The best-selling novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” was written by a woman for women. But what if it were written for men? Would the titillating plot be the same?
Probably not, according to some studies of erotic literature, sexual fantasies, and pornographic consumption.
The reason lies in the fundamental differences found between the kinds of material some men and some women consume for pleasure and, ultimately, what they each often prefer to think about in their sexual fantasies.
Here’s how a male-focused “Fifty Shades” might have been different:
Getting down to business
The story revolves around two main characters, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, and their relationship that begins with attraction and quickly snowballs into a love affair. But the affair is an unconventional one, driven by Grey’s obsession with bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism — also known as BDSM.
In the beginning, author Erika Mitchell (who wrote the book under the name E.L. James), takes the time to introduce the characters, establish the sexual attraction and tension between them, and build up readers’ anticipation for the climatic moment of sexual release. But it’s not until Chapter 8 that Steele and Grey start to get hot and heavy in the bedroom.
That would be eight chapters too many if the novel had been written for men.
In a paper that probed differences in male and female sexual fantasies, published back in 1990 in the Journal of Sex Research, the authors wrote:
“The most striking feature of male-oriented pornography is that sex is sheer lust and physical gratification, devoid of encumbering relationships, emotional elaboration, complicated plot lines, flirtation, courtship, and extended foreplay.”
This harkens back to the nature of what men fantasize about, which includes women (or men) who will never reject them and readily consent to sex at any time, according to another paper that reviews the scientific literature on sexual fantasies and was published in 1995 in the Psychological Bulletin. And the advent of the internet has only accelerated the consumption of porn and the pervasiveness of fantasies further.
As a result, the entire beginning of James’s book would be of little interest to a male audience. Grey would never have pursued Steele the way he does in the novel by appearing at her place of work or inviting her to his parents’ home. Instead, the two of them would likely have got right down to business in Grey’s office, when he meets Steele for the first time.
Tell, don’t tease
Getting to the heated parts sooner wouldn’t be the only difference.
Whether it’s images in a magazine, scenes in a movie, or words on a page, pornography for men often evokes images of naked bodies, particularly the genitals. The reason for this can be explained by the fact that male brains react differently to explicit sexual images than female brains, according to a study published in 2004 in Nature Neuroscience.
A team of researchers at Emory University studied neural activity in the brains of 14 men and 14 women as they looked at images of sexual and social interactions for 30 minutes. An emotional center of the brain, called the amygdala, showed notably higher levels of activity in male brains when they saw sexual images than in female’s brains. This can help explain why, in numerous studies including one published late last year, men’s sexual fantasies are more detailed and visual than women’s.
Although James’s bedroom scenes take the fantasy one step farther into the realm of BDSM, the writing itself leaves much to the imagination. For example, during one of the oral sex scenes, the only body parts referred to by name are the mouth, tongue, and throat. And the closest James gets to mentioning genitalia by name is the word “popsicle.“
While “popsicle” does a good job as an analogous term, if James had been a man writing erotica for a male audience, this scene would have likely involved another “p” word. Moreover, it also might have included more visual imagery and explicit mentions of other body parts.
The more the merrier
It’s likely that Steele would not be the only person getting spanked and whipped in a version of “Fifty Shades of Grey” written for men.
In fact, according to a study published last year in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, one of the ten things a sample of 717 men in Canada fantasized about the most was having sex with more than three women at once.
In addition to having sex with multiple partners simultaneously, men also tend to fantasize about different partners more often than women, studies show. So, instead of chasing after Steele the entire time, Grey would have probably been soliciting other women as well as Steele. A BDSM player, of sorts. Who else he might have lured into his “play room” is left to your imagination.
So, while men might wonder why “Fifty Shades of Grey” is such a hit with the ladies, opening the book will probably just satisfy their curiosity — not their fantasies.