Fifty Shades of Hype

with test subjects

Written by Lisa Stager

Well, I finally did it. Gave in. Caved like a ubiquitous sinkhole over a Detroit sewer line.

It’s true.

I just finished reading Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James.

I held out as long as I could. I really did. Honest and truly. Swear to God and other divine entities.

When I first started hearing about the book, it was all ooh and ahh from “housewife-types” – whatever that condescending term is supposed to mean. Show me a “housewife-type” and I’ll show you someone who works harder than the average “husband-type” for little to no recognition or appreciation, let alone compensation. But that’s another rant for another day. I’m sure I started off talking about something else…

Oh yeah, the book. There were all these oohs and ahhs, proclaiming it to be basically the hottest thing since napalm. I yawned, thinking yeah, yeah, just the latest fluff-filled romance novel, conjuring images of pirates and wenches.

I’m thinking the book will likely employ the ever-popular theme of wealthier-than-God, staggeringly, blindingly, spectacularly, impossibly handsome Adonis of a man, so perfect in his resplendence that no stray nose hair dare even think to take root and protrude from his magnificent nostril; coupled with a woman who is barely eighteen, smarter than Einstein, headstrong, has a body so exquisite as to affect suicidal levels of envy throughout the goddess community, and is so beautiful that no man – even were he blind – could ever look upon her without literally combusting and flash-burning to a vampire-like pile of ash.

She must also – and this is very, very important – be a virgin, of course. It is a felony in most states for an author of romance novels to portray a leading lady who starts out with more experience than a limited (very limited) number of chaste (very chaste) kisses with one (and only one) suitor, to whom she was most definitely not attracted and whose kiss was about as exciting as kissing a refrigerated tuna.

The leading man’s experience, on the other hand, will typically consist of having made his way through the equivalent of an entire large metropolitan area zip code. Much will be made of his sexual prowess once the deed is finally done – as well as each and every time thereafter.

Initially, the man and woman will hate each other, though they are inexplicably drawn to each other nonetheless. Then they will like each other. Then hate each other again. Rinse and repeat as necessary. Finally, man becomes unable to restrain himself any longer, as desire rages through him amidst a heated argument. Man “takes” woman, despite her strenuous struggling and repeated use of the word “no” (a situation that some of us, who evidently aren’t enlightened enough to know any better, might call…hm, what’s the word? Oh yeah, “rape.”). But after heroically fighting her “inner feelings” of desire, she finally relents and they have the best, most mind-blowing sex ever known to mankind (or womankind, or animalkind, or otherkind).

Ah, but wait. No sooner do they become a couple when an innocent event is misunderstood by one or the other, and they break up. Misunderstandee relentlessly pursues Misunderstander. Misunderstanding is eventually cleared up, they have a good laugh, he demonstrates his legendary sexual prowess again, and they marry.

Soon afterward, cue the obligatory “surprise” pregnancy. There is much rejoicing.

Cut to epilogue. Child is two years old or so and woman is pregnant with next child. All signs of the previously-rampant explosive tempers of man and woman have magically disappeared, causing mild confusion in reader, who thinks lobotomy chapter must have mistakenly been omitted. Man and woman behave so syrupy toward each other that reader gets diabetes.

Yawn again.

Mind you, I haven’t actually read the book at this point, but I’m fairly confident it will be some close variation on the above. Give this Fifty Shades thing a week or two and surely no one will be talking about it anymore.

But then several weeks pass. Then several more. And still more. And the talk persists. I learn that the book is a #1 New York Times Bestseller. And now they have even made a movie out of it. The talk continues unabated, words like “naughty” and “dirty” and “erotica” surfacing.

Hold up.


I’ve read erotica. I’ve written erotica. No way do they discuss that type of fiction on Ellen or The View, as far as I know.

Something is amiss here. I no longer have a choice. My need to know overrules my free will. I simply must read this book. Research, you know.

And so, with a heavy sigh and heavy heart, I load up on protein, complex carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables, a multivitamin and mineral supplement, plus a few cups of strong coffee. Thus prepared, I set about undertaking this grim research.

The first thing I discover is that Fifty Shades of Grey is book number one of a trilogy. I’ve not read books two and three (Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed), so what follows pertains exclusively to the first book.

