50 Shades of Grey and the nature of erotic fiction

With the release of Fifty Shades Freed this month, Roe McDermott explores the complex history of fan fiction and erotic literature, and shows why we shouldn’t dismiss the origins of EL James’ novels.

The third installment of the Fifty Shades Of Grey films is hitting our cinemas this month, which means the inevitable snarky comment will be making the rounds yet again: “Fifty Shades Of Grey started as Twilight fan fiction, you know.” Though true, the intent behind these comments isn’t to inform, it’s to condescend.

What could be less worthy of our time, attention and respect than fan fiction – let alone sexy fan fiction?

What is often overlooked by these self-appointed gatekeepers of “real” culture is that both fan fiction and erotic literature have a history that extend far beyond the scope of EL James’ work. First self-published as an ebook based on the characters in Twilight, but with less vampires (though oddly more biting), today more than 100 million copies of EL James’ novel have sold worldwide, and the book has been translated into 52 languages. Often dismissed as “porn for housewives” or “Mommy porn” (a description which itself holds some contempt for housewives and mothers), Fifty Shades Of Grey explored the world of kink and BDSM – that’s bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism for the uninitiated. It gained notoriety through word of mouth – giggled recommendations shared between women, book clubs that joyfully discussed the trilogy’s exploration of sexuality.

The marketing campaign was clever – the book’s tasteful dark grey covers featured ties, masquerade masks and handcuffs that were ambiguous yet intriguing. Before the trilogy gained notoriety, the covers offered the reader safety. To any nosy onlookers on the bus, you could have been reading a plain old romance novel, or maybe even a spy thriller. Only those in the know understood the imagery’s erotic connotations. This was erotica, in a respectable package. This was sex you could read in public without stigma.

The books did attract justified criticism about EL James’ clunky writing skills; the heteronormative tropes that claim that stalking is romantic and obscene wealth can compensate for any man’s flaws; and more importantly, James’ lack of understanding about BDSM and consent. But the books were a major success, showing that the market for erotic literature for women was a huge, neglected market. Many declared the success “unprecedented” – but was it? Even a cursory glance over the history of erotic literature and fan fiction would indicate otherwise.


Marquis de Sade’s novel Justine was published in 1791: it’s the story of a young maiden, who embarks on a quest for virtue and is repeatedly forced to submit to the men she meets and become a sex slave. Compared to much of de Sade’s writing, the descriptions of orgies and rape are relatively tame, and the novella is written in a much more classical, flowery and accessible style than his later writing. It is an erotic gothic tale made vaguely respectable through its traditional prose – though not respectable enough. The book was passed around amongst women and social circles, making the volume notorious.

Indeed, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the anonymous author due to the obscene content. De Sade was incarcerated for the last 13 years of his life – but his legacy lived on. Thanks to his explicit explorations of sex, deviance and BDSM, the controversial author became infamous: the very word “sadism” is derived from his name.

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – the author of the 1870 novel Venus In Furs – provided us with the term “masochism”. The story recounts how a man becomes so infatuated with a woman, Wanda von Dunajew, that he begs to be her slave. Wanda learns to treat him in increasingly humiliating ways, and both are sexually excited by his degradation. Venus In Furs is notable because, unlike so many popular erotic novels, the man is placed in the position of the submissive.

Later erotic works, such as 1954’s The Story Of O, most of the tamer “bodice-rippers” published by Mills and Boon, and indeed Fifty Shades, usually focus on the sexual – and often emotional – submission of women. This doubtless makes them more palatable to a society that still perpetuates patriarchal ideas of gender, where men must always be sexually, emotionally and financially dominant. Even the sex in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence’s 1928 novel prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, describes the wealthy heroine as becoming “obedient” to her lover during intercourse.

By framing the lead character in Venus In Furs as a man who enjoys being dominated by a woman, Sacher-Masoch not only queered the traditional view of gender relations, but allowed his women readers to enjoy this representation of sexual power and dominance. EXPLORATIONS OF SEX

This queering of sexual norms and subversion of the male gaze that dominates so much sexually-charged literature and cinema is also a prevalent theme of erotic fan fiction, where writers take pop culture characters and then invent erotic scenes. They engage with the material, rewriting it to fulfil their fantasies and express their desires. Erotic fan fiction is also known as “slash” fiction – a reference to the punctuation that separates the two characters involved in the romantic or sexual relationship, for example Holmes/Watson, Spock/McCoy, Harry Potter/Draco Malfoy.

And yes, you read those names right – while the majority of slash fiction writers are straight women, many of the pairings are queer, as amateur authors rewrite seemingly heterosexual characters as lovers. This indicates, surely, that there’s a demand for gay, lesbian and bisexual narratives which is not being fulfilled by mainstream media, and that online spaces allow women to explore their sexually-fluid desires and fantasies in a way that they are not permitted to in their daily lives. Queered erotica also escapes the tropes of mainstream representations of sex and romance, seen throughout pop culture and even pornography; in queered fan fiction, there isn’t a deference to the idea of women simply being jackhammered by men until he climaxes upon her in a degrading manner. In slash fiction there’s a huge emphasis on mutual pleasure, and by featuring two male characters, women writers get to escape into explorations of sex that are free from unequal gender dynamics – a refreshing novelty for many women.

And this is not a new phenomenon. Though Fifty Shades Of Grey is now the most famous example of erotic fan fiction, there were others before it. The first slash fic novel to be published was The Ring Of Soshern by Jennifer Guttridge in 1968. In the novel, Star Trek’s Spock and Kirk find themselves stranded on a remote, deserted planet. Spock goes into the state of “Pon Far”: the violent “on heat” fever that comes to Vulcans, during which they must “have sex or die”. To save Spock’s life, Kirk allows Spock to penetrate him (don’t fall for that one the next time a guy in a fedora trots it out in a bar), and the two then fall in love and “spend all their remaining days on the planet exploiting both the planet and each other’s bodies”.

