Working Women's Fantasies

Ellen von Unwerth / Art + Commerce

If every era gets the sadist it deserves, it may not be surprising that we have ended up with Christian Grey, the hero of the runaway bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey. He is not twisted or frightening or in possession of a heart of darkness; he was abused as a child, a sadist Oprah could have dreamed up, or as E L James puts it, "Christian Grey has a sad side." He is also extremely solicitous and apologetic for a sadist, always asking the book's young heroine, Anastasia Steele, about every minute gradation of her feelings, and bringing her all kinds of creams and lotions to soothe her after spanking her. He is, in other words, the easiest difficult man of all time.

Why does this particular, watered-down, skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism have such cachet right now? Why have masses of women brought the book to the top of the New York Times bestseller list before it even hit the stores? Most likely it's the happy convergence of the superficial transgression with comfortable archetypes, the blushing virgin and the whips. To a certain, I guess, rather large, population, it has a semipornographic glamour, a dangerous frisson of boundary crossing, but at the same time is delivering reassuringly safe, old-fashioned romantic roles. Reading Fifty Shades of Grey is no more risqué or rebellious or disturbing than, say, shopping for a pair of black boots or an arty asymmetrical dress at Barneys.

As it happens, the prevailing stereotype of the Fifty Shades of Grey reader, distilled in the condescending term "mommy porn," as an older, suburban, possibly Midwestern woman isn't entirely accurate: according to the publisher's data, gleaned from Facebook, Google searches, and fan sites, more than half the women reading the book are in their 20s and 30s, and far more urban and blue state than the rampant caricature of them suggests.

The current vogue for domination is not confined to surreptitious iPad reading: in Lena Dunham's acclaimed new series, Girls, about 20-somethings adrift in New York City, a similar desire for sexual submission has already emerged as a theme. The heroine's pale hipsterish ersatz boyfriend jokes, "You modern career women, I know what you like ..." and his idea, however awkwardly enacted, is that they like to be dominated. He says things like "You should never be anyone's ... slave, except mine," and calls down from a window: "If you come up I'm going to tie you up and keep you here for three days. I'm just in that kind of mood." She comes back from seeing him with bruises and sheepishly tells her gay college boyfriend at a bar, "I am seeing this guy and sometimes I let him hit me on the side of my body."

Her close friend and roommate, meanwhile, has a sweet, sensitive, respectful boyfriend in the new mold who asks her what she wants in bed, and she is bored out of her mind and irritated by him; she fantasizes instead about an arrogant artist she meets at the gallery where she works, who tells her that he will scare her in bed. So nice postfeminist boys are not what these ambitious, liberal-arts-educated girls are looking for either: they are also, in their exquisitely ironic, confused way, in the market for a little creative submission.

Further signals of the current cultural interest in sexual domination include the recent movie A Dangerous Method, which safely embedded spanking in a period piece exploring the history of psychoanalysis. Keira Knightley told interviewers that she was so concerned about the spanking scene during which her character was tied to a bedpost that, in order to get through it, she drank shots of vodka beforehand.

It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad and disparate fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace, when they make up almost 60 percent of college students, when they are close to surpassing men as breadwinners, with four in 10 working women now outearning their husbands, when the majority of women under 30 are having and supporting children on their own, a moment when—in hard economic terms—women are less dependent or subjugated than before.

It is probably no coincidence that, as more books like The Richer Sex by Liza Mundy and Hanna Rosin's forthcoming The End of Men appear, there is a renewed popular interest in the stylized theater of female powerlessness. This is not to mention a spate of articles on choosing not to be married or the steep rise in young women choosing single motherhood. We may then be especially drawn to this particular romanticized, erotically charged, semipornographic idea of female submission at a moment in history when male dominance is shakier than it has ever been.

In the realm of private fantasy, the allure of sexual submission, even in its extremes, is remarkably widespread. An analysis of 20 studies published in Psychology Today estimates that between 31 percent and 57 percent of women entertain fantasies where they are forced to have sex. "Rape fantasies are a place where politics and Eros meet, uneasily," says Daniel Bergner, who is working on a book on female desire to be published next year. "It is where what we say and what is stand next to each other, mismatched." The researchers and psychologists he talked to for his 2009 New York Times article, "What Do Women Want?" often seemed reluctant to use the phrase "rape fantasy," and in scholarly pieces, the idea makes even the chroniclers of these fantasies extremely nervous and apologetic. Even though fantasies are something that, by definition, one can't control, they seem to be saying something about modern women that nearly everyone wishes wasn't said. One of the researchers he interviewed preferred to call them "fantasies of submission"; another said, "It's the wish to be beyond will, beyond thought."

Courtesy of Everett Collection (left); no credit

But why, for women especially, would free will be a burden? Why is it appealing to think of what happens in the passive tense? Why is it so interesting to surrender, or to play at surrendering? It may be that power is not always that comfortable, even for those of us who grew up in it; it may be that equality is something we want only sometimes and in some places and in some arenas; it may be that power and all of its imperatives can be boring.

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. It's a great scene, a vivid piece of real-seeming weirdness, which raises the question: is there something exhausting about the relentless responsibility of a contemporary woman's life, about the pressure of economic participation, about all that strength and independence and desire and going out into the world? It may be that, for some, the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality.

Which is not to say that baroque stories of sexual submission are new. Sadomasochism is, of course, what someone I know referred to as "a hearty perennial." It has always existed in secret pockets, and periodically some small glimmer of it breaks into mainstream culture and fascinates us. But the S&M classics of the past make fewer compromises with normal life; they don't traffic in things as banal or ordinary as love.

