The window at Barnes & Noble in the Lansing Mall beckons the mall walkers like a suburban siren with more than 50 copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey” proudly on display. Since it first appeared as an online-only fan fiction spin-off of the “Twilight” series, British author E.L. James’ lurid novel series, which includes the two sequels “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Free,” has become an unprecedented publishing phenomena. Combined, they have sold more than 40 million print and e-book copies worldwide, with half of that sold in the U.S. alone.
So why have these books about the contractual BDSM relationship between Christian Grey and his muse Ana set pop culture on fire? At 7 p.m. on Aug. 22, Schuler Books in the Eastwood Towne Center hopes to answer that question with a panel discussion of local “sexperts.” The panel will feature Michigan romantic erotica author Dawne Prochilo; Carah Kristel, a Lansing-area risqué sex educator and active member of the BDSM community; and Ph.D candidates Darci Doll (gender and sexuality) and Jennifer Schwartz (sex therapy).
Schwartz said from her perspective women are reading the book because today’s women “are more fluid in their sexuality and more experimental.”
“The book’s popularity is also a public sanction to read it and talk about it,” Schwartz said. However, she cautions readers against believing they can replicate the steamy, frequent and sometimes acrobatic sex described in the book.
“I think not all the sex acts in the book are probably possible for all folks,” she said. “If people read it as a standard, they are setting themselves up for failure.”
Kristel says that from her experience, the sex scenes in the book go beyond unrealistic and enter the world of actual risk if they try this at home.
“Some of the acts described in the book can be dangerous if they are not done right,” she said. She believes that in many ways the book does a disservice to the BDSM community in the way it characterizes those activities.
Prochilo, who has written 15 romance and erotic romance novels, some with some serious heavy breathing, said she believes that women are drawn to these books because they don’t have romance in their own lives and don’t have their sexual needs met in real life.
“They are drawn to the books to escape the humdrum of life and to get into sexual experiences they never have had before,” she says. “A lot of women want their men in control within boundaries.”
Prochilo manages numerous romance blogs and is a consultant to the publishing industry. She said romance books are rated by “flames” from one to five with a “five flame” book being the hottest. Prochilo (who rates “Fifty Shades” as a “four flame”) says that in the last two years, erotic romance has become a powerhouse of a genre especially driven by the growth of e-books. Most local libraries and retail outlets also carry the book, with the exception of WalMart and Meijer, which claim “family values” for not carrying it. (One would hardly say that the “Dragon Tattoo” series sold in both stores falls under any family values moniker.)
“Our writing has come a long way since it was called smut,” says Prochilo. Although Schuler does not release actual sales totals for books, local managers report that sales of “Fifty Shades” are “amazing.”
Schwartz said she is in favor of any book that gives people an opportunity to talk about sex, sexuality and issues of consent. That includes how consent is presented in “Fifty Shades” (Christian is the Dominant and has Anastasia sign a contract listing what is acceptable activity and what is not), which is a critical issue for Kristel, who says the relationship between the two main characters is not a healthy one.
“That is not how BDSM should work,” she said. “Christian is a stalker who seems very manipulative, and the sex is not realistic.” (And, frankly, neither is the scene where Grey stops into a hardware store where Anastasia works to buy his bondage supplies, such as plastic ties, masking tape and rope.) She does believe that the book might lead to other people being open to alternative relationships.
“Hopefully, there will be more people to play,” she says.
There are already numerous knock-off books, and soon there will be a soundtrack of classical music based on the book as well as a feature film. The one thing for sure is that “Fifty Shades” has made E.L. James, who eats Nutella right out of the jar, a multimillionaire in short order. A signed copy of the trilogy is available on Abebooks.com for just under $150. Whips sold separately.
SB&M Talks BDSM
A "Fifty Shades of Grey" Panel Discussion
7 p.m. Aug. 22
Schuler Books & Music
2820 Towne Center Blvd