Since The Ring Of Soshern was published, fan fiction – like so much of our lives – has largely moved online, and new specially curated and dedicated online spaces have enabled women to express their sexuality and fantasies. Fanfiction.net, for example, was founded in 1998, and since then other sites have become almost Amazonian in nature – largely populated by women and standing in defiance of male-run publishing worlds and overwhelmingly heteronormative stories.


Author Sarah Maria Griffin believes that these spaces are empowering. “Not all fan fiction, obviously, is sex-oriented, but by nature all of it is fantasy oriented,” she explains. “The women who write fan fiction are changing the canon: they’re building the narratives they want to see, when they don’t see them. Because of the severe lack of diverse romantic representation on screen, fan fiction is a permissive tool that allows consumers of these texts to build the representation they want to see in the world, to fulfil something and share it with like-minded readers. “There are more words of Harry Potter Loves Draco Malfoy fan fiction written than in all of Rowling’s original series – more Sherlock Holmes and John Watson than Conan Doyle ever wrote. I respect these largely anonymous writers no end. There’s such rebellion there: it’s like saying, here’s the love I want to see in the world, and I’ve conjured it up where the establishment won’t. All of fan fiction comes from admiration, and a sense of belonging to fictional worlds, and the communities around them.”

The community aspect of sexual expression is incredibly important online, as people who are into particular fantasies or kinks find each other. This allows for the possibility of having their unique desires fulfilled. But for many, the value of connecting with like-minded people online is simply having their desires acknowledged, shared and normalised.

Or for some, having a safe space to examine trauma. A notable portion of slash fiction is dedicated to exploring sexual violence, which can seem disturbing to some readers. However, there’s an understandable and empathic reason for this; many writers are exploring the nature of sexual violence, of which many writers are survivors. By re-casting incidents of rape and sexual violence with fictional characters, survivors can explore these topics with the safety net of distance and anonymity, and hopefully find some form of catharsis.

Joanna Lamstein is a fan fiction writer and has an MA in Sexuality Studies from San Francisco State University, where they studied women’s assertion of control over trauma through fan fiction. “Fan fictions are a space where issues of violence and consent are worked through,” Lamstein asserts. “It allows marginalised groups who are subject to violence to explore issues of sexuality and gender.” Lamstein also explains why so many writers use privileged male characters in their depictions of sex, saying that “in more ways than one, slash fan fiction allows women to imagine themselves with the power, agency, and privilege ordinarily afforded to (white) men, without the degradation, assumed gender roles, and heteronormative sexual scripts that dictate how a heterosexual romance is supposed to proceed.”

Lamstein’s work explores what fan fiction reveals about societal issues such as racism, misogyny and violence. Lamstein’s examination of slash fiction featuring sexual violence between male characters highlights several issues, including the prevalence of women writers’ experiences of sexual violence and the lack of support they receive, forcing them to seek out different ways of expressing their experiences and trying to heal.

It also notes that the power held by men in society is fuelled by toxic masculinity: the belief that men can only achieve power through dominance. These beliefs not only fuel violence against women, as men are encouraged to treat women and sex as “conquests”, but it also has a hugely negative impact on men themselves, and our attitudes towards male victims of sexual violence. Men who experience sexual violence are often belittled, if they are believed at all.

Many people still believe that it’s not possible for a man to be sexually assaulted by a woman, believing that men are so libidinous that they literally cannot turn down sexual advances – or they should always be able to fight an attacker off. And when men are sexually assaulted by other men, a sense of shame and stigma can prevent them speaking out. We have seen this narrative play out during the #MeToo movement, as male victims expressed their fears of coming forward with their stories of sexual harassment and violence. Actor Terry Crews expressed how he didn’t feel supported after he was openly groped by a talent agent at a party. “I’ve never felt more emasculated — more objectified,” Crews said. “I was horrified.”

Citing how the Weinstein accusations had encouraged him to come forward, Crews said there’s something people don’t understand about what it means to be a victim of sexual assault.

“When a person of power violates that boundary, you’re a prisoner of war,” Crews explained. “Immediately, you’re in a camp. You’re trying to figure out when is the right time to come out: when a guard turns her head, when they leave a door open… you’re digging tunnels with spoons, you’re trying to find a way out, and you get out. And you finally find freedom. And someone says, ‘Well, it must not be that bad. You should’ve came out sooner’.

“This is the thing a lot of people just don’t understand, and they end up blaming the victim. I have totally said, I will not be shamed... I did nothing wrong. Nothing.”


That women are using male characters in slash fiction to explore sexual violence not only illustrates that women need more support in surviving and expressing themselves after sexual trauma, it also demonstrates the lack of mainstream discourse around and representation of male survivors. And if fan fiction is the one spaces where sexual violence between men is being openly represented and discussed, then the genre is providing us with opportunities to start that conversation. That was the one undeniable power of Fifty Shades Of Grey; whether you loved it or hated it, it got people talking. People who enjoyed it were given an entry point to conversations about pleasure, while criticisms that EL James’ writing romanticises coercion emphasised that healthy sexual relationships must have a basis of enthusiastic consent. To dismiss Fifty Shades of Grey, therefore, because it is erotic fan fiction is to ignore the history of both erotic literature and fan fiction, and the complex ways in which both genres have allowed writers and readers to explore issues of sexuality, gender and representation. “Shades of grey” refers to complexity and ambiguity, to transcending simple explanations and extremes and embracing what is messier, more complicated – and ultimately more revealing. When it comes to the power and value of fan fiction and erotic literature, we should be embracing the grey, not dismissing it.


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