In the Fifty Shades of Grey series, everything is seen through the eyes of Anastasia Steele, who refers to her genitalia as “the apex of my thighs.” If she’s really being coy, she whispers “down…there” in italics. Readers are presumed to know to what she is referring, to fill in what writer E. L. James leaves as a giant blank.
For all the hype, these books present a profoundly stereotyped notion of sex and intimacy, honed to the standards of a contemporary romance, in which all sex is safe sex (unless we are informed that the Depo Provera shot has kicked in, every act of intercourse is preceded by the presumably erotic ripping of a “foil packet”).
Additional nails in the coffin of what is billed as a tale about liberatingly modern female sexuality include some predictable saws: oral sex as lavish precursor to intercourse, which is always vaginal, and always ends after a nominal bit of thrusting which causes Anastasia to get a “familiar” feeling (an earth-shattering orgasm), immediately followed by her partner’s orgasm (in which he “releases himself”), frequently while uttering her name. After this, singular, monumental episode of sexual satisfaction, the sex is (usually) over until next time, which might be later that day.
The result is that in a book whose ostensible claim to fame is kinkiness, all we have is a man ridding himself of bodily fluids in a place that shall not be named. Sexy!
The point, one supposes, is to reinforce the notion that Anastasia is an innocent virgin whose vocabulary, sexual and otherwise, is similarly devoid of experience. She cannot bring herself to name her genitalia — which we’re pointedly told she’s never explored — or her lover’s genitalia either, which suggests that she, like many women, either feel that sexual words are taboo or that by naming the parts, they become less so. Either way, there is a disconnect between anatomy and language that makes the characters feel juvenile and two-dimensional. Are we supposed to believe that Anastasia is that naïve about language or that shy? Are we supposed to buy that she works in literary publishing with such a handicap?
If, as has been suggested, these books are about female empowerment, then why do they perpetuate this most pervasive and damaging idea that the sexual anatomy is off-limits, verbally? Is the coyness on the part of the character or the author? We all know to what the “apex of my thighs” refers, and it has nothing to do with thighs. By locating the genitals as merely the point where our legs meet, we reduce them to the secret place to which one gains access through the gateway of the thighs. Similarly, if all a man’s orgasm is is ejaculation, are we not buying into an idea of sex as money shot, where the only goal is releasing oneself? Does this not also imply that the man has all the control during sex such that he can time when he lets go? And isn’t “himself” here just another way of saying “semen,” as if the man IS his semen?
The title of this series hints at the larger problem: that of only painting with a beggared palette of words. Is there not more than one word for “grey”? Must each shade be simply “grey”? It seems so.