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Sex and the Law

Mommy Porn & Social Media: Erotic and Mainstream Meet in the Middle

Christian Grey. If you haven’t heard that name uttered dozens times over the last year, it’s safe to say that you may have been living under a rock. While certainly not a literary prose masterpiece, the Fifty Shades trilogy hasn’t done too bad for itself, reaching a sales record of over 31 million copies worldwide just a few days shy of its thirteen month publication anniversary. Evidently tired of their typical lackluster fiction, women across the globe embraced literary erotica in a way never before seen. Sophisticated marketing campaign? Nope. Just your average suburban housewife word of mouth and young professional girly gab session via Facebook. Quite possibly the first truly erotic novel since the advent of the “Oprah Book Club” group dynamic – promotion simply fueled by women talking to other women – has generated a massive demographic of female readership that just keeps growing. So a mediocre piece of fan-fiction centering on the BDSM escapades of an older, emotionally unavailable, brooding alpha male and his younger, innocent, eager-to-love and be-loved companion, is redefining the landscape of mainstream literature as we know it?

Well, don’t get Gloria Steinem on speed dial just yet. The appeal of Fifty Shades has been the subject of many debates over the last year – why are women across the globe scrambling for this book to the point that retailers can’t even keep it on the shelves? For those that viewed the book as more than just another piece of dark chick lit to pacify rainy day boredom, Fifty Shades proved that it could live up to all the sexual liberation hype by simply being available to its target demographic. Whether it triggered long-suppressed bondage fantasies or simply offered an uninhibited escape from the mundane, the book provided a [albeit hazy] glimpse into a fetishist counterculture that was barely even acknowledged in mainstream society, let alone openly discussed during public discourse. This mysterious and clandestine faction of the adult entertainment world collided with the civilian world, and surprisingly, everyone survived.

That being said, what about the classic “porn is taboo” default – a mentality that is supposedly true when it comes to the average female? Is a passage detailing the physical, mental and emotional landmines of a sub-dom relationship between a naïve college student and an emotionally troubled masochist with the help of whips, chains and riding crops from his “playroom,” less oppressive than Debbie Does Dallas? Despite the fact that many schools of feminist thought are rooted in the notion that pornographic materials are damaging to women’s civil rights, feminist-minded activists and writers around the world are praising Fifty Shades as a carnal awakening ”encouraging women to explore their sexuality.” Regardless of the reasoning behind it, generally speaking, certain demographics of females tend to be more receptive to literary erotica as opposed to its visual counterpart. This preference often remains true regardless of the particular content presented in the respective materials.

Notably, there have been contemporary instances where allegations of obscene literature have made their way through the legal system and caused substantial commotion throughout the adult industry during the process. In 1973, the US Supreme Court, in Kaplan v. California, determined that visual images were not necessary to label a work obscene. Even more recently, in 2006 during what became known as the “Red Rose Case,” US Attorneys in the Western District of PA charged an author (and former client) with six counts of distributing obscenity stemming from fictional erotica that she published on her website. US v. Fletcher.  This begs the question: in light of the widespread acceptance of Fifty Shades, has text finally become immunized from obscenity charges, or at the very least, less susceptible to prosecution compared to the past? Even if future prosecutors refuse to acknowledge the shift in public perception, there is no doubt that the book’s notoriety and widespread acceptance by the public, will impact juries and community standards arguments for years to come. Lawyers can, and will, predictably reference Fifty Shades of Grey in closing arguments in obscenity cases for years to come.

The Fifty Shades collection is the fastest and bestselling literature series in Kindle history – therefore, it’s no surprise that Fifty Shades of Grey was the first book to sell more than one million Kindle copies. Many have attributed this symbiotic relationship to the fact that Kindles, like other e-readers, afford the reader a level of privacy regarding her current read that was previously nonexistent. In book form, erotic covers were a dead giveaway. With digital manuscripts comprising over 90% of Fifty Shades sales, the marketplace – at least that of female-centric soft core S&M literature – was noticeably receptive to the more covert viewing alternative provided by e-readers. By allowing women to explore literary genres that they traditionally spurned for fear of public exposure of less-than-pure reading habits, e-reading technology is clearly helping to bridge the gap between erotica and mainstream literature. Just as Sasha Grey (who, coincidentally, may play the story’s “Anastasia Steel” in the upcoming film) made the virtually unprecedented leap from porn to mainstream, the Fifty Shades series represents a quantum leap in the mainstreaming of porn.

Surprisingly, just as technology is aiding in advancing porn to the mainstream, it also has a hand in the budding relationship between porn stars and the public. Recent studies show that social media is helping bridge the gap between mainstream society and the adult entertainment industry. Porn stars have taken to social media sites to enable direct communication with civilians in hopes of promoting themselves and developing their respective brands. Allowing the public to engage in this type of personal interaction discourages the typical porn star stereotypes as it allows the stars to be more approachable to their fan base. Given that the very core of the adult industry is rooted in fantasy, performers are finding that allowing the public a glimpse into their private lives facilitates a sense of reality to the relationship. By cultivating that “real” relationship, the entertainers eventually hope to make porn more mainstream, and therefore, more ”socially accepted.”

Never before has the author been able to conclude a post with as strange a statement as this: the average woman is using personal technology to access BDSM erotica hoping to broaden her sexual horizons and bring out her inner kink goddess, while the average porn star is using conventional social media hoping to make herself and her profession appear as mundane as possible. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, it is undeniable that technology is allowing, if not actually compelling, the normalization of pornography in mainstream culture – and based on the public’s reception of such activities, the ultimate goal of societal acceptance may not be as unattainable as once thought.