Sex, conflict, tension

"Fifty Shades of Grey" is a book about the sado-masochistic relationship between an innocent college student and a gorgeous young billionaire, who invites her to share kinky pleasures in his "red room of pain." It has caused a sensation in America, selling hundreds of thousands of copies as an e-book and paperback. Just about everyone who writes for a living has offered an opinion on the book-or, rather, just about every woman writer. Male writers don't seem to want to touch it. 

Lee Siegel, O Estado de S.Paulo

05 de agosto de 2012 | 01h00

I tried reading the book and had to put it down when I reached the part where the protagonist, Christian Grey, have violent sex with the virginal young Anastasia. Like all porn, the passage read as if it were instructions on how to assemble a card table. The more explict writing about sex is, the more embarrassing it is to read. The most erotic passage in literature is in Gustave Flaubert's great 19th-century novel, "Madame Bovary," when Emma Bovary rides in that carriage with her lover, Rodolphe. Flaubert never describes their sexual encounter, and it is all the more steamy for that.

By now, dozens of commentators have pointed out the similarities between "Fifty Shades of Grey"-written by a former television executive named E L James, who is British-and Gothic romances like "Jane Eyre," as well as the popular "Twilight" series of vampire novels. But no one has explored the dynamic between the billionaire and his prey. No one has asked whether Anastasia would allow, say, a bookstore clerk or a car mechanic to beat her and bruise her and torture her sexually. Instead of fleeing from a man who is clearly damaged and deranged, she sticks with him, trying to turn him into a tender, caring lover.

So, here, in an America that has more billionaires than any other country in the world, in an America where the gap between rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate, in an America where, increasingly, a small oligarchy rules the country-in this place that is growing more and more unfamiliar to those of us who love it, the most popular work of fiction in the marketplace is, literally, about a woman who surrenders her dignity and her very soul to the brute fact of wealth and power.

The rituals of sadomasochism seem to me to fit perfectly into a culture that is becoming almost exclusively dominated by market values. I'm not judging anyone-what people mutually consent to in the realm of pleasure should be no one's business but their own, and heaven knows, we all need pleasure to survive. I merely want to point out, with what I hope is anthropological neutrality, that sadomasochistic sex is the most quantifiable sex you can have. As in a highly structured transaction, there are no surprises. Every component is laid out beforehand. The underlying formula is clear: Pain = Pleasure. Pleasure is divisible by pain. Pain multipled by two swacks, one twist and a thump = Pleasure. 

If sex is, among other things, an incalculable sublimation of stress, conflict and tension into pleasure, then-to my mind-sadomasochnistic sex is a desublimation of sexual pleasure right back into the realm of stress, conflict and tension. If sex, along with art and play, is the one realm of human freedom to which one can flee from the stress, conflict and tension of the marketplace, then sadomasochistic sex is a return to the marketplace. Only the very rich, who perhaps long for everyday conflict as just another diversion, could experience sadomasochistic ritual as an escape. For everyone else, it is business as usual.

And underneath the sadomasochistic transactions between Christina Grey and Anastasia is, of course, the oldest transaction in the world. Anastasia gives Grey sex, and he bestows on her the benefits of his power. In the old days, that would have meant jewelry, clothes, and perhaps an apartment, and people would have read it and clucked their tongues disapprovingly, but also shared a wink among themselves, since in one degree or another, that is the way of the world and one essential element of love, marriage and children. But aside from buying her a platinum and diamond bracelet to cover the bruises on her wrist, Grey doesn't give Anastasia anything of material worth. Instead he beats her and bruises her and simulates raping her anally. And readers are buying the book in droves.

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