And now…


I find the book to be neither erotica nor typical romance, though, to be sure, it does incorporate a handful of the elements detailed in my personal assessment of the typical romance novel. For that matter, the author does not even profess the book to fit squarely into either category. Stated on the back of the book: “Erotic Romance/Mature Audience.” That’s fair.

The book also managed to surprise me just a bit – not an easy thing for a book (or much of anything, really) to do. The thing that surprised me is that Fifty Shades has somehow gone mainstream (did I mention #1 New York Times bestseller?) despite the fact that BDSM is an integral component of the story. But maybe that’s not such an uncommon thing nowadays. I haven’t kept up with trends in mainstream fiction since the days when I worked as an editor, and that was a whole lotta years ago. Regardless, I did not expect the BDSM theme.

For those who aren’t familiar with those four innocent looking initials, BDSM encompasses, all or in part, BD (bondage & discipline), D/s (dominance & submission), S/M (sadism & masochism or sadomasochism). However, if you are reading this publication, chances are you have a clue. This is no reflection whatsoever on content, but something once made you click on a thing called “Capital of Nasty” for the very first time. Just saying…

Now, before those of you True Perverts out there get your hopes up, allow me to pre-dash them. Although the book hints at hard(ish)core D/s, the actual content in that regard is pretty light.

If you’re looking for a really graphic alleged BDSM novel, you could always try Pauline Reage’s Story of O. It might entertain you, or if you are like me it will horrify you and leave you thinking, “What kind of sick F---??” Written in 1954, it is lauded as a classic in some BDSM circles. I find this baffling. The universal absolutely-no-exceptions credo of BDSM is “safe, sane, and consensual.” In my view, Story of O egregiously violates all three tenets of that doctrine right from the first page. ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT: Violent gang rape, extreme abuse including maiming, and giving a woman to a house full of men with no choice to leave or say no is NOT safe, NOT sane, and it sure as hell is NOT consensual.

But that’s another review for another day – like never. There is not enough liquid courage available in my entire zip code for me to entertain the notion of revisiting that horrific book.

Back to Fifty Shades.

The author clearly has some understanding of BDSM, i.e., contracts, “safe, sane, and consensual,” soft limits, hard limits, safewords. She has done at least a little bit of research, perhaps even dipping a toe (or something) in, herself?

I have read other novels dealing with this subject by authors who were totally clueless about the conventions observed by people actually involved in the lifestyle; authors for whom the colloquialism “whips and chains” about covers it. This author, to her credit, has at least taken the time to learn something of the basics.

She then proceeds to jettison a good deal of that knowledge by hurling her characters into a very intense whirlwind relationship, belying the depicted D/s expertise of her male character. By the time these characters have known each other for maybe a week, if that, they take off together one evening and travel to another city, miles and miles from home. The female character does inform her best friend of their plans, for all the good that would do. Aside from the name of the city, she can give no exact location. Plus they are too far away for anyone to come to her aid should she need it.

Apparently this still was not enough potential danger for our female character, for the couple then engages in a scene where this supposedly well-informed veteran Dominant uses restraints on this inexperienced young girl whom he barely knows. No knowledgeable Dominant with any principles at all would ever move that quickly with a prospective submissive – especially one with no experience.

I’ll tell you why this bugs me so much. I fear the possibility of someone reading the book and thinking it might be fun to try such a relationship, with no other frame of reference on the subject than the book itself. If you are of a mind to scare up a Dom and do some experimenting without first doing some serious BDSM research, I’d like to offer just a teeny-tiny itty-bitty little bit of safety-related advice. Take it or leave it.

(**NOTE: There are male and female Dominants, just as there are male and female submissives, plus male and female Switches. A Switch is someone who sometimes assumes the role of a Dominant and sometimes assumes the role of a submissive. For the purpose of this article, I am referring to Dominants as males and submissives as females, simply because the Dom in Fifty Shades is male and the sub is female, and I don’t feel like littering this thing with him or her and he or she every time I refer to a Dominant or a submissive.)

Where was I? Oh yes, Fifty Shades. Safety advice.

I know I have just read in a whole lot of seriousness stemming from one little “Erotic Romance/Mature Audience.” Seriousness. Check. I’ve done quite a lot of rambling. Rambling. Check. And check. And check. I began a review of the book. Review beginning. Check. So now I’ll finish my review – briefly, I promise. Then we can get to the much-anticipated test subjects!

