So I read Fifty Shades of Grey. This is the book written by female British author “E. L. James” that became a huge bestseller, devoured by pretty much every woman on Earth except my wife (or so she claims).
I think I might be the only man who read this book. I did it sneakily, hiding the cover, especially when I was on an airplane, which actually is a good place to read this book because you have access to a barf bag. I say this because of the writing style, which is . . . OK, here’s one tiny sample of the writing style:
“Did you give him our address?”
“No, but stalking is one of his specialties,” I muse matter-of-factly.
Kate’s brow knits further.
That’s right: This is the kind of a book where, instead of saying things, characters muse them, and they are somehow able to muse them matter-of-factly. And these matter-of-fact musings cause other characters’ brows—which of course were already knitted—to knit still further. The book is over five hundred pages long and the whole thing is written like that. If Jane Austen (another bestselling female British author) came back to life and read this book, she would kill herself.
So why did I read it? I read it because, as a man with decades of experience in the field of not knowing what the hell women are thinking, I was hoping this book would give me some answers. Because a lot of women LOVED this book. And they didn’t just read it; they responded to it by developing erotic feelings—feelings so powerful that in some cases they wanted to have sex with their own husbands.
I know that sounds like crazy talk, but I have firsthand confirmation of this phenomenon from my friend Ron, who is married to my wife’s cousin Sonia, a woman. Ron states: “While Sonia was reading the book, I was getting more action than Wilt Chamberlain.”
Another friend of mine whose name I will keep confidential out of respect for his privacy told me, “I’d be lying on the bed watching SportsCenter, and she’d be reading that book and suddenly, WHOA.”
So what kind of book is Fifty Shades of Grey? I would describe it, literary genre–wise, as “a porno book.” But it’s not the kind of porno men are accustomed to. When a man reads porno, he does not want to get bogged down in a bunch of unimportant details about the characters, such as who they are or what they think. A man wants to get right to the porno:
Bart Pronghammer walked into the hotel room and knitted his brow at the sight of a naked woman with breasts like regulation volleyballs.
“Let’s have sex,” she mused matter-of-factly.
A few paragraphs later they’re all done, and the male reader, having invested maybe ninety seconds of his time, can put the book down and go back to watching SportsCenter.
Apparently that is not what women want, porno-wise. What women want, to judge from Fifty Shades of Grey, is not just people doing It. Many pages go by in this book without any of It getting done, although there is a great deal of thinking and talking about It. The thoughts are provided by the narrator and main character, Anastasia Steele, who is a twenty-one-year-old American woman as well as such a clueless, self-absorbed ninny that you, the reader, find yourself wishing that you still smoked so you would have a cigarette lighter handy and thus could set fire to certain pages, especially the ones where Anastasia is telling you about her “inner goddess.” This is a hyperactive imaginary being—I keep picturing Tinker Bell—who reacts in a variety of ways to the many dramatic developments in Anastasia’s life, as we see in these actual quotes:
“My inner goddess is swaying and writhing to some primal carnal rhythm.”
“My very small inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba.”
“My inner goddess is doing the Dance of Seven Veils.”
“My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves.”
“My inner goddess has stopped dancing and is staring, too, mouth open and drooling slightly.”
“My inner goddess jumps up and down, with cheerleading pom-poms, shouting ‘Yes’ at me.”
“My inner goddess is doing backflips in a routine worthy of a Russian Olympic gymnast.”
“My inner goddess pole-vaults over the fifteen-foot bar.”
“My inner goddess fist-pumps the air above her chaise longue.”
That’s right: Her inner goddess, in addition to dancing, cheerleading, pole vaulting, etc., apparently keeps furniture inside Anastasia’s head. Unfortunately, this means there is little room left for Anastasia’s brain, which, to judge from her thought process, is about the size of a walnut. On the other hand, Anastasia is physically very attractive, although she never seems to figure this out despite the fact that all the other characters keep telling her, over and over, how darned attractive she is.
