“Fifty Shades of Grey,” the erotic novel by E L James, features cliche characters, highly implausible plot turns and dialogue that alternately induces cringes and giggles. (Sample line: “ ‘Look at me,’ he breathes, and I stare into his smoldering gaze . . . cold, hard and sexy as hell, seven shades of sin in one enticing look.”) But many of my friends — and, judging by the bestseller lists, millions of women across the country — can’t put the book down. Even I will admit to ignoring my children to read what’s being called “mommy porn,” which details the titillating adventures of the young, innocent Anastasia Steele, who is initiated into the world of kinky pleasures by one Christian Grey, a sexy older billionaire who woos her into a dominant-submissive relationship.
Literary demerits aside, experts contend that the novel and its two equally racy sequels, authored by a British woman, are having a positive impact on women’s sexual health and wellness. “ ‘Fifty Shades’ is getting a lot of people thinking and talking more openly about sex, sexuality, desire and interest,” says Debby Herbenick, a research scientist at Indiana University and author of “Sex Made Easy.” “It’s helping many women to feel comfortable enjoying something about sexual fantasy and arousal. . . . Not only is it okay to fantasize, not only is it okay to read really explicit info about sex, but right now, it’s the cool thing to do.”
Indeed, by this point, “Fifty Shades” has become socially acceptable pornography — downloaded in relative anonymity on a Kindle or iPad, analyzed on blogs and spoofed on “Saturday Night Live” — and the book seems to be helping some women feel more empowered about their sex lives. That’s important, because whatever you think about the novel, better relations in the bedroom can enhance the quality of your life in general.
“There is good data showing that sexual health and wellness leads to overall health and wellness,” says gynecologist Michael Krychman, executive director of the Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship Medicine.
Following in the footsteps of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Story of O,” and like all of those Harlequin novels that feature demure damsels in distress being carried off into the sunset by strong, shirtless men, “Fifty Shades” appeals to a sense of romance and fantasy, but in this case it’s X-rated.
“Research has shown that men are more visually stimulated, while women are more literary; they’re turned on by words or erotic stories,” Krychman explains. “This book is a revival of the Harlequin romances but without the ‘fade to black’ love scenes, which is nice because it helps with creativity and imagination, and can give people ideas that help counter sexual boredom,” which is often an issue in long-term relationships.
“We know that for women, the biggest sex organ is absolutely the brain, which has to work in sync with the body for optimum sexual function,” says Krychman.
Another benefit of a book such as “Fifty Shades” is that it just may get your mind off work pressures, the laundry or having to make the kids’ lunches — and back into the bedroom. “What we know from study after study is that women are far more prone to distractions than men are, and that’s a problem,” says Herbenick. She points out that erotic literature can help women focus more on sex, and this is key because “if your mind is in the game, you are far more likely to experience arousal and orgasms.”
Still, it’s important to note that daydreaming about being tied up or flogged by Christian Grey doesn’t mean that you want to be dominated in real life. “By their nature, erotic fantasies are socially unacceptable, and what gives them a charge is that they are different than your normal sexuality,” says District psychologist Barry McCarthy, co-author of “Discovering Your Couple Sexual Style.” “For the great majority of people, erotic fantasies work best as fantasy.”
So, while “Fifty Shades of Grey” includes lots of over-the-top details about the world of BDSM — a term that references dominance, submission, sadomasochism and other forms of sexual power play — Herbenick encourages readers not to focus too much on the book’s specific behaviors.
“BDSM doesn’t do it for everyone and never will,” she says. “But if a book like this can open your mind to the universe of sexual behaviors and fantasies, then that’s more what people need to jump- start their sex lives.”
Some sex therapists suggest that couples read books such as “Fifty Shades” together, or at least at the same time, and use them to begin a conversation about their own sex lives.
“You can start with questions like: ‘What do you like about the book, or what don’t you like? What could we do that could be more exciting?’ ” suggests Herbenick, who notes that for some people, all it takes to counter boredom in the bedroom is something as simple as having sex in the morning instead of the evening. “Sometimes people just need practice reading these words and saying them out loud.”
That was the case with one 40-something friend of mine, who recently confessed that after “devouring” the book, she and her husband had a frank sex talk for the first time “that was both exciting and embarrassing.” She added: “I’ve never really thought about what I liked in the bedroom and certainly never felt comfortable talking about it, until reading this book, and I welcomed the opportunity.”
Still, Krychman does offer one warning: While “Fifty Shades” has had the effect of “putting female sexual health and wellness in the forefront, one of the negative aspects of the [series]” — which follows Christian Grey on his journey from cold, unemotional “master” to caring, concerned lover and husband — “is that it really gives some women unrealistic expectations and sets the bar too high. Like sex is always supposed to be swinging from chandeliers and wonderful and multi-orgasmic at the drop of hat,” he says. “Unfortunately, that’s not always how it goes in reality.”