Onto my admission. While I may not be giggling and tittering about this book; while I may not perceive it as some Big Naughty Secret making me Naughty by extension; while I may not gather and whisper amongst the aforementioned so-called “housewife-types;” and while I acknowledge that the romance genre itself isn’t really my thing; I would admit, under duress, that the book didn’t totally suck. The bulk of the suckage, in my opinion, was the key lack of D/s realism previously noted.

At times this author exhibits an odd writing style, deliberately employing incorrect grammar and poor sentence structure in places throughout the book. As an editor, I initially found it distracting, but as I stuck with it I began to appreciate the purpose behind the style. It grew to be an effective vehicle for providing insight into the female character’s head – her thought processes, her emotions, etcetera. What started as a detraction progressively became instructive as I read.

Another plus is that some actual plot breaks out around the fourteen sex scenes, with no shortage of action (noting the collective smirk). There is always something happening, well paced and leaving little room for the reader to get bored. Gotta say, though, when I went back and counted, I was surprised to find only fourteen sex scenes. It seemed like they were going at it more often than I blink my eyes. Bunnies have nothing on these two. No sooner would I finish reading one of their copious romps when yet another would commence. “AGAIN?!” I would shout out loud, or “MOTHER OF GOD!” And then I would quickly skim through the scene. I was becoming sore by proxy.

So okay. I get why this book is popular with women who like romance novels. It stands out as different. It contains kinky sex scenes that aren’t standard romance novel fare. It also touches upon a subject not generally seen in your garden-variety bodice-ripper. For many, what it offers is something new. Something exciting. Forbidden even. Yet it also tells a story. It is romance AND kinky sex, all in one tidy package.

But then I got to wondering. What would men think of this book? Clearly, my research would not be complete if I did not address this important issue. But how? Apply for a government research grant? Conduct a double blind clinical trial?

Ah, but of course – a poll! Such a poll would be unutterably helpful. Useful. Educational. Yea, enlightening! Necessary even.

Bullshit aside, now I just needed to enlist some test subjects.

First, I went to my go-to guy for all things sex (all things, that is, except for actually having it, more’s the pity). He dutifully read the book and dutifully reported back to me.

And so I present…

My Interview with Test Subject Number One

Me: “So, what did you think?”
TS1: “Too long.”
Me: “Okay. Other than that, what did you think?”
TS1: “Not enough sex.”


Me: “Okay. But did you like the sex scenes?”
TS1: “Not graphic enough.”
Me: “Okay. And aside from the sex issues?”
TS1: “I don’t understand the question.”
Me: “My bad. What about the story itself?”
TS1: “Too much girly plot.”
Me: “Girly plot?”
TS1: “You know.”
Me: “I’m sorry, but I don’t.”
TS1: “Like something you’d see in a chick flick.”
Me: “What kind of chick flick?”
TS1: “Couldn’t tell you.”
Me: “Like Beaches?”
TS1: “I wouldn’t know.”
Me:Dirty Dancing?”
TS1: “Wouldn’t know.”
Me:Thelma and Louise?”
TS1: “Don’t know.”

Christ… like pulling teeth…

Me: “How about you give me an example.”
TS1: “Uhh… maybe something with Tom Cruise?”
Me:Mission Impossible?”
TS1: “No.”
Me:Minority Report?”
TS1: “No.”
Me:Jack Reacher?”
TS1: “No.”
Me:Born on the…”

[approximately a minute and a half later]

Me: “…of Thunder?”
TS1: “No.”
Me:Magnolia? Where he says, ‘Respect the cock, and tame the cunt?”
TS1: “Heh. No, but those sound like good words to live by.”

Way to keep it classy.

Me: “How very porcine of you.”
TS1: “Oink.”

Moving on…

Me:Top Gun?”
TS1: “Yeah. No. Kinda.”
Me: “So maybe less Tom Cruise, more Richard Gere?”
TS1: “Yeah, maybe.”
Me:An Officer and a Gentleman?”
TS1: “Wouldn’t know.”


Me:American Gigolo?”
TS1: “Wouldn’t know.”
Me: “Thanks, you’ve been super helpful.”
TS1: “Cool.”
Me: “Right on.”

For test subjects two through three, I offered the option of either reading the whole book or just the sex scenes, and I helpfully provided a list of page numbers for those scenes.

They all chose to read the whole book.

Ha! Gotcha! In fact, they all chose the sex scenes. (I know. I was shocked, too.)

