Note: this is an adaptation from a column printed in Erotic Trade Only, printed September 2014. In it, I discuss my views on the role and response of the adult industry prior to the launch of the first 50 Shades movie, and my honest thoughts about it all. I thought it would be fun to share with you, now that the dust has largely settled. If you’re new to me and this blog, I’m a writer in the sex toy industry, and this article was for an adult industry audience. Let’s do this.
We’re all Christian Grey’s submissives now, aren’t we? Look at us. We should be ashamed of ourselves. We pander to every news agency who wants our 50 Shades-related sales stats. We offer up information freely every time a journalist asks how the 50 Shades boom benefited us. We gladly accept third party products and sell them on if it has ‘Shades’ in the title, regardless of whether or not it’s in violation of E.L. James’ intellectual property rights. We photobomb every Shades-related news story we can, throwing our brand names alongside ‘the 50 Shades phenomena’ as though our lives depended on it and regardless of the consequences.
Our press releases are full of Shades and devoid of content. “Our Love Beads saw a 200% uplift in sales after the release of 50 Shades.” “We see incremental sales across our entire catalogue thanks to 50 Shades.” “Couples are buying more.” “Couples are buying less.” “Women are communicating about sex more.” “Men feel intimidated by their partner’s attraction to Christian Grey.” We’ll say whatever we need to say to make sure, somewhere in a aminstream article, the words “source: [your brand name]” appear in it.
And it’s all nonsense that people like me write. And people drink it in without question, because I’m expected to write it and you’re expected to believe it.
50 Tirades of Grey?
So I’m laying it on the line today, with enough time before the movie’s release to be able to dodge criticism for jumping on the same bandwagon I profess to deride but with it close enough on the horizon for it to be relevant. I’m going to tell you what I really, honestly think of it all, as a marketer and as a human being. Because those two things are not always the same.
Every day, in every keystroke I commit to print, I walk a fine line. I need to balance a message of sexual progressivity and inclusivity with one of commerciality, and when it comes to Shades, those are hard messages to reconcile. If you’re a retailer, you’ve doubtless encountered the same paradox. On the one hand, we want to capitalise on the one genuinely commercial gift we’ve been given in the decade since the previous sexual media trope, Sex and the City. And on the other, we need to make sure we’re doing so responsibly, without judgment and certainly without misogyny.
We have a public divided: one group is the inexperienced, the curious, those not yet articulate sexually literate enough yet to see the latent menace that Shades represents. That group is clamoring for more of the same, recklessly. The other group is the more experienced, and they resent us and abandon us if we go loud in support of 50 Shades. This group is smaller but fiercely loyal and very vocal: a hardcore of consumers who spend well repeatedly because they know what they want, and advocate publicly the brands they trust most. These customers know the convoluted subtleties of sex more intricately than the former group, but constitute a smaller percentage overall.
Social media is a great barometer for this. If you’re a reasonably mainstream adult brand with a broad audience, you’ve undoubtedly had a variation of the following exchange on Facebook.
Brand: So the 50 Shades trailer is out. What did we all think? Is Jamie Dornan a worthy Christian Grey?
Follower 1: Hell yeah!
Follower 2: Not bad. James Franco would have been better.
Follower 3: So intense…
Follower 4: Disappointed to see you supporting this.
Follower 5: Any single ladies here?
Follower 6: Misogynistic hate. Never shopping with you again.
Follower 7: Wish my hubby would do that to me. LOL
Follower 5: I might not have the billions, but got the whips LOL
Follower 8: Loved it. Very passionate. Grrr….
Follower 5: Hey Follower 8, message me LOL
Follower 9: Sad. Promoting rape and abuse. You’ve lost a customer.
Followere 10: Can’t wait for the movie! I’ll be first in line!
Follower 11: My order hasn’t arrived?
And so on, ad infinitum. The biggest problem is that everyone in this argument is right: there is simultaneously a thirst and a distaste for Shades. 20% of people hate it as much as 80% love it, and there we are, stuck in the middle with you.
That, then, is our lot in the adult industry. Trying to squeeze some juice from an event that a significant portion of our repeat customers dislike, while trying to uphold a moral obligation to the larger portion of our customers that don’t know any better and we want to attract, without alienating either group. Joseph Heller would be impressed.
So should we pretend to hate 50 Shades even while we acknowledge that it’s inarguably the best thing that’s happened to our industry in a decade, probably longer? Or do we embrace it without question and lose that portion of our customer who’s more attuned to the complexities of sex and better understand the negativity inherent in 50 Shades?
My response, personally, is slightly more inflected. It’s like this.
There is controversy in the Shades trilogy. For those of us who are close to these trends, there is a lot to be angry about, to be worried about. Christian Grey is not a role model for a Dom – I think he’s horrible, cold, misogynistic, dangerous, selfish and undoubtedly an ugly person. Not the kind of person to whom you should ascribe any trust or loyalty or devotion. He should come with a label that simply reads, “Warning: an idiot.”
But then, why should he be a perfect dominant? What insecurity is it of ours that demands a literary character be a good role model? Is it because he’s in print? 50 Shades is not an instruction manual, nor as a work of fiction does it have any inherent moral obligation. It should stand alone: any literary criticism is by its nature a projection of your own experiences, and no more or less valid than E. L. James’ experiences. 50 Shades is one middle-aged white woman’s naïve imaging of sexual dominance, and to disparage her for her fantasy is to disparage yourself for yours.
To assume those who read it are going to be injured by it is to do a huge disservice to its readership. To assume it’s a dangerous handbook for kink is to assume the people who are reading it are stupid. And that’s more dangerous.
It is, quite simply, a work of literature. Actually, even that’s a stretch. It’s a fantasy, one person’s fantasy, and to run it down on the basis of its content is to run down every singular work of fantasy ever composed. I don’t mean to make such lofty comparisons, but Shakespeare had his detractors who hated The Tempest because its content was too unbelievable.
People read The Catcher in the Rye every day without machine-gunning strangers. People read American Psycho without dismembering sex workers. People watch Bargain Hunt every day without becoming antiques collectors.
50 Shades has come and gone ten times every century. I can count 6 other sexual milestones since the 20s, and that’s without really trying. Our mistake, the same mistake every generation makes, is to think that we invented sex. We think we discovered it, and we need to protect it, and protect people from it, because we know best. But we don’t know best, and the biggest mistake we can make is to think that we know anything at all.
Unfortunately, Christian Grey is not the hero we deserve, but he’s the hero we need right now. And until we’re in such a position that we can create these incredible mainstream opportunities ourselves, we’ll have to bend to his will.