50 Shades of Grey: A Sex Therapist’s Perspective

The recent trilogy, 50 Shades of Grey by E. L. James, has taken the book world by storm with all three volumes making the NY Times best sellers list.  People around the world, especially women, have been reading these books by the millions. Why?  Because they are hot!  We’re talking smokin’ hot. Back in my day they never would have been published much less talked about in polite company. If sold, they would be done so in back rooms and sold brown paper bags.

That being said, let me begin by saying I do not intend to review these books in terms of literary worthiness. Nor do I intend to discuss the plot in any detail.   Furthermore, as tempting as it may be,  I am not going to engage in a psychological analysis of the main character, Christian Grey, an exceeding handsome, multimillionaire, owner of an international company, who seduces Anastasia Steele, a gorgeous, soon-to-graduate, college student and introduces her to his high-end life style and his world of dominance and submission. My intent is to discuss some important psychological and sexological issues raised by the books.

People are influenced by what they read. They will compare themselves to the characters. They will want to experiment. In 50 Shades the reader is introduced to a world of sexual exploration. And this is why I am writing this post. While the story is fiction, the specific sexual activities are not. The characters are fictitious.  Just as the books sprang from the imagination of their author, they have captured the imagination of the people who read them.

What I intend to do is to discuss various aspects of the sexual explorations described in the books and to offer a psychological perspective with some guidelines through the eyes of a sex therapist.

  • As a sex therapist and psychologist, I am delighted that the books were published and that they are being read by so many people. It is about time that sex has become mainstream. Perhaps these books will usher in a new generation of books with explicit sexual content. Perhaps they will pave the way for people to be able to discuss sexual topics just they discuss any other book or topic. As I have discussed in previous posts, if sex is so beautiful, why do we keep it so hidden?
  • Most people have sexual fantasies. Some fantasies are more elaborate than others. These are healthy and exciting. Unfortunately, people tend to judge themselves regarding their fantasies. 50 Shades gives people permission to have sexual fantasies. E. L. James has shared her sexual fantasies with the world. Perhaps she can inspire the readers to share their sexual fantasies with their partners. Sharing fantasies is an intimate activity. It creates a bond in a similar way that sharing intimate secrets creates a bond.
  • For many people 50 Shades is their first exposure to various ways in which human beings can have and enjoy sex. It is their first exposure to the world of dominance and submission (BDSM=bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism). Most people are accustomed only to what is referred to in the book as “vanilla” sex, the customary manner in which people engage in sexual intercourse. Whether you wish to experiment or not is entirely up to you and between you and your partner. You are not strange or weird if wish to experiment nor are you rigid or uptight if you do not wish to experiment. How far you go in either direction is entirely up to you. Sex is supposed to be fun, a time to play, and a time to connect.
  • Just as there is nothing inherently bad or wrong with pornography, there is nothing inherently wrong, sick, or weird about sexual play between consenting adults. It is important to understand the emphasis is on the word play. It is fun. Role-playing, acting scenes from one’s fantasy life, even when those fantasies and scenes include bondage, spanking or paddling, and other similar activities, can be fun, erotic, and stimulating. It is when such behaviors are abusive, harmful, or done under duress, that they become problematic. In the books, the author makes it abundantly clear that these activities must be done with the expressed consent of both parties, with extreme precautions for the safety of both parties, and include certain “safe words or signals” which, when uttered or gestured, bring all activity to an immediate halt.  There is a huge difference between BDSM done for the pleasure and fun of both parties, and similar behaviors that are for the pleasure of one person at the expense of another.
  • Christian Grey is presented as an extraordinarily virile young man who is able to have multiple orgasms within minutes of one another. He is portrayed as possessing amazing stamina and is ready to go at a moment’s notice. This is fantasy. It is similar to what is seen in porn films where the main character appears to be able to maintain sexual activity for prolonged periods of continuous thrusting.  When men see these films they often believe that they ought to be able to behave like a “porn star.”  The result is that they end up feeling inadequate. Christian Grey is a fictitious character and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.  Most men need a longer period of time between orgasms; the younger one is, the shorter the refractory period.
  • Anastasia Steele is presented as a woman who is able to achieve multiple,” world-shattering” orgasms within minutes of one another. My concern here is that many women will expect themselves and their partners to perform similarly to Christian and Anastasia. This couple is fiction, a product of the author’s imagination. Some women are able to have multiple orgasms, some are not. Both are normal. Some women experience orgasms that are explosive while others experience orgasm that are less intense but may last longer, while still others have less intense and rather short spasms. Each body is different. Some women can achieve orgasm through sexual intercourse, while others need more direct clitoral stimulation either orally or manually. Both are normal.

I hope that one of the main benefits of this trilogy will be to encourage people to talk more openly about sexuality and to experiment and explore the dimensions of their sexuality. Perhaps this work, and others to follow, will bring sexuality out of the closet to become part of ordinary discourse rather than merely whispered in secret.  I recall the days when TV shows did not so much as intimate that people used the bathroom for anything more than shaving or washing one’s face. We progressed to having more explicit sexual scenes being depicted both in TV and film. The same is occurring in books and magazines. Perhaps the sexual revolution that began in the ’60s and ’70s continues to evolve.

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[Dr. Dreyfus is a nationally recognized clinical psychologist, relationship counselor, sex therapist, and life coach in the Santa Monica - Los Angeles. The profits from his latest book, LIVING LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT along with his other five books, are being donated to charity through the website Book Royalties for Charity and can be purchased through Amazon.com. Please become a fan on his Facebook Fan Page by indicating "like" on the page by clicking here. You can also find more tools to help you experience a more fulfilling life by clicking here to visit his website.]

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