“Fifty Shades of Grey” was certainly no literary masterpiece. It followed a very basic plotline, reused cheesy language, and was a third-grade reading level equivalent. And yet, everyone from your teenage sister to your grandmother confessed to being so hooked, she finished the entire trilogy in record time.
Sure, the sex scenes were pretty satisfying, but they were definitely not enough to stomach lines like, “My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves” and “I feel the color in my cheeks rising again. I must be the color of 'The Communist Manifesto.'" If it’s not the quality of writing and it’s not the novelty of the storyline, then what the f*ck is it about "Fifty Shades" that makes us so cultish-ly obsessed?
We spoke to NYC psychologist and relationship coach Dr. Niloo Dardashti to get the real insight as to why we’re all wetting our pants (literally and figuratively) over a romance novel.
In her book, “Fifty Shades of Women’s Desires: The Allure of Twilight, Fifty Shades, And Other Pop Culture Phenomena” Dr. Dardashti explores what facets of "Fifty Shades" that women are connecting to, fantasizing about and wanting more of in their own lives (which in turn, has made this piece of fiction so popular) and the underlying implications of those desires.
Because it can’t just be because Christian Grey uses tampons as a foreplay, here is the science behind why women are so obsessed with “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
1. We’ve never met a real-life guy who possesses all of Grey’s qualities
Whether you actually like Christian or not, you can’t deny that his combination of thoughtfulness and masculinity sounds wildly attractive. “It’s a combination of things that usually are not there, which makes it so alluring” offers Dr. Dardashti. “You don’t have this guy who is so attune to your feelings, incredibly sensitive but also super masculine.”
There’s a reason romantic books and movies are written about This Guy -- he doesn’t exist in real life.
Men in the movies are based off an almost-impossible mix of qualities, which are also all the characteristics that most women would appreciate in a man, explains Dr. Dardashti.
For instance, especially in the early stages of her relationship with Grey, Anastasia never questions his feelings. He always makes it clear he wants her. He’s not waiting an entire day to respond to a text or plan a date, like we’re so used to.
Reading about this fantasy-man-played-out-in-real-life is engaging, an uncommon occurrence we secretly want to encounter.
2. It revives those feelings we’ve had with our first love
Christian Grey is Anastasia Steele’s first love. We’re right there with her as she goes through all those fun, tingly emotions, and we get to enjoy falling in love for the first time all over again.
Especially for readers who are in long-term relationships or might feel stuck in a routine, "Fifty Shades" was a way to re-live those initial stages of falling in love for the first time.
Even if you are single, you get to experience what it’s like to lose yourself in someone who loves you back.
“It’s the feeling like you can’t get enough of that person,” suggests Dr. Dardashti. And just as you can’t get enough of your partner, you can’t enough of reading about it.
3. The sexual tension between Grey and Steele
We’ll get to the actual sex scenes in two more reasons, but first let’s talk about what comes before that: the foreplay. “For many women, foreplay is the most exciting part of sex,” says Dr. Dardashti, and guess what? There’s no shortage of in "Fifty Shades."
“It’s frustrating, but it keeps you glued in,” she continues. Think about when you first start seeing someone and are totally smitten by them, but you still want to hold off because you like that sexual tension.
The book reads like you’re being seduced into another world. It makes the reader feel sexy, which is especially satisfying for those who might be sexually frustrated in their own lives. Even Anastasia would agree, the build-up is sometimes the best part.
4. We’re chemically fascinated by the topic of love
Seriously, have you checked out the popularity of Elite Daily’s dating articles?
If you’ve fallen in love before, you’ve experienced that strong sense of euphoria involved. If it feels like you are high and need your “fix” (in the form of the other person) that’s because on some neurochemical level, you are.
According to Dr. Dardashti, dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, and oxytocin, a hormone associated with forming attachments, are both released during those euphoria stages of falling in love. “What happens in your brain is affecting your behavior even if you’re not aware of it.”
As Dr. Dardashti suggests, romantic movies and books (and "Fifty Shades" in particular) capitalize on this high and tender feeling by focusing their stories only on the beginnings of relationships when dopamine has got you feeling all head-over-heels.
It sucks you in, especially for vulnerable audiences. “It’s not unlikely that when you are reading this stuff that your dopamine and endorphin pathways become activated,” notes Dr. Dardashti.
It’s important to remember though, that this level of euphoria and intoxication is not sustainable. That’s not what continues to be in a real relationship, although "Fifty Shades" writes it that way to keep administering our fix.
5. It’s Book Porn
There’s a reason we’d rather not picture our moms reading the book: because everyone is turned on by it. Reading this book is not only an escape from our own lives, it’s also a sexual escape much like masturbating or watching porn.
And there are chemical reactions going on here as well. “Why do you think people get horny while they’re reading it?” says Dr. Dardashti, “Clearly something chemical is happening.”
It doesn’t have to be visual to turn you on -- remember what you used to tell slimy boys at the club? -- use your imagination.
“This book is basically porn,” said every girl right before she purchased it.
6. The Hollywood romanticized ideal
Especially for those who tend to blur the lines between films’ fantasy and real-life, Hollywood basically dupes us into buying this delusion of a "perfect relationship" or "ideal man."
They use Anastasia, a very imperfect and, therefore, relatable character, to perpetuate “this traditional idea that we’re looking for this perfect guy, that we are not perfect and not whole until we find him.”
It’s a setup. We start comparing ourselves or our relationship to the characters in the book. Despite it being completely misogynist and unrealistic, we get sucked into a romanticized ideal.
7. It taps into our frustrations of being in control and letting go
“Fifty Shades is alluring to women who are in this place where the feel like they are in control of everything,” explains Dr. Dardashti. “We have to fulfill many roles and there’s still a part of us that like knowing our men can take charge.” A la Christian Grey, perhaps.
The book accesses our paradoxical longings of wanting to be in control and relinquish control.
Especially with the BDSM angle thrown in, there’s a certain freedom in being dominated and surrendering ourselves. The idea and struggle of control is pervasive throughout the novel and makes us reflect on our own lives and desires.
Christian Grey is attuned to Anastasia’s needs, he lets her release control, which is an appealing desire for many women who feel the need to be in charge all the time.