I recently spoke to Steve Gustafson at 411Mania.com re 50 Shades of Grey and some of the impact the trilogy of texts have been having on our culture.

Enjoy observations from Steve and our interview below!

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Love it or loathe it, 50 Shades of Grey is a phenomenon. In case one of you out there is unaware of this cultural juggernaut, Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2011 erotic romance novel by author E. L. James. The first in a trilogy that pulls back the curtain on a risque world while exploring the relationship between Anastasia Steele, and businessman, Christian Grey. Why all the fuss? It’s creating headlines and generating sales with its explicit erotic scenes featuring elements of sexual practices involving bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism (BDSM).

Rubbish, you say?

Fifty Shades of Grey has topped best-seller lists around the world, including those of the United Kingdom and the United States. The series has sold over 100 million copies worldwide and been translated into 52 languages and set a record in the United Kingdom as the fastest-selling paperback of all time.

Hollywood has been paying attention and the movie will be coming out on February 13, 2015. Just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Charlie Hunnam was originally cast in the role of Christian Grey alongside Dakota Johnson in the role of Anastasia Steele, but Hunnam exited the part and Jamie Dornan stepped in for the role. Not surprisingly, fans of the books were analyzing every casting and production pictures, making their like or dislike know.

Fifty Shades of Grey presents an interesting puzzle to Hollywood. How do you make a movie that will cater to a passionate fan-base that’s centered around BDSM? The controversy has been a boon to the buzz for the movie and has inspired discussion across the spectrum. Depicting (and celebrating) violence has never been a problem but Hollywood has a mixed history when it comes to sex. While some are calling for a boycott to the movie, it’s not always for the reasons you think. Many groups are saying the movie is anti-woman, some point out the inaccurate (and unsafe) depiction of bondage in the books, and, of course, the more puritan are banging their fists saying the movie is sinful.

Interestingly enought, according to Fandango, ticket pre-sales in Mississippi, where until recently it was actually illegal to sell sex toys, are four-times higher than the site expected. Not to be left out, in Arkansas, West Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Alabama, where the sale of sex toys is still banned, pre-sales are double what sellers expected.

Just what is it about 50 Shades that has everyone so heated? It’s certainly not the first book of erotica aimed at housewives. Since the 70s, romance novels have been the most popular literary genre and according to the Romance Writers of American, romance novels brought in $$1.08 billion in sales in 2013.

Looking for some answers and insight on the 50 Shades phenomenon, I turned to the experts. I spoke with sociologist Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, whose book  Exposure: A Sociologist Studies Sex, Society, & Adult Entertainment will release in July, and sex educator jessica drake, mastermind behind the Guide to Wicked Sex: BDSM for Beginners – both shared their valuable insight.

[paragraph above copyedited slightly for clarity]

Steve Gustafson: Hi Dr. Tibbals! Thanks for answering a few questions for 411mania.com about 50 Shades of Grey. First, did you read the book? What are your thoughts on it?

Dr. Tibbals: Hi! You are so welcome, my pleasure. Honestly, I try to read, watch, and/or at least be familiar with everything significant in popular culture – it’s a great indicator of where we are as a culture. But I could not get past the first three pages of 50 Shades. Ironically, the only other thing comparably challenging (to me) were the Twilight books. I’ll definitely be watching the 50 Shades movie though – for science!

Steve Gustafson: With the books’ popularity, the use of handcuffs, rope, and other BDSM scenarios has risen. With so many people jumping into BDSM experimentation, what’s the number one thing they should know?

Dr. Tibbals: Consent. It’s the number one thing we should know with all sex-related – and really, life-related – things, but consent is especially important in BDSM. In addition to consent, I would add clear communication, which is a cornerstone of BDSM, and safe use of props and products.

Steve Gustafson: One of the phrases that has been introduced into our language is “Mommy Porn.” Has 50 Shades of Grey shown that women have neglected their sex lives for too long?

Dr. Tibbals: Well, regarding “mommy porn,” what 50 Shades may have done for some women is give them tacit permission to fantasize about or explore some dimensions of sexual practice that may have seemed too taboo in another context. Good or bad, 50 Shades is not the first narrative about BDSM, written or otherwise, but it’s definitely the most popular, visible, and contemporary. For many women (and men), this is hugely significant – it opened a door.

Steve Gustafson: Is the book and movie a positive thing for the BDSM community?

Dr. Tibbals: For the BDSM community? I would say, like everything else in life, it’s a mixed bag. 50 Shades has definitely drawn attention to the fact that BDSM is a thing that people do, thus also that BDSM communities exist (this may have been big news for many!) – this may be legitimizing and ultimately positive. But 50 Shades has also presented a version of BDSM that, in my understanding, is decently off mark. BDSM communities are vibrant and diverse. These are not things that people necessarily get from 50 Shades, which may be limiting and negative.

Steve Gustafson: A study from Michigan State University found that reading the series could be harmful to women’s health. They stated that women (ages 18 to 24) were more likely to have sex with multiple partners, binge drink, suffer eating disorders, and end up in abusive relationships. Also, Dr. Charlotte Jones has stated that there is a rise in sexually transmitted diseases, like gonorrhea and syphilis, among older couples. Can all this really be attributed to a book?

Dr. Tibbals: Put simply: no. Put in greater detail… I’m not sure how researchers would have designed and completed the complex, expensive longitudinal research required to make such claims regarding a series of books that were only first released in 2011. Just speaking in terms of research methods and logistics, the conclusions summarized here are kinda impossible.

But even more significant than that are the limiting and problematic ideologies that predicate these conclusions. I think everyone’s time would be better spent working to alleviate the realities and implications of things like poor sex education, gender inequalities, and violence in interpersonal relationships (and so on) – issues that have been around long before 2011 – rather than attempting to point fingers at a book.

Steve Gustafson: 50 Shades has opened the door for people to talk about erotica at places like work and among friends. How can people who are in the BDSM community use this to further the conversation in the right way?

Dr. Tibbals: Well, I would say that if occasion arises and one feels comfortable and safe doing so, more public conversations about BDSM that use 50 Shades as a starting point might be a good place to present a small (or large) truth. Use the opportunity to share a piece of your reality as it relates to BDSM. Or, if personal details are TMI for the situation, use the opportunity to share insights from something you’ve gleaned from a third party that rings true in your experience – an article or op-ed or something. That way, you can share accurate info about BDSM but don’t necessarily have to talk about your experience with violet wands in the break room.

Steve Gustafson: How will 50 Shades of Grey change Hollywood, if at all?

Dr. Tibbals: Perhaps Hollywood will see this as an opportunity to show some (relatively) edgy depictions of sex? BDSM is not all about penetration, so maybe this might open the door to showing complex versions of sexualities without having to worry about their explicit nature. Unfortunately though, I doubt this will be the case.

Steve Gustafson: Thank you, Dr. Tibbals and all the best!

To read the piece in full, including insights from jessica drake, go to 411Mania.com here.

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Image via 411Mania.com

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Got a sociology question? Need some social justice informed life advice? Contact Dr. Chauntelle right here.

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