Fifty Shades of Grey: (This is Not a) Book Review

By Sam Jolman | May 5, 2013

“Survivors of abuse often suffer from unarticulated compulsions to repeat the event in different ways in the midst of their every day life activities.  This compulsion can lead survivors to put themselves in situations similar to the initiating event, as in the case of sexual abuse survivor who repeatedly gets involved in abusive relationships.”  Serene Jones

“Narratives drive the integration of cognition, affect, sensation, and behaviors, which can remain dissociated especially when early trauma, such as sexual abuse, is never allowed to be discussed.” Louis Cozzolino

I am a recent convert to Costco.  And the trips there are still an adventure in discovery for me.  Those big wide carts look so caricature and somehow affectionately, albeit indulgently, American.  I saw a man the other day wheeling a full size mattress through the aisles on one.  Right on, brother.  And then of course, there is the pleasure of so many good things in bulging quantities.

With my son wide eyed in the front of the cart, we perused a few select aisles, falling prey to the big thing of Starbucks drinks and a few other tasty finds.  And then I wheeled around a corner to the book section.  There I was greeted by a massive pallet of books, stacked like bricks well up to my armpits.  It was a thousand glossy copies of one book: Fifty Shades of Grey.

Surely you’ve heard about the Shades of Grey tsunami that struck our culture last year.  It was that book rushing off the shelves of every store.  Libraries couldn’t keep them in stock.  For the better part of a year it was the best selling book on Amazon.  Actually it took all four top spots, if you include books two and three in the trilogy and the box set in spot four.  And it now reigns as the best selling ebook ever.  Call it a clean clean sweep.  Or a cultural land slide.  And its still going on.  As I write, a movie is being cast.  It should be out in the next year or so.

Its a book about what?

For the most part, the readership leading the movement seems to be women.  And maybe primarily stay at home moms. Which is fascinating, and perplexing to me because the book has strong scenes of sexual degradation of women.  Yeah, I know its been called erotica or even “mommy porn” and many are saying its a sign of women’s liberation.  Women are finally being set free to explore their sexuality. And so what could possibly be wrong?

This is not a book review.  I haven’t read the book.  I did read a bunch of summaries online to get enough of it to ask some questions.  And I’ve read a lot of women bloggers responses to it.  So consider this more of a reader review.  I’ve found myself asking: What is driving all these women to read a book like this?

Here’s a quick and dirty summary of the book: The story is primarily about a business man, Christian Grey and his love affair with young college student Anastasia.  What begins as a shy but mutual interest in each other quickly erodes into a highly sexual relationship, primarily driven by Grey’s fantasies of violent sex centered around submission and sadomasochism.  He has a room dedicated to the implements of these fantasies and even asks Anastasia to sign a contract forbidding her from speaking about it.

There is a plot of sorts. Ana is not so sure about the whole violent sex part though she admits to finding some pleasure in it.  She breaks up with him in later books.  But she seems unable to shake her attraction to Christian and eventually comes back to him.  Christian is smitten too.  And the threat of losing Ana forces him to face his dark past, his abusive childhood, and the ensuing incessant demand for control around all things related to physical intimacy.

So let me begin to wonder at why women are reading this.  On one hand, the story of Christian being a broken man, wrestling with his demons, and ultimately finding freedom is powerful.  Especially because he is doing this because he loves his woman.  Of course this story line finds a welcome audience with women.  What woman alive wouldn’t want her man to courageously face his past and change for her?

That part seems good and fine.  But it cannot be overlooked that this is erotic literature.  Which means the plot is not the only point of the literature.  People read this stuff to be turned on, to have a sexual experience just by reading the book.  Its meant to provoke pleasure and sexual titillation.

And that’s the scary part of this book to me.  The sex this book portrays is sadomasochism. Its the story of domination, fear, violence, all being married to sexual pleasure. Which means its simultaneously arousing and horrifying the audience.  Which makes the book’s popularity among women so crazy baffling. I’ve never met a woman who in her heart of hearts finds rape and violence pleasurable. Sadomasochism is degrading sex.

This entire story is degrading to women.  Whenever there is inequality of any kind within the portrayal of sexuality, there is degradation.  Anastasia is younger.  She is a student and Christian a wealthy business man.  She was a virgin and less experienced while he had a highly developed sexuality. And the driving force of these sexual encounters are Christian’s controlling sexual fantasies and not hers.  The story is fraught with power differential.

Hardly the story of woman’s liberation, Fifty Shades of Grey is a book about violence and abuse towards women. Its pretty black and white, there in the text.  Not much grey at all actually.

So why are women reading this book?

To me all of this begs the question, my original question: why are so many women drawn to reading this book?  Its not coincidence.  And if what I’m saying is true, why would women be gorging themselves on literature fraught with the abuse of women?

