How can you explain the phenomenal success of 50 Shades Of Grey?

The book Fifty Shades of Grey has sold over 100 millions copies worldwide. The movie based on it is poised to break all attendance records, grossing nearly $100 million in its first weekend alone. In case you don’t get out much, the book is the target of a good deal of controversy because it purports to be a love story that involves “kinky sex,” particularly, sadomasochism.

The phenomenal success of this franchise is proving difficult to explain. The subject matter has many people (particularly men) scratching their heads and wondering, “What’s the appeal?”

Part of it, of course, is simple curiosity in bondage and sadomasochistic sexuality(BDSM). That part is simple to explain(link is external): The pain and fear that comes with sadomasochistic sex causes the brain to shunt blood flow away from its executive “decision-making” areas (frontal cortex), which results in an altered state of consciousness in both the giver and the receiver. Like auto erotic asphyxiation or cocaine, experiencing fear and pain can heighten sexual gratification, but at some cost.

But the phenomenal success of Fifty Shades goes far beyond simple curiosity in BDSM. Its appeal comes from the fact that Christian Grey (or more accurately, his creator, E.L. James) knows some very dark secrets about the female psyche. So let’s get inside his head.

What Christian Grey Knows About Women

Grey knows(link is external) something about himself. He knows that he is ruggedly handsome, extraordinarily rich, socially dominant…and damaged. He knows he was ripe for the BDSM lifestyle because his mother was a prostitute whose pimp beat her and Christian. When he was 4 years old, his mother committed suicide; he was alone with her body for four days before they were discovered by police. He knows his sexual appetites were shaped by a former employer who introduced him to the BDSM lifestyle, and taught him to find satisfaction as a Dominant and a Sadist. Better to be the hammer than the nail.

Christian could hire himself out as a Dom/Sadist. But he instinctively knows that would not bring him the satisfaction he needs. After all, the clients pay the Dom to do what he does, and everyone involved knows that the hand that writes the check is more powerful than the one holding the whip.

Christian also knows that he is living in a country where it is illegal to simply kidnap or buy a woman and lock her in his red room of pain. Besides, where is the sport in that? Part of the game is seeing if he can entice a woman into voluntarily consenting to his games.

But how to do that? That’s where his knowledge of the dark side of the feminine psyche comes in handy.

How to Get Your Prey to Say OK.

He knows that his dominant personality, good looks, and wealth make him extremely attractive to women. Even women who purport to prefer androgynous men undergo a significant shift in preference(link is external) during the fertile phase of their menstrual cycles, a shift favoring testosterone– and fertility-linked traits, like dominance and the quintessential square jaw of the he-man. Christian is a man who is used to being a buyer, not a seller, in the mating market.

Ask yourself this question: If you were Christian Grey, which of these women look like a good bet for the game you have in mind?

If you’re as clever as Grey, you know that woman #1 isn’t a good bet. She’s too strong, too confident, and too direct. Even if you got her interested, she would probably demand changes to the contract, most notably, a reciprocity clause that allows her a turn at the whip hand. Nope, she’s out.

Woman #2, on the other hand, looks promising. She’s not too pretty. Uuncertainty, naivety, and vulnerability are written all over her face. Probably never had a truly good-looking guy ever take an interest in her. A quiet, shy girl who probably spent most of her high school and college years holding a book in her hand as she gazed longingly at the pretty popular kids living lives so much more exciting than her own. You know that when she looks at you, this is what she sees:


Now to get past her natural self-preservation instincts.

A good bet is to choose dating venues that are physically thrilling. Such as a helicopter ride. Even better are ones that involve situations that are risky and dangerous(link is external. Dates that take place on rickety bridges are more likely to lead to second dates (and stronger emotional attachment) than those that take place on solid ones.

So she’s thrilled–and a little bit scared. Next, promise monogamy. Everyone is a little bit afraid of losing a love interest to someone better looking, more successful, or more adventurous. And none more so than socially insecure women.

As Tammy Nelson(link is external) writes:

“So, he has some faults and a traumatic past, which is to be expected. It gives Anastasia something to work on. She can use her nurturing and submissive attributes to fix his codependency issues. But the monogamy is what sells the story. If Grey was hot but sleeping around, the reader would hate him. He might still be sexy, he might still turn you on. But you would not want to marry him.”

