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

Newsweek cover

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.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • jillian

    this is the same gal who said women using pics of their kids as their facebook avatar were infantilising themselves and hiding behind their children. really, this gal just needs to STFU already.

  • rhian

    I haven’t read this book, but I’m not willing to tolerate the use of the word “phenomena” in place of “phenomenon”, particularly in Newsweek…

  • Stella

    As a feminist who has been reading these books, I have to say, I agree with this post. The idea that these books are about working women liking submission is pretty silly — and clearly coming from someone who has not read them. The main character is a college girl who enters into a completely desired sexual relationship with a man who she likes and is very attracted to.

    I’m not saying they are feminist books or even something necessarily worth reading — but the main character is actually a fairly feminist lady. I don’t really get all the fuss — this is a story about two young, unmarried people who fall in love and have a lot of mutually desired and satisfactory sex. Yes, sometimes its a little kinky, but no one is forced to do something he or she does not want to do. I don’t see the controversy here.

  • Candice

    She sounds so dull, like the only kind of kink she can even imagine to exist is hetero femsub. Honestly I try to support everyone else in the community, but it seems like there are a lot of this type of women who waffle on and on about their barely-any-different-from-vanilla-heterosex to the exclusion of everyone else who is kinky.

  • Miss Stacey May

    “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.”

    This line is problematic because it suggests that submissive desires and identity are a result of internalized patriarchy. I think a lot of those who identify as submissive would vigorously disagree, and actually find this assertion (which I admit is not uncommon) extremely patronizing.

    • Maya

      I see your point, and that’s definitely not what I meant to imply! Basically, I think that everyone’s sexuality is mediated by their socialization. Generally, like on the broad cultural level, I do think that the fact that more women than men tend to have submission fantasies (even those that don’t identify as submissives) is related to the way we’re socialized to understand sexuality. Would you disagree with that? When it comes to actual individual women, I would absolutely never say that submissive desires are because of internalized patriarchy. I don’t believe that at all. As I said later in the piece, I think people–women and men–like submission because it’s sexy. Anyway, I’m sorry I didn’t get that across well enough. And happy to hear more of your thoughts about this!

  • Amy Hanna

    Wait. Newsweek is still being published?

    • arielmorgan

      Hah! This.

  • Sara Adams

    correlation does not equal causation! just because a BDSM book is popular when women have more equality does not mean it’s caused be women having more equality.

  • Bud

    Isn’t the first thing that Katie Roiphe gets wrong is that in a dom/sub dynamic, the sub has the power? IF the sub doesn’t want to play, there is no dynamic. Simple, really.

  • Lyla Cicero

    As a therapist who specializes in sex therapy with sexual minorities, including the kind community, I have to agree that the assertion that certain sexual preferences or fantasies are somehow a slap in the face to feminism is off base. I would argue women who are “professional” or for various reasons feel empowered and are feminists might be more interested/able/comfortable engaging in submission play because, as the author states, their status in the rest of their lives is not in question. A woman who is still struggling to feel respected as a human being might not find submission fantasies or roleplay appealing, but for a woman who does feel in control in her life they could be a fun, enjoyable escape. I think for both men and women, submission can be a welcome escape from the general drudgery of adult life in which we are responsible for ourselves and have to make decisions and are in charge of others. Having someone else call the shots can be hot, but also relaxing, relieving, and just a welcome change.

  • Evelyn

    Awesome post Maya!

  • Courtney

    “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.” – My thoughts exactly.

    Human sexuality is far more complicated than Katie Roiphe seems to believe – and she frequently makes generalized, outrageous claims that don’t really delve into deeper social issues.

    The thing with “rape fantasies” is that they’re not really “rape fantasies” at all. Many women do have sexual desires that include bdsm or submissiveness but it is obviously a far stretch to assume that women like to be dominated and are craving some sort of patriarchal, sexual domination to make up for the huge amount of power we have in the workplace (note the irony). In a fantasy the person fantasizing is controlling what is going on. The same goes for many (healthy) sexual relationships where certain fantasies are played out – you call the shots together.

  • Glosswitch

    Brilliant article! Although I am impressed you read so much of the trilogy – I read half of the first book and then stopped (wrote a review of it anyhow cos I didn’t want to think I’d got nothing out of it – certainly didn’t get any orgasms, for one thing). I worry the success of the series is a lack of proper porn appreciation – we should teach it as part of English lit (not sure whether I mean this or not!). But anyhow, this is an excellent response to Roiphe, who seems in part to be rehashing the arguments of The Morning After (because she’s, like, the only woman ever who takes responsibility and steps up to the plate regarding sexuality while all the rest of us are in permanent denial because we’re frigid and stupid, poor little us etc. etc.).

