I promise that I only meant to hate-read Fifty Shades of Grey. To be clear: I left the book in my bathroom and mostly flipped through to the sex scenes. There are nine or ten of them, depending.
Yes, it’s vaguely racist that E.L. James’ only character of color, José, says “dios mio” in all his lines.
Yes, the book unfairly pathologizes kinky people by locating the origins of Christian Grey’s BDSM tastes in his “fifty shades of f***ed up” past. And obviously it kills the mood when Anastasia Steele—an American college senior without an email address, we are asked to believe—uses the author’s native Briticisms like “arse” and “the mind boggles.”
But why should I criticize the unofficial summer read of the Class of 2016? Because it’s ridiculous?
Somehow criticism feels futile, maybe because part of the point of reading Fifty Shades is that you’re not supposed pass judgment. That is the book’s illicit appeal. No one is supposed to think critically about something as trivial as a sex fantasy, right?
Though I do think we can do a lot better than Fifty Shades, I don’t think we can afford not to apply our intellectual curiosity (which brought us to academics and to Bowdoin) to our fantasies and ourselves.
Dating, hooking up, having sex, not having sex, talking animatedly with friends about the relative merits of Fifty Shades: this is the “background” of college life, and it’s full of opportunities to foreground self-discovery.
Even at the Bowdoin of Alfred Kinsey’s day—a monastic, boy-scouts-only affair—young men sought to find themselves in nature, books, and relationships.
What Kinsey did brilliantly was to apply his studies of biodiversity and psychology to human sexuality—and often to his own life (he practiced what he preached).
By interviewing thousands of Americans afraid to speak publicly about themselves and their sex lives for fear they weren’t “normal,” Kinsey emphasized diversity to dispense with the idea of “normal” altogether.
To give a better idea, I’ll quote from his scandalizing, best-selling volumes Human Sexuality in the Human Male and Female:
“The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats... The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concern- ing human sexual behavior, the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex.”
“The only sex act that is unnatural is that which you cannot perform.”
“As long as sex is dealt with in the cur- rent confusion of ignorance and sophistication, denial and indulgence, suppression and stimulation, punishment and exploitation, secrecy and display, it will be associated with a duplicity and indecency that lead neither to intellectual honesty nor human dignity.”
“Normal” seems to me like a chime- rical standard that still haunts us today, even at an abnormal place like Bowdoin. A lot of people are going to talk about campus culture and what it’s like—I don’t mean to dismiss any advice, since I wrote this column as a “your questions answered” sex column last semester— but it changes year to year and it’s all what you make it. Let me guess that as long as you want to, you’re going to belong at Bowdoin—whoever you are and whatever you like.
Cal Pershan is a member of the Class of 2012.