A few weeks ago, I heard the sort of whispered murmurs in my local bookstore that are reserved solely for people who want to buy books that they don't want other people to know they are buying. Furtive glances and giggles echoed back as happy customers walked out the door, peering into the brown paper bags containing such worthwhile literature.
Interest piqued, I asked the clerk what book the women had purchased.
"Oh, 'Fifty Shades of Grey,'" she replied. "You don't know about that?"
I was a bit late to the party, admittedly. The novel came out last year and has since drummed up a tremendous amount of attention. A British author named E.L. James penned it as "Twilight" fanfiction at first, then rewrote it with original characters. It tells the story of a young, inexperienced woman and an older man with a taste for whips and chains. It's like the "Twilight" craze all over again, but with less supernatural creatures and more bondage gear.
I thought I got why everyone wanted to slink out of the store with this book. I spend plenty of time appreciating Japanese and Korean male idols, and I love their sexy photo shoots. "Fifty Shades of Grey" has lots of titillating themes: hot people having hot sex, wish fulfillment, virgin and master. What's not to like?
But I read it. And I just don't get it.
Christian Grey, the novel's central male character, is already a popular heartthrob, despite the fact that fans haven't seen his face outside of their imaginations. And when some hopelessly sexy actor plays him in the film adaption, Grey will skyrocket off the charts as the hottest fictional dude since Edward Cullen.
So why is this guy in so many women's fantasies? And what's the big deal about "Twilight with sex," as "Fifty Shades of Grey" has commonly been called?
Part of the answer lies in fanfiction itself, and the fans that create and consume it.
"I read fanfic mostly for the sense of voyeurism involved, " says Crystal White, professional illustrator and fanfic reader. "I often read fics about characters I'm emotionally invested in. They allow me to observe behaviors and actions that those characters would never normally exhibit within the confines of their original medium. It humanizes these characters, and makes you feel like you know them on a personal level."
White says that the dramatic tone of fanfic is a big part of its appeal.
"A lot of it is written by teen girls locked in their rooms obsessing over whatever character they're writing about, and these fics often tend to be an allegory for their emotional ups and downs. When I'm reading a fic, I'm not looking for classical literature. I'm looking for depression, hate, drugs, sex, abuse, love, death, injury. It's these extremes that stir up an emotional response."
If fanfic is at "Fifty Shades of Grey"'s heart, then sex is at its groin. And it's not just sex, but kinky sex, which makes it all the more taboo. Does this mean we all secretly dream for weirder adventures in the bedroom?
"The 'Fifty Shades of Grey' version of BDSM is sensational and formulaic," says John Patrick Robichaud, who has actively participated in the US & Canadian BDSM scene for close to ten years. "I don't feel like it represents my community. It's an idealized, romanticized depiction of one person who happens to have this be a part of his sexual landscape."
Robichaud says Christian Grey is not attractive because of his role as a dominant, but because of a larger part of the picture.
"Grey is the bad boy that gives you the fix. And this is just a very particular type of bad boy. We're in an age now when you can romanticize even a serial killer like Dexter, and so the options for making someone a valid bad boy character are more open than ever. You just have to keep upping the stakes. The magic is that Anastasia fixes the bad boy. The BDSM is not central - it merely lends the spark that helps to sell the book."
In the end, Robichaud feels that while the book may not accurately depict BDSM, that it may encourage readers to be more creative with their sexuality.
"If reading 'Fifty Shades of Grey' allows someone to connect with a part of themselves for reasons they would normally ignore, for any reason societal or otherwise, that's positive. Read it, recognize it as fiction, connect it with yourself. But then, dig deeper."
Maybe people come for the sex and stay for the fantasy. For me, neither of those things was entertaining enough to make "Fifty Shades of Grey" appealing. One thing's for sure, though: BDSM sure is popular this year. I bet no trend forecast saw that one coming.