“Fifty Shades of Grey,” by E.L. James, is number one on the "New York Times” best-seller list -- an unusual slot for a pornographic novel. And it has gotten there by word of mouth. Have you heard about it? Have you read it? Are you thinking you might? In my conversations with women all over the country in recent weeks, the answers are variations of yes.
Not that the plot matters, but it's about an innocent college student and an incredibly attractive and very rich man, who also keeps a bondage chamber. Seduction, submission and sex are the formula for a publishing category called Romance, which is the most profitable of all ($1.4 billion). As one Barnes and Noble clerk told “New York” Magazine about his customers, "It's always older women, never younger than 30. ... In the five years that I've worked here, I have not seen a single man buy one of these books."
I can understand the turn-on of fantasizing about a godlike suitor who desires us madly, beyond anything he has ever known. What goes on in his "Red Room of Pain" is more a matter of taste. But why are women my age -- including many of my friends -- not only reading it but talking about it?
It's the talking about it part that interests me, because as I travel around the country meeting with groups of women to discuss my latest book “How We Love Now,” the subject of sex inevitably comes up, and when it does, the consensus is that while many women are having great sex and many others are having sexual problems, we are not sharing our experiences the way we do on most other topics. Many in those audiences express the wish that they could talk more freely with their partners and share this part of their lives with close friends. "Having said that," one added, "I still don't know where to begin."
There are obvious reasons for this reticence -- discomfort with the subject, concern about betraying partners in conversations with friends, feeling foolish about having an interest in sex "at our age."
It is in answer to the last inhibition that “Fifty Shades of Grey” comes in. I think that one reason we are reading it is because whether or not we are currently in a sexual relationship, we want to confirm that our juices are still flowing. There is enough unbonded eroticism -- "pure vanilla," Grey calls it -- in the book to do that.
By talking about the book, we are also able to gauge whether other women are exploring the same territory. "I'm reading 50 Shades of Grey" is code for "I still have sexual feelings; do you?"
But once that curiosity is shared, it is still hard to move on to frank talk. At least among ourselves. Every time I blog about how we aren't talking about sex, I get hundreds of anonymous comments. They go on and on in a real conversation -- informative, compassionate, honest, detailed, and funny. For the moment, anyway, that's where people can really let their hair down.
A recent blog elicited a challenging statement that offers some reasons why we don't talk about sex -- and why we should:
People under 50 don't talk about sex much either; they say only what is socially acceptable in their circle of friends and what they believe the others want to hear.
We all have sexual desires we "shouldn't" have.
We are all judgmental of the sexual behavior of others.
We all tend to question our own sexuality.
We all hold views and beliefs about sex that are strongly abhorred by others.
Sexuality = vulnerability.
Is it any wonder, then, that we are reluctant to discuss it socially except on the most superficial basis?
Whenever I write about this subject, there are several comments about how we were the beneficiaries as well as the practitioners of the "sexual revolution." Looking back, it is clear to me that all that carrying on wasn't about exploring our own sexuality; it was about experimenting with what we assumed was everyone else's. As in so many other aspect of our lives, we now have a second chance to get to the truth about who we are sexually.
Suzanne Braun Levine is a writer, editor and nationally recognized authority on women and family issues. The first editor of "Ms." magazine, she has defined a new stage of life – Women in Second Adulthood – and reports on the ongoing changes in women’s lives in her books and on her website: www.suzannebraunlevine.com. She is a contributing editor to "More" magazine. Her latest book is "How We Love Now: Sex and The New Intimacy in Second Adulthood.”