Fifty Shades of Grey, the bombshell bestseller, offers plenty of kink: bondage, dominance and S&M. But for the book's female audience, it's not just about the sex.
As avid readers know, the wildly popular e-book and novel follows the story of Anastasia Steele, who is swept into a relationship with controlling billionaire Christian Grey.
In the first book of E.L. James' trilogy, which was released Tuesday in mass distribution, Grey lavishes Steele with gifts but is obsessively possessive. His gifts exercise control. He doesn't just buy the college-age innocent a first-class seat on an airplane; he also buys the seat next to her, so no one else can sit there. He buys her a new car as much to get her away from the man who maintained the old one as to make sure she drives something safe. He gives her a BlackBerry so she can respond to him immediately.
The story of their relationship continues in Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, and readers learn more about Grey's demons and Steele's continued efforts to heal him.
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What's striking about talking to fans of the first book is that they aren't fixated on the S&M theme.
"Sexuality is really hard to judge, and it's really hard to quantify," said Jill Dolan, director of the program of gender and sexuality studies at Princeton University. "And who knows what the women reading those stories are doing with them? It doesn't necessarily mean that they are all thinking, 'Oh, I should be the submissive in my sexual relationship' as much as, for whatever reason, they are intrigued by this as well as the story."
The women who like Fifty Shades — and there are a lot of women who don't — like it not because of the kinky sex but because it is an escape from their everyday life. The sexually gifted, 27-year-old Grey is handsome, wealthy and, to some readers, incredibly attentive.
Unlike many of the book's readers, Steele isn't weighed down by responsibilities; her mind isn't cluttered with a to-do list. She is discovering sex for the first time. Inside and outside the "Red Room of Pain" — Grey's room where Steele encounters his whips, chains and handcuffs — he wants to make all the decisions, and she typically lets him. Can she go to her friend's gallery opening? Is she allowed to eat snacks other than fruit?
There is no doubt the book is a turn-on for some women. They particularly enjoy that Grey always desires Steele. Characteristic of women, though, the fantasy is not all about the sex. Unlike classic male pornography, there are no pictures and there is a story, which some women find romantic.
The women who like the book also like being part of the conversation, the latest trend. No doubt part of the allure is feeling naughty and eliciting shock from the men around them. These women don't typically read erotica in their book-club selections, and there's excitement in the novelty.
"There's a way in which the publicity about it authorizes it and makes it, first of all OK, and maybe a guilty pleasure for women, but one that clearly isn't as taboo as it's once been," Dolan said.
The waiting lists at area libraries and phone calls to independent bookstores prove that women, mostly those in their 30s and 40s, are buying into the hype.