Fifty Shades of Shame

Can we let up on the scrutiny of women who enjoy reading erotica?

Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey.


Moral panics about the social effects of popular culture are nothing new, whether the supposed culprits are video games (blamed by some commentators for making young men more violent) or women’s magazines (deemed responsible for eating disorders and other body image problems). Until relatively recently, the reading habits of American women have flown under the radar, but since the breakthrough of E.L. James’ erotic romance blockbuster, Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s been open season for concern-trolling on the naughty books that weary wives and moms turn to for escape during their leisure hours.

A recent study by social scientists in Queensland, Australia, published in The Journal of Sex Research, instructed equal numbers of American women and men to read one of three types of heterosexual erotic fiction (plus a control story without erotic content) and then respond to survey questions. The scenarios described included one in which the male partner was sexually dominant, one in which the female partner was dominant, or, finally, one in which the partners shared an equal amount of control. Afterward, the survey evaluated the subjects for hostile sexism (beliefs indicating “an overt dislike of women”) and benevolent sexism—“attitudes that appear positive but ultimately undermine women’s agency,” such as endorsing the idea that men ought to protect women.

As reported on Fusion, the results indicated that reading either dominance scenario enhanced the subjects’ liking for whatever type of dominance was depicted. “Reading about a sexually submissive woman,” the researchers concluded, “may have a negative impact on attitudes toward women, including increasing benevolent sexism in women and rape myth acceptance in men.” Reading the scenario about a dominant woman tended to make the participant feel more positive about that. For this reason, both the study and Fusion contributor Taryn Hillin called for the consumption of more erotica about sexually dominant women.

But a closer look at the study suggests this exhortation is misguided. First, consider the group selected to respond to the questionnaire. Early studies cited by the Fusion story as supporting the new study’s conclusions used subjects drawn from populations of female college students. The Queensland study, however, used respondents gathered from Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourced online marketplace for microtasks requiring human intelligence, such as auditing or identifying photographs, proofreading certain kinds of data sets, and transcribing audio recordings. In the past few years, social scientists have leapt on  Mechanical Turk as a source for research subjects who appear to be more diverse than college students and much cheaper to hire. The subjects used in the Queensland study were paid $2 each for their participation.

That college students aren’t especially representative of Americans overall has long been a problem with the social science research that relies on them, but at least the researchers know who they are. All anyone needs to sign up as a Mechanical Turk worker is a U.S. billing address. Their age, gender, educational level, and all other demographic traits are self-reported and therefore subject to doubt. This is the internet, after all—they could all be dogs. Furthermore, the company’s enterprises are hotbeds of fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation. Amazon has provided multiple revenue streams for thieves and scammers, from fake, for-pay “customer” reviews to plagiarized or otherwise bogus self-published books to an all-too-easily gamed system for compensating authors with works in its subscription-based Kindle Unlimited program. And Amazon, which always takes its cut, makes money regardless of how its systems are used or misused—the company has very little incentive to verify anything.

Some preliminary investigation has suggested that, judging by their self-reported identities alone (if those can be trusted), most Turk workers “skew young, they are more liberal, more urban, and more likely to be single,” in which case they’re a lot like college students anyway. So even if the Turk subjects are who they say they are, they’re still not representative of the core market and readership for erotic romance. As a Nielsen survey commissioned by the Romance Writers of America found, romance readers are overwhelmingly female and between the ages of 30 and 54.  As a Manhattan bookstore clerk told New York magazine in 2012, “It’s always older women, never younger than 30. … In the five years that I’ve worked here, I have not seen a single man buy one of these books.”

By examining the influence of prose erotica on equal numbers of men and women, the Queensland study is in large part measuring a phenomenon—men who read erotic fiction—that is almost as rare as a unicorn. (Men tend to prefer visual porn.) To their credit, the researchers acknowledge that “the effects of reading different submission/dominance stories on attitudes were small,” but they don’t consider that those effects might also be transitory. Most everybody has walked out of a musical tapping their toes or craved baked ziti after binging on The Sopranos, but neither experience is likely to cause a lifelong propensity for singing, dancing, or eating Italian food. It wears off.

Take, for example, the fact that professional dominatrices routinely report that the majority of their clients are doctors, lawyers, or judges: white men “usually in a position of power,” as one woman told the Toronto Star. Yet only a fool would conclude that these men support forms of female dominance that take place anywhere outside the precincts of Mistress Vivica’s dungeon. Sexual fantasies don’t usually work that way. People of all genders often find events and scenarios in their erotic imaginations that they’d never want to experience in their real lives. For a powerful man, an afternoon with a dominatrix might provide a vacation from the pressures of command, but that doesn’t mean he longs to be an actual slave.

Somehow, women’s personalities are assumed to be more malleable, as if their kinky erotica threatens to overcome their better judgment and bamboozle them into toxic relationships with handsome-yet-damaged billionaires. Perhaps if they read a ton of Fifty Shades–style books at a very young and impressionable age, they might become more likely to drift into an abusive relationship. But Fifty Shades is known as “mommy porn” for a reason. The grown women who make up its ardent fan base have no plans to bail on their families in search of a mythological, Armani-clad, private-helicopter-owning bad boy who wants to spank them.

The average working mother still does more than her fair share of housework and typically gets stuck managing the school and social lives of her kids as well as her own. Is it really so astounding that she might occasionally want to lose herself in a far-fetched fantasy about a hot, rich guy who relieves his paramour of the sorts of responsibilities that weigh her down every day? Sure, it’s a childish daydream, and not well-executed in Fifty Shades or its imitators, but the same could be said for the fantasies of mastery presented in many a superhero saga or action film. When it comes to ludicrous, gimcrack wish-fulfillment, each of us is entitled to our own favorite flavor.

The participants in the Queensland study (whoever they are) said they found the scenarios of female sexual dominance as arousing as the ones in which men took charge. “Our research,” one of scientists told Hillin, “suggests that broadening our repertoire of erotica to include stories in which a woman is dominant may not only lead to an enjoyment of fresh narratives, but also a more positive attitude towards women.” If people have a hankering to read such erotica, then more power to them. But the strong implication that anyone who prefers the other kind must be wallowing in negative attitudes toward women is depressingly schoolmarmish. Also, counterproductive. The libido is an unruly force, and I’m willing to bet that nobody ever got turned on by something because a social scientist thought it would improve their attitudes.

So let’s give adult women credit for knowing the difference between recreational daydreams and a life plan, between erotic fantasy and viable reality. What Fifty Shades’ fans like may not be to my taste or something I’d give to my 14-year-old daughter (if I had one). But working mothers carry the world on their backs. If anyone’s earned the right to kick back now and then with the dirty books of their choosing, free from judgment, shaming, and lectures, it’s them.