Last week I was in the Nashville airport after providing a week of human sexuality staff training at The Ranch, a rehab center that provides gender-separate residential treatment for adult sexual and romantic addictions, among other challenging emotional disorders. Much of that clinical training focused on the under-discussed and dramatically under-researched world of female sexual fantasy, desire and behavior.
So what was there to greet me at the airport bookstore on my way home? You couldn't miss it if you tried. A front-facing, all female-oriented soft-core porn rack consisting primarily of various versions of hard and soft (covers) of Fifty Shades books, along with a stack of very similar writing which, colloquially -- and no insult intended to anyone -- I tend to refer to as "mommy porn." And this rack wasn't tucked into a back corner of this very public store, either. There it was, right up front, facing out into the terminal, in the primo spot airport bookstores reserved for top-selling tomes.
Not only was this the most prominently displayed rack of books at an airport in the heart of the Bible Belt, but right behind it was a remarkably similar, but seemingly more worn, rack of Twilight, True Blood, virgin-meets-vampire books, which I also tend to refer to as "teen porn," as it is written and marketed to a much younger female demographic.
British writer E.L. James' Fifty Shades trilogy has been camping atop the New York Times bestseller list for near half a year. In fact, the top three books on last week's "Combined Print and e-Book" fiction list were, in order: Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed. Number five on the list was Sylvia Day's Bared to You, the story of two troubled people developing an intense, obsessive relationship. And just n case you've been living under a rock, that's also the plotline of the Fifty Shades series.
Soft-Core Repackaged for a New Generation
In many ways, the Fifty Shades books and the recent plethora of knock-offs (our society is nothing if not unoriginal) fall squarely into the, dare I say, Harlequin Romance tradition. Back in the day, these books sold story after similar story with consistently central themes of naïve virgins and/or suffering widows being seduced by otherworldly bad boys (much like the vampires and werewolves in Twilight and/or the BDSM "hero" of Fifty Shades fame).
One big difference today is that in traditional or old school romance novels, the sex scenes nearly always faded to black well before the proverbial (read: male) money shot. Whereas Fifty Shades tracks the action taking place in Christian's infamous Red Room of Pain all the way to its, well... orgasmic conclusion.
In many ways, the fictional sexual interplay between Anastasia and Christian mirrors a very traditional, generic model for how women and men fantasize about -- and experience -- sex. For example, when viewing pornography, men are primarily aroused by a rapid succession of visually objectified body parts and sexual acts (as men tend to objectify images) whereas women tend to be much more engaged in romantic and overtly sexual material that suggests an intimate connection (as women tend to objectify romance and relationships). Not surprisingly, both reader reviews and anecdotal evidence suggest that the vast majority of the mostly female following of Fifty Shades reports being entranced not so much by the book's graphic depictions of bondage and sexual domination as they are fascinated by the relationship between the book's leading characters, Anastasia and Christian.
Of particular focus for most women appears to be Christian's eventual transition from cold, unemotional male "master" to caring lover and concerned husband. And who wouldn't want to live out that fantasy in a suburban marriage or the like?
Women and Online Porn
Sexual disorder/addiction specialists as well as pornographers have long-known that men and women view porn differently, but in recent years, owing to a vastly reduced male audience (as amateur online sex can today be accessed at no cost to the viewer), professional pornographers are now making up for their declining revenues with a wide array of relationship and intimacy-driven erotica catered to women.
As such, the numbers of women viewing online pornography is on the rise. And not surprisingly, increasing numbers of women also are beginning to show up in therapists offices with problems related to online porn use, online dating and smart phone "friend-finder" app situations gone sour -- as well as compulsive use of online relationship and social media sites.
Unfortunately, there is not yet formalized mental health criteria for identifying, diagnosing and treating women (or men for that matter) who struggle with these types of sexual addictions and compulsive behaviors -- mainly because many mental health and addiction professionals are not taught to recognize the subtleties of addictive, compulsive and impulsive sexual behavior --especially in women.