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    Jumble of thoughts:

    1)Roiphe has annoyed the hell out of me since the 90’s when she made a career out of being dismissive (some might say contemptuous) of rape victims and Take Back The Night. I don’t trust her to have anything intelligent to say on the subject of rape or even rape fantasies, beyond her inane gloating about how feminists don’t get it. (Translation: see how edgy and subversive I am boys? I’m really fun! Tell me a rape joke and I’ll laugh!! Where’s my cookie?)

    2)It’s a logical fallacy to assume the character in 50 Shades Of Grey is some social barometer for the psyches of all women everywhere, any more than it was to assume that about the main character in Story Of O. (Which some people in it’s day did.)

    3)Likewise, it is specious of Roiphe to use a collective “we” in her drivel to appoint herself the spokesperson of all womanhood. “Maybe it’s because we secretly don’t want power” (bold mine) Speak for yourself Roiphe–I am a woman who certainly does want the personal power of autonomy and equality—nor am I secret about it.

    4)Not all subbing implies rape fantasies. But I doubt Roiphe has the imagination that would hit on that, sounds like she can’t even imagine switching off roles, LOL.

    5)I will say that walking past poster ads for “Girls” everywhere, it does look like a pretty awful show, but not for the reasons she cites. Also nothing about it seems “raw and bruised” from what I can tell.

  • Stratyllis

    ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ started out as a Twilight fanficiton, and so the female lead is based on Bella Swan. I doubt that this fact is known by most of the people who read it and are making conjectures about all women based on the female lead in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. That book was written by someone who thinks that Edward of Twilight is the ideal partner. Is it any suprise that people are using this book to say that all women want to be submisive to men, knowing its origins?

  • arielmorgan

    Crap articles and writers like Katie Roiphe are why there even had to be a moment years ago in my kink evolution where I struggled to reconcile it with my political principles. … And then I realized that all that nonsense crap was, well, crap, and found better partners. The end!

  • Arielle

    You are right on in your criticism. I would love to see a response from Roiphe.

  • Jim Domodo

    I think what I would like to know is if the tables were turned and it was men that found the book so appealing would women be as open minded? I read in a Time article that women were giving the book to their husbands to get ideas. If men did the same would women be as accepting? I think this is the double standard that aggravates people like Katie and they go off on a rant. I always hear women chidding men for liking porn but when it comes to women looking at porn the attitude is “its natural and ok.” If thats what women think, ok. Just be honest and hold men to the same standard.

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      I dunno, when de Sade committed his fantasies to ink and paper, they found their way into literary cannon, as to a lesser extent did Von Masoch’s. Though the former was imprisoned in his lifetime, history seems to have born out that it’s largely acceptable for men to write BDSM fantasies (hell, the two I mentioned even have their NAMES on the stuff!)

      Now, if you want to argue whether or not a Twilight fanfic writer is likely to go down in literary history, well, that’s another matter. ;)

  • Paige

    1) I don’t get the hubbub over this book – it’s not like there haven’t been other erotic books, written by women and featuring women. This isn’t new, everybody! Or is it that this is the first time women have openly read such literature without shame? That would be refreshing.

    2) As for Roiphe’s last comment, I must agree. Really? The writing in this just not that good! If you want good erotica, written by women, Anais Nin, anyone? Head to your nearest college town and find the indie bookstore – chances are they have an entire erotic section overflowing with fabulously different types of sex backed up by fabulously crafted prose!

  • Ti

    I was reading this blog post with interest as I’m curious to find out what other women think of the first book. So I’m more than a little annoyed and disappointed to have had a major aspect of the plot from the second book of the trilogy revealed to me. A spoiler warning would have good! We haven’t had the second book released yet here in the UK.

    • Ti

      *That was meant to read ‘major aspect of the third book’*

  • Angelica Harris

    The first thing I thought about when reading about “50 Shades” and the reaction thereto is, has there been any kind of study comparing powerful and successful women who enjoy submission fantasies with powerful and successful men who patronize dominatrixes or read about or live out fantasies of being infantalized? Are these gender-linked fantasies, or are they simply the fantasies of people who are required to maintain a great amount of control in their daily lives and so need the fantasy, or actuality, of submission?

  • alexandra

    PLEASE USE THE TERM ***SPOILER ALERT*** before you ruin the ending for people who are only on the first book!!!!!!!!!!! Geesh.