It makes me wonder how many women readers have a history of sexual abuse.  Sexual abuse is a horrifying tragedy where someone in power commits sexual acts against a minor.  We all understand the horror of such acts.  It violates that child in deep and significant ways.  And as Dan Allender says, its evil’s greatest work because it joins together pleasure and pain.  Sound familiar?

The statistics on the sexual abuse of women are hard to calculate.  But conservative estimates are one in four or one in three.  That’s a staggering reality!  And so its not that odd to wonder at how many women readers then are reenacting their abuse?  How many are drawn into a story of violence and pleasure because it recreates in some way their own unnamed abuse?

We all do this.  We all relive the parts of our life we don’t understand or have simply repressed hoping to forget.  Until we understand them and heal these events, we recreate them. We’re hoping to resolve them, but instead end up just repeating them.  Its like watching the end of a movie over and over again, hoping this time it will turn out better, that the main character won’t die, or that couple who is just meant to be won’t break up.  Its absurd.  And its not.  All at the same time.

Think this is far fetched?

My wife used to frequent a drawing class at a local art studio.  She met a lot of other artists along the way and made friends with several.  At a break one day, Amanda struck up a conversation with another woman artist, a regular she had gotten to know over the last few months.  During the chit chat, the woman invited Amanda to show of hers that evening.

“Oh what art are you showing?”  Amanda inquired.  The woman chuckled. “No, its a burlesque show. A little edgy I’ll admit.  Sadomasochism is the theme tonight.”  The shock on Amanda’s face begged for a further explanation. “Yeah, I know.  Kinda crazy.” the woman chuckled. “I do it because it lets me get in touch with some of the more dark parts of my story.”

My heart broke for this woman when I heard this story.  Can you hear it?  That this woman has a dark story, one she is trying to work through.  And yet in her attempts to redeem her story, she is there on stage simply reliving it.

If I’m anywhere near to the truth (and I may not be), then we have a lot of women in our culture carrying around the tragic secrets of their abuse.  And a lot of women who need our compassion and a place to tell their stories and heal.


  • Not read the book but was told it was about healing from sexual abuse…. Interesting that it is about causing sexual abuse…

    • Eventually, from what I gather, it really is about Christian facing his abusive past, the past that has fueled his sexual fantasies. Yet, the book is erotica. It still portrays very graphic scenes of BDSM sex. Go figure…

  • Haven’t read the book.
    But I’m right there in your statistics….

    Unfortunately I think the display of ‘playing-it-forward’ sexual-abuse for women happens throughout media. Music videos are filled to the brim with dominating men and groveling, erotic women. Good grief, the Superbowl halftime show was such a tragic expression by Beyonce’ of how women are objectified, and diminished to the false-empowerment of sexuality as identity.

    It is heartbreaking. And infuriating.
    And yes – devastating.

    • Agreed. Its in a lot of places in the American culture.

      I commend your very honest sharing of your abuse. I hope more and more abuse victims are as bold to tell the truth as you are.

  • This is an excellent interpretation of human behavior. My husband is currently doing just what you allude to. He’s writing a book about a very painful time in his life wish i just cannot bear to hear or red. Like you say – he’s just reliving it every time he writes a bit more or continues to edit it. He says it helps him but I’m on your page here. I like your solution but I think it can only work if the person can talk about it the underlying problem. He can’t, his eyes loose focus, he goes quiet and he gets upset. Maybe one day we can …

    • Claire, so sorry to hear about your husbands abuse. Sounds like he is really trying to make peace with it, even if its not working at times. Hang in there with him… The more you are patient and trustworthy, the greater his chance of sharing. And don’t be afraid to ask him to talk.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • I’m very disturbed by someone who would condemn or even form an opinion on a book or movie that they haven’t actually read or watched. I’m still at a loss of how consensual sex can be abusive or degrading to women??? She wasn’t a prisoner. She wasn’t forced to participate. She was free to leave at any time. I’m not saying that whips and ropes are my thing. I’m saying they aren’t either. I just find it extremely narrow minded to condemn something with ZERO insight. I think it’s even worse to form an opinion based on someone else’s opinions…

    • What I did is called a “reader review,” where a person reviews the readers of a book rather than the book itself. It may seem like a strange form of literary criticism, but Its not uncommon. Check out CS Lewis’ “An Experiment in Criticism” for a more thorough understanding of this practice.

      It seems “consensual” is where you have a hang up. How can anyone agree to something and then call it abuse, right? Maybe it’d be easier to think of domestic violence here. Sometimes people get so familiar with being abused, they stick around in it. Or think of an abusive boss at work. People stick around jobs like this for years. They get torn down mentally into believing they are no good or could never get a different job.

      Mind games can really mess with people. Its the spell of abuse.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join my free Substack Newsletter

Join my free Substack Newsletter, 'The Heart of It.' A publication on sexual wholeness, trauma recovery, and the Christian story. I write to find the pulse of the human heart amidst it all.

Get the first chapter of my new book The Sex Talk You Never Got and my e-book Story Formed free for signing up.

sign up bonuses