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Why Fifty Shades of Grey is such a phenomenon

13 February 2015

± minute read

    Why Fifty Shades of Grey is such a phenomenon
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The Sex of Fifty Shades of Grey: A Psychological Exploration

“The only abnormal sex…is no sex at all” – Sigmund Freud Fifty-Shades-of-Grey

So, like many people you have probably heard of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. The book has made waves all over the world and has a number of female rights and empowerment groups deeply worried (Hamady, 2012). The major concern these groups have with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it portrays a women as completely vulnerable, disempowered, and at the mercy of a male protagonist, or antagonist (depends on your point of view). These fears are still prevalent, even though the power dynamic between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey changes later in the book.

A major concern has been that the movie popularises the BDSM scene, otherwise known as Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism. BDSM is controversial and often involves seemingly abusive sexual practices that people enjoy.  It appears however that this subject matter is interesting to readers of the book because over a 100 million copies have been sold internationally, and to mostly young female readers (Dearden, 2014). It is no wonder then that there has been concern about the effect of the book on young adolescent women.

Adolescent girls who read the book are more likely to have an eating disorder or be in an abusive relationship than those who didn’t

Interestingly, the fears people have about the behavioural impact of the book, and the upcoming movie, may not be completely unfounded.  Amy Bonomi, who works in the field of human development and family studies at Michigan State University, and her colleagues, completed a study in 2014 to determine whether adolescent women who read Fifty Shades of Grey are at risk for any behavioural or psychological problems when compared to women who have never read the book. Their study showed that women who read the novel had a higher frequency of eating disorders and incidences of abuse in their relationships compared to women who did not (Bonomi et al., 2014).  This does not mean that every woman who has, or will, read Fifty Shades will suddenly find themselves in an abusive relationship, nor does it mean that these women will suddenly develop an eating disorder.  It simply means that there is a higher incidence of these problems in women who read and liked the book. Unfortunately, causality is a problem in this study. In other words, did reading the book increase the frequency of eating disorders and/or abusive relationships, or do women with these problems read the book more. The answer is not forthcoming.

Why is Fifty Shades of Grey so popular?

So, is there really anything wrong with liking the book/movie? Is there anything wrong with aggressive and offbeat sexual practices? Could it be that we are hardwired in some way to enjoy aggressive and sometimes demeaning sexual practices? Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was actually quoted as saying that “the only abnormal sex is no sex at all”. According to Freud all human beings have deep seated and powerful sexual and aggressive drives (Fisher & Greenburg, 1996). These drives are usually subconscious and require the individual to meet their associated aggressive and sexual needs in order to control them (Monte, 1995).

So, according to Freud if we have a strong sexual desire we have sex. If we have a strong aggressive desire we play a competitive sport, or vent our anger in an acceptable manner. All of these behavioural strategies help us to release our pent up aggressive and sexual tensions in a socially desirable manner. This is called sublimation.  However, many people find it difficult to “sublimate” their aggressive and sexual drives into appropriate behaviour (Fisher & Greenberg, 1996). In these cases people are unable to fully get rid of the dynamic aggressive and sexual tensions in which case they often spill out into inappropriate behaviour.

Let us use an analogy to explain. Think of these drives/needs/tensions as pressure within a volcano. Some volcanoes are not dangerous because they constantly release pressure, steam and lava; and there is never enough pressure built up for an eruption. On the other hand, volcanoes that do not release pressure will eventually erupt in a massive explosion.  Similarly, if people get rid of their sexual and aggressive tension in socially desirable ways they normalise these drives so that they are not released in socially undesirable ways. What is even more interesting is that these two drives are interrelated in that sex is aggression, and aggression is sex (Freud, 1962). Therefore, if sexual needs (the eros drive) are not met it can sublimate into aggression. Conversely, not meeting an aggressive drive (the thanatos drive) can result in the sublimation of sexual behaviour. Interestingly, Freud was convinced that the First and Second World Wars were a direct result of the sexually conservative nature of Victorian Europe which dominated the period a 100 years before World War I.

In other words, Freud would probably see nothing wrong with Fifty Shades of Grey, nor would he judge anybody who engages in BDSM activities. Simply put, people who engage and enjoy these activities may be sublimating both aggressive and sexual drives in a relatively private and thus, socially desirable manner. Freud would also argue that people who read the book are actually engaging in wish fulfilment, a process by which people fantasise about their unmet needs and desires (Monte, 1995).  Wish fulfilment is a process of sublimation whereby individuals live vicariously through other people, dream, or fantasise about a particular need or desire being met. This process can reduce the psychic pressure of our aggressive and sexual natures without engaging in socially undesirable behaviours, even though we are imagining ourselves acting out such behaviour.

Freud’s views may actually explain the interest in the book. It may be that readers live vicariously through the characters. As many readers may not be interested , nor open,  to the type of sexual relationship in Fifty Shades Grey it is still a way to ‘experience’ such a relationship from the safety of your favourite reading spot. Psychological research from Italy has demonstrated how ‘mirror’ neurons in the brain actually allow people to ‘simulate’ the acts and emotions they see or imagine (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). In other words, when an individual sees someone laughing, the brain’s mirror neurons actually replicate the emotion, as if it is happening to the observer. Of course the emotion is not as strong as in the person being observed, but it allows us to model someone else’s behaviour as if it were our own (Rizzolotti & Craighero, 2004). This has definite advantages for learning and social interaction. However, it also allows us to really experience what we observe in others. Therefore, mirror neurons may be proof that Freud was correct. We like stories and situations because we actually live them and experience them. Through such experience we are able to meet our deep seated needs and desires and sublimate them in an appropriate manner.

