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Book Buzz

The psychology behind ‘Shades of Grey’

As if you needed any confirmation that women on the South Shore are just as captivated by “Fifty Shades of Grey” as their counterparts around the globe, there’s the Scituate 500.

Members of this six-year-old reading group, made up of Scituate High School alumni, have been reading all three novels in the series written by E.L. James.

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“We have members of all ages and stages of life and we are all excited, reading this one — even some of our 75-year-old moms are getting into it as well,” said Nicole Johnson,  31.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is the first installment in the trilogy, and introduces the reader to 22-year-old Anastasia Steele and business magnate Christian Grey.

In a way, the books fit squarely in the tradition of the romance genre, with its tales of virgins and dominating and damaged men. But they differ from the mainstream romance novel by including explicit erotic scenes, which involve elements of dominance and submission, bondage, and sadism/masochism.

I think most readers will agree that the Shades novels are no literary masterpieces, but as a practicing clinical psychologist, I’m intrigued by women’s reaction to them.

Marshfield resident Joyce Whitlock, 43, describes Shades as “guilty, escapist fun that pushes the envelope because it leaves nothing to the imagination,” which gives a clue to some of its appeal.

While some may find Shades’ scenes shocking or even mildly disturbing, when two consenting adults engage in a mutually agreed upon activity, it represents another form of sexual expression in a relationship. Acknowledging this in literature may help promote the idea that it shouldn’t be a cause for guilt in fantasy or practice.

As Erin Myers, 24, of Weymouth, said: “I think the series is liberating in encouraging women to begin a dialogue about sex with each other and with their partners. For some, it may enhance real-life sex lives or even simply fantasy life. I think this is positive for women.”

Ellen Leavitt, 49, of Milton, has a slightly different explanation for the novels’ appeal.

“Many people will assume it’s the sexuality and the raw intensity of that which is the draw,’’ she said. However, Leavitt finds the complexity of Grey’s character and the couple’s emotional relationship more compelling. “He’s so mercurial in his moods, sometimes controlling, impatient, and demanding, and yet sometimes tender, considerate, and even sensitive. But he always knows what he wants,” Leavitt said.

From a psychologist’s point of view, I think this is exactly where Shades creates true grist for the mill.

Finding oneself overpowered or dominated sexually is a common sexual fantasy for both men and women at one time or another. While equality is what we want in some arenas of life, it is not always what we want in the bedroom or in our fantasies. Choosing to be submissive, whether male or female, is not tantamount to choosing to be a victim of abuse.

The phenomenon that Shades has become is due in large part to the fascination it engenders by focusing on the continual “shift” in erotic power between the two main characters. As Leavitt said, “I kept reading because I wanted to know whose emotional needs would ultimately dominate — his for perpetual distance or hers for closeness.”

Yet Shades also taps into another extremely powerful fantasy women often express, which is that love can ultimately change a man — even an emotionally wounded or damaged man like Christian Grey. This character is clearly portrayed as having had a traumatic and damaging childhood, leaving him with multiple intimacy issues, and readers want to believe that Ana’s love will change all that.

“Although Christian Grey is eccentric in his sexual choices, he is looking for love like everyone else,’’ said Debbie Demars, 50, of Rockland.

Women readers clearly want to romanticize the Grey character, and James shows some playful and even sensitive sides of the character to facilitate this. But, it is crucial to remember that Grey is just this — a fictional character.

In real life, when women encounter controlling behavior in a man, there will not be mutual exchange, but instead they will most likely feel “erased,” as if they don’t exist or matter at all. And in such relationships, this kind of behavior can set the stage for all kinds of emotional abuse and even physical violence.

Yet to imply that the Shades trilogy perpetuates violence against women, as some readers worry, dismisses an important feature of the story line, which is that the Grey-Steele relationship is a consensual one — even if one of them is incredibly naïve.

Some readers, like Demars, suggest that the books’ extreme popularity has something do with women’s need for greater spice in life.

“I couldn’t put it down and I recommend it to friends because it allows women to leave behind the dullness of life for a little while,’’ she said. “I think the book is popular because women everywhere are looking for more in the bedroom, and more in their private lives.”

In my view, the popularity of Shades isn’t evidence of women’s unhappiness, but rather stems from a place where women are feeling increasingly empowered to pursue sexual fantasy and share it openly with others. And if it enhance’s women’s real-life intimacy, then all the better.

“It’s 2012 after all,’’ Leavitt said, “and we are reading it, enjoying it, and talking about it, simply because we can.”

Nancy Harris can be reached at dr.nancy23@gmail.com.
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