E.L. James’ 2011 novel 50 Shades of Grey is popular, no matter which way you look at it. The book tells the fictional and incredibly sexually explicit story of a masochistic relationship between a Anastasia Steele, a college senior, and Christian Grey, one of the richest men in the world. Though the behavior detailed within it is still recognized as ‘taboo’ in many public circles, 50 Shades’ release was met not with contempt or disgust, but rather an overwhelming curiosity, leading to eventual financial success. Despite poor critics’ reviews, it in 2012 became the United Kingdom’s fastest-selling paperback of all time. The book’s film adaptations, released on Valentine’s Day of 2015 and 2017, were also reviewed poorly, but widely watched. The BDSM Market benefitted from the success as well, as more and more people became comfortable with trying the book’s subject matter for themselves. Clearly, the sexual behavior represented in the novel became less perverse in the eyes of many.
Sigmund Freud’s 1917 Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis is popular in it’s own right–albeit for different reasons. The framework of the mind set out in Freud’s early works revolutionized treatment, care, and awareness of mental patients, teaching doctors and psychologists to view neurotic cases as ones of sexual and emotional repression: as products of life experiences. This repression, which often becomes manifested in mental and physical disorders, is part of an individual’s process of “[sacrificing] instinctual satisfaction for the benefit of the whole community” (Freud, 27). Freud’s study of the individual, then, becomes rooted in one of the society. When a patient’s desires conflict with what is socially understood to be “normal” sexuality–i.e: heterosexual reproductive sex–he represses what is deemed as “perverse” in order to live more comfortably in society. Freud’s pleasure principle and reality principle put this concept to words: If man’s “main purpose” is to obtain pleasure and avoid displeasure, but the process of obtaining that pleasure contradicts the norms set out by his collective, he will repress in order to avoid displeasure and appease both parts of his brain which deal with pleasure and reality. (Freud, 444)
So how does this pertain to E.L James’ racy bestseller? Well, Freud is quick to classify sadists as perverts, “puzzling people whose tender endeavors have no other aim than to cause pain and torment to their object…” (379). Because they derive pleasure from sexual experiences irrelevant to their genitals and to reproduction, they are ostracized by society and expected to repress their pleasure. Thus, they are dominated by society: Their freedom to perform the sexual act which most pleasures them is restricted by their need to conform a set of morals which, when it comes down to it, exist simply in order to secure the social function of reproduction. Though society does not actively dominate the individual, he is so dependent on it for protection that he is dominated by the system nevertheless. Freud notes that he gives up ‘perverse’ sexual desires in order to remain a social being. But the success of 50 Shades, then, raises several questions. The socialization of sexuality has created, Freud posits, some form of power over individual pleasure. And yet across the globe, copies of the book lie unsubtly on bookshelves and nightstands. At the time of this blog’s publication, the film has grossed over 571 million dollars. E.L. James, after finishing the 50 Shades series, has begun a second one, telling the same story from Christian Grey’s point of view.
So what gives? Clearly, BDSM culture, though still taboo, has become much more widely accepted. This ‘perverse’ behavior has earnestly entered the mainstream: James’ website proudly asserts, in a cursive font, the words Provocative Romance. What does it mean that we are more willing than ever to provoke in this way? To abandon social norms of reproduction and produce media explicitly dedicated to perverse behavior?
Are we freer?
Freud outlines a historical development in the relationship between the libido (simply put, the sexual instinctual self) and the ego (the social self). As an act of self-preservation within a society, the ego represses/renounces all wants of the libido that conflict. Obviously, the success of 50 Shades indicates a deviation from this development: In a widespread way, we are less and less want to allow our libidos to be sublimated.
Christian Grey says it himself. “I don’t make love… I fuck… Hard.”
But is our willingness to consume this perverse content really a sign that we, as individuals, have become freed from the norms of our collective? Are the norms of the collective as a whole changing? Sexual life has almost taken over social life. And here, the question lies: In the current moment, what is the relationship between our ego and our libido?