Fifty Shades of Grey: TIME's Exclusive Portraits of the Cast and Director
Malerie Marder for TIME
As the book begins, Anastasia has somehow managed to complete four years of college, during which time she has had—despite being so physically attractive—no romantic involvement of any kind with anybody. In fact, she’s still a virgin. Also, she does not own a computer nor does she know how to operate one. She has no e-mail account, and seems to be only dimly aware of how the Internet works. At one point she says, quote: “Holy cow! I’m on Google!”
That’s right, Anastasia uses the expression “Holy Cow!” Also, when she gets upset (which is often) she says: “Crap!” When she gets really upset, she says: “Double crap!”
In short, Anastasia is a totally believable and realistic depiction of a normal twenty-one-year-old female American college student as she might be imagined by a middle-aged female British author who has lived her entire life in a cave on another planet.
So anyway, early in the book Anastasia meets the main male character, Christian Grey. He is average-looking.
Hah! I am of course joking. He is the handsomest man in the history of men. Lest we forget this crucial fact, Anastasia remarks on Christian’s handsomeness at least once every two pages. Her inner goddess repeatedly s—s her tiny imaginary leotard over the hotness of this man.
To add to the stark realism of his character, Christian is also, at age twenty-seven, a self-made billionaire. He started a company called, realistically, Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc., which employs thousands of people engaged in the field of doing some kind of vague business things in accordance with businessy-sounding orders given by Christian over his mobile phone as he stands around in various stylish settings with his worn but stylish jeans hanging loosely off his hips looking unbelievably hot. Christian also is an expert dancer, piano player and glider pilot. Plus he has the ability to read minds and move so fast you can’t even see him.
No, sorry, that’s Edward from Twilight.
So anyway, Anastasia and Christian meet, and he is of course attracted to her, although because of her walnut brain she can’t believe this despite the fact that, as I have already noted, every freaking person she meets is attracted to her. Christian starts stalking her and pressuring her to engage in—and I do not mean this to sound in any way judgmental—sicko pervert sex. He wants to tie her up with ropes, handcuffs, shackles, tape, etc. He wants to blindfold and gag her. He wants to spank her, whip her, flog her, cane her, paddle her, put nipple and genital clamps on her, bite her and use hot wax on her. We know this because he asks her to sign a contract agreeing to let him do these things to her. Yes! To be fair, the contract clearly states that there will be “no acts involving fire play . . . urination or defecation and the products thereof” and “no acts involving children or animals.” Because that’s the kind of old-fashioned cornball romantic Christian is.
What do you think Anastasia does when she sees this contract? Do you think she gets herself a restraining order and an industrial-sized drum of pepper spray, which would be the response of a normal sane woman or reasonably intelligent cocker spaniel? Not our Anastasia! Crap no! She decides to go right ahead and get into a sexual relationship with Christian even though she thinks he is a moody weirdo pervert. (But hot!)
In this relationship, Anastasia keeps trying to get Christian to be a regular huggy-kissy-smoochy boyfriend, but he doesn’t want to do that. In fact, he doesn’t even want her to touch him because he has a Dark Secret in his past. What he wants to do, and keeps trying to get Anastasia to let him do, is tie her up and flog her with various implements, as per the contract. She doesn’t want that, but she keeps seeing Christian anyway because she finds him so darned fascinating, in the sense of hot.
So the plot is: They have sex, she wants to smooch, he wants to flog, there’s a bunch of talking about this, they have sex again, she again wants to smooch, he again wants to flog, there’s a bunch more talking about this, and so on for several hundred word-filled pages.
Finally, Anastasia decides to let Christian flog her, to see what it would be like. So he takes a belt and flogs her on the butt. Then, in the dramatic climax to the story, the moment we have been building up to, Anastasia comes to a shocking, life-changing realization, which nobody could have foreseen in a million years: Getting flogged on the butt hurts. Yes! It’s painful! Anastasia does not like it! Double crap!!
So she breaks up with him.
And then . . .
And then the book is over.
I’m serious. That’s the plot.