In Story of O, the famous French novel written by Pauline Réage in 1954, the heroine is elaborately trained to be a slave, after being whisked off to a chateau where masked men whip her and abuse her sexually. O's masochism begins as an intense devotion to her lover but quickly turns into something else: O begins to vacate herself; she loses her personality in the pure discipline of pain. The cool, elegant, brutal novel culminates in a scene where O is wearing an owl mask and is led on a chain naked into a party, where it occurs to none of the guests that she is human. When Susan Sontag wrote about O, she talked about "the voluptuous yearning toward the extinction of one's consciousness." Which is of course a far cry from Christian emailing "Laters, baby" to Anastasia.

Every so often a book comes along that absorbs us and generates discussion about bondage and power, with eroticized scenes of rape or colorful submission: books such as The Ages of Lulu and The Sexual Life of Catherine M. What is interesting is that this material still, in our jaded porn-saturated age, manages to be titillating or controversial or newsworthy. We still seem to want to debate or interrogate or voyeuristically absorb scenes of extreme sexual submission. Even though we are, at this point, familiar with sadomasochism, it still seems to strike the culture as new, as shocking, as overturning certain values, because something in it still feels, to a surprisingly large segment of our tolerant post-sexual-revolution world, wrong or shameful.

One of the salient facts about Fifty Shades of Grey's Anastasia Steele is that she is not into sadomasochism, she is just in love with Christian Grey ("Deep down I would just like more, more affection, more playful Christian, more ... love"), so she is willing to give beatings and leather crops the old college try. This is important for a mainstream heroine appealing to mainstream readers: she indulges in the slightly out-there fantasy of whipping and humiliation without actually taking responsibility for any off-kilter desires. She can enjoy his punishments and leather whips and mild humiliations without ever having to say that she sought them out or chose them. It's not that she wants to be whipped, it's that she willingly endures it out of love for, and maybe in an effort to save, a handsome man. This little trick of the mind, of course, is one of the central aspects of sexual submission: you can experience it without claiming responsibility, without committing to actually wanting it, which has a natural appeal to both our puritan past and our post-ironic present.

When Maggie Gyllenhaal appeared in Secretary, a 2002 comic commentary on a boss disciplining his assistant, she was worried about a feminist reaction against the flamboyant depiction of sexual domination. But she said, "I found women, especially of my generation, are moved by it in some way that goes beyond politics."

Explaining the endurance of submissive sexual fantasies, the feminist Katha Pollitt says, "Women have more sexual freedom and more power than ever before in our history, but that does not mean they have a lot of either, and it doesn't mean they don't have complicated feelings of guilt, shame and unworthiness." Over the years researchers and psychologists have theorized that women harbor elaborate fantasies about sexual submission because they feel guilty or skittish about claiming responsibility for their own desires: they are more comfortable being wanted than wanting, in other words. But more recent studies show that the women who fantasize about being forced to have sex are actually less prone to guilt than those who don't. In any event, that theory seems too simple or at least too 19th-century an answer for the modern woman: it is not as much guilt over sex but rather something more basically liberating about being overcome or overpowered. The thrill here is irrational, untouched by who one is in life, immune to the critical or sensible voice, the fine education, or good job.

Feminists have long been perplexed by our continuing investment in this fantasy, the residual desire to be controlled or dominated in the romantic sphere. They are on the record as appalled at how many strong, successful, independent women are caught up in elaborate fantasies of submission (and realities, of course, but that's another story). Gloria Steinem writes that these women "have been raised to believe that sex and domination are synonymous," and we must learn to "finally untangle sex and aggression." But maybe sex and aggression should not, and probably more to the point, cannot be untangled.

Recently on talk shows there has been a certain amount of upstanding feminist tsk-tsking about the retrograde soft-core exploitation of women in Fifty Shades of Grey, and there seem to be no shortage of liberal pundits asking, "Is this what they went to the barricades for?" But of course the barricades have always been oddly irrelevant to intimate life. As the brilliant feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir answered when someone asked her if her subjugation to Jean-Paul Sartre in her personal life was at odds with her feminist theories: "Well, I just don't give a damn ... I'm sorry to disappoint all the feminists, but you can say it's too bad so many of them live only in theory instead of in real life."

In her controversial and revealing meditation on her own obsession with spanking in the New Yorker, Daphne Merkin speculated about the tension between her identity as a "formidable" woman and her yearning for a sexualized childish punishment. She writes, "Equality between men and women, or even the pretext of it, takes a lot of work and may not in any case be the surest route to sexual excitement."

It is perhaps inconvenient for feminism that the erotic imagination does not submit to politics, or even changing demographic realities; it doesn't care about The End of Men or peruse feminist blogs in its spare time; it doesn't remember the hard work and dedication of the suffragettes and assorted other picket-sign wavers. The incandescent fantasy of being dominated or overcome by a man shows no sign of vanishing with equal pay for equal work, and may in fact gain in intensity and take new, inventive—or in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, not so inventive—forms.

In fact, if I were a member of the Christian right, sitting on my front porch decrying the decadent morals of working American women, what would be most alarming about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomena, what gives it its true edge of desperation, and end-of-the-world ambience, is that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level. If you are willing to slog through sentences like "In spite of my poignant sadness, I laugh," or "My world is crumbling around me into a sterile pile of ashes, all my hopes and dreams cruelly dashed," you must really, really, want to get to the submissive sex scene.