The debate: Is the submissive relationship seen in 50 Shades of Grey degrading to women?

Laura Davis

88673609 200x300 The debate: Is the submissive relationship seen in 50 Shades of Grey degrading to women?Since the first in the erotic trilogy was published a year ago, 50 Shades of Grey has sold over 10 million copies. Coined as “mummy porn”, the novel and its sequels have made it to the top three spots in the bestseller charts in the UK and the US.

Not only is the racy novel the best selling e-book of all time, it is also responsible for boosting erotic purchases. Sales of erotic literature and porn magazines have risen by 130 per cent in the last month, while the number of women buying sex toys has more than doubled. revealed that the book title was their most searched term – wilth “Sex toy discounts” and “Ann Summers” a close second and third.

If you haven’t yet given in to the currently ubiquitous titillation surrounding the books, the fantasy novels centre on a handsome billionaire, Christian Grey, who seduces a virginal college graduate, Anastastia, into a submissive relationship.

When asked about researching for the book, author E L James responded: “Well, yes, they are my fantasies lived out and ­explored,” she said. “But I don’t know how much detail I want to go into. Um, well, let’s just say I had a very nice time ­researching the book. That’s all I’m going to say. I’m ­actually now blushing.”

Both its success and appeal are apparent, but discussions over what the subtext of the book has to say about modern feminism has come to fruition. It’s been argued that the submissive relationship seen in the book could undermine female equality and sets a negative example to readers.

But is the sadomasochism seen in 50 Shades of Grey degrading to women? Or is purely fantasy, with whichever form of sexual exploration a personal choice to pursue in the bedroom?

Dr Gina Barreca believes that the outdated erotica seen in the novel serves to promote unhealthy ideals of relationships in and out of the bedroom, but Meg Barker argues that the sadomasochism experienced between the two protagonists in the bedroom is far more common that many would like to think.

Which do you agree with?

YES: Dr Gina Barreca

Is the triumphant cry of the next generation of literate women really going to be “Anastasia didn’t sign the sexual contract!” Is that what a hundred years of the women’s movement has prepared as the rallying  cry of the educated 21st century female?

“He was vulnerable and hid his own distress under his compulsion to offer pain!”

As we say in Brooklyn, pull the other one. But unlike Anastasia, we are not saying it literally. You pull something on us, and we’ll smack you.

50 Shades perpetuates absurd, outdated, and impossible psychosexual rituals making an already culturally mangled set of hideously distorted sexual power plays even more difficult.

Of course, that might just be my girlish way of looking at things.

But the thought of a guy watching you do things in various outfits only after you ask his permission and regarding that as an act of “love” is not something helping us embrace earned trust, shared experiences, and happy, equally-balanced romantic partnerships.

(I suppose I should ask first: Can you read freely? Or is your master watching? Is he smelling your various undergarments while you glance at the screen? Would you mind telling him to stop and perhaps do something more useful with his resources – his free time and billionaire bank account – such as preventing world hunger or clearing the garage?)

Shouldn’t “submission” be considered not simply a naughty word, but a corrosive one?

Besides, what are men to think? That by feeding upon willing and poor virgins who agree to be submissives, they’ll find true love? If Christian weren’t rich, he wouldn’t be wooing Ana; he’d be stalking her. She’d have him followed by the police. If this man were filling her gas tank instead of buying her cars, she would have him arrested for kidnapping, handcuffs or no.

50 Shades did not help to set a new high sexual standard for either women or men and it does not make for happy-funny-relaxed times in bed.

Not unless you’re really into terrible prose as punishment.

Dr. Gina Barreca Professor of English and Feminist Theory University at the University of Connecticut and author of It’s Not That I’m Bitter, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines And Conquered The World (St. Martin’s Press)

NO: Meg Barker

It’s rare that any new phenomenon is a purely positive or negative thing, rather it’s more useful to ask what possibilities they open up and close down.

The popularity of the 50 Shades trilogy demonstrates how common enjoyment of sadomasochistic (SM) fantasies is. This is helpful because people often have narrow ideas about ‘normal’ sex, and anxiety if their desires stray outside of this. Sexual problems are linked to an inability to tune into, and communicate about, what we want sexually, so it is certainly useful to open up a diversity of erotic possibilities.

On the downside, the books perpetuate damaging myths about people who are into SM, including links to childhood abuse and dangerous behaviours, which are not supported by any evidence. Ana rarely talks about her desires but Christian telepathically knows how to turn her on. This takes the emphasis away from communication. Also she orgasms at the drop of a hat whilst most women cannot orgasm from penetration alone.

Some argue that the female submission in the books is inherently anti-feminist. It’s possible for submission or dominance to entirely focus on the other person (linked to norms of women putting others’ pleasure before their own), or to emphasise more mutual enjoyment. It’s worth being aware of how conventional gender power imbalances can play out in any form of sex, but that doesn’t mean that a specific dynamic or activity is necessarily problematic.

Much more troubling is the wider relationship between Christian and Ana which perpetuates some problematic myths about love: that stalking behaviour is romantic; that it’s okay for a man to control a woman’s work, eating, contraception and friendships; that a woman should change a man into what she wants him to be. All promote a kind of possessiveness that would make a mutual relationship very difficult.

Meg Barker is a senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University, a sex and relationship therapist, and co-editor of the book Safe, Sane and Consensual, about sadomasochism, as well as a number of articles about sexuality and gender. Meg’s latest book, Rewriting the Rules, deals with communication with ourselves and others about sex and relationships, and you can read the blog and find out more at

Do you think the books are degrading to women? Leave your comments below.

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  • Debra Hinds

    It’s fiction with titillation. In the same way as Harry Potter is fiction with dementors, wizards and quidditch. Is there really any need to psycho-analyse? I doubt the authors ever expected it to be a blue print for life or relationships.

  • Carrie Gale

    Challenge accepted my good lady. I do enjoy writing things that flip expected societal norms on their heads and then take them on a ride.

    Let’s make my sub a high powered board member of a multinational conglomerate called Gary Brown who loves wearing custom tailored charcoal grey suits with a black silk lining and he always has a neatly folded navy blue silk hanky in his jacket pocket. His shoes are a well shined pair of black brogues that you could see your face in if you were to look at them up close. His hair is thick and blonde with youthful vigour and his eyes dance with the mischief of youth. He lives in picturesque leafy suburbs with his typical suburban wife who he married a year ago when he was 21 and she was 19. They met at 16 and have gone through dating with him even getting her father’s blessing to marry.

    ^_^; Maybe I have something here?

    P.S. I am a sub but I trust my dom to the extent of trusting him with my life and that’s a big deal considering I have trust issues when it comes to other people and I am a bit of a control freak. Good doms, especially males ones, are hard to find. There’s more to being a dom than ordering your subs around. A good dom considers the feelings of their sub and will never EVER do things that make the sub uncomfortable or put their sub in danger.

  • Emma Davies

    IT’S A BOOK!!!!! ISN’T that what books are all about? To escape for a couple of hours…who cares…awesome read…took me out of my life for a few hours to experience another…loved it. Can’t wait to rea d the next!

  • Brice

    Where was this debate when Hard Candy came out?

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