Since the surge in popularity from E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey" book series, adult retailers report eye-popping increases in demand for bondage toys. (AP Photo)

Romance is on the rise these days — thanks in part to new technologies. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “Electronic readers, and the reading privacy they provide, are fueling a boom in sales of sexy romance novels.”

Brenda Knight, of Clevis Press, a publisher of erotica since 1980, told the Journal: “Kindles, iPads and Nooks are the ultimate brown paper wrapper.”

HarperCollins UK has launched Mischief Books, with the tag line “private pleasures with a hand-held device,” and other mainstream publishers are following suit.

If syrupy rescue fantasies can harm young women and girls, what about the kinky turn such fantasies are now taking?

The master narrative of romance novels hasn’t changed much over the years; Woman’s true love can change the world, taming even the most brutish males. We see the theme in the mega-bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which beneath its S&M paraphernalia is a traditional romance novel — albeit with a “love hurts” twist. Virtuous woman meets dangerous feral male, and in due course, has him eating out of her hand. True love conquers all.

The “Shades” hero, Christian Grey, is a classic romance novel male: powerful, rich and controlling. The heroine, Anatasia Steele, is young and innocent and drawn into his web. In the end, they ride off happily into the sunset — with, one assumes — valises of Tylenol for her.

The effects of the book’s roaring success (“Shades” and its sequels are now among the best-selling books of all time), continue to ripple across the literary landscape.

But from a gender studies perspective, there’s reason to be dubious.

As blogger Fedora Lady puts it:

“I think (‘Shades’) sends out a message young girls — who will inevitably get their hands on the ‘forbidden fruit’ and read it — don’t need reinforced: that the love of a good woman conquers all. How many young women have fallen under the spell of a man who proved to be obsessive and abusive, a stalker, jealous of anyone and anything that takes their attention from the guy?”

It’s easy to dismiss all romance novels as harmless, trivial nonsense, but in fact, the fantasies they conjure up have been shown to have negative psychological and financial effects.

In 2001, researcher Laurie A. Rudman of Rutgers University found that female college students “who show automatic associations between male romantic partners and fantasy constructs (e.g. “Prince Charming”) tend to choose occupations characterized by low financial rewards.” So in other words, women who buy into romantic fantasies tend to choose lower paying jobs that require less education. Rudman calls this a “glass slipper” effect, and notes that “women who implicitly idealize men may be more interested in pursuing power indirectly, through their romantic relationships, than by seeking their own fortunes.”

If syrupy rescue fantasies can harm young women and girls, what about the kinky turn such fantasies are now taking?

In her 2012 world tour, Lady Gaga performed several numbers clad in a skimpy S&M costume, straddling a silver motorcycle. In 2011, Britney Spears and Rihanna both donned bondage in a video remix of the latter’s hit song “S&M.”

And in August of this year, in an interview with Oprah, Rihanna revealed that she was working again with her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, who had beaten her so severely in 2009 that he was put on probation for domestic violence. Rihanna expressed concern that his image may have been harmed by the incident.

Shortly after the interview aired, on the website Beyond Black & White, critic Jamila Akil wrote:

“Rihanna doesn’t take her abuse at the hands of Chris Brown seriously… Rihanna and Chris are tone-deaf when it comes to what many of us consider to be ‘inappropriate’ behavior that is actually common to victims of abuse (i.e., the urge that many victims have to defend the person who abused them).”

As a culture, we are also sexualizing girls earlier than ever before.

In what is still considered the “gold standard” study on sexuality and teens, in 2007 the American Psychological Association found the media emphasizing young women’s sexuality “to a stunning degree.”

It found that if girls learn that behaving like sexual objects gains approval they may begin to “self-sexualize;” in fact, to become their own worst enemies as far as their health and well-being are concerned.

Despite commendable efforts to encourage women to develop healthy, positive attitudes toward their own sexuality, the pendulum swing to the extreme is more common and it carries its own perils. The APA links hyper-sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem.

The male species is not immune. Boys are also prone to internalizing the idea that their female counterparts are supposed to behave like sex objects. Further, boys exposed to sexualized portrayals of girls may be more prone to commit acts of harassment.

