During my undergraduate studies, I worked for a pretty popular bookstore chain (it rhymes with Narnes and Boble), and I learned quickly that there were certain genres that were taboo among consumers and were therefore the most frequently stolen.
The books most commonly found missing were understandably from the self-help, sex and relationships, and the surprisingly large Wiccan section. However, I was surprised to discover the genre that was most shoplifted was the romantic fiction variety.
I assume buyers were often too ashamed or embarrassed to lay that copy of "Cowboy Seduction" on the checkout counter.
Fast forward five years to 2012: I’m on the London tube at rush hour and, rather than observing a variety of current bestsellers, it’s one title in particular that is proudly being held by more than one third of female riders: "50 Shades of Grey."
It's the book that launched the lit-porn phenomenon, and has women throwing away their book slips and proudly discussing bondage with the same nonchalance used when discussing Beyoncé's new bob.
The E.L. James bestseller tells the story of virginal college grad, Anastasia Steele, who enters into a (s)extracurricular BDSM contract with handsome multi-millionaire, Christian Grey.
Wait, what do you mean that's not realistic? Which part? The college grad who's a virgin or the idea of a handsome billionaire? You mean you don't want to picture Warren Buffet with a riding crop? Pshh...
As the book gained popularity there was, unsurprisingly, a great deal of controversy surrounding the relationship between the two main characters; it was the first time BDSM had been discussed, much less accepted, on such a large scale.
Supporters of the novel insisted it was feminist. It concerns a young woman experimenting with her sexuality in a manner that was historically revered as "taboo" by society. On the other hand, critics claimed it was clearly an abusive relationship being masqueraded as true love; a dangerous concept considering the rise in domestic and relationship abuse within the last decade.
However, despite all the criticism surrounding the book, the real question on my mind was, "Why is this popular?" The book was, at best, a mediocre romance novel with bad prose.
There are literally thousands of books that cover the same topic more accurately and with better writing (trust me, I shelved them). So, why did an entire population of women gravitate towards this book?
Was this secretly a male-driven attempt to turn women into submissive sex robots? Was E.L. actually an abbreviation for End Liberation? Ahhh, the humanity of it all!
No, the answer was much simpler, and it's one that dates back to the dawn of man. The answer lies in our predisposed survival instincts. Not what you were expecting? Hear me out.
All mammals, including humans, are designed to adapt for survival. If you've ever watched Animal Planet, you'll recognize a pattern in the mating habits of everything from hippos to lions; the dominant male, the "alpha," is the most desired and mated with by the females.
Why? A dominant male means a successful romp in the mud, and that still holds true today. Just as men are subconsciously influenced by a woman's waist-to-hip ratio and what it says of her fertility, women are attracted to a man who exudes confidence and power, with the assumption that he’ll make a better lover and therefore be more reliable in producing offspring with strong genes.
From Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights" to "Grey," to the newly popular "Crossfire" series by Sylvia Day, dominant males in literature have almost always been the prototype for female fantasy, and it's not hard to understand why.
"In an evolutionary sense, women want manly men’s superior genes," says Steve Gangestad in a study of hormones for the American Psychological Association.
According to the good genes theory, "Masculine features and dominance over other males indicates stronger genetic fitness."
Here's where things get interesting...
In the same study, which focused on the hormonal changes between males and females during periods of female ovulation, it was found that "on average, fertile women were more interested in short-term relationships with men who came across as confident or even cocky on videotape. In comparison, at other points in their cycle, they gravitated toward longer-term relationships with kinder, more conscientious, deferential types -- good father material."
So, just as men want a "lady in the street but a freak in the sheets," women inherently want a beast in the bed and a gent in the ... tent? Eh, it's a work in progress.
But this does give way, at least physiologically, to why women are drawn to male characters who are both domineering and chivalrous.
When we say we want a "good guy," we mean it. We just also want to know that he would be equipped to throw down in a battle ... or better yet, in the bedroom.
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