Searching for Christian Grey
Fifty Shades fever is alive and well — but clone the hot guy if you really want to perform a service.
By Wanda Hennig
First published Sunday Tribune, South Africa, September 2012
Wait. Let me qualify that.
Every woman in Durban who, during the past three or four months, picked up one or more volumes of EL James’s earth-shatteringly successful Fifty Shades trilogy and who has actually read it and found it a turn-on: their sex lives just got hotter.
But wait. Maybe that needs a qualifier too. Their sex lives just got hotter but for some the heat has gone up in measurable reality-based terms. Think spiced-up, with more good orgasms. For others, the heat has gone up on their fantasies.
The thing is, there is a missing link between the book and real life, and it’s major.
You read the book, you want a Christian Grey
A clue? “We went to the East Coast Radio band gig in Durban last weekend. But did we look at the bands? No! We were looking at the crowds seeing how many Christian Grey possibles we could spot,” Kim and Samantha (not their real names), both in their early 30s, confess. “You read the book, you want a Christian Grey.”
“What’s been really interesting to me about the Shades of Grey phenomenon,” says dominee’s daughter turned women’s sensuality boutique co-owner Hilda Tod, “has been the realization that fantasy really is the female Viagra. And the books are all about fantasy.”
“When women used to come in for something to turn them on, it was for orgasm cream, lubricant and a vibrator. Now it’s those — plus Fifty Shades,” says her partner at The Bedroom in Umhlanga, Chantal Edouard-Betsy.
If you’ve read the books you’ll know that while they seems raunchy at first glance with their dominant-submissive sub-theme, they are in fact BlackBerry and iPad-era Mills and Boon.
She talks about “my sex”, never her vagina; and “his erection”, never his penis. And while there’s many a hard-on, there’s nothing hard-core. All is couched in innuendo and written by a plump and unthreatening “mommy-porn” author who was inspired by the Twilight series to write a fairy-tale girl-meets-Prince Charming, with white horse replaced by private jet, yacht and helicopter — and where his sexual kinks add just enough spice, but all is conquered by love.
Christian Grey, the hero, is stunningly gorgeous, immensely rich, vulnerable — and good in bed, be it with whips, (hand)cuffs, a silk tie and spreader bars or engaging in “vanilla” s ex, as he calls sex without the bdsm (bondage domination sado masochism) add-ons. The rich part would not be of consequence except that he delights in showering his riches, often in the form of adventures, on Ana(stasia) Steel, who, it would appear, is also gorgeous and good in bed. He is 27 and she is 21 (so no dirty-old-man sugar-daddy stuff).
Read the Independent Online version of this story: Fantasy Really Is the Female Viagra
The bdsm is all consensual — and references to his nightmare childhood explains why he’s into it. There are a lot more “shades of darker” things talked about (and listed in a contract that never gets signed) than engaged in. There are accepted hard limits. When things get beyond the limits for Ana at one point, it turns out she has forgotten to use her “safeword”, which one-time is “popsicle”. True. When Christian blindfolds Ana and gives her visible hickeys (yes, teenage hickeys), she is furious.
They’re not literary works
So there have been loads of criticism of the writing, but as Betsy says, “You don’t read Shakespeare and expect the writing to make you wet and horny any more than you should read EL James and expect Shakespeare. These books are women’s porn. All they’re expected to do is turn you on. They’re not literary works.”
And turning many on is what they’ve been doing.
“The sex appeal of the book lies in its ability to tap into the majority of women’s fantasies around being ‘submissive’ in some way. This allows women to be sexual without being ‘responsible’ for it,” says Westville and Ballito clinical psychologist and sex therapist Diante Fuchs. “Why are women willing to admit being turned on by the book? With media such as (TV series) Game Of Thrones and Shameless, etc, making sex so open, it has liberated women in general to talk more freely about the topic.”
“I read the first one and got so hot, my hubby didn’t know what hit him,” Janine, who is 45 and a Durban North high school teacher, told me. “He complained I was exhausting him. When I asked him to tie me up, he walked out of the bedroom. I thought he was going to get something to tie me up with. But he didn’t come back. Turned out he’d gone to sleep at his brother’s for the night.
“We’ve talked about it and reached an agreement now. Our sex life was dead. It has perked up. But no bondage!”
Reading the books has put some spark back
“After I finished reading the first one, I went out and bought some bedroom toys and put them on a box on Matt’s pillow,” says Rani, 32, who explains that when she and her husband get stressed at work, their sex life is the casualty. “Reading the books has put some spark back. The toys were new for both of us. The novelty has been good.”
“We’ve seen a dramatic upswing in business — what I’m calling ‘fifty shades mania’ since March,” says Betsy.
It reflects a worldwide trend. As book sales have soared, so has international demand for vaginal (kegel or smart) balls (in the trilogy Ana gets spanked while wearing them in one scene and in another, goes out pantyless, with them inserted, and gets very turned on), paddles and whips (locally, the demand is for the more playful varieties that don’t inflict pain), handcuffs (fair demand), restraints (fair demand), butt plugs (more curiosity than real interest, anal sex being a hard limit for a lot of women), nipple clamps (yikes! — and not in demand), grey ties (big demand), blindfolds (big demand) and a variety of other bdsm objects that feature in the book.
Interestingly, not just sales of fetish stuff have gone up, says Betsy. “What Fifty Shades is doing is causing a heightened interest in sex in general. It’s making women horny and they’re coming in for what appeals to them.
She thinks sometimes people buy stuff with the intention of using it but never actually do. “But I think if it starts a conversation and they get kinkier in the bedroom, its a great idea.”
“And a lot of women say they don’t tell their husband they’re reading the book. They almost don’t want to give away credit for the change in the relationship.”
Says Joanne King, The Bedroom‘s Umhlanga store’s manager, “There’s almost a Fifty Shades sign language. Some women will come in and gesture. (She holds up her hands and makes circles with her thumb and index finger.) It’s like, a secret thing. If they vocalise, they’re acknowledging something. But if I say, ‘Oh you want the balls?‘ — it’s like it’s OK. They have permission.”
A lot of what’s going around women openly admitting they’ve read the books and felt turned on by what they’ve read is about permission, it seems. “I think its been a whole unlocking exercise of sorts,” says Tod.
Fantasy is incredibly powerful for women and also safe.
“Fantasy is incredibly powerful for women and also safe. It’s almost like women have been given permission to read the books, to fantasize and to act out their fantasies through the fact that celebrities and others regard ed as role models are speaking out about it.”
The books are definitely geared to women, although “I heard from a friend whose husband is in Afghanistan that all the British guys there are reading the books. I don’t know if they’re getting them in their care packs,” says King.
“And generally, younger guys are keen to read them. They’re more in touch with their feelings — and curious. But a lot of older men, and men who are not good lovers, are intimidated by Christian Grey. They think in their heads you’re going to compare them with Christian Grey, which you are!”
Says Tod: “At the end of day it doesn’t matter what you look like, what age you are or what experiences you’ve had, we’ve found a sisterhood in Mr Grey. We all want to have sex with Christian Grey. It’s like sport and politics. If you belong to the group, it’s a unifying thing.”
Niall Leonard, husband of Fifty Shades author EL James, said this week that most people expect he and his wife are leading a wildly exciting life as a couple. But “We’re mostly — for all intents and purposes — just a regular family,” he says. You see, she needs a Christian Grey too.