Mix into this a little bit of emotional blackmail as an unspoken threat: Subtly remind her that she may lose you if she doesn’t comply with your wishes. Most women harbor deep-seated fears of abandonment. Those fears are just under the surface in insecure women with few prospects, making them ridiculously easy to exploit. The thought of losing a god like you is certain to make her more compliant.

And now the final piece of the puzzle: Play the “damaged” card. Shy, innocent women often have good hearts and deep compassion. Those traits coupled with uncertainty of their own worth manifests as a strong desire to prove they are worthy of love by “saving” their damaged men. They want to play the role of the redemptive woman who understands and forgives and heals. The woman who “teaches him what love is.”

In fact, at the 2015 Grammy Awards, domestic abuse survivor attributed her willingness to stay in her abusive relation to her strong compassion for her abuser. Until, that is, she came to realize that she had so lost herself that she came to believe she deserved the abuse he heaped on her.

Next, alternate between terrifying abuse and kindness. Buy her flowers, massage her feet, take her to her favorite restaurant. Offer these things to her with tears running down your face to show how contrite you are over your behavior and how much you cherish and need her.

At this point, the game is pretty much won. You may even be a little amazed at how she willingly participates in her own subjugation. She will refuse to hear any criticism of you from her parents, her friends, or even her therapist. She will shut those people out of her life rather than risk losing you. She is, in psychological parlance, traumatically bonded(link is external) to you.

In the third book of the trilogy, James gives us the happy ending her fans want to believe lies at the end of the story for Anastasia and Christian: Happily married and the proud parents of two children. Anastasia has “saved her man,” and he is now freed from his abusive past, free to love Anastasia the way she deserves to be loved.

Like men who think, with disastrous results, that they can do their own electrical wiring even though they haven’t the training or the license, women frequently believe that they can “rewire” the abusive men in their lives just by “loving them enough.” The reality is that they usually end up in women’s shelters, psychiatrist offices… or the morgue.

Perhaps the clearest thinking on the phenomenon of Fifty Shades comes from blogger Scary Mommy(link is external) in an open letter to teens and twenty somethings:

“Romance is glaringly absent, in fact. As for harmless S&M, please understand that this screenplay’s message is the polar opposite of harmless. In this ‘harmless’ piece of fluff movie, a rich, handsome, experienced man uses his power to seduce and manipulate a young, innocent student into doing a lot of things she is extremely uncomfortable doing.

They are not equals. They are not partners. There is, in fact, no ‘they’ to speak of at all.

Rather, it’s a movie about a narcissistic man’s controlling and violent sexual desires and his sense of entitlement to use and abuse a vulnerable young woman’s body and mind as tools for his own gratification. It’s all about his needs, coupled with the arrogant expectation that she should comply, regardless of her discomfort, to please him.”

The Bottom Line

Fifty Shades is a playbook for manipulating women’s insecurities in order to lure them into abusive relationships. Its immense success among women is a cultural phenomenon that offers us a glimpse into why it is so easy for women to end up in abusive relationships and why it is so hard for women to leave them. Now that you know what constitutes our collective Achilles heel, you will hopefully be wiser in your choices.

To try something truly terrifying but far more rewarding, try the 36 questions to love exercise(link is external). It can cause even strangers to fall intense love with each other or rekindle a relationship that has fallen into doldrums because it lays bare all your inner self to another person is an intensely intimate way.

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.(link is external) More information about me can be found on my homepage(link is external). Follow me on . And on +.

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© Copyright 2015 Denise Cummins, Ph.D., All rights Reserved.
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Dr. Denise Dellarosa Cummins is research psychologist and author. She has held faculty and research positions at Yale University, the University of California, the University of Illinois, and the Center for Adaptive Behavior at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. She is a respected cognitive scientist who has authored numerous scientific articles, and is an elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. She also gives invited talks about her research at universities and popular venues all over the world. In her Psychology Today blog, she writes about what she and other cognitive scientists are discovering about the way people think, solve problems, and make decisions. Her research interests include the evolution and development of higher cognition in artificial and biological systems. Her experimental investigations work focus on Causal Cognition, Social Cognition, and Moral Cognition. The aim of this research is investigating and explaining characteristics of higher cognition that emerge early in development, persist into adulthood, and are prefigured in the cognition of non-human animals.