Texas Tech University

Researcher: 'Fifty Shades' Less Naughty, More Natural

Heidi Toth

February 10, 2015

Patricia Hawley's research shows submission fantasies are common in both women and men.

Fifty Shades Trilogy
Photo Courtesy: eljamesauthor.com

Where people spend their money is indicative of what they like.

The runaway popularity of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series, with its BDSM elements, and the romance genre in particular, has been taken to indicate that millions of American women have abnormal and rather uncomfortable fantasies about sex. Academics, journalists and comedy writers have all asked, in one form or another, “What is wrong with women?”

Nothing, a Texas Tech University researcher says. The popularity of this genre simply acknowledges that women fantasize about sex, and in their fantasies they like to feel sexy and desired. There's nothing pathological about that, said Patricia Hawley, a professor of educational psychology at Texas Tech.

She doesn't see the fascination with the books as a sign that women secretly want to be beaten with riding crops or feel so guilty for fantasizing about sex that they have to picture themselves almost – but not quite – having it taken from them by an overwhelmingly powerful man.

Rather, Hawley, who researches power relationships, sees the book as a standard romance novel that highlights a common theme in fantasy: the desire to be passionately pursued by a strong, powerful lover who knows what he – or she – wants and will do whatever it takes to get it.

“The fantasy is that first of all you're super, super sexy, because how else can you account for such a powerful alpha male coming after you?” she said. “That's a great fantasy for women, and you know what? It's also a great fantasy for men.”

Ordinary Woman, Extraordinary Man

One purpose of sexual fantasy is to enhance self-esteem, Hawley said. Being an ordinary woman who is not only noticed but chased by this almost unnaturally attractive, wealthy man will make a woman feel good about herself. Romance novelists portray that type of relationship.

EL James
E.L. James, author

Photo Courtesy: eljamesauthor.com

“She's an everyday girl, and she attracted the attention of the alpha alpha male. The average girl is appealing in 'Fifty Shades,' because if it can happen to her, it's not such a ludicrous fantasy for me to think about, an average woman of average age and average appearance.”

Author E.L. James didn't leave this point to chance, Hawley said. She made quite clear the reader knew just how average her protagonist, Anastasia, was by putting her next to beautiful women who had much more to offer. Yet the hero doesn't care.

“What was interesting about 'Fifty Shades' is the author really drove this point home,” she said. “She surrounded Christian Grey with really sexy women that he had no interest in. It was Anastasia. 'What you have you done to me, you're in control.' He portrays it as if the power is all hers – 'you've made me do this, because you are just that hot and seductive and desirable.' That's the fantasy – be hot, seductive and desirable.”

In addition to enhancing self-esteem, this idea gives the perceived submissive partner a significant amount of power, belying the current feminist writings that focus on the belief that women always see sex as an act of subjugation.

Power Research

Hawley studied “Mine to Take” by romance novelist Dara Joy, published in 1998 and chock full of sex, passion, intrigue and barely clad people on the cover.

She and a group of undergraduate students then created ways to measure what about such stories people enjoyed. They created a vignette similar to scenes found in “Mine to Take:” a young woman goes into a room with a strapping man. He grabs her, holds her in a vice-like grip and growls at her to tell him to stop. She finds she doesn't have the voice to tell him to stop, even if she wanted to tell him to stop. Maybe she should, but she doesn't.

Both male and female college students read this vignette, Hawley said, and answered questions about it. Overall, they enjoyed the scene. She wanted to find out what specifically they enjoyed, so she started removing parts of it. First, she removed the sex. People liked it less.

Patricia Hawley
Patricia Hawley

Then she removed the perception of force, taking out “vice-like grip” and other seemingly aggressive words and phrases. The preference stayed the same, indicating readers weren't turned on by the use of force per se.

“If you take the force out and people still like it, the force isn't causing the preference,” she said. “You take the sex out and people don't like it, the sex is making a difference.”

Instead, it appears the appeal lies in the fact that the vignette portrays a very passionate exchange. Masochism had little to do with it.

She also asked the students what elements were present in their sexual fantasies. Both men and women fantasized about being submissive. She found that men actually fantasize about being submissive more than women, which adds to her theory that a heavily pursued lover feels greater self-esteem because of the pursuit, even though, and likely because, they are not the dominant one.

“One of our human motivations is to enhance our power, and to be passionately pursued actually gives the power to the fantasist,” Hawley said. “You're so, so sexy that that person pursues you this way.”

Much has been made about the BDSM elements and how these novels are new and different, but Hawley said those elements contribute only the novelty in the story, much like adding vampires to a romance. The story remains basically the same, she said; only the quirks change.

“You get a formula layered with novelty,” she said. “From my view, it was a formulaic romance novel. That can account for a good deal of its success.”

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