By A. Charlotte Rose
I have been on the Fifty Shades of Grey beat for over a year and a half. In addition to covering the fun burst erotic expression women experience reading it, I’ve been researching the psychological, sociological, and sexual aspects of what led millions of women to fall in love with the story and characters, especially with Christian Grey.
What it is it that touched such a deep longing in readers? What is the secret sauce that made so many go ga-ga for Mr. Grey?
Over 90 million books have been sold and all three books were on the New York Times Bestseller list for what seemed like forever. While the trilogy follows a romantic fiction formula spiced with eroticism and suspense, it somehow has captured reader’s attention like no other book of its kind. Fifty Shades has opened a new conversation about female sexuality, has restored passion to many relationships, and it has kicked open an exciting new door in publishing for many writers already in the field or those thinking of writing steamy love stories.
In search of insight into what got readers so hooked [me included], I attended an informative lecture by sex therapist Sari Cooper, LCSW. Titled “Fifty Shades of Grey: What You Can Learn about Sex Esteem from the Bestseller,” it was delivered to an audience of psychoanalysts at Washington Square Institute in New York City (tough crowd, by the way). Cooper, a columnist for Psychology Today and an ASECT certified sex therapist, said she was even using the book to help couples. She outlined what she called “the erotic triggers” that are written into the book and said these triggers combined are what kept the heroine, Anastasia Steel (Ana) so stimulated and intrigued, and made the story so irresistible to readers.
“These are the multisensory messages that our bodies receive and that get us turned-on,” she explained. With her permission, here are the top 10 erotic triggers she outlined.
1. Powerful hero. “He is dark, mysterious, and possibly dangerous–a total Alpha male. He’s wild, dangerous, and unpredictable. Being with him is like a rollercoaster ride.”
2. Awakened Heroine. “She is innocent. She is the yin to the yang of Christian Grey. She is a young woman awakened by this man who knows a lot more. “
3. Christian Grey uses all the senses – taste, touch, sight, scent, sound. “For example, Ana is always talking about how he smells and he about her scent. He also consciously uses these different triggers to arouse her.”
4. Music is huge part of it. There are many musical moments in the book that inspire erotic or emotionally charged moments.
5. He appeals to her psychologically. “He sends signals to throw her off-balance, such as his first gift of the collector’s edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. He attached a quote from the book that says there may be danger waiting. It creates more intrigue for her and she is intrigued by him.”
6. There is stimulation of all the erogenous zones and multisensory anticipation. “Christian does it with such expertise, and so much foreplay, with plenty of time to get Anastasia ready.”
A. Primary erogenous zones. Genitals and breasts.
B. Secondary erogenous zones: Earlobe, neck.
C. Tertiary erogenous zones: Feet, arms, scalp.
7. BDSM. “The book has opened up the door a crack to things people may not have considered before. In Fifty Shades, Ana has many fears about being hurt, but when she is in the red room of pain she is not just in pain—she is in a state of arousal beyond what she would normally feel. Sexual arousal sometimes involves working with negative emotions such as fear and anxiety. It’s the experience of being on a roller coaster that enhances the state of arousal.”
8. Love. “Ana pushes for ‘more’ than being his submissive and he ‘tries’ because he will do anything to keep her. He’s only had subs [submissive female partners] before, women that he has controlled, and he is pushed to his hard limits by Ana who is demanding more. That’s what people love about the book. They want the romance, the emotional tension. Will it work out for them? They want to know!”
9. The experience of being desired. “This is a huge erotic trigger for women. It’s the experience of being that special someone. There is no one else in his eyes. He only has eyes for her. She is the one he longs for. It combines the erotic with the sensual. Being desired is such a turn on for women.”
10. He’s very loyal. “At first we are not sure if we can trust him. She talks about his ‘stalker tendencies. ‘What wins Ana over, and wins the reader over, is he’s very loyal. And when she needs him, he’s there. I think it works because women can feel the fantasy of having that danger, with the security of having a good relationship.”
Cooper’s analysis made perfect sense to me in both understanding what the character Anastasia experienced and how the readers, too, took that rollercoaster ride into the kinky romance and the psychologically intrigue. The idea that women can experience the fantasy with Ana, yet view it from the safety of their own relationships, also explains the appeal of the books.
The concept of “erotic triggers” can be very helpful in relationships, in general. In Fifty Shades of Grey, here are some of the ways those triggers kept Ana, and the reader, in a state of anticipation:
• Sound: “You are mine,” he whispers, “only mine. Don’t forget it.” His voice is intoxicating, his words heady, seductive.” (Page 119).”
• Sight: “A slow, sexy smile spreads across his lovely face, and I am rendered speechless as my insides melt. He is without a doubt the most beautiful man on the planet, too beautiful for the little people below, too beautiful for me (page 370).”
• Touch and Scent: “He runs the tips of his finger down my cheek. Oh my. His proximity, his delicious Christian smell. We’re supposed to be talking but my heart is pounding, my blood singing as it courses through my body, desire pooling, unfurling… everywhere. Christian bends and runs his nose along my shoulder and up the base of my ear, his fingers slipping into my hair (page 427).”
The reader is constantly barraged with these triggers or cues. Along with a genuine emotional connection between the characters, these are present from the start. Even if some of the writing is corny, the sentiments can set women’s hearts afire because they stimulate the fantasy of the perfect man who is not only gorgeous and rich, but is sexually masterful and desires her pleasure. His virility and her fertility are a turn-on and can help the reader feel young, just reading about their interactions. Sigh.
People have complained about the quality of the writing in Fifty Shades of Grey, but I would argue that E.L. James was masterful in her use of erotic cues, and storytelling that stimulates all the senses. Personally, I am a huge fan of hers for opening the door to a brave new world where women of all ages can enjoy reading – and writing –erotic romances without shame. It’s about time, right?
Was Fifty Shades of Grey the first erotic romance novel you ever read?