Racy novel sweeps pop culture consciousness

Racy novel sweeps pop culture consciousness

The summer's biggest blockbuster isn't on the silver screen -- yet. This silver is grey. As in "Fifty Shades of Grey."

This erotic romance novel and its two sequels -- "Fifty Shades Darker" and "Fifty Shades Freed" -- burst onto the scene this spring and summer, leaving readers gasping, hearts racing, palms twitching and cash registers singing the tune of 31 million volumes sold in four months.

First-time author E.L. James' novel concept reportedly has outsold all of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books on their United Kingdom home turf.

The British literary invasion by these two instant-millionaire moms continues to conquer new lands, finding new and utterly different audiences.

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Like the "Potters" before them, the "Grey" books are flying off shelves in discount stores, bookstore giants, upscale local bookstores, area libraries, specialty shops and eBook sites. They've been on the best-sellers lists at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City and Barnes & Noble in Cedar Rapids since late March, and constantly on the wait-lists at the Iowa City Public Library and Cedar Rapids metro library network.

Promises of a screen trilogy are fanning the flames online, as well, with speculation running wild about who will portray billionaire bad boy Christian Grey and the naïve object of his kinky affections, Anastasia Steele. The books have also spun off parody's like "Fifty Shades of Earl Grey" by Cedar Rapids native Andrew Shaffer.

The Iowa City Public Library is planning a panel discussion at 7 p.m. Sept. 27 to delve into the phenomena, during the library's annual Intellectual Freedom Festival.

"When it first came out, we had well over 100 holds. It was coming in and going off the shelves," says Terri Byers, a library assistant at the Iowa City Public Library who is planning the September discussion there. "We've had lots of different (reader) reactions, from 'that's porno' to 'do you have any other books like that?' "

Byers, 49, of Iowa City, has read the trilogy and declares them "poorly written." Still, she says one library patron said her book club is reading "Peyton Place" and "Fifty Shades." "She said, 'The scandal of that era is the scandal of this era. That hasn't changed -- it's just implied in 'Peyton Place,' " Byers says.

Jason Paulios, 33, community services librarian and selector for adult fiction at the Iowa City library, underestimated the "Fifty Shades" popularity, which he says has only been equaled by "The Help."

After author James appeared on NBC-TV's "Today" show last spring, Paulios says the requests started pouring in. He ordered four copies in March, which were back-ordered until Vintage Books, a division of Random House Inc., acquired the book and did a rush-release printing.

"We got ours in early April," he says. "I started with four, then ordered five, then ordered nine. When it was looking like (the demand) would be never-ending, I ordered 15 in June, then decided to give up and get a whole bunch of them." The library now has 34 copies of Book 1, 13 of Book 2 and 11 of Book 3.

Like the "Potters" before them, the "Greys" delve into a shadowy fantasy world, bringing their wizardry to the mainstream.

That's where the comparisons end. The "Greys" are not for children, or the faint of heart. They're filled with erotica, romance, chills,  thrills, car chases and revenge plots. They're touching something even deeper and stronger than "Lady Chatterley's Lover," spawning a slew of parodies, retail pleasure packages and high-priced hotel fantasy escapes in the Pacific Northwest, where the trilogy begins and ends.

Novice James, a wife, mother and former TV executive based in West London, marries romance with bondage and discipline, dominance and submission between two twenty-somethings: the worldly Grey and the virginal Steele. He wants to dominate her in the bedroom and the boardroom, which frightens and fascinates her.

Tables turn as they play their cat and mouse game of master and mistress, blurring the threshold of physical pain and sexual pleasure in rough play in his Red Room of Pain, outfitted with handcuffs, floggers, whips, canes, sex toys, furniture and red satin sheets.

The author ties in enough intrigue outside the bedroom to keep readers intrigued through the first book brush-off and the second book cliffhanger, before racing toward a satisfying third book resolution.


Romance novels have been around for eons. Why is this trilogy -- dubbed "mommy porn" by pop culture pundits -- sparking something new that people are willing to read and discuss in broad daylight? Are there 50 shades of porn?

"That, for anyone, is such a loaded question, because it really depends on the person," says Denise Stapley, 41, a licensed mental health counselor and certified sex therapist in Cedar Rapids.

Where one person sees art, another might see porn, whether hanging on a museum wall, on a movie screen or on the printed page.