There are two more books in this series, titled “Fifty Shades Darker” and “The Third Fifty Shades Book That Was Required to Make It a Trilogy.” I assume these books bring these two lovebirds back together, as well as revealing the Dark Secret in Christian’s past. I don’t know because I haven’t read them, although I fully intend to do so in the future if the only alternative is crucifixion.
But never mind the other two books. The first book was the big one, the one tens of millions of women could not put down. So to get back to my original question, from the standpoint of a guy sincerely trying to understand women: Why was this book so incredibly popular? When so many women get so emotionally involved in a badly written, comically unrealistic porno yarn, what does this tell us? That women are basically insane? Yes.
I mean no! No. Of course it does not tell us that. What it tells us is this: Women are interested in sex.
This may be obvious to women, but, trust me, it is not obvious to men. In fact, it is contrary to everything men are led to believe, dating back to puberty. When a young man goes through puberty, he basically turns into a walking boner. He would happily have sex with any receptive female or room-temperature vegetable. He thinks about having sex all the time, but the only person he knows who wants to have sex with him is himself. He would be very interested in having sex with an actual human female, but he has no earthly idea how to accomplish this. Generally he spends years in this frustrating state before he manages to find a woman willing to have sex with him. Some males become so desperate that they resort to paying for sex, or even running for Congress.
As a result of these experiences, men come to believe—and this belief is reinforced throughout their dating lives as they get shot down more often than the Egyptian Air Force—that women are nowhere near as interested in sex as they are; that women are capable, somehow, of not thinking about sex for entire minutes at a time.
So men exist in a state of perpetual confusion about when, exactly, human females are receptive to the idea of having sex. Men wish that women had some kind of clear signaling mechanism, as is found in other species. Dogs, for example. Years ago I had a female German shepherd puppy named Shawna. For the first few months of her existence, she exhibited no interest whatsoever in having sex with male dogs, and the male dogs in the neighborhood exhibited no particular interest in her.
And then one spring day, BAM, Shawna became a woman. To get the word out, she turned into a 50,000-watt AM hormone transmitter, broadcasting a scent that traveled vast distances at the speed of lust. Horny male dogs were showing up from as far away as New Zealand. The house was surrounded, day and night. You didn’t dare to open the door for fear that a furry canine sex missile would burst past you and commence humping. There were no misunderstandings between the genders; nobody was being subtle. The male dogs were, like, “I gather from the odor you are emitting that you are receptive to having sex with a male!” And Shawna was, like, “That is correct! I very much desire to be mounted from the rear ‘doggie-style’ and I do not care by whom!”
This went on for several tense days. And then, BAM, Shawna was over it. She stopped broadcasting and the males disappeared, and shortly thereafter Shawna was fixed and she never heard from the male dogs again, not even a postcard.
Unfortunately, human sexuality does not work this way, except on Jersey Shore. Human females are less obvious, which means human males must be able to pick up subtle cues, and unfortunately we are terrible at this. So we tend to assume that women just aren’t that interested.
This is why the immense popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey is actually great news for men. It’s a signal from the female gender—not unlike the one broadcast by Shawna—transmitting an exciting and encouraging message to men everywhere: “We are interested in sex! We’re just not interested in sex with you unless you’re a superhot billionaire.”
OK, so this is not a totally positive message for us men. But we can work with it! We can interpret it to mean that women would like their sex lives to be more interesting. Maybe they wish that we would be more obsessive and stalkerish. Maybe they even secretly fantasize about engaging in unconventional, even “kinky,” sexual activities. There is only one way to find out, men: You need to have an honest, “no holds barred” conversation about sex with the special woman in your life. I did this with my wife, and as difficult as this was for me, I’m glad I did because it was very revealing. Here’s the complete transcript:
Me: Hey, do you secretly want me to tie you up and flog you?
My wife: No.
Yes, communication is the key to a successful relationship. That, and not peeing in the shower. That’s pretty much all the advice I have for you men. In a word: Be sensitive. And now, if you’ll excuse me, my inner god needs to turn on the TV and watch huge men knock each other down.
Excerpted from “You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About,” published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA), on March 4.