Why Is ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ the New Normal?

A psychologist and sex therapist wonders where E.L. James’s celebration of sadomasochism comes from and what it means for human relationships  

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Embracing the sensuality of diversity? Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in the film adaptation of "Fifty Shades of Grey" (Focus/Universal)

Life is rarely cast in black and white, especially when it comes to sex. True, things were simpler when there was only one brand of sneakers compared to today when we celebrate a diversity of choice that necessitates an entire store dedicated to running shoes. But do we now really need Fifty Shades of Grey? Apparently so, judging from the worldwide sales of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy topping 100 million and the movie version released by Universal Pictures, aptly or cynically, on Valentine’s Day.

Many classic movies have signalled and shaped new cultural trends: The Birth of A Nation stimulating racist social activism; A Clockwork Orange depicting senseless violence; Kramer vs. Kramer showing the heartbreak of divorce; Philadelphia reducing the stigma of Aids; Brokeback Mountain normalising homosexuality, to name a few. Fifty Shades of Grey will probably become another watershed cinema event linked to the mainstreaming of pornography that brings sadomasochism into living rooms and bedrooms worldwide. Working as a certified sex therapist in Pittsburgh, I’ve already detected more than a few signs of this mainstreaming. A recently divorced thirtysomething man concluded that his lack of success dating was because modern women were into sadomasochism, so he replaced his nice guy behaviour with BDSM (that’s Bondage, Dominance, Sado-Masochism). A distinguished sex therapist told me that she couldn’t lend me her three-volume set of Fifty Shades because she had given them to her daughters. Her kids call it “Mommy Porn”.

What Fifty Shades of Grey notoriously lacks in well-written prose, it apparently makes up for with juicy storyline. Ana Steele, 21-year-old student and ingénue, stumbles into interviewing a wealthy 27-year-old entrepreneur for her college newspaper. In a stroke of sardonic irony, this handsome sophisticate is named Christian Grey, a name pregnant with meaning. After the initial interview, Christian serendipitously encounters Ana in the hardware store where she works and he buys rope, masking tape and plastic ties. Later that night Ana “drunk calls” Christian who lets her know he will pick her up because she is intoxicated. On a later date, he flies her to his apartment in his private helicopter where he shows her his playroom of BDSM gear and introduces her to the dominance and submission contract stating that there will only be a sexual relationship with no romance and that she is not allowed to touch or look at him. Tension mounts in the relationship, with Ana asking Christian to “punish” her; he obliges by beating her with a belt. The denouement, overlooked by Fifty Shades fans, is that Ana leaves devastated, realising that she and Christian are not compatible.

This “new Christian” protagonist is both chronologically and culturally very distant from an earlier Christian, the Everyman of The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. The Christian Everyman, burdened with sin, embarks on an allegorical journey through varied temptations from his hometown, the City of Destruction, towards deliverance in the Celestial City of Heaven. Guided along the way by characters such as Piety, Prudence and Discretion, Christian’s friend Faithful is able to resist the temptress, Wanton, who tries to dissuade him from continuing the journey. Where Bunyan’s Christian passed through a more black and white world of clearly defined good and evil based on revealed truths and absolute values, James’s Christian traverses a miasmal world of multiple shades of grey that celebrates rather than condemns “transgressive” sexual behaviour.

Many critics and scientists have raised concerns that Fifty Shades glorifies abuse and pervasive sexual violence against women. Some studies have found a relationship between reading the first volume of Fifty Shades and signs of eating disorders, engaging in binge drinking, and having emotionally abusive partners. This is not to say that the book causes such behaviours because it may be that those who engage in them are drawn to the book. Despite these critiques, other professionals argue that although the book is “disturbing”, reading about these fantasies has value if it enhances the real sexual lives of women. But as with video games, the question can be posed: will the violence remain in the realm of fantasy or will it seek expression in actual behaviour, and if the latter, what then?

In today’s era of rapidly changing social and sexual values, sex therapists face new conundrums. What is the proper therapeutic stance when a couple with marital problems both agree that his sexual dysfunction is unrelated to the fact that he likes to dress up in a maid’s uniform and have his wife humiliate him as part of their erotic life? Or when people find consenting partners to inflict pain on one another or draw blood in order to feel sexually aroused? With such questions in mind, I ventured south from Pittsburgh to the swanky Hilton Conference Center in Miami for the annual meeting of one of the major professional sexuality societies. The clumsy but intriguing title of the conference promised to be stimulating: “Embracing the Sensuality of Diversity in Identities and Cultures.” It didn’t disappoint.

I learned from a presentation on “Kink Sex” that there are no fewer than 500 “paraphilias”, a more objective term that about 35 years ago replaced “perversion” and later “sexual deviation”. These include obtaining sexual gratification in atypical ways such as needing a leg cast to be aroused or receiving shocks to the male organ, known as CBT or Cock & Ball Torture. The term “paraphilia” is derived from the Greek roots “philia”, meaning love, and “para”, meaning amiss, as in wrong or improper. The new CBT (not Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, familiar to professionals and laymen) seems to miss the mark as a way of expressing love. Many might still consider this form of sexual pleasure to be inherently abnormal.

But this is no longer the view of the psychiatric establishment. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association has the last word in defining what is a disorder. The newly released fifth edition (DSM-5) introduced a distinction between “paraphilia”, which is not inherently pathological, and “paraphiliac disorder”, which is. A paraphilia is now pathological only if it does not abide by three individualistic criteria: consent by mature adults, lack of personal distress, and avoiding harm to others. Sexual abnormality is no longer defined by any objective psychological criteria for mental health, and it is taboo to identify abnormal sexual behaviour on the basis of religious belief.