"It depends on someone's experiences. It depends on their look at sexuality, so it's hard to even define that," Stapley says. "But I think because these books have been so mainstreamed, and because they have this story -- there's this whole story of this love affair -- it takes it away from what a lot of people initially think of as porn -- video or hardcore. ... A teenager's outfit these days could be looked at as porn. It just really depends."

Stapley hasn't read the books, but has talked to many others who have.

"I know some people are incredibly offended by the books, others embrace them," she says.

The books do contain graphic sexual depictions, but Stapley says there's no clear industry line drawn between soft-core and hard-core porn.

"For someone who has not done much reading or been open to other aspects of sexuality or different acts other than a very traditional, more conservative view, I'm sure that reading that book feels like absolute hard-core. ... There's the bondage, there's the contract (between Christian and Ana), so for someone who has just not experienced that, it's like, 'What in the world are you talking about?' It just probably feels like it's hard-core," she says.

"In the field, that's not really that crazy. There's this continuum from your standard, missionary, in-the-bedroom, lights dim, once-a-week kind of intimacy to the kinky and fetish behaviors.

"The only time when I can think of an industry standard is whether something's going to be in the movie theater or go straight to video. (The book) is definitely explicit, but not as explicit as it could be," she says. "It could be more intense."

A peek into the unknown just naturally piques interest.

"I think we're curious," Stapley says. "We're talking about it around our watercoolers, we're talking about it over our backyard fences. These kind of things, they're fantasy. Life gets kind of mundane, so it's novelty, it's different. For a lot of the women that I work with (who have) libido issues, something like this, if nothing else, gets them talking about it again. It gets them curious. It might not be what they're into, but it stirs things up a little bit, and I think every once in a while we seek this boost, and books like this can do that.

"It's definitely gotten a lot more women talking about sex and what's happening in their own homes, over margaritas."

They're also curious about the sexual toys described in the books.


Passion Parties, an in-home gathering of customers in the mode of kitchenware and beauty products, has responded with "Fifty Shades"-inspired collections dubbed Vanilla, Red Room and Shades of Surrender kits, as well as other themed products, ranging from $19.50 for specific aids discussed in the trilogy to $111 for elaborate kits containing multiple pieces.

The book-inspired toys have been "hot sellers," says Amanda Happel, 34, of Cedar Rapids, who has been a Passion Parties consultant for nearly eight years. "I've been running out and having to substitute products constantly. The demand has been much higher than we thought."

The "Laters, Baby" kit, inspired by Christian's signature sign-off to Ana, has been especially popular.

"It has a gray necktie, a little sash and mask and whip," Happel says. "A lot of people like it because it's an easy way to get into it. It's a way to have some play and re-live your experience through the book."

Julia Schaefer, 29, who owns The Tool Box, a "no shame sex and sexuality" shop at 128 1/2 E. Washington St. in downtown Iowa City, has stocked items mentioned in the books and is disappointed that more people aren't coming in to ask about them.

"Most of my conversations have happened outside of the shop, with friends," she says.

She carries items like handcuffs and wooden paddles, but can order larger things like restraints and swings.

While most of her walk-in clients are women and the "Fifty Shades" trilogy features heterosexual couples, they aren't the only ones stepping into this domain.

"If you're interested in that type of activity, it doesn't matter if you're straight or gay. It has to do with (whether) you like rougher play. I run into people on all ends of the spectrum," Schaefer says.

Happel's curious clients tend to be women in their 30s and 40s.

"The 20-year-olds, if they're reading the books, they aren't talking," she says. "A few of my friends aren't even reading it. My mom and her friends are ecstatic about it. They're done with kids and can be a little more out-there and not feel like anybody's going to walk in on them. They're passing the books along to their husbands ... so if they're role-playing, they want him to know what role he's playing.

"Younger girls see it differently," she says. "The older ones see it as fun role-play, the younger one think, 'Is this how relationships are supposed to be?' There's a big gap there. Moms are giving it to their daughters, but they're not getting what Mom gets out of it."

Happel has read all three.

"I thought they were pretty raunchy, in a fun way," she says "They were fun; they got my libido going a little bit. I thought the writing could have been edited better. I was reading the same lines over and over in different settings."

She and her friends even sat around and talked about the phrases they hate most, like "looking up through his lashes" and "inner goddess."

"There's a little bit of everything in there,” Happel says. “For people who really are not able to talk about their sexuality, they get to imagine a world where it's OK to talk about it. For a little bit of time, they get to play Ana in their minds. ... We all have that inner goddess -- we've got to let her play sometimes."


