Why Women Want Shades of Grey

fifty-shades-of-grey-cac1d39d5bb5c20810b1314bcbf61dee35d8219b-s6-c10Okay, not all women like Fifty Shades of Grey, the story of Anastasia Steele who becomes aroused by submission in her love for Christian Grey. But plenty of women have made the book a bestseller.

What’s the appeal?

The best-known guess comes from Katie Roiphe who believes women crave submission in the bedroom as relief from their newfound burden of equality, power and free will, as though they just can’t handle it:

In “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s character finds herself for a moment lying on a gynecologist’s table perversely fantasizing about having AIDS because it would free her from ambition, from responsibility, from the daunting need to make something of her life… which raises the question: is there something exhausting about the relentless responsibility of a contemporary woman’s life… about all that strength and independence and desire and going out into the world?

Roiphe’s theory has been thoroughly panned. After all, plenty of powerful men like a little dominatrix sex play to gain relief from their relentless responsibilities, too. So some men and some women may want both power and a break from it.

Mistress Shae Flanigan and Olivia Severine are dominatrices who say that most of their clients are “very high-powered” men. Says Severine,

They came to see me as a brief escape when no one was looking at them for direction or leadership. The time with me is when they were told what to do, what to feel and how to act … and all the weight of their careers, families, lives, is lifted from them for a cherished few hours.

Lena Dunham’s hard-driven “Girls” character also seems to want both power and relief.

On the other hand, dominatrices also talk of clients who fetishize their disempowerment, whether it comes from a history of child abuse, racism or poverty. That goes directly against Roiphe’s theory. There are plenty of powerless women out there who could be doing that, too.

Regardless, Tracy Clark-Flory, over at Salon points out that this fetish needn’t mean a woman wants to be disempowered in real life. Surely, a black man who eroticizes racism doesn’t want a return to the pre-Civil Rights era. What we want in fantasy is not necessarily what we crave in the real world.

Others point out that submission fantasies may not have a clear cause. A dominatrix who calls herself Midnight says:

As a child, I got told off for hitting a man in the crotch with my stuffed penguin and now I love hurting balls. Go figure.

Humans are complex and varied, but whether submission fantasies are motivated by relief from power or from fetishized disempowerment or from some other source, it is Anastasia who is disempowered here, not the reader.

Next time I’ll look at how socialization may spark the allure of Fifty Shades of Grey. Later, I’ll have thoughts on what to make of it all.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on April 29, 2013, in feminism, psychology, sex and sexuality, women and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. Last year I watched “Fifty shades of grey” at the cinema. My friend had been talking about it for a couple of months by then so I agreed to join her.
    I don’t like movies that don’t have a plot, but I decided to go anyway because of my friend and also because they filmed it in downtown Vancouver, Canada, the place where I lived at that time. Although I found it cute to recognize the streets and cafes in the movie, I also found it pretty disturbing that my friend was almost moaning while watching this movie. The scary thing was that there were a lot of women who also seemed to like it. Personally, I don’t understand how one can fall in love with someone who is trying to hurt their partner, whether physically or emotionally. But the problem here is much deeper – instead of producing more movies that tell women that if someone hurts them it isn’t right and it should not be acceptable, we have movies that tell us that abuse is good and loving physical and emotional abuse is a healthy normal thing. I remember that not the movie itself bothered me, the fact that a lot of people seemed to love it made me feel really uncomfortable.

  2. It really shocked me that women could fantasize about having AIDs. It’s dangerous and not healthy. A healthy person would be positive and want to get through hardships and make the achievements. Is the message that women want to be taken care of for the rest of their lives? The freedom people want looks like no one wants to fit into gender roles and wants the freedom to not be judged. No one likes to be judged for their passion. But I dislike that if anyone feels gaining AIDs is a mean to give up and finally gain that freedom that was wanted.
    When there’s no control over one’s life, there is no purpose. So that’s maybe why.

    I do wonder If submission fantasies do have a clear cause though. It would be interesting to know or if it really is based on media. Media has a lot of influence. Even though everyone is different and works differently. It would be an interesting study.

    • Well saying that she wanted AIDS so that she wouldn’t have to deal with life probably isn’t literal. Sometimes your expectations for yourself can be so high that they can feel overwhelming and like you can’t cope. But this was a scene from a television show and was probably more of a metaphor for wanting to escape the high expectations.

      On your other question all I can say is that cultures that don’t eroticize pain and humiliation don’t seem to have this sort of fantasy. If people fantasized about it you would think some of the people would behave that way. I’m thinking about American Indian nations before contact with whites, where people greatly enjoyed sex, but sex and violence don’t seem to have been tied together.

