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As We See It

A look at the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ economy

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EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey has tapped into a planet’s libido.
Photo: Jeffrey M. Boan/AP
Lynn Comella

Fifty Shades of Grey, the first book in the erotic trilogy about a handsome yet emotionally complicated billionaire, Christian Grey, and his BDSM relationship with the young and sexually innocent Anastasia Steele, is, by all indications, a runaway success. Sales have topped 40 million copies worldwide. Plans are in the works for a film adaptation. Hotels in the Pacific Northwest, where the series is set, are offering Fifty Shades of Grey weekend getaways. Hardware stores are reportedly selling out of cotton rope; sex toy sales are soaring; and soon, an official Fifty Shades clothing line, including hosiery, underwear and sleepwear, will be coming to a store near you.

Not only is the trilogy a publishing sensation—in the United Kingdom it has outsold the Harry Potter series—but it’s also a merchandising sensation that’s left some business owners scratching their heads all the way to the bank.

Fifty Shades is hardly a literary masterpiece, and it certainly has its fair share of detractors. The prose is clunky and the phrasing repetitive—Anastasia annoyingly refers to her “inner goddess” on almost every other page—but it really doesn’t matter. The books are a hit with women all over the world.

Written by British author EL James, the trilogy details the developing relationship, complete with bondage scenes and graphic sex, between the wealthy and controlling Grey and the inexperienced yet completely enamored Anastasia. It began as Twilight fan fiction before being reworked and published as e-books by an independent publisher in 2011. As sales climbed, and the buzz intensified, Fifty Shades caught the attention of Vintage Books, which purchased the rights in March.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why Fifty Shades has captured the sexual imagination of so many women. Erotica, after all, is not a new genre. Perhaps it’s the ease with which the books can be downloaded onto a Kindle or iPad, or the fact that they conform to familiar tropes that have long defined the romance novel. Maybe the label “mommy porn,” which has been used by several media outlets to describe the books, has given some women permission to see for themselves what all the fuss is about.

This was the case for one Vegas hairstylist who had never read erotica before Fifty Shades. The buzz surrounding the book, and the fact that so many of her clients were talking about it—all with smiles on their faces, she told me—piqued her curiosity. “I read the first book in two nights,” she says. “I couldn’t put the kids to bed fast enough.”

Women aren’t just reading the books, rolling over and going to sleep, however. If sales figures are any indication, they are also going shopping for the various accoutrements mentioned in the novel, from blindfolds and riding crops to the “pleasure beads” that play a prominent role in the book. Retailer Babeland has an entire section of its website devoted to the Fifty Shades phenomenon, including a Fifty Shades of Grey fantasy kit. Early to Bed, a sex shop in Chicago, tweeted out a picture last week of its in-store Fifty Shades display, featuring bondage rope and fuzzy wrist restraints. And here in Vegas, the Déjà Vu Love Boutique has dedicated its storefront window to kinky paraphernalia and the Fifty Shades trilogy.

So what does all of this mean in terms of dollars and cents? LELO, a Swedish company that makes a product similar to the sensual “pleasure beads” depicted in the books, reports that sales for its Luna Beads have jumped an astonishing 400 percent, growth it attributes directly to the series. Demand is so high that retailers I spoke with can’t keep the item in stock. Many sex toy manufacturers and retailers are reading Fifty Shades in an effort to better understand this new demographic of shoppers—what we might think of as the “Fifty Shades consumer.”

Metis Black, president of Tantus, a sex toy manufacturer in Reno, says, “I have to understand what the trends are, and part of that is doing research and understanding the zeitgeist.”

“What many folks have said to me,” says Jacq Jones, the owner of Sugar, a woman-friendly sex shop in Baltimore, “is that the book just has them feeling sexier, reminding them that sex is fun, turning them on and freeing them to try new things.”

Black echoes this. “Women haven’t been given permission to fantasize that much. This book gives women permission.” She adds, it also shows readers how to negotiate boundaries, establish safe words and talk about what they want to do and don’t want to do sexually.

Brenda Knight, an associate publisher at Cleis Press, which has been publishing erotica for over 30 years, has seen sales increase by 30 percent over the past few months. “It is really fascinating. At first it was hard to see, but at this point, [the increase in sales] is mostly books where the women are identifying as submissive. To me, that says that millions and millions of women are reading about that, and want to experience it. They want to experience what Anastasia is experiencing.”

Knight, however, wants to ensure that curious beginners who’ve never dabbled in BDSM or kinky sex have the information they need to do it safely. In September, Cleis will release an e-book called Fifty Shades of Kink: A Beginner’s Guide to BDSM, written by award-winning author and sex educator Tristan Taormino.

“There is such a surge in interest about kinky sex because of Fifty Shades,” Taormino tells me. “I wanted to create an accessible guide for newcomers, and also help paint a more realistic portrait of how people actually do kink that’s grounded in experience, creativity and safety.”

As for understanding the series’ popularity, Jones offers this: “I think as a culture we have been underestimating how overwhelmed many women feel between work and home. For many women, the concept of someone accurately taking care of their stuff, down to their doctor’s appointments and their underwear [as Christian does with Anastasia], is way hotter than any of the sex.”

Whatever the roots of the phenomenon—the fantasy of giving up control, the permission to explore new things or the pleasure of escaping into a steamy book—it is clear that sex toy manufacturers, retailers and erotic presses, among other businesses, are reaping the financial rewards of the trilogy’s success.

“The whole thing is kind of crazy if you ask me,” says Searah Deysach, the owner of Early to Bed in Chicago, which has seen an uptick in new customers. “But overall, I think it is incredible that Fifty Shades has given tons of people—mostly women—permission to tap into desires that they maybe did not have the okay to tap into before. Sure, I think there are better erotica books out there, and more realistic representations of BDSM relationships, but overall, anything that helps women to feel more comfortable expressing their desires is a good thing.”

Lynn Comella is a Women’s Studies professor at UNLV.

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