Fifty Shades of Justice: When S&M erotica fails the reality test

CBS News Sunday Morning

Some CBS News Sunday Morning viewers were horrified, others amused by grandmotherly soft-core “provocative romance” writer Desiree Holt’s recent segment on the highbrow show. What’s love got to do with this? Everything, according to Holt. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


No did mean no- as it always should – but that did not prevent a “Fifty Shades of Grey” sexual assault case from being kicked out of an Alabama courtroom in January. In a sleepy little town not far from the shores of Mobile Bay, a district court judge dismissed the case after finding the prosecution had not met burden-of-proof guidelines.

The stoic, relieved young man and tearful, perplexed young woman who left the courtroom that day were not in a committed relationship. But the text buddies had exchanged hundreds of messages back and forth prior to a day-long date that ended in a beer-fueled encounter in the back of a car on a dark back street down by the bay. Many of the reportedly explicit text messages leading to the claim of forcible sodomy were related to the best-selling E.L. James trilogy so coyly described as “provocative romance.”

Here’s my cue to jump on the Fifty Shades of Grey-Bashing Bandwagon. Not going to do that. Different strokes for different folks. It wasn’t what I expected. Thinking the color “gray,” I’d assumed the books lingered on every raw, juicy detail of a racy May-December romance. In my head I was also mistakenly referencing the well-respected crime writer P.D. James. She’s no relation to E.L. James; the two had a cordial meeting at a U.K. ceremony ( ).

I’m one of the few who didn’t know that the Fifty Shades novels explore the world of BDSM: bondage, dominance and sadomasochism. The main female character is a young virgin learning the ropes – literally – under the tutelage of an older man.

I couldn’t be more turned off by this scenario. I think it’s amazing that middle-aged women make up a big sector of the market for this type of erotica. Aside from a broken-hearted friend who cannot seem to stop monitoring the activities of his batty, slutty ex-wife on collar-dot-com, no acquaintances of my generation appear to be even remotely interested in this scene (or they’re hiding it well).

In the Alabama case, the young woman reportedly wanted to play Anastasia. Court testimony indicates that she told the accused that she wanted to be “taken over the edge, past her breaking point.”

On the day of the alleged assault she’d texted “no sex,” because her period had arrived, but reportedly said that they could “mess around.” This activity progressed to tying her arms behind her back. They used a coat to pad the rope.

They should have read “Fifty Shades” in more detail: they didn’t pick a safe word. A safe word is code for “no more.” It means “stop.”

Without a safe word the young woman, allegedly a self-confessed “screamer” had no way out when the going got unbearable. She was throwing up out of her nose and sobbing hysterically. A witness for the defense said that the young man admitted in a police interview that there were a couple of times during the encounter when he wondered if they were “going too far.” The prosecutor argued that “no means no.”

The husky, goateed young man, somberly clad in a navy dress shirt and black dress trousers for his court appearance, let his lawyer do the talking. The evidence simply wasn’t enough to satisfy the burden of proof, he argued. The judge agreed.

The case was dismissed. Legitimate questions remain, such as those raised in a Forbes blog “Is Fifty Shades of Grey Dangerous?” (

To the best of my recollection I don’t recall any acts of sodomy in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I won’t be reading “Fifty Shades Freed” or “Fifty Shades Darker” to find out if or where that element, er, comes in. But I will continue to refer to the author’s uncluttered, elegant, inviting website with its easily navigated layout that gives the reader permission to enter Peter and Anastasia’s world (

The marketing is brilliant, especially the music collections available for purchase: One album for each volume of trilogy, featuring everything from classic rock to classical hits. James listens to music – often one tune over and over – to help her set a particular scene or mood. The website also features lists of wine-and-food pairings that pay homage to Peter and Anastasia’s fine dining preferences.

Such refinement is a far cry from the “mommy porn” segment aired on the March 24, 2013 broadcast of CBS Sunday Morning. Bill Geist profiled 76-year-old grandma Desiree Holt, who is grinding out “provocative romance” novels by the dozens, aided by a Barbie, Ken and another action figure (possibly Skipper) that she uses to choreograph the mechanics of her sex scenes. She credits E-books as well as Fifty Shades for the spike in explicit-romance popularity: Nobody knows what the discreet lady is reading on her Kindle; there’s no bodice-ripping cover revealing her secret penchant for steamy love-making.

Holt, James and a host of other authors in this growing market (70 million Shades readers and counting) say their books are about love.

Such lofty sentiment cannot withstand the harsh light of a cold winter day in Alabama as a court recorder purses her lips, witnesses blush, onlookers blanch and the judge stares at his hands while the ugly machinations of a real-life Fifty Shades encounter is recounted.

Those inspired by the randy, naughty antics of Peter and Anastasia would do well to remember that spanking hurts and “underwear doesn’t rip off that easy,” as a submissive young woman noted in the E TV Network Special “The Real Fifty Shades of Grey.” Lisa Ling of the OWN TV Network show “Our America” has also profiled non-fiction aspects of the BDSM lifestyle (

It’s natural for fledgling authors to fear that what they portray will be misinterpreted as reality, revealing or misconstruing the truth about their own lives. If nothing else, E.L. James inspires us to relinquish that fear: “Sometimes I devised my own experiments,” she writes. I wonder if she used Desiree’s doll technique. Perhaps more research secrets will be revealed when James shares her writing tips in “The Fifty Shades of Grey Inner Goddess: A Journal.”

All novelists strive to bring readers into the world of our characters. In doing so, we create a blueprint for real-life acting out. There is a disclaimer in the nautical world that applies: Not to Be Used for Navigation. Add to this: Always Use A Safe Word.

James is not to blame for “Fifty Shades of Grey” encounters gone wrong any more than those copy-cat “Twilight” biters can claim that what’s good for the bloodsuckers is good for the sport f***ers.

Just because it’s in a novel doesn’t mean it’s advisable or enjoyable. Especially because it’s in a novel. As with so many things, the imagined may actually be a whole lot better than the reality.

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