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What Katie Roiphe gets wrong about “Fifty Shades of Grey” and fantasies of sexual submission

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How about that cover, huh?

I couldn’t help it, you guys! I just had to respond to Katie “My Sex Life is More Exciting Than Everyone Else’s” Roiphe’s latest in Newsweek on Fifty Shades of Grey and how professional women these days want to be dominated in the bedroom. I’ve been meaning to write about Fifty Shades of Grey anyway, the best-selling erotic novel which I, obviously, promptly downloaded once I saw it described as “mommy porn.”

Note: Roiphe’s piece, and consequently my responses, address heterosexual sex only, because we all know LGBTQ people do not exist when it comes to cultural trend pieces.

So here we go:

Roiphe: “Masses of women” like Fifty Shades of Grey’s “semipornographic glamour” but it’s really not all that “risqué or rebellious” at all. And yet it is basically my only justification for writing a whole cultural trend piece about how working women are into sexual submission these days.

So I’ve read two and a half of the books (and only stopped when the main character gets preggers and everyone in the book apparently forgets that abortion exists) and 50 Shades is actually much more complicated than that. I mean, yeah, there’s submission, but I would not say that is the aspect of the book that’s made it so popular. Roiphe notes that “one of the salient facts about Fifty Shades of Grey’s Anastasia Steele is that she is not into sadomasochism, she is just in love with Christian Grey.” This is true, and it’s also true that because of that, there isn’t actually that much straight up S&M in the book. They never have the sub-dom relationship that Christian originally wanted. Instead, it’s complicated: I mean, they have vanilla sex and he spanks her and they get married and she’s on top and he likes how she doesn’t take shit from him and he’s possessive and she’s jealous and he fingers her in a crowded elevator and they fight and he learns to let her touch him and he ties her up and blindfolds her and makes her come like 500 million times. What I’m saying is: The negotiating that happens in their relationship is what’s compelling about the story. Plus, the fact that it’s a classic damaged-boy-saved-by-love-of-a-good-woman narrative that everyone loves. Plus all the sex–of which there are lots and lots of different kinds.

Roiphe: Rape fantasies! Women still have them and feminists are perplexed and appalled.

No, I’m really not. I’ll put on my Speaking For All of Feminism Hat and say for the record: I am in no way surprised that many women, who have been socialized in a culture in which male sexuality is linked to domination and in which women are taught their sexual power comes from being wanted, have fantasies of submission.* Really, I’m not perplexed by this. And I am in no way appalled. I am fully in support of anyone doing whatever (safe, consensual) thing that want to do to get themselves off. Feminists for Orgasms! And Katie? The reason those psychologists are reluctant to talk about these fantasies as “rape fantasies” is because they know people like you will take their findings and act as though these fantasies mean more than they do. A rape fantasy, by definition, isn’t really about actual rape, because we’re in control of our fantasies. As for women who like being sexually submissive, or are into hard-core S&M, or just like the occasional spanking, that’s cool. Yep, even women who are very powerful and in control in real life–still not surprised. Please put me down as “not appalled” and, for the love of God, stop asking. As for any “feminist tsk-tsking” over 50 Shades, let me at ‘em.

Roiphe: But what is it about surrender that makes it so appealing to women? “But why, for women especially, would free will be a burden? Why is it appealing to think of what happens in the passive tense? Why is it so interesting to surrender, or to play at surrendering?”

“Why is it so interesting to surrender?” Seriously, is this even a question? We’re talking about sex. One of the researchers described the fantasies as the “wish to be beyond will, beyond thought”? Who doesn’t have that wish? Or Susan Sontag’s description: “the voluptuous yearning toward the extinction of one’s consciousness”? I mean, this makes sexual submission sound like the BEST THING EVER. Do we even ask men if they have fantasies like that? Because I’m pretty sure they do. I mean, basically I think that women and men are interested in sexual submission because it’s hot. And women and men are into sexual dominance because it’s hot in another way. And obviously some people like one more than the other, and some people are into more specific kinds of kinks, and maybe generally more women are comfortable with submission and men with dominance, because that’s how we’ve been socialized–but really, wanting and wanting to be wanted seem like pretty universal desires. To me, the popularity of 50 Shades is evidence that, at the very least, women like reading about many kinds of sex–and people should probably try doing all of them, because they all seem really great.

Roiphe: Maybe it’s because we secretly don’t want power: “It may be that power is not always that comfortable, even for those of us who grew up in it; it may be that equality is something we want only sometimes and in some places and in some arenas; it may be that power and all of its imperatives can be boring.”

So basically, Roiphe’s argument is that as women get more equality in the real world, they’re craving submission in the bedroom, because women don’t really like power. Again, given that her only evidence for a new interest in sexual submissiveness among American women is the popularity of 50 Shades (plus A Dangerous Method and one episode of Girls), I’m not totally buy it. But if that is the case, here’s a alternative theory: Maybe, as women have more equality in the real world and create partnerships with men who respect them as equals, socially, professionally, and romantically, they are more willing to explore sexual power play of all kinds. Maybe women feel more comfortable acting out some of their more taboo fantasies when they’re with men they trust know that it’s just play. Perhaps that’s especially true when it comes to submissive fantasies. I mean, I’ll just speak personally, since, unlike Roiphe, I’m not gonna act like my personal sexual preferences are indicative of all women everywhere–but I’d be way more into rough sex with a dude I know respects me as a whole person. That is, in fact, one of the main messages of 50 Shades: that BDSM relies on trust. And since I generally think gender equality allows for greater and deeper trust between men and women, then maybe we’re destined to get kinkier and kinkier. But, unlike Roiphe, I don’t think this is just about submission–because I don’t think that’s the overwhelming secret desire all women have.

Roiphe: “It is perhaps inconvenient for feminism that the erotic imagination does not submit to politics.”

Nope! Really don’t care! I don’t want the erotic imagination to submit to politics. That sounds horrible. I’d like to create a politics that affirms the full range of the erotic imagination, though. And I get the sense from Roiphe that she has little erotic imagination beyond her own desires.

Roiphe: “[What is] most alarming about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomena…is that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level.”

Oh just shut up.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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