50 Shades and female sexuality

A UW study shows the popular novel has opened up discussion on women’s sexual practices

50 Shades - Shannon Millar online
Graphic by Shannon Millar

While much of the hype around 50 Shades of Grey has brought attention to the topic of BDSM, a new study has found that the book has opened the door to discussions on female sexuality in a revolutionary way.

The study was conducted by Diana Parry, associate professor of leisure and recreation studies at the University of Waterloo, and Tracy Penny Light, a professor at Thompson Rivers University. The idea for the study came from their own interest in the book — for Parry it was brought to her attention by her sister and for Penny Light by her mother-in-law.

“We embarked on a study in order to ask women about the type of materials they were consuming and how they were consuming and how did it impact upon their sexual desires and sexual practices,” Parry explained.

They interviewed 28 women aged 21 to 54.

“We felt like 50 Shades of Grey sort of ushered in a new era of women’s sexuality and consumption of sexually explicit materials,” said Parry. “Because for many women this was their first exposure to this type of material and they realized they liked it and they wanted to consume more of it.”

She said this combined with timing are what continued the success of the series.

Technology had a large role to play in this, as it allowed women to read the books without shame on their e-readers. They were  able to turn to online forums to discuss the book and discover other sexually explicit material.

“Pornography in particular has a history of being produced almost solely for the consumption of heterosexual men, often at the objectification and marginalization of women,” said Parry. “But this new genre of material is really focused on women’s sexual desires and for many women, that’s creating a new healthy sexuality that we haven’t seen before.”

Parry did admit that some of the content and themes in 50 Shades of Grey are problematic.

“The book reproduces a very traditional narrative that is very patriarchal and very heteronormative. For some women that can be problematic.”

However she said their focus is that despite this the book’s “liberatory perspectives” has been the impetus for women to consumer material like it and think about their sexual desires and practices.

While they are currently working on analyzing the data from the interviews, Parry said the overall data analysis will be an ongoing process.

“We’re analyzing a lot of the data right now and then we’re hoping to do some follow-up focus groups with participants around our findings.”

They will also be running a workshop at the Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto.

Parry said that through the study she is hoping they will be able to open up a dialogue for women about their sexuality.

“Recognizing that everybody is entitled to tap into their own sexual desires and think about their own sexual practices,” she continued. “And so what we’re hoping to do is bring that to the forefront for women.”

Part of this is helping women realize they shouldn’t be ashamed of their sexual desires and help them realize they aren’t alone.

“Sexual desire is an important component of women’s health and it is good to talk about it and it is good to think about your sexual desires and practices,” Parry said.

In addition to this, she said it’s important for women to think about how this sexually explicit material is being consumed.

“It’s important that people think about the constraining aspects of it and are aware of the history of the genre and think about how we can critically consume material so it has a positive impact on people’s health and doesn’t reproduce some of the negative, harmful stereotypes associated with it for women.”


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