Let’s Talk About Sex

This month’s reading selection for my book club was Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James.  Rest assured that we don’t always choose such cheap literary work; over the years, we’ve read everything from classics to memoirs to non-fiction, to contemporary fiction – the majority of it pretty good quality stuff.  Erotica is a genre we had not yet delved into, however, and given the current popularity of the Fifty Shades phenomenon, it was inevitable that our book club would follow suit with I’m guessing hordes of other book clubs in choosing this book (in fact, it was my idea – before I read the book – for my book club to choose this one because it was an as yet not covered category of reading material for us – and hey, I thought it would be fun!).

Last night we gathered at my house for our “discussion” (I use the term somewhat loosely since most of our discussions wander way off course and tend to be rather disorderly – but that’s half the fun).  It was, I think, the biggest turnout we’ve ever had for a discussion in nearly nine years of gathering – there were almost 20 of us.

Which just goes to show you: sex sells!  Everyone wanted in on the discussion – even my husband, who provided a male point of view (and comic relief).

To set the mood, I created a playlist of music especially to enhance the subject matter:

Sex by Berlin

Let’s Talk About Sex by Salt-n-Peppa

I Want Your Sex by George Michael

#1 Crush by Garbage

I’m a Slave 4 U by Britney Spears

I Touch Myself by the Divinyls

Do Ya Think I’m Sexy by Rod Stewart

Love to Love You Baby by Donna Summer

Love Serenade by Barry White

Like a Virgin by Madonna

Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye

Sub-Mission by Sex Pistols

Don’t Cha by Pussycat Dolls

Afternoon Delight by Starland Vocal Band

Cockiness (Love It) by Rihanna

Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye

Oh My God by Pink

Erotic City by Prince

Urgent by Foreigner

Penis candy and bona fide porn was provided (as well as, of course, alcohol, to perhaps loosen inhibitions.  Okay, that’s a lie – we always have alcohol at our book club discussions, even for Little Women).

I had really hoped that we would take turns reading aloud from the Penthouse Letters issue (because in some twisted way, I thought that would be very entertaining), but alas, the discussion never made it that far.  I had also hoped that we would delve more into the differences between porn and erotica, but the discussion didn’t go too far in that direction.

So what did we talk about?  I think everyone there agreed that Fifty Shades of Grey is very poorly written.  Some of us absolutely hated the book – I expressed my disdain for it here – and many, despite agreeing that it’s poorly written, still found it to be enjoyable.  The overall redeeming quality, it seems, is that the mere popularity of the book has supposedly opened the door for women to feel more comfortable talking about sex.

Apparently, even in this progressive, enlightened age, women still, by and large, feel shy about talking about sex – at least with those who really matter: their sexual partners.  I can’t deny this.  Speaking for myself, I have no problem having very graphic sexual conversations with my close girlfriends, but talking about it in explicit terms with my husband – specifically, addressing in clear terms what I like and what I want – is very, very difficult.  This seems to be common, judging from last night’s discussion.

Why is this?  It seems that though we women have come so very far with regard to demanding and expecting to be treated as valuable, equal human beings alongside our male counterparts in most aspects of life, in the bedroom, we still seem to be programmed to feel that it is our role to please, and not necessarily to be pleased.  In other words, we still accept a somewhat inferior position.  The bedroom is a man’s domain, and on some deep level, women still feel like it’s their lot to just go along with it.  Much of this comes from upbringing, and I’m sure much of it comes also from our culture’s obsession with projecting unrealistic feminine stereotypes (think models and perfect-looking celebrities) that most of us average chicks know we can never measure up to, as well as all those products that manage to make us women feel like we are disgusting, smelly creatures.  No wonder so many of us feel insecure and shy about asking for what we want in bed!

So, despite a lot of school-girl-like giggling last night, it was an enlightening discussion.  Although I don’t think I agree with the notion that Fifty Shades is managing to break down barriers.  At least not for me.

My friend Wendy presented me with this gift for allowing her to host the festivities at my house. I wonder if this comes in a nursing style . . .

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

Ahh, where to start?

I had to know what all the hype was about.  Categorized as erotica, I admit my curiosity was piqued.  And I was curious, too: what exactly is the difference between erotica and porn?

I will say flat out that I’m not a fan of porn – my own definition/perception being visual images of extremely graphic sex merely for the sake of sex, in which women are generally portrayed as (a) physically unrealistic, and (b) receptacles and/or existing for the sole purpose of providing sexual pleasure for men.