  3. The burden of equality, freedom and power can make women seek many different ways to prove themselves. Societies in fact play an important role to allow women getting rid of the feeling of being unequal to men. There are many theories such as Roiphe’s theory a powerful man can relief from relentless responsibilities by sex. Such theories can be true in some cases, yet it cannot. Men may want to feel that they are powerful in sex as they really are in work. The power can be expressed in different ways by both men and women. All depends in their past life experience and their characteristics. It is really important to study and know why is power expressed in different ways and why they prefer that way, and what are the factors behind such behavior.

  4. Everyone has that fantasy what they really want to do with a man, but many people I say would rather not act on it because they don’t want to seem like they like sex… I’ve know plenty of woman that want to be sexy with they’re partner but they are afraid of the result, but this novel its kind of like what many woman want but they just don’t act upon it.

  5. The truth is most woman fantasy and desire something they see in a movie or read in a book. The fifty shades of grey book brings to life many women’s fantasy of being in a submissive and dominant relationship. in the book Christian Grey has in all the job, the cars, the looks, and the nice shaped body. how many women do you hear now saying they want a man with all that? I’m sure a ton the only thing is they are letting their fantasy get mixed in with reality. This book is a fetish for women. even though we read it I’m sure most women wouldn’t’ actually try this kind of relationship. I have read all these books plus other like it. their maybe women out there willing to do this kind of role play but everyone has their own mind on how they get aroused. This kind of topic is complicated because there is many different options and observes about a relationship like this.

  6. To start off with I have never read this book but I know a little of submissive and dominant or at least what I have heard of it. I do not think that fifty shades of grey is popular among women because it represents how women want to be dominated because for one it is not true. I think that secretly everyone wants to be dominated and to dominate wheather it is in life or in the bed but like in everything else their will always be some people who are on the far right or far left meaning that there are people who want to be fully dominated or who wants to fully dominate. when ever someone is on the far end of a spectrum their will allways be extremes I think this book shows that. A reason I think that this book is Popular is because to be a submissive if I am correct in assuming the main character is a submissive is that you have to put your trust into someone and trust that they abide by regulations you put up and trust that they will take care of you. For many women and men in todays generation it is so hard for us to trust another, worried that we might get screwed over, so for someone to willingly be submissive to another is very intriguing because you have to have absolute faith in this person.

  7. By immersing oneself into 50 Shades of Grey, women and men alike can fantisize a world they most likely cannot experience in reality. High-powered men are able to let ago of all their real life stresses and experience being dominated by a woman and having to endure pain and humiliation by her will. Women enjoy domination as well usually due to past experiences in their real lives. 50 Shades of Grey allows people to fantasize this disempowerment without consequences. The main readers who are attracted to this type of literature are either powerful men looking for some down time or disempowered woman who fetishize their abuse without wanting to get hurt in real life. I think this makes perfect sense becasue reading this type of literature is a good way for people to fulfill their needs without really getting hurt.

  8. Chimaechi Ahanotu

    I think the comparison between the book Fifty Shades of Grey and the television show “Girls” is an interesting one. Although I have never read the book or seen the show, I still have an opinion about this post. I believe women like to be dominatrixes because it frees them from the real world expectations of women. Although we have gained alot of equality with men throughout the years, there are things we are subconsiously expected to do such as dress a certain way, come across as very low tempered, soft, gentle and a sense of petitness is seen as “sexy”. The part when Lena Dunham is lying on the gynecologist table fantasizing is interesting. Perhaps these sub-consious responsibilities is too much to hanle sometimes for women and leads us to want an escape from these responsibilities. Being a dominatrix allows a woman to take control and demand/recieve whatever she asks for instead of being the one caring for or providing things to constantly such as her kids. On the flip side, men find dominatrixes intriguing and sexy because it is a reverse role from what they usually play in society. Society says that men should be powerful, dominant and the one to direct things. We all want an escape from reality and I believe these two comparsions you used serve as a great example of real world fantasies.

  9. Gilbert Nguyen

    This blog post is really interesting. Though, I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey, I’m curious as to why women love this book, and this post has explained some of my questions. It’s interesting how people have some fantasies that don’t really make any sense as to how it came to be. These things cannot be revealed as to how it developed since fantasies can be formed from any experience.

    I’d like to think that in a psychological sense it could be understood a lot easier. And that it also depends on how women grew up in terms of environment.

