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London TV executive E.L. James’s novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, has proven a huge hit in the United States, and the trilogy it belongs to has sold more than 250,000 copies. (Heidi Green Photography)
London TV executive E.L. James’s novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, has proven a huge hit in the United States, and the trilogy it belongs to has sold more than 250,000 copies. (Heidi Green Photography)

EDWARD SHORTER

Who's on top? You'd be surprised Add to ...

In an era of political correctness, the last thing in the world you’d expect to be a hit is a novel about sadomasochism, about how much women like subordinating themselves to men in bed.

Bottoming is the term. Who knew that women had such a longing to be bottoms? Yet, London TV executive E.L. James’s novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, has proven a huge hit in the United States, and the trilogy it belongs to has sold more than 250,000 copies, rocketing to No. 1 on The New York Times e-book fiction bestseller list.

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What’s going on here? Collective lunacy on the part of today’s autonomous, self-propelled career woman? A kind of mass erotic auto-da-fé? Or were we sold a bill of goods in the 1970s about women and sexuality?

If you’ll remember, the feminist message in the ’70s was about sex and power. Sex wasn’t really supposed to be fun and joyous. It was an exercise in power relations between men and women. So the idea of bottoming for some guy was about as appealing as gouging out an eyeball.

But what if that analysis was wrong? What if sex is really about sensuality and not about power? Then the huge success of Fifty Shades of Grey starts to make more sense. This kind of fetish/S&M sex, way over to the right on the spectrum of normal (but still on the spectrum), can be delicious because it involves not the infliction of pain but the exchange of control.

I’m going to tell you about mainstream opinion in the world of fetish/S&M. This is the script that’s out there:

What is erotic in fetish/S&M is the feeling of surrendering completely to someone else’s control over your body. But only for a limited time and in a strictly defined setting – yet, within that setting, giving absolute control to someone else. Hence the idea of handcuffs – you grant physical control to someone else. Hence the popularity of fetish, a symbolic acknowledgment that the one who wears the boots holds the reins.

Leather and latex are symbols, not of the jollity of whipping someone hard and inflicting pain, but of the establishment of control.

So it turns out that all these independent, high-powered women out there long for this erotic frisson of briefly, and revocably if need be, surrendering control over their own bodies. This really represents the definitive burial of ’70s-style feminism.

There’s something else. It also turns out that hordes of men are eager to surrender control to female “tops,” to have their wives or girlfriends top them by taking control in bed, just as all the female readers of Fifty Shades of Grey want to be topped by males. In fact, in the scene, bottoming is far more popular for both sexes than is topping. (Women are more the theme here because Shades of Grey is much more a female-style bodice-ripper than a short story you’d expect to find in Popular Mechanics.)

But it’s not just women.

Nobody wants to be a top. Everybody, male and female alike, wants to bottom. It’s not a gender thing but a sensuality thing. The exchange of power in the context of all this equipment is incredibly sensual.

If you go to an S&M/leather shop, you’ll see gear for both genders, toys to take home and experiment with, such as entry-level floggers, masks for him and her, leather pelvic adornments for him, bustiers for her.

For me, as a historian, what’s so interesting is that it’s new. These are not age-old themes in the history of sexuality but recent increments to the sensuality palette. For centuries, sex was about the man-on-top missionary position and rutting in the gloom of the cottage on the straw mattress. It was behaviour that was biologically driven but not necessarily sensual.

Now we’re expanding the sensuality palette dramatically. You can come home from work, kick off your boots – or, better yet, put on different pair – and begin to experiment with fetish/S&M. This could be huge.

Edward Shorter is a professor of the history of medicine and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Among his books is Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire .

 

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