The whole of the first book in E. L. James’s trilogy might be seen as one woman’s struggle against norms of “sexual health.” Anastasia Steele is not under the impression that there is something health giving about being repeatedly flogged for disrespecting a dominant man—or that being someone’s sex slave “encourages a dialogue.” But she does get off on the proximity to dissolution, the flirtation with violence. And so, for many tedious pages I imagine most of us skim, she worries about what is acceptably normal, until she mercifully returns to the playroom. Fifty Shades of Grey breaks none of the taboos listed on those Guidelines for Submission; it merely exists in a space where rules like “no weapons in dark places” become suddenly necessary. That the erotic moment can be cleaved so cleanly from chaos is a fantasy far more absurd than Anastasia Steele’s pursuit by “the richest, most elusive, most enigmatic bachelor in Washington State.” There are, it turns out, women who want to read stories in which protagonists get slapped around, have sex with tigers, and violate the nonvampire dead.
more from Kerry Howley at Bookforum here.