The keynote speaker of one of the plenary sessions—let’s call her Molly—an articulate and funny African-American woman, presented a talk entitled “A Journey into BDSM and Race”. Her written précis recounted a personal narrative of being a “black submissive in the kink world, ‘a minority within a minority'”. She traced her journey towards affirming a preference to be sexually aroused by enacting the role of black slave being beaten on the rear with paddles by a series of white masters—mostly men but also a few women.

The educational objective stated that the presenter would guide participants to a “greater understanding of the personal and often spiritual aspects of BDSM”. She was not merely affirming a new normal, but rather a new pathway to spirituality. Note the march of sexual progress: BDSM, which was a perversion or deviation, became normal if practised by consenting adults, and was now vaunted as a pathway to spiritual elevation. Through this cataclysmic shift in sexual morality, we have the “new, new normal”: non-pathological, loving and spiritually uplifting acts of bondage, dominance and sadomasochism.

During Molly’s journey to this new freedom of expression, she struggled with self-doubt. She wondered whether Martin Luther King would call to her from his grave, “Honey, this isn’t what I had in mind when we marched from Selma to Montgomery! ” And she expected a very different response from a lesbian feminist friend to whom she confessed, “I feel shame about having a fantasy of being abused by a British sailor. Am I OK?” Instead of the anticipated condemnation, her friend laughingly responded, “You’re not OK—but it’s fantastic!” The new ethic is: if it feels good to me, if it turns me on, it’s a positive social value.

The culmination of Molly’s provocative presentation was a video that showed her on all fours—fully clothed to avoid any prurient implications—and facing the camera in order to capture her expressions of sexual satisfaction as various white “masters” whacked her rear end. Nearly all of the 300 sexuality professionals attending this session gave Molly a standing ovation. The audience enthusiastically applauded this celebration of the ultimate human freedom to define one’s own sexual pleasure, even if it is in the form of pain and self-degradation.

How did this dramatically changed sexual landscape come about? Two 19th-century thinkers figure prominently in plunging us into the morass: Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American minister and champion of individual freedom and nonconformity, and the German philosopher Wilhelm Friedrich Nietzsche.

In his essay “Self-Reliance”, Emerson was the first notable American intellectual to elevate the individual self as the ultimate arbiter of values: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members . . . Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist . . . Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” (My italics.)

Despite his theological background, Emerson replaced the revealed truths of Christianity with the inner God that he believed dwells at the core of every individual and that must be affirmed personally. If every person sincerely searches within, he or she will confirm the universal truths that Judeo-Christian religion previously asked us to accept on the basis of a higher authority.

Emerson espoused the Transcendentalist belief that people and nature were inherently good, containing a piece of divinity within. Not only was external authority not needed to ensure virtue, but religious and political institutions corrupted the purity of the person. Only allowing self-reliant individuals to discover God within and live in accordance with self-affirmed truth will lead to a harmonious society.

Nietzsche elevated the individual a decisive step further by famously proclaiming: “God is dead.” For Nietzsche, values do not derive from any transcendent truth, whether from the God above or the God-infused self within. Rather, morality is defined by the emotions of those who hold institutional and political power.

Nietzsche believed that the pre-Socratic Greeks had no concept of “evil”, but only concepts of “good versus bad”. Good was defined as that which felt good to the noble, aristocratic, free Greeks who held power; bad was what was different, such as the practices of the helots, the lowest class of Greek serfs.

A shift in values occurred when the weaker, lower classes built up feelings of ressentiment towards those in power. They established a priestly power class who, driven by deep resentment of previously ruling Greek nobles, replaced the idea of bad with “evil”.

If God is dead, morals do not emanate from God, but derive from whichever ruling group establishes the values that feel good to them. The new sexual values are no longer defined by God’s laws and inculcated by the priestly class. Instead, sexual values are defined and legitimised by the new power groups—the psychiatric and sexuality societies—that define mental illness and health. These values are inculcated through our schools, universities, television shows, movies, newspapers, magazines, music industry and social media.

Emerson’s self was bound by a notion of God that dwelt within; Nietzsche’s self is unbounded, the ultimate Superman. If it feels good, doesn’t appear to harm others, and is done between consenting adults who mutually accept the terms, there is no higher authority to declare it to be bad, let alone evil. As long as the power group in a given society defines a set of behaviours as “non-pathological”, they become the new normal. But before celebrating this brave new world, consider the paradox of Molly, the keynote speaker who explored sadomasochism and race. Her freedom to find goodness in expressing the “integrity of her self” culminated in sexual arousal through a reenactment of slavery. The path blazed by Emerson and Nietzsche has brought us full circle from freedom back to slavery.

Molly argued that because there are rules allowing her to control the very thing (slavery) that she despises, the experience is empowering, freeing and sexually satisfying. Really? If she were truly free, would she choose to enjoy sexual pleasure as a black woman in this way? Or would she have continued to explore the self-confessed guilt and shame she experienced at the start of her journey, perhaps through (in this case) old-fashioned psychotherapy? BDSM used to be viewed as the “acting out” of sexual and psychological conflicts that needed to be internalised and analysed in order to resolve the underlying psychological conflict. No longer, according to our professional societies. In determining psychopathology, feelings have replaced reason, deviation has been normalised, and past perversions have become spiritual paths.

Ruling structures that place a premium on freedom without balancing it with a principle of restraint inevitably lead to tyranny and terror. Total freedom to express any desire that gratifies only the unbounded self will culminate in unhappiness, at best, and enslavement to one’s passions, at worst. It is no accident that Molly’s new, new normal expression of boundary breaking and “transgressive” freedom was not merely an act of slavery, but an act of a slave being abused. As I left the auditorium, I recalled Dostoevsky’s prognostication in The Brothers Karamazov: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” Whither next?