Interviews two and three were uncannily similar – like hive-mind similar. I thought I might have been interviewing The Borg by mistake. I will therefore recount only one of those interviews.

But before I get to that, there’s still interview number two. I’m not quite sure what to do with this one.

My Interview with Test Subject Number Two

Me: “So, what did you think of the sex scenes?”
TS2: “Derp.”
Me: “Uh, excuse yourself much?”
TS2: “Huh?”
Me: “Didn’t you just burp?”
TS2: “No. I said derp.”
Me: “Derp?”
TS2: “Yeah, derp.”
Me: “Spell that?”
TS2: “D-E-R-P.”
Me: “…’the fuck is derp?”
TS2: (loudly) “Derp. You know…” (even louder) “DERP!”
Me: “Repeating the word over and over at ever higher decibels will do nothing to augment my grasp of its meaning.”
TS2: “Whatever. Just quote me verbatim. Anyone actually from this planet will get it.”
Me: “Derp off!”
TS2: “That’s not how you use it.”
Me: “Derp me!”
TS2: “That’s wrong, too.”
Me: “Kiss my derp!”
TS2: “Now you’re just being ridiculous.”

I’m being ridiculous??

Me: “Anyway, thanks. You’ve been super helpful.
TS2: “Cool.”
Me: “Right on.”

To anyone out there who may be reading this, I implore of you, WHAT IN THE BLOODY HELL IS DERP?!

And now, onto my final interview.

My Interview with Test Subject Number Three

Me: “So, what did you think of the sex scenes?”
TS3: “They weren’t good.”
Me: “How so?”
TS3: “They were like chick flick scenes.”

Jesus God, not this again! Intrepidly, I press on…

Me: (hesitantly) “What kind of chick flick?”
TS3: “You know.”
Me: “Oh, for the love of GOD…”
TS3: “What? And what’s that sound you’re making? Are you okay? Do you need a doctor?”
Me: “No worries. Just something I saw on TV. Thanks, you’ve been super helpful.”
TS3: “Cool.”
Me: “Right on.”

Sometimes I miss the old-style phones of my childhood. No matter how hard you press the disconnect button on a cordless phone, you just don’t get that satisfactory SLAM of the old phones.

I did also receive two unsolicited male opinions about Fifty Shades of Grey. One of these men had read “…bits and pieces…” and found it to be “…rather poorly written.” The other had read “…a few pages” and said, “That is a badly written book.” In both cases, it seems the book just happened to be laying around, somewhere along their everyday manly travails. Very convenient.

All in all, I did not find my poll results to be especially astonishing. I have often heard (and please forgive the gross generalization) that when it comes to erotic entertainment, men tend to be visual, women cerebral; meaning simply this: most men prefer watching porn while most women prefer reading erotic stories. Perhaps there really is something to that whole Mars and Venus thing. (Small and completely useless moment of irony: the Mars and Venus book was written by a guy whose last name is Grey.)

Now, to the 120 men out there who are right this minute preparing to vehemently point out that they had girlfriends at some point in their lives who just loved porn as much as they do, please allow me to answer. First of all, yes, of course there are exceptions. Secondly, 119 of them were lying to you so that you would like them better.

Ever the curious one, I called my third test subjects back to ask one final question:

“Do you prefer porn or erotica?”




“Broadway musicals.” (That one turned out to be a wrong number. I think we were both a little embarrassed when I figured that out after some five or so minutes of… peculiar… conversation. But we had a good laugh, and then made a verbal nondisclosure agreement vis-à-vis that conversation.)

“Porn,” said the real Test Subject Number Three.

Case closed. Although one subject did say that he also liked to read erotica – the kind that frequently begins with something like, “I can’t believe this actually happened to me…” following an unexpected knock at the door.

There might even be some derp involved, I have no way of knowing.

Oh, one final moment of irony I feel compelled to report. It was only a couple of weeks after concluding my “research” that I had an appointment with my doctor, who asked a question I don’t think he had asked during the entire spate of twenty years I had been seeing him. However, it was a most logical question for an Infectious Disease Specialist to ask of a patient who had fairly recently joined the ranks of the unattached.

He asked, “Are you sexually active?”

And before I could stop myself, “Well, I’m no acrobat…”

Fortunately, my doc has a good sense of humor. Even when his forty-something female patient behaves like a junior high school boy.