Erotica, on the other hand, it seems to me, would be steamy and sexy, and even graphic, but hopefully with some kind of semi-believable storyline that invites the observer to care about the characters, and in which the characters are fully developed adults capable of participating in the story voluntarily.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, we meet Anastasia Steele, a young, virginal woman on the brink of graduating from college.  At 21, she’s never even masturbated (yeah, right).  Filling in for her friend who has fallen ill, she agrees to interview one Christian Grey, 27-year old mega-billionaire (self-made . . . yeah, right) for the student newspaper, and from the moment she stumbles into his office, falling flat on her face (literally), the sparks begin to fly between them.  Christian woos Anastasia (if you can call stalking her “wooing”), and it’s not long before he has her in bed, first introducing her to “vanilla sex” to get her virginity out of the way, and then introducing her to his fetishist lifestyle, that of BDSM.

The rest of the book revolves around Christian trying to get Anastasia to sign a contract he has drawn up outlining the parameters of the Dominant/Submissive relationship he wishes to enter into (ahem) with her, which includes her agreeing to be ordered around by him, to eat what he says to eat, wear what he says to wear, to not make eye contact with him, to eagerly and immediately do his sexual bidding, and to allow the use of such implements as whips, riding crops, genital clamps, hot wax, and butt plugs.  (He’s managed to convince 15 or so other women to enter into this agreement before Anastasia, by the way.)  Ana is conflicted, but she’s falling in love with this sick fuck (of course).  Along the way, there are many, many graphic sex scenes.  As in, after Chapter 8 in which their sexual relationship explodes onto the pages (ahem), there might be two or three pages of non-sex between the sex scenes for the rest of the 500+ page book.

I would hate for anyone to think of me as a prude.  I’m cool with a little rough-housing and role-playing in the bedroom (or wherever) between consenting adults.  I take no issues with venturing beyond “vanilla sex.”  But I did not like this book.

Let’s start with the writing.  It’s just not well-written.  There are obvious grammatical errors throughout, and it just has a very amateurish feel to it.  I never even began to give a flying crap about either of the main characters.  Christian is a twisted, arrogant son of a bitch (with a dark, sad past which is only hinted at and which, I surmise, is supposed to make the reader feel sympathetic towards him, but it didn’t work for me), and Anastasia is just a jackass.  There are too many unrealistic things in the story that make it unbelievable: his ultra-rich status at such a young age; and if he’s so rich and successful – a virtual mogul – what the hell is he doing living in Seattle of all places?  And of course all the men in the story are in love with the oblivious Anastasia; and of course Christian has an “impressive” penis, because no average-sized dick would do for a story like this; and he’s multi-orgasmic!  He can not only get it up over and over again, but he can come and come again, within minutes of his last “release”; and then there’s Anastasia’s mother who is a wellspring of relationship wisdom though she’s on her fourth marriage; and the list goes on.

Bah.

A short list of repeated phrases that made me want to reach into the book and slap the shit out of someone:

“Oh my”

“Holy shit”

“Holy cow”

“Holy fuck”

“That’s so … hot”

“My inner goddess”

Laters, baby

Shut the fuck up, you annoying figments of the author’s imagination.

Also, it drove me CRAZY that the author is so clearly British, and yet she wrote through the eyes of a young American woman.  It failed.  It felt like she just read about what Americans might be like, but everyone in the book came off as a transplanted Brit.  Why didn’t she just have the whole thing take place in her native England?

What bothers me most of all about this book – and here’s where I get on my moral soapbox – is the notion that submissiveness is what turns women on.  We’ve spent how many decades fighting to get out from under men’s thumbs, to be seen and valued as equal human beings, but according to this story and the almost unbelievably positive and welcoming reaction to it, what women really want is to be degraded, demeaned, humiliated, and fucked silly by a domineering male.

Come on, ladies – really?

I’ve been told by several friends that I have to read the second and third books in the trilogy to really understand and get to like the characters.  Frankly, I don’t want to have to try that hard to like characters or a story.  Although I found a couple (out of several dozen) of the sex scenes to be, shall we say, titillating, this book just didn’t work for me, and I won’t be reading the rest of the series.

That said, I am now on a quest to find some quality erotica.  It’s got to be out there, right?  Stay tuned.

Also, my book club will be gathering to discuss Fifty Shades of Grey in July.  Although I didn’t like the book, I expect the discussion to be a rollicking good time, and I’ll post a recap here, so stay tuned for that as well.