Research shows "50 Shades" is a gateway drug for women and porn

"Magic Mike" trailer hype is just the beginning, too

Published February 12, 2015 4:02PM (EST)

Dakota Johnson in "Fifty Shades of Grey"             (Universal Pictures)
Dakota Johnson in "Fifty Shades of Grey" (Universal Pictures)

Just ahead of the release of the movie "Fifty Shades of Grey," new research has found that the book that inspired it all is a kind of gateway drug for -- dun, dun, dun -- pornography. Somebody go alert the anti-porn organization National Center on Sexual Exploitation, formerly known as Morality in Media, which is already campaigning against the book and movie! This finding comes courtesy of Diana Parry, an associate professor of Recreation and Leisure Studies (yes, that is a thing) at the University of Waterloo (yes, that is a thing too, in Canada). After qualitative research into women's experiences with "Fifty Shades" and sexually explicit material online, she's concluded that the book has turned women onto porn in a big way.

Now, keep in mind that she defines porn in the broadest possible terms, so it's not necessarily that "Fifty Shades" is singlehandedly driving PornHub traffic. What we're really talking about here is how this crazy cultural phenomenon of a book has driven women to seek out sexually explicit content of all sorts -- but especially sexually explicit content that is targeted to them, as opposed to men. Parry also has a compelling argument for why we should try to erase the dichotomy between erotica and porn in the first place. I gave her a call to talk about why the book has driven women to look for sexy stuff online, the explosion of feminist porn and how the "Fifty Shades" movie is "busting the myth" that women only like erotica.

Tell me about how this research got started.

It started with research that we did looking at the book "Fifty Shades of Grey." My collaborator, Tracy Penny Light, and I had heard about all of these women reading this book -- my sister called me up and said, "Have you read this book? You've gotta read this book!" I felt conflicted, we both felt conflicted, about reading the book, because, as feminist scholars, we weren't sure if we would be able to engage in and enjoy the book without critiquing it. On the one hand, we saw the liberatory nature of this book -- it got women thinking about their sexuality, it got women talking about their sexuality, it got women engaged in conversations around sexual practices that were based on their own desires -- and yet the scripts that were in the book were so patriarchal and could potentially be harmful to women's understandings of their sexuality. So, we published a paper that unpacked the book and looked at it from a liberatory perspective and also a constraining perspective. I like that -- I don't think the book is good, I don't think the book is bad, I think it's complex.

One of the things that jumped out at us from that research was that so many of the women [we interviewed] were hopping in for the first time to pornography or sexually explicit material that was written by women for women. It got women moving from the book into consuming other types of books, but also sexually explicit material that's online. So we embarked on [this latest] study where we interviewed 28 women who ranged in age from their twenties to their fifties around their pornography consumption patterns.

What is the connection between reading "Fifty Shades" and then seeking out online pornography?

I find it's motivating women. It is exposing them to a genre of material that they either didn't know existed or they didn't know that they liked -- but they're reading the book and then they're curious. They want to know more. They want to see what else is out there, so they're going online to find that material. It's really motivating women to look for sexually explicit material online.

Are we talking about erotica? Are we talking about visual X-rated material?

There's a tension there between what is erotica and what is pornography. There's gonna be different boundaries drawn around that term depending on who you talk to. What we've decided to do is sidestep and label it as sexually explicit material. The book would fall into that and then material online would also fall into that.

What about specifically X-rated videos, what did you find in terms of the relationship between the book and seeking that stuff out in particular?

We're still analyzing that data, so I need look into what women are actually conceptualizing as X-rated material. That's an interesting analysis onto itself. But we did find women are going online and looking at all sorts of material. They're looking at things like the Good For Her website, which we worked with to recruit a number of our participants, they're also going to PornHub, some of them are going to sites that they learned of through male heterosexual partners. But women are going online to consume sexually explicit material, whether or not it's X-rated I think is open to interpretation, by the women, by me, by you. That's why we sidestep that.

That's interesting. I guess in my question, I was basically saying, "What about actual porn?" That thinking is such a product of our culture, just in terms of viewing what has traditionally been male sexual entertainment as the real stuff, you know?

Yeah, although I think one thing that's come out of this is that women are now producing and consuming and discussing porn with their own sexual interests in mind. For example, in April there is the Feminist Porn Awards, and that's for pornography made through a feminist lens. It's no longer solely about heterosexual male desire and that's one of the interesting components of this, it's women taking their own sexuality into their own hands. While they may be consuming things that were initially produced for a heterosexual male audience they're also consuming feminist porn.

The common wisdom is that women prefer written explicit material over X-rated visuals -- is that true from what you’ve found?

Women like both. Some women seek out the literary stuff, but they are also going online and seeking out visual pornography. I think that is part of the draw of the movie. Women are actually going to the movie and it's a sexually explicit movie. So, I think that's one of the ways the "Fifty Shades of Grey" movie is sort of busting the myth that women only like literary porn. A lot of women do like visual porn too.

Do women look for different things from erotica as opposed to porn?

I think that gets back into the erotica-X-rated binary. Part of what we're trying to do is trouble that binary. What we've learned from the "Fifty Shades of Grey" study that we did is that not all women want to call that book pornography, not all women want to call it erotica. So what we're trying to do is initiate a conversation around women desires and frame it as sexually explicit material because we don't want people necessarily focus on is it porn or is it erotica? In some ways that serves to reproduce some of the shame of consuming it. They feel okay maybe consuming it if it's labeled erotica, but not if it's labeled pornography.

There’s a lot of speculation about whether the “Fifty Shades” movie will be a date movie or a girls’ night flick. Any thoughts on that?

It's interesting in the way the book has been framed as pornography written by women for women but the movie is being released on Valentine's Day which is a traditional day around heterosexual romance. I think there's a real tension there.

It seems we’re in a unique time in terms of pop culture targeting female sexual desires -- I’m thinking not just of “Fifty Shades” but also TV shows like “Outlander” and then of course there was the recent trailer for the “Magic Mike” sequel, which set the entire Internet aflame. Is that true?

Yeah, I think what makes it interesting for me is the way that women's sexuality is being acknowledged, not necessarily through a male partner but her own sexuality, women taking their own sexuality into their own hands. It's an interesting moment to look at women's sexuality as represented in mass media or pop culture or films like "Fifty Shades of Grey" or various TV shows. But I think we need a cautionary note around it, because while they open up opportunities and provide women with unprecedented access to new genres or ways of thinking about their sexuality, at the same time, many of the scripts that are reproduced are really patriarchal scripts around women's sexuality. So, again, we want to look at the complexity that underlies women's consumption of sexually explicit material. It's not all good, it's not all bad.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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