To the surprise of no one who’s ever known a middle-aged mom over the last few years, Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic movie based on the book by E.L. James, has already raked in $8.6 million in its limited-release run. That number should only skyrocket as the film expands to a wide release today.
Assuming a monster box-office run, how might this movie affect mainstream culture?
For one, we’ve already seen an uptick in sex toy sales—and sex toy-related injuries. The Washington Post reports that the number of Americans requiring hospitalization for sex toy injuries has basically doubled since 2007. (Eighty-three percent of those injuries called for “foreign body removal.”) Now, the Fifty Shades of Grey book was first published in 2011, and the numbers show people getting their freak on a few years prior to the book's release. But, per the Post article, market research firm IBIS World attributes much of the sex toy business’ 7.5 percent growth in 2013—into a $608 million industry—to the book’s popularity.
Those who participated in BDSM activities were “less neurotic, more extroverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, yet less agreeable,” the authors wrote, theorizing that BDSM basically encourages more open communication and self-knowledge.
Could those increased sales lead to happier people? It's quite possible, according to a 2013 study that linked BDSM practices to psychological well-being. Led by Andreas Wismeijer and Marcel van Assen, researchers surveyed 902 people active in the BDSM community and 434 others who were only “interested” in BDSM, asking respondents to self-report social-bonding capabilities and feelings of insecurity. It turns out those who participated in BDSM activities were “less neurotic, more extroverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, yet less agreeable,” the authors wrote, theorizing that BDSM basically encourages more open communication and self-knowledge. It should be noted, as Psychology Today points out, that most of the study’s psychological benefits would apply more to those in dominant roles as opposed to the submissive. Dominants, after all, are generally the ones communicating; submissives are, by definition, being spoken to.
Then there’s the darker side. A 2013 study in the Journal of Women’s Health found that the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (yes, there are three books; expect four movies) actually encourage “problematic abuse patterns,” under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines. Researchers found that, while BDSM practices as a whole could indeed promote positive mental health, that’s not what’s going on between Christian and Anastasia, the series’ red-hot lovers. “Christian’s manipulations of Anastasia into sexual interactions that are uncomfortable for her are inconsistent with what is known about consensual BDSM relationships,” the authors wrote, “which involve reciprocal agreement, and sometimes a contract to ensure limits are respected.”
This is a notion supported most recently by the Atlantic’s Emma Green, who writes:
The major question of Fifty Shades of Grey is whether Ana will or won’t sign a legal contract agreeing to be Christian’s submissive—eating certain foods, wearing certain clothes, and submitting to whatever kind of sex he wants, whenever he wants it. She’s torn—she wants to make him happy, but violent sex makes her uncomfortable.... For all the talk of nipple clamps and butt plugs, BDSM is actually presented as a pathology, not a path to pleasure.
It seems then that there are two sides to the Fifty Shades of Grey coin: the film, and its source material, can be an avenue of discovery, perhaps happiness, but also a misrepresentation of a culture that promotes happy and healthy sex. Hopefully, it can start a larger, more open conversation, where we can examine the nature of the two main characters’ relationship, and whether that really represents a healthy romance.