News stories now report on a casting feeding frenzy over which heartthrob will play the male lead in the movie version of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” If the new romantic hero brings his lady a bouquet of roses and throws away everything but the thorns our culture may take another turn for the worse.

Tags: Books, Gender

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • asextoys

  • Pat

    I think Fifty Shades of Grey is a best seller and a good book to read. It is up to the person that reads it to distinguish between real life and fiction. It is not from reading the book .

  • Anna Shaw

    I think that if a woman, young or otherwise, bases her romance on a book that she reads. If she is unable to distinguish between a fantasy presented in a book for entertainment and a real life abusive, stalker then there not only is there a dangerous lapse in her connection with reality, but she should probably be committed to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation because she’s definitely a danger to herself.

    • Jo

      Unfortunately, most women do not understand they are in an abusive relationship until it is too late. This is the reason that we need to educate both men and women about this issue. The reality is that young women are presented with role models all the time and have to make choices amongst competing alternatives. I’m glad that life is so black and white for you that the right choices pop out and you are so in touch with reality – however, most people make choices based on a myriad of factors, both real and imagined!

  • Anonymous

    ‘S&M’ (or BDSM, as it’s more properly known) can exist in the context of normal, healthy, loving relationships – and does, far more frequently than most people would think or acknowledge.

    If this book paints a pretty picture of an unsafe or unhealthy power dynamic between the two characters, a power imbalance that has a negative or abusive effect, then by all means let’s discuss that and its ramifications. *That* is the ‘glass slipper’ effect in action. But BDSM – safe, consensual BDSM, the kind that is regularly practiced by millions of people across the world – itself is not the problem. To present BDSM play as a primary indicator of an abusive relationship is at best ignorant and deeply misguided, and takes attention away from the true problem at hand.

    Women need to be empowered, both legally and societally, to seek out *and expect* safe, fulfilling, equitable romantic and sexual relationships. If some of those women choose to engage in BDSM play and do so safely and consenually, that is their right, but that choice should never be conflated with the endless damage that is done in the context of actual abusive relationships.

  • Pingback: The Reality of Fantasy and Imagination «

  • Jo

    I hope that this article is read by every parent of a teenager out there.

  • Brynn

    BDSM merely makes the power dynamic more obvious, which has some pretty significant advantages. For one thing, when everyone can see it we are more capable of commenting on it (and there is a lot of conversation particularly amongst kinksters, folks in their 20s who practice BDSM – the next generation is much more aware of these matters than I was at that age). For another thing, active consent (yes means yes) and negotiation around sexual desires are much more important in the BDSM community than in the mainstream, and are treated as skills that can be taught rather than magic unicorns that can only be harnessed by the pure of heart. Finally, there are plenty of female tops and male bottoms in the world, which creates intersectional power dynamics that are also extensively discussed within the community.

    I want to note that Chris Brown and Rihanna are not engaging in BDSM power dynamics, they are engaging in abusive relationship power dynamics, which are very different. Abusive relationships involve little to no negotiation and zero active consent, and often require twisting one person’s reality to maintain (see gaslighting) rather than engaging in mutually agreed-upon fantasy/sensation play. I understand your confusion – one of the things about 50 Shades that makes me angry is it also confuses these two power dynamics. This is the part that’s the problem, especially with younger readers, not the BDSM bits.

    • Ruth Soulsby-Monroy

      Well Put. Apples and oranges between BDSM and abusive relationships.

  • lj_68

    I developed low self-esteem in childhood but it certainly wasn’t from reading the ‘wrong types of books’. I had some pretty terrible step-mothers who contributed to that. As for what I read and how it affected the jobs I had and my major? Not one bit. Also, I really wish writers would stop attempting to use Fifty Shades as an example of BDSM. It is mostly certainly not BDSM. It’s some sort of caricature of what a bad writer thought BDSM should be. Now you’ll have to excuse me, I have homework to do for my engineering major (yes, I’m serious).

  • Dana O Connell

    BDSM and abuse is not the same…not the same at all. Over-sensationalised writing once more.
    The fact that Rihanna is an idiot, who has chosen to work with an abusive male, has nothing to do with the BDSM lifestyle.

  • Pingback: COM in the news: September 2012 » College of Communication » Blog Archive » Boston University()

  • Michael

    I love buying my toys @ Whats yours??