I recently wrote an article for Psychology Today about the popular E L James novel entitled "50 Shades of Concern." In it, I acknowledged and even celebrated the success and self-expression of the new author. Yet I also voiced my concerns about how the physically and emotionally abusive aspects of the story might encourage experimentation and acceptance of the same in real life. If interested, you can read the article here.
The piece brought about some interesting comments... including one in particular that I'd like to address and respond to. Referencing the wild and enduring success of the Harlequin romance series, one man wrote:
In all of these novels the woman is eventually taken by force by the man; it is not a rape, but close... Why are so many women so fascinated with novels about being borderline raped and sexually and emotionally abused by dominating men? I have heard some theories but I would be curious to know what the author of this piece has to say about it.
It's a great question, the answer to which I believe can be distilled down to two themes: the desire for unparalleled sexual pleasure, as well as the ability to fully surrender to it.
Let's look at the second piece first. It's not that women are necessarily drawn to stories about rape, sexual, or emotional abuse. Rather, readers are attracted to the idea of what being physically dominated provides: the requirement -- the demand -- to let go. For women who get too into their heads during sex to fully enjoy it, for whatever reason, being 'forced' to surrender can be a lovely and luscious idea.
The other commonality in these and similar tales is that the men are enthralled and expert lovers. Women not fully or at all satisfied in their sexual relationships, as well as those uncomfortable or unwilling to communicate about what would bring them pleasure, are understandably drawn to accounts of heroines in the throws of perfect passion that they themselves have only dreamed about.
The requirement of pleasure, delivered by a gorgeous, skilled, and smitten someone who knows our bodies and desires better than we do.... Is there really any question as to why these books are so popular?
Entertaining and enticing as they might be, these books are works of fiction. A fiction that continues to reinforce what isn't working in relationships and the bedroom, rather than reveal a pathway to what does.
In reality, relationships that explode with passion and pleasure do not come from forced surrender or sexual wizardry. They come from a personal confidence that allows for the willingness to be vulnerable and to play. From respect for and acceptance of one another. From selflessness and the commitment to communicate.
Great sex and true intimacy -- as well as enduring interest and attraction -- become possible when both people have the desire and even determination to give more than they get, to revel in the pleasure of the other, and to cherish that person, body, mind, heart and spirit.
Interestingly, many of these books -- including James' trilogy -- get there in the end. But this is indeed the result of creative license; it is fiction to suppose that respect, communication, and commitment naturally emerge from mind-blowing orgasms. Just as it is dangerous to suggest that a healthy emotional and sexual relationship can be achieved through the endurance of abuse, fear, domination, jealousy and violence.