Erotic romance writer Joey W. Hill, 44, of Southport, N.C., has been living as a submissive to her husband for about a decade. She can trace those feelings back to her youth, later reflected in her work as an administrative assistant before she started researching the lifestyle to pen her first  book in 2002.

"I loved being a secretary," she says. "I loved making lives easier. That side of my personality was manifesting in my career, but I do not explore (the life) outside of my marriage."

The lifestyle often is referred to as BDSM, which encompasses varied aspects of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission and sadomasochism.

Unlike the Christian-Ana relationship in "Fifty Shades," Hill's husband does not live as her dominant.

"He's a Southern alpha-male boy," she says, but is open to her preferences.

"The good thing about being with someone you love, who is your best friend, is the willingness to help you explore," Hill says. "Men have this wonderful trait. When they're good lovers, they enjoy what turns on their partner. We were married young and have been on an adventurous journey together. We figured out that side of our relationship fairly early on. It's helpful when you're a service submissive -- you enjoy making the person you're with happy. On the sexual side, we're able to explore that in a way that's mutually beneficial to both of us."

Hill and her husband don't have a contract like the one detailed in "Fifty Shades of Grey," but they know their boundaries. Other dominant/submissive couples do place great emphasis on a contract outlining acceptable behaviors and limits.

Her books explore a darker side of the fantasy than the "Fifty Shades" trilogy, and involve mermaids, witches and vampires. She applauds "Fifty Shades" for bringing her lifestyle into a more public awareness.

"It's a very good introduction to the mainstream," she says. "For so long, when you'd think of BDSM, you'd think of scary pictures on the Internet. ... BDSM is all about trust and power exchange. The appeal of romance to women for so long has been that prince on a white horse."

Lifestyle practitioners come from every walk of life, she says. "Doctors, lawyers, business people, nurses, teachers, housewives -- every aspect you can imagine."


The mainstream public has seen glimpses of this world through movies like "Eyes Wide Shut," and some of the milder forms of play like pretty masks and soft cuffs, sex therapist Stapley says.

"But when you go beneath the surface and get into bondage ... it can get pretty extreme," she says. "When I've worked with clients or heard about people who are really into that, there's really a protocol in that community to make sure it's safe.

"As long as it's safe, and it's sane and it's consensual, I don't care if people swing from chandeliers. It's what works for them."

Stapley says the psychology behind BDSM is varied and complex.

"A lot of people would say someone who prefers to play submissive, there must be an abuse in their history. Not necessarily," Stapley says. "It depends on what that individual is getting out of it. A lot of the folks I've worked with who prefer taking on a submissive role, they may play roles in their daily lives where they have to be in control of everything. You can have some very high-powered individuals who are really into this, and it's this opportunity to let go.

"You think of that with moms. Moms who have to manage their households. They're running their kids from this activity to the next, coordinating dinners," Stapley says. "They're having to hold everything together -- it could be a little bit inviting to be taking on this submissive role -- (having someone else) take over in the bedroom. You can have some of that psychology with it.

"In terms of the dominatrix, it's kind of the same thing -- someone who doesn't feel very powerful. You can look back on family of origin, so many different pieces," she says.

"In therapy, that's kind of the fun part. When I've had someone come in and they don't want to change the behavior, they're OK with the behavior, they just want to understand why (they're) into this," Stapley says. "Where did this kind of a sexual script come from? That part of the process -- what do you think this is tied to, what do you get out of it, what is the benefit, what drives it. There can be a variety of different psychological things that are behind that."

Author Hill says one thing the mainstream public might find surprising is that BDSM relationships might not even delve into the restraints or spankings mentioned in the "Fifty Shades" trilogy.

"It's basically psychological surrender," she says. "(The public) might think it's about tying someone up and beating the crap out of them. That does happen. Some people do enjoy pain for sexual release, but underneath it all, it has to do with a person's need to let go and relax enough to trust the other person. A healthy, positive BDSM relationship attracts pretty much mainstream people. This is what they do behind closed doors. This is just who they are."

Hill and her husband don't have children, but she says others who do, tend to keep their lifestyle in the bedroom, and wait till the kids are out of the house to practice more openly.

While she doesn't shout her lifestyle from the rooftops, Hill is out and open with family and friends.

"I don't make a big deal about it," she says. And neither do they. 

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