Since its release in the United States, that initially self-published little trilogy called Fifty Shades of Grey has sold more than 30 million copies. It's dominated the best-seller lists all summer. (Just today came the news that it had been bumped by Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl in e-book sales. Don't worry, Fifty Shades still has an overall lock on things.) But with popularity, and/or hype, comes plenty of reaction, including our own here at The Atlantic Wire. Along with all the opinions, there have been numerous books with similar themes, similar covers, similar plots. There have been purposeful parodies and the cases of mistaken identity, books that have gotten a sales pick-me-up based on Shades without ever meaning to. There have been a spate of articles attempting to codify what this all means for women. Now, there's the true-life memoir, Diary of a Submissive, out today from Penguin, by the pseudonymou Sophie Morgan. The book is being called "the 'real' Fifty Shades of Grey": "a memoir that offers the real story of what it means to be a submissive, following Sophie's story as she progresses from her early erotic experiences through to experimenting with her newfound, awakened sexuality." It's certainly not the only true-life tale of BDSM, but it's a comparison the rare publisher could resist given the market. After all, Random House has reportedly seen a 20 percent increase in revenue with the trilogy.
But what does it mean to have written the "real" Fifty Shades? We spoke to Sophie Morgan, about the inevitable Fifty Shades comparisons and criticisms, and what she hopes to accomplish with Diary of a Submissive.
Jen Doll: You've read Fifty Shades of Grey, of course. What do you think about it?
Sophie Morgan: I think any book that encourages women to be open about their fantasies and experiment sexually should definitely be welcomed. The book itself is pure escapism, as much about the opulent gifts and squillionaire lifestyle as it is about the kinky sex, a Mills and Boon with lots more spanking (yes, Mills and Boon does spanking nowadays too). It's a great thing. The disappointment comes that despite millions of people now knowing about safe words and jiggle balls, is that it hasn't done much to improve how people perceive BDSM sex, and in many ways has cemented a lot of misconceptions.
How does being "a submissive" fit into the overall category of "BDSM"?
Dominance and submission is just one part of BDSM. It encompasses a wider spectrum including bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism as well. Generally for me the terminology is interchangeable, but some people might identify more closely with one aspect or another.
What does Fifty Shades get wrong?
The problem is that the dynamic of the relationship between dominant Christian and submissive Ana, even allowing for the caveats of it being fictional and somewhat based on the Edward/Bella Twilight romance, is nothing like any relationship I've had with a dominant. And while I'm not doing surveys of every kinkster I meet, I'd argue it's very different to most relationships based on this kind of power play. The kind of high-handedness that Christian shows is actually more a sign of a potentially abusive relationship that most women would and should run for the hills to avoid than signs he's her Prince Charming—helipad and penthouse apartment or not.
Bits of it are definitely realistic (although I maintain the sex contract is filler and about as sexy as Sheldon Cooper's Roommate Agreement, despite people disagreeing with me on Twitter about it), and the characters are interesting enough that even at my grumpiest I still wanted to find out what happened to them, but overall I was a bit disappointed. That said, I'm aware I'm in the minority and my view is just one out of millions who did enjoy it. To each their own!
How did you end up writing your book? Why do you think it's valuable to present your story as a memoir?
Initially I started by writing a now defunct blog. It wasn't really for anyone other than me. I wasn't promoting it or looking for people to read it, but I found writing about what I was experiencing sexually after I'd tried new things was fun, and also helped me get to grips with what had just happened. Particularly early on, my mind took a little while to catch up with my body (for example, in the moment I'd be thinking 'why the hell am I letting him do THIS?' even while my body's reactions were showing that I was really into it), and it was something that surprised me a lot, and I found it interesting and cathartic to write about afterwards.
I think my story is interesting as another viewpoint on BDSM, one perhaps more realistic of people who indulge in dominant/submissive [relationships] as part of their lives but aren't in a 24/7 lifestyle type scenario. When I first started reading erotica I read lots of hot things but nothing that really encapsulated my life, where BDSM is part of the whole but not the whole thing, and where my lovelife and relationships fit together around it rather than being utterly consumed by it. I think the realism makes it interesting.
Who are you?
Sophie Morgan is a pseudonym. I'm 33 and a full-time working journalist at a newspaper in England.
What do you want in a relationship?
Ultimately what I want in a relationship is the same as everyone else. I want someone to love me, make me laugh, enjoy doing the same kind of fun things I do, care about a lot of the same things I care about, put up with my foibles, spend my life with. I just also want them to hurt and humiliate me sometimes in consensual, hot ways. And occasionally do the washing up.
Is the book completely true?
The timeline and a few people/experiences have been amalgamated together both to ensure that they're not identifiable and to make the narrative structure of the book flow better—I'm not sure anyone's life could fit the template of a book without a little bit of juggling. But the emotional responses and reactions in the situations are all true and honest. Even the post-break up baking, much to my shame.
What do you think people don't understand about the power dynamic you describe?
There's a few things. I think the main misconception is that somehow submissives (and indeed dominants) are somehow broken. This is most definitely not true—there's no trauma in my childhood, no psychological issues that mean I enjoy what I enjoy sexually. I just do, in the same way I fancy Damian Lewis and people in geeky glasses. Another assumption is that submissives are submissive to everyone—that they're meek, woolly headed doormats. No submissive I've met has ever been like that, the fact is the power we give away is earned, it doesn't go to just anyone. Also, the fact is that even when we submit fundamentally the power of the dynamic remains with us. We can choose whether to stop—whether that's to stop what's happening in a particular sexual scenario, or to stop a relationship we're unhappy with.
In the book you mention that you're a feminist. How, would you say, can a person be a feminist and also a submissive?
Despite what I like to do in bed I consider myself a feminist and find it very depressing that because of my informed sexual choices there are women who'd want to wave "down with this sort of thing" placards in my direction. Don't get me wrong, I understand that what I enjoy is, in a different context which is the key, potentially another woman's worst nightmare. It's not something everyone might indulge in, but should I wish to, within safe, sane and consensual circumstances and in privacy with my trusted partner, I'm very uncomfortable with anyone telling me I can't or I shouldn't. The sexual aspect of my relationship is completely separate from other aspects of it. I am in control of my finances, my reproductive health, my career, my social life and all the other things that feminism has fought for. I genuinely believe it's the fundamental misunderstanding of what BDSM is that contributes a lot to feminists' opposition to Dominant/submissive relationships, and this misunderstanding is perpetuated in epic fashion by Fifty Shades of Grey.
What would you say to accusations that you're trying to capitalize on the popularity of Fifty Shades?
With the explosion of discussion around Fifty Shades of Grey, I can understand why some people might assume that I am jumping on the bandwagon with Diary of a Submissive. What I'd like to point out is that I'm not doing that, so much as running alongside the bandwagon, waving my arms and shouting “let me show you what BDSM is really like, sexually and romantically, and what I get out of it. And no, my boyfriend doesn't have a red room of pain...”