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A lot of statistics are being thrown around about Fifty Shades of Grey. The fastest-selling paperback in history. The first book to sell more than 1 million Kindle copies. And now, highest-grossing February film debut. If the book’s first few barely literate chapters are anything to go by, it’s hard to guess what warrants all the record-breaking.
Some other statistics, however, could shed some light on the question. Despite its stereotype as “mommy porn,” Newsweek’s Katie Roiphe found that the majority of Fifty Shades’ readers (and, presumably, film fans) are urban women in their 20s and 30s. These are women, according to recent surveys, who are losing their virginity at an average age of 17 but aren’t getting married until their late twenties. Ninety-five percent of them are now entering marriage with previous sexual experience with an average of four partners.
Among the many mind-bogglingly implausible fantasies Fifty Shades of Grey sells, the one I think that most accounts for its popularity is the promise that shame of sexual sin can be alleviated by surrendering to it more fully. Most young women will never, as Fifty Shades’ main character does, negotiate a no-commitment sex contract. But most have navigated through some unspoken form of the same thing, calling it “hooking up,” “friends with benefits,” or “serial monogamy.”
In the book, Anastasia Steele debases herself sexually in order to forge an emotional connection with psychologically damaged, romance-averse Christian Grey. In the end, her submission changes his heart, and she is rewarded with marriage, children, and Grey’s enduring devotion.
Proverbs tells us that to give in to a seducer is to “lose your honor to others and your dignity to one who is cruel.” Most women today bear many years’ worth of memories of cruel, honor-draining encounters. Is it any wonder they find comfort in the fairy tale that some sort of redemption can yet be found at the end of that dark tunnel?
Real-life Christian Greys usually don’t wind up proposing, but even if they did, they couldn’t take away the pain that comes from sinning against one’s own body. Only the one who despised shame and bore it for our sake can achieve that miraculous transformation.