurt. You don’t want to be one of those women forever in a cycle of abuse.”
And so, instead of exploring these feelings, I simply assumed that as soon as I actually managed to lose my virginity, I’d be inducted into the secret rites of “real sex” and those weird fantasies would just fall away.
Fast-forward to freshman year of college: I’m still a virgin. I met my ex on a cross-campus bus on a winter night. He did not have his own company, a private jet, or a coterie of blondes servicing steel-plated desks. He had long hair and as soon as his eyes met mine, I couldn’t look away.
I deferred sex for quite some time. I wanted to wait for love, normal love, or at least the respectable Mr. Darcy. But when we finally did consummate our relationship, the world as I knew it changed.
I know; it’s not cool these days to say such a typical and typically disappointing event like losing one’s virginity is “life-changing,” but imagine if your first lover also managed to fulfill your wildest teenage fantasies. We moved fast, furiously, and instinctively into the world of BDSM.
Like Anastasia Steele, I was completely consumed by unbridled desire. And yet, also like Anastasia Steele, I had my doubts. No, I had more than doubts; I had a deep conviction that despite my enjoyment, what we were doing was sick, wrong, and, above all, meant that I was a weak-willed woman destined for victimhood.
Prior to college, I prided myself on my stalwart feminist convictions in the face of a big Southern culture that frowned upon the very word feminism. Now I wondered how I could possibly identify as a feminist and enjoy being a submissive partner in my relationship. How could I tell my friends majoring in women’s studies that I actually enjoyed being slapped around a little during sex and calling my boyfriend “Sir”?
Even worse, how could I explain that these kinks went beyond the bedroom, and that in daily power-exchange rituals, I felt closer to my partner, more loved, and happier?
I still bought into the myth of a “normal relationship,” and predictably, our relationship failed painfully. The combination of our relative ignorance of BDSM safe practices and my conviction that our activities were wrong proved fatal. We parted and didn’t speak again for seven years.
In the character of Leila Williams, Christian Grey’s disturbed ex-girlfriend, I also recognized myself. Those years following the end of that relationship remain some of the darkest in my life. I felt abandoned and cut off from someone with whom I had allowed myself to be deeply vulnerable.
But it was the feelings of isolation that caused the most damage. I believed that I couldn’t tell anyone what had actually happened in the relationship because I feared they would think it was sick or that I was somehow deserving of my heartache. Furthermore, I seriously questioned my identity as a strong, intelligent young woman. I resented feminism. I felt both betrayed and unworthy of it.
Eventually, I opened up to new relationships. I even met a wonderful guy who met every criteria on my “normal relationship” checklist. He was open-minded to all varieties of sex and willing to experiment with me, but even in those first lust-heavy months of the relationship, I knew we were missing it. No matter how many experimental trysts we planned, the sex still came out vanilla.
I didn’t cave to my ex’s suggestion to read Fifty Shades of Grey immediately, but it did spark enough curiosity in my mind to google “BDSM” as soon as I got back to my apartment. And lo and behold, the Internet happens to play host to a buzzing community of real people actually living out my deepest, darkest fantasies.
I got what they call “sub fever.” I spent hours devouring every tidbit of information and lingering over Tumblr porn. I manufactured a reason to see my ex again.
When I finally did read Fifty Shades of Grey, my heart went out to Anastasia Steele. Her naïveté and misgivings about exploring BDSM reminded me of myself at 19. While the writing (not the sex) is what really makes a former English major blush, I appreciated the book as a rather poorly wrought work of fantasy that helped me speak openly about a part of myself that I’d long kept secret.
“The stuff on Tumblr is much better,” I told my ex with authority on our third not-date.
While I recognize and validate the concerns the BDSM community has toward the novel — that it’s not an accurate portrayal of a healthy BDSM relationship, and therefore has potential to perpetuate stereotypes of mental illness and abuse — I’m grateful that it has brought questions about female desire and the issue of consent to the cultural forefront.
As my ex and I moved forward into a future where we stopped saying “ex” and started saying “partner,” we took things slow. We made lists and contracts and safe words. We continue to respect them. Those first fragile months have blossomed into years, and thanks to a strong foundation of communication and trust, we’ve been rewarded with a deeply intimate and fulfilling relationship.
If it weren’t for Fifty Shades of Grey, I might still be telling myself that a vanilla relationship is enough. What’s more disturbing is that when I met my ex again, I was single and consciously seeking a more dominant partner, but not from a feminist perspective. Ironically, the BDSM community and Fifty Shades of Grey reignited my identification with the feminist movement. In owning my sexuality, no matter how submissive, I became empowered.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a work of romantic fantasy created by a woman and beloved by millions of women. In its wake, we’ve seen more open discussion of female sexuality and consent than ever before. It’s time we stop tearing this franchise down and start discovering what we can learn from it.
We just might find that behind the terrible prose is a conversation that can shed light on our own desires and empower us to achieve them.