Warning: This post contains potentially triggering content for survivors of abuse

For a few weeks I’ve made an active effort to crack the code and understand why certain books have become so popular while other, better-written books languish on the shelves never to be read by the masses.  This isn’t quite as easy as it seems.  “Oh, people like vampires/sex/etc.” isn’t a good enough answer.  Plenty of books have the main elements of popular novels, and do have superior writing.  So it’s something else.

Adding to my challenge is my paradoxical desire to both break out of the mainstream while desiring to like what the mainstream finds enjoyable.  I really wanted to like Twilight, and I wanted to like 50 Shades.  In fact, when I first saw a preview for Twilight, I was stoked to see a movie I, at that time, didn’t know was based on a book.  Then I heard about 50 Shade and didn’t realize it was based on a series that had disappointed me on so many levels.  Sex!  Smut!  I’ve been open about my enjoyment of that stuff since long before it was acceptable.  I was let down even more, and on a profound level because of the undeniable abuse.  Remove the sex scenes (which really do not accurately portray BDSM (read about it from someone who currently lives the lifestyle), and you’ve still got an abuser.

While we wouldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, accept this treatment toward our sisters and friends, women by the millions are loving these books, some to the point of leaving their husbands or even conceiving babies they otherwise wouldn’t to be a member of “the club.”  Sadly I’ve heard about some women currently in abusive relationships questioned on their motives for wanting to leave because they “have their own Christian/Edward.”  Many more are holding out for such guys.

Why?  What is going on?

It hit me last week, and I’ve been mulling it over.  Many first-world countries still treat women and sex as a “lay back and think of England” situation.  Men who love lots of sex are “studs.”  Women are “whores.”  Men who use condoms are “smart.”  Women who want birth control are branded as “sluts.”

When a woman is forced into sex, only the cruelest people will say she deserved it or is to blame. Ana usually did not consent willingly.  On a few occasions, yes, she did.  But on many others, she felt backed into a corner, and on a couple instances, said NO, but Christian forged ahead.  Because she always had the most mind-shattering orgasms, a lot of people see this as okay.  It’s not abuse because she enjoyed it.  

Let’s think about that for a moment.  Real-life rape victims can orgasm.  While we like to think of the mind as the biggest sex organ, the truth is that orgasms, like male erections, are physiological responses to stimuli.  Ask any teenage boy who’s had a spontaneous locker room orgasm if he wanted it to happen.  Gay or straight, boys don’t ask for it any more than rape victims ask to lubricate or orgasm.  The message that an orgasm means it wasn’t really rape adds to the emotions victims have who’ve been through this.

However most of the time, Ana was afraid to say no, at times scared he’d hurt her, and at other times he got her drunk, knowing full well how alcohol affects her.  She’d become convinced she’s hurt him by not doing what he wanted, helped along by his saying as much and guilting her terribly for their handful of days apart just a couple weeks after first meeting.  

Now take a society that says women’s enjoyment of sex is still somehow bad, while claiming our bodies are for the sexual enjoyment of men (see: the disgust against breastfeeding and how quickly men judge women and demote them or elevate based on sex appeal), and we’ve got a situation ripe for the desire of any method of guilt-free enjoyment.   If a woman is forced, she’s not responsible.  If birth control was sprung on her and she’s too surprised to say no, she’s not a slut.  If she orgasms, she gets the benefit of that without guilt.  By denying the abuse and coercion, it doesn’t feel wrong.

This is symptomatic of something wrong with our society.  I realize there are many people out there who have religious viewpoints, and I’m not going to sit here debating that.  If you want a theological debate, contact me privately.  I am well-versed in the five main texts.  But that is not for here. However many religious women from many faiths have been loving these books too.

When we are told that we are wrong for enjoying something so much that our subconscious way to be guilt-free is to fantasize about our choices being taken away, we’ve got a big problem.

But more than that, we’ve got a situation that, when put in the written form, appeals to women.  I’ve discussed this with, at this point, about four dozen women.  Of course this isn’t a huge cross-section of society, but I’ve expanded beyond my personal friends and have included both lovers and haters, and have noticed a pattern.  This isn’t absolute, but those who are more sexually open have tended to hate the books, and those who are less open have tended to love them.  Again, this isn’t absolute.  One of the biggest haters I know has religious guilt issues.  

An average, ordinary housewife wrote a fanfic and inserted her fantasy in a way she found palatable.  I do not, for even a single second, think Erica set out to write a book about abuse and call it romantic, and I’m not sure she knows how to handle so many people claiming she purposefully set out to endorse abuse.  Not intending something doesn’t absolve someone of responsibility for what their actions ultimately cause, and I believe her fault is in continuing to encourage this behavior.  Perhaps easier than to turn around and admit problems, I suppose, or the allure of money, or maybe even a contractual obligation with the first movie coming out summer 2014.  I’ve had a few interactions with her on Twitter, and she’s been kind, even encouraging my writing.  this makes it harder for me to still be disappointed, but I have to be honest.

As far as male fans, what straight guy can resist the fantasy of being a hot young billionaire desired by every woman and who happens to have magical skills in the sack and the control that testosterone tends to cause a desire for?