Physiological arousal and the James-Lange Theory of Emotional Attribution

Another theory in psychology can also shed some light on why readers are drawn to Fifty Shades of Grey. Many psychology graduates will be able to explain the James-Lange Theory of Emotional Attribution.  This theory proposed by William James and Carl Lange simply states that emotions are a result of physiological states and physiological states are not dependent on emotions (James, 1890). In other words, you do not feel fear because you see a snake, you feel fear because you have reacted to the snake and the brain is interpreting that state of arousal as fear.

So according to James and Lange, it is only once you react to a particular situation that you feel emotion. You feel fear because you are running away; you are not running away because you feel fear. This may sound a little crazy, but there is a lot of research to support the James-Lange Theory. For example, Levenson, Ekman and Friesen (1990) found that there was a physical gesture associated with almost every one of the six principle human emotions. This research demonstrates how emotions are embodied in physical actions. Zajonc, Murphy and Inglehart (1989) demonstrated in a seminal study that facial expressions induce emotions, not the other way around. These authors found for example that smiling actually makes people feel happy, and frowning actually makes people sad. In a more recent study by Hung and Labroo (2011) it was discovered that people who clench their fists actually report higher levels of willpower than those who don’t.

Therefore, bodily states and their context dictate what emotions someone will feel. It isn’t really emotion that affects bodily arousal, but rather bodily arousal, interpreted in a particular context that results in emotional attributions. This is an important discovery as it sheds light on a number of human behaviours including sexual behaviour. Richard Wiseman (2012) proposes that women in abusive relationships often stay in such relationship because of their James-Lange emotional attributions. Wiseman argues that abused women stay with their abuser because they misinterpret their physically aroused state (usually initiated by the abuse itself) as love  The same logic applies to Stockholm syndrome where kidnapped and abused victims become familiar and/or fall passionately in love with their captor and tormentor. It’s also why seeing a horror movie with a partner is such a winner on the first date. It’s because the aroused physical state caused by the horror film may be misattributed as passion for the partner you are with.

The James-Lang theory may therefore also explain why BDSM-like activities and the book Fifty Shades of Grey are so popular. If someone is being lynched, tied up, humiliated or whipped, the body becomes physically excited. This physical excitement is then attributed in the context of the situation. In the case of Anastasia Steele, well she is definitely misattributing the anger and sexual aggression of Christian Grey as love. In fact, who are we to argue that it isn’t love?

For readers, the shocking nature of the book’s sexual practices and the context of romance and love all allow physiological arousal to be attributed to romance. If Freud’s sexual and aggressive drives are integrated with the James-Lange theory you have very strong forces that almost compel individuals to enjoy and/ or imagine enjoying the activities mentioned in Fifty Shades of Grey. With the added mirror neuron affect you have a safe way to indulge your curiosity and live the life of either Anastasia Steele, or Christian Grey without batting an eyelid.

The fascination continues

In summary, Fifty Shades of Grey is not about the nature of sex, but rather about human nature.  Psychological theories help us to understand to some extent why individuals are so fascinated by the book, but there are numerous reasons beyond psychology for the book’s popularity. Another question is why the book is so popular with women? Some would argue that women are interested in sex as much as men, but that sexual roles have not allowed women to indulge their sexual needs as men do. With the advent of electronic books, women are now able to enjoy steaming novels without the embarrassment of purchasing the book in a book store. Although this explains the quick distribution of the book, it still doesn’t explain why this book is so popular. Perhaps women are going through their own sexual revolution and find the subject matter curious. Either way, “There's a very fine line between pleasure and pain. They are two sides of the same coin, one not existing without the other.” (James, 2011).


Bonomi, A. E., Nemeth, J. M., Altenburger, L. E., Anderson, M. L., Snyder, A., & Dotto, I.  (2014). Fiction or not? Fifty Shades is associated with health risks in adolescent and young adult females. Journal of Women’s Health, 23, 720-728. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2014.4782

Fisher, S., & Greenberg, R. P. (1996). Freud scientifically reappraised: Testing the theories and therapy. Oxford, England: John Wiley & Sons.

Freud, S. (1962). Three essays on the theory of sexuality (Translated Edition). New York, NY: Basic Books.

James, E. L. (2011). Fifty shades of grey. Amazon.

James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Hamady, J. (2012). Why women love ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-hamady/fifty-shades-of-grey_b_1858010.html

Levenson, R. W., Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1990). Voluntary facial action generates emotion-specific autonomic nervous system activity. Psychophysiology, 27, 363-384.

Monte, C. F. (1995). Beneath the mask: An introduction to theories of personality (5th ed.). Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27, 169 – 192. doi: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144230

Wiseman, R. (2012). Rip it up: The radically new approach to changing your life. London, England: Macmillan Publishers.

Zajonc, R. B., Murphy, S. T. & Ingelhart, M. (1989). Feeling and facial efference:  Implications of the vascular theory of emotion. Psychological Review, 96, 395-416.

By Paul Vorster Photo Credit: The Rocketeer via Compfight cc

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