Why We Need to Stop Bashing ’50 Shades of Grey’ Already

Published: FEBRUARY 13, 2017
Sure, 50 Shades has its problems, but it opened up the door to sex positive exploration. For that, we should all be thankful.

With sales of millions of books and huge box office sales for the movie, it seems like you can't swing a flogger without hitting a "50 Shades of Grey" fan. And while the book and the movie are hardly new, the hype around the upcoming release of the second movie, "Fifty Shades Darker," suggests its popularity and the media sensation around it has failed to subside. Like, at all.


At the same time the books and film spotlighted constant controversy for what many people saw as unhealthy relationships and inaccurate depictions of BDSM. So, for many, the cool thing to do is renounce "Fifty Shades" lock, stock and barrel. There are a whole lot of folks going around loudly proclaiming that it's the worst thing ever and no one should have anything to do with it. J

Is that really the way to go, though? Don't get me wrong. I'm not a fan of the series. I do see the same problematic elements that are brought up over and over again. Yet, I also see something in "Fifty Shades" that doesn't get talked about much outside of sex educator circles - a gift. These books (and now films) have given the world a gift and a substantial one at that. Maybe you're tired of hearing about "Fifty Shades," but hear me out.

The Fifty Shades Effect

Since the release of "Fifty Shades of Grey" in 2012, the adult retail industry has seen steadily climbing sales as couples (and singles, for that matter) venture into sex shops looking to explore some of what they read about. Many manufacturers and retailers reported huge spikes in the sale of items mentioned in the books back in 2012. This spike was reported again with the release of the first "Fifty Shades" movie in 2015. Sex toys are now almost mainstream. A lot of things have contributed to this, but "Fifty Shades" was definitely a factor.

Along with toy sales, many shops have reported an uptick in class attendance, particularly when it comes to classes that teach skills related to what's portrayed in "Fifty Shades," such as bondage and BDSM. It seems people are feeling inspired to explore and they’re talking about it! What does this mean? Well, it's great because it's creating business for shops, toy manufacturers and educators. It's also so much more than that! It's about who is now walking into the shops, buying the toys, and going to the classes. It's about the tremendous opportunities that we all now have available to us.


Millions of New Friends

The massive popularity of the "50 Shades" franchise brought hoards of people to the table who are brand new to sexy exploration. These are people who have never entered a sex shop, bought a sex toy, or attended a sex class before. There is a whole new audience clamoring for information. We have a whole new - and ever growing - faction of people willing to discuss, explore, and learn more about sex. For a lot of us in the sex positive bubble, where we do that stuff all the time, it can be difficult to remember the time when it didn’t come easily. For a lot of people, open discussion of sex is still taboo. This freedom is new. That is exciting and wonderful.

So, How Are We Greeting Our New Friends?

The impulse to bash "Fifty Shades," for whatever reason, is a misguided one because while the people doing the bashing often argue for a better depiction of BDSM, better erotica, and better sex education, they are ignoring the fact that this book served as the gateway to those things for a lot of folks.

A love of "Fifty Shades" brought many people to a sex shop for the first time. This is a very vulnerable thing; just imagine walking into a sex shop for the time and being faced by judgment about the very thing that inspired you to walk through those doors. The consequences of that judgment could be devastating. Educator Kate McCombs put it well: " In the years since "Fifty Shades" was published, the single thing that’s bothered me most about some of these critiques is that they do what we in the sex ed world preach so vocally against: It yucks people’s yums."

When we reduce "Fifty Shades" to its problematic elements, we erase a lot of people’s experiences. When we loudly declare, "I would NEVER buy anything associated with 'Fifty Shades of Grey.' It’s awful!!!" what we are actually doing is telling a whole lot of people who are tentatively dipping their toes into the world of sexual exploration (and probably find us, who seem to know more, intimidating) that they are doing it wrong. We are telling them that what turns them on is wrong and that they are wrong. We are taking what should be a safe space and making it into the equivalent of a junior high cafeteria where the new kids are finding out that what they thought was cool isn't cool.


"But don't they have to learn?!"

So, obviously there is a lot of concern about the unsafe BDSM practices and the unhealthy relationship dynamics presented in "Fifty Shades of Grey." And, yes, those things are problematic. However, I’m of two minds on that. The first is that these books and movies are fiction. To a certain degree, we must stop demanding that they be educational tools. Can't we just let folks enjoy the turn on they get from it and be ready to recommend actual educational resources for folks looking to explore BDSM?

Which leads us to my second point: When it comes to educating, people need to be led and not shoved. Attempting to "teach" people by telling them that the thing that made them want to learn sucks is more likely to push them to try stuff without any guidance. On the other hand, it’s so easy to welcome a "Fifty Shades" fan to the fold, learn what it is they loved about the books, and point them toward the resources that will help them pursue their desires in a safe way. Then, they fulfill their fantasy, they are safe, they learn, and they probably keep coming back to learn more! It’s a win/win/win/win!!


Get in the Game

Whether you like "Fifty Shades" or hate it with every fiber of your being, you can’t deny that it was a game-changer for readers, retailers and sex educators. Staying in the sex snob ivory tower and loudly denouncing it is a tremendous waste of opportunity. It's time for members of the sex-positive community to stop preaching to the choir and instead share our knowledge with people who are excited to hear it. So, come on down and welcome our new friends into the fold. And quit bashing these books and movies. The series' avid fans have brought some positive things to the table too.
JoEllen Notte

JoEllen is a writer, speaker, researcher and mental health advocate whose work explores the impact of depression on sex and relationships. Since 2012 she has written about sex, mental health, and how none of us are broken on her award-winning site The Redhead Bedhead. JoEllen has led workshops nationwide on sexual communication, navigating consent, having casual sex kindly, and dating as an introvert. She has toured sex shops, spoken at length on dildos, and...

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