It is also true that when men are addictive or compulsive in their relationship to sex, the resulting problems most often show up in readily recognizable, overt sexual forms such as anonymous hookups, arrests, hardcore pornography abuse, prostitutes, multiple affairs, "sensual" massage and the like. In this way it is far easier to view the leading edge of that mans' problem as being "sexual" in nature. But when women struggle with patterns of problematic romantic and sexual behavior (including repetitive and compulsive reading/viewing of romance-driven erotica), they tend to mostly self-report having relationship and intimacy problems, rather than sexual ones.
Five Signs of Addictive Sexual and Romantic Behaviors in Women:
1. Consistently using dating, seduction, sexual experiences and romance as a primary means of feeling loved and valuable.
2. A painful history of short, unsatisfying failed relationships where having sex or only feeling loved during sex is the primary bond
3. An inability to remain sober from drugs or alcohol addictions related to romantic intrigue, fear of being alone and related sexual behavior patterns fused with alcohol/drug abuse.
4. Acting out BDSM or other fetish behaviors in secret with casual or anonymous partners, while in a separate primary relationship
5. Using porn, masturbation and online sexual/romantic connections in lieu of a meaningful social and recreational life.
Sadly, sex, porn and relationship addiction in women is often only recognized after a woman seeks help for a co-occurring (simultaneous) disorder like alcoholism or depression. Or only when a drug addicted or alcoholic woman is unable to remain sober, despite multiple efforts on her part, that a savvy clinician might explore her adult relationship or sexual issues.
Many women who end up in sexual disorders treatment arrive for help only after they have been asked to leave other treatment settings (for chemical dependency, eating disorders, anxiety, etc.), because they were having sexual and romantic involvement while already in those treatment settings. Approximately one-third of the women being treated at The Ranch fall into this category.
Fun, Fantasy or Fire?
Reading about, viewing and fantasizing about sex clearly appeals to a lot of women -- especially when they see those behaviors in the context of an ongoing romantic relationship. And most would never consider themselves to be fascinated by any kind of "porn" -- even if they simultaneously continue to consume vast quantities of Twilight, Fifty Shades and the like.
But most women who date via online methods, read soft or hard-core porn or use online sites to meet/greet sexual partners are emotionally healthy women. And their use of pornography or casual sex does not evolve into emotional and relationship crisis or addiction.
Only a small percentage of sexually active adults have a truly addictive relationship with porn, dating or casual sex. For most, relationship-oriented "mommy porn" and even heavily objectified hardcore porn (which does most definitely appeal to some women) are nothing more than an enjoyable source of pleasure, escape and possibly inspiration.
Ultimately, the Fifty Shades phenomenon is opening up a very healthy dialogue about female sexuality, not just in the therapeutic community and among BFFs on their coffee breaks, but between women who've read the books and their intimate partners.
After all, healthy women are profoundly sexual creatures -- as much as men, albeit in different ways -- and a woman being able to read about and express her sexual thoughts and desires to her partner is a great way to not only spice things up in the bedroom, but to build and enhance relationship trust and emotional intimacy.
Single women, too, may find distraction and comfort in soft-core reading, as they always have done, with no harm done. It is only when sexual and relationship fantasy becomes a primary source of emotional comfort, connection and pseudo-intimacy or when the behavior is surrounded with secrecy and shame that getting help is recommended.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of three books on sexual addiction and an expert on the juxtaposition of human sexuality, intimacy, and technology. He is Founding Director of The Sexual Recovery Institute and Director of Intimacy and Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch and Promises Treatment Centers. Mr. Weiss is a clinical psychotherapist and educator. He has provided sexual addiction treatment training internationally for psychology professionals, addiction treatment centers, and the US military. A media expert for Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, Mr. Weiss has been featured on CNN, The Today Show, Oprah, and ESPN among many others. Rob can also be found on Twitter at @RobWeissMSW.