  10. Hi Georgia,

    I am delighted that you posted about this book. First of all, I want to say that I haven’t actually read it, so all of my opinion may be based on erroneous assumptions about what it contains. I understand, though, that the book is designed as erotic fantasy and escapism, not intended to depict reality.

    But I understand that Grey offers Anastasia a contract to sign which eliminates any romantic activity in the relationship at all; that she will submit to all of his whims and commands in the relationship. I find this pretty troubling.

    On a personal note, I don’t really “get” dominant or submissive role play. Themes of restraint, humiliation and the deliberate infliction of physical pain are very distasteful to me. But if people find gratification in that, it’s perfectly fine to pursue it with other consenting adults. And the irony that I am a man who finds gratification in wearing womens clothing will not have escaped you!

    My biggest concern about the book is this: how can there be a functional relationship between two partners which is founded on anything other than mutuality and a sense of shared objectives? (My wife says that, from one perspective, Grey’s contract is a sham; the idea being that he knows his role is actually to fulfil Anastasia’s repressed desire to be dominated and controlled. In other words, they are actually each doing what makes the other happy). I am not sure I buy this view completely.

    So in summary, what troubles me about the book is not the bondage or the submission, but the terms of the relationship. And the popularity of the book suggests it has struck a nerve with a LOT of people. Why does it do that?


    • I haven’t read the book, I’ve just read about the book and heard from my students about it.

      According to everything I’ve heard and read, the characters do actually fall in love with each other, despite the contract.

      As you will see in further posts, I agree with you, though.

      Since I can’t address everything at once — keeping posts to around 500 words – in this post I was concerned with the question of whether women find being powerful overbearing, with that explaining the appeal of the book.


  11. In regards to Lena Dunham’s character in Girls, I’m wondering if having to work in a Patriarchal world under the illusion of equality is too much to handle. Could it be that the pressures of both Patriarchy and equal rights have overwhelmed women to the point of fantasizing submission?

    • Interesting observation.

    • Kozo – That was my first thought also. I’m sure it has a big impact. Its overwhelming in the same way how its debated whether women can have it all, a career and family life. Feminists have pointed out women certainly can but It can be overwhelming sometimes because women end up doing it all (all the house work, child/family care and full time job) with little to no help from their partner. Patriarchy is still ingrained in our culture, even what is considered progressive thinking and laws still hold patriarchal roots and its often romanticized.

  12. I think being a submissive and/or having different fetishes can be complicated. I think everyone is different and people’s reasons vary, as discussed above. I definitely think that some women like to be a submissive for the simple fact that men enjoy it more than anything. Men like to feel powerful and dominant because in our society those are characteristics that males should have. We live in an age where more and more women are getting jobs outside of the home and becoming more powerful in the workforce, competing with men. There was a time where females depended on men for the source of household income, but now that isn’t always the case. Today, women might make just as much, maybe even more money than their husbands or men in general. (Even though in reality we know that women are paid less than men for the same exact job). I think that might make a man feel weak, not in control, and embarrassed. I think dominating a woman in the bedroom brings him satisfaction for that reason. ROOM FURNITURE

  13. Elizabeth Wright

    Fetishes and erotic fantasies are difficult to explain and analyze. As this blog indicated, there are certain logical reasons behind the fantasies of certain individuals, but these reasons do not apply to all or even most individuals.
    Some women (and men) can be attracted to submission in role play due to feeling overwhelmed by day to day decision making and wanting to be told what to do.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of individuals like to trade roles. One day partner A is submissive and partner B is dominate and the next day it’s partner A who’s dominate and partner B who’s submissive. In this scenario, it can be a way to be playful and try new things.
    As far as traumatic experiences influencing fetishes/fantasies, this can be the case in some individuals, but it is definitely not the main reason for most people. Perhaps individuals who experienced traumatic/life-changing events are more likely to be attracted to acting out a submissive role.
    Personally, I think that an individual’s preference for acting out a submissive or dominate role is (on its own) not a bad thing. It’s only negative if it’s unhealthy for the individual (causing them/their partner physical/emotional harm).

  14. I think it’s fun to play a submissive part in the bedroom but only when it’s on my terms. It makes more sense to me that it’s actually about the opposite of disempowerment or an escape, but rather saying, “Look, I can be dominant when I want to be and submissive when I want to be, but it’s all on my own account.”

  1. Pingback: So, Uh, I Gave in to Fifty Shades of Grey (Insert Sub Joke Here… or Not) | Stressing Out College

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