April 3, 2012— -- Rachel, a 39-year-old mother and lawyer from New Jersey, specializes in medical malpractice and often asks "intimate" questions in obstetrical cases, but scenes from the new erotic trilogy, "50 Shades of Grey," shocked even her.
"I am not a prude and I am not shy," she said. "But this [book] made me blush."
The romance novels of EL James are heating up bedrooms across the country, and fans can't seem to get enough of what is being called "mommy porn."
Anastasia Steele, 21, and a virginal college student, can't say no to dashing 27-year-old Christian Grey, who insists she sign a contract that allows him to submit her to his every sadomasochistic whim.
In their first sexual encounter, Grey unveils his silver tie and binds her wrists in knots, and Steele does as she is told.
He is also fabulously rich, a telecommunications tycoon, and uses his wealth to take care of her like a pampered princess.
"Ana," as he calls her, willingly and excitedly agrees to spanking, whipping and gagging, with props like ice, rope, tape -- a repertoire right out of a BDSM [bondage, discipline, dominance and submission] manual.
Grey instructs her to call him, "sir," and sets rules on everything from her diet to her most intimate grooming routines.
"I loved the book -- all three," said Rachel, who has been married to her husband since she was 19 and has a healthy sex life. "But this is pretty hard-core porn."
"The first book is very, very graphic and harsh with a lot of S & M – and quite frankly, did not do it for me," she said. "I would never try anything with pain."
But, she got hooked on the romance that develops in the second book, when Steele tries to change Grey. "What I loved was that it was a great love story."
The heart of the romance is the notion of submission and the way in which Steele accommodates Grey to "make him love her," according to Rachel.
"She sees being submissive as a necessity to save him," she said. "He was broken. That was more of the appeal. And the sex was a bonus."
British mom and former TV producer James initially wanted to replicate the success of the "Twilight" fan fiction series. The novels were published by a small independent Australian press and hard copy distribution was limited. So 90 percent of sales were discreet ebook downloads, according to the New York Times, which saw it rise to number one on its ebook fiction bestseller list in March.
Vintage Books just bought the rights to all three novels and Universal and Focus Features plan to do a film.
Its success raises the question how sexual submission, especially when pain is involved, could be such a turn-on for many young well-educated suburban women who are empowered economically and enlightened sexually.
Most agree it's a cheese-ball narrative whose heroine is incapable of using adult language. She refers to her genitals euphemistically as "my sex."
"Our customers are very smart and they say it's badly written, but they are in the middle of book three," laughed Margot Sage EL, co-owner of the Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, N.J., which carries the trilogy. "None of us at the bookstore have been able to read it. The print on-demand version comes in and goes out right away."
"One woman couldn't believe her friend was so gushing about it," she said. "She was horrified by the domination."
"But when you're a young mom and everyone depends on you for everything -- your husband your mother -- the idea of having someone take care of you and telling you what to do, even in twisted sense, it rocks their boat."
The dialogue is, indeed, corny.
"Every time you move tomorrow, I want you to be reminded that I've been here. Only me. You are mine," Grey tells Steele after he takes her virginity.
After her first spanking, the "dom" congratulates his "sub:" "Well done, baby." She coos to the reader: "His words curl around me like a soft fluffy towel from the Heathman Hotel, and I'm so pleased he's happy."
50 Shades of Grey Has Post-Feminist Appeal
But how does a cross between the "Story of O" and a Harlequin romance sit with a generation of post-feminists who are in full charge of their careers and are unabashedly straightforward about their sexual needs?
After taking charge in the workplace and bossing the children around at home, women can be turned on by surrendering that control.
Bruni notes the trend is also seen in the new HBO series "Girls" -- a modern "Sex and the City," whose main character matter-of-factly enjoys submissive sex games.
Bold and aggressive Samantha Jones, she is not.
And Bruni asks, "Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this? Salaries may be better than in decades past and the cabinet and Congress less choked with testosterone. But in the bedroom?"
Marion Solomon, a couples' therapist who coordinates mental health training at ULCA, said that even though women have made "great progress" in gender equality, biological models still prevail: strong male, submissive female.
She said the book is rather tame by bondage standards and mirrors an age-old fantasy among women. The psyche doesn't change, according to Solomon, author of "Love and War and Intimate Relationships."
For women, with so much on their plates, "they get tired of always being the strong one" she said.
"She won't be truly hurt," said Solomon, who notes that Grey gives Steele safe words to guide their sex play: "yellow" for caution and "red" to stop.
"What she is agreeing to is being with someone stronger and richer who feels safe," said Solomon. "We can ask how she let her herself get into it … but we always say women are trained to want men a little bit older, a little bit smarter, a little bit richer and a little bit taller."
Christian Grey is faithful to Steele with unwavering respect. And he practices safe sex, always using a condom.
But he is a badly damaged man -- with big-time mommy issues. His mother was a "crack whore" whose pimps extinguished cigarettes on the young boy's body. At the age of 4, he watches her die.
"Women are always drawn to men who are vulnerable," said Solomon, hoping they can save them.
"Human beings are like nested Russian dolls," she said. "On the outside you see a functioning adult. But [the dolls] get smaller and smaller until there is a tiny baby inside. We all have that."
And that applies to men as well. Solomon said she has seen just as many male clients -- "men powerful in business" –--who wanted to be taken care of.
But Stephanie Coontz, author of "A Strange Stirring," which examines the rise of feminism and the changing status of women throughout the 1950s and 1960s, said that although women have for centuries fantasized about submission to a dangerous man, it's a cultural construct.
"As a historian, I do not believe that women have some gene or evolutionary drive to be submissive," she said. "In fact, many women can be sexually aggressive."
She acknowledges that fear and submission have been the "staple of women's erotica" -- but not because their careers are so tightly wound that they need the sexual release.
"Women are susceptible to this not because of the power gains they have made, but in spite of them," she said. "For the last 200 years, the definition of male-female roles is that men are strong, silent and protective. One of the common fantasies is that you take someone who is so threatening and scary and find that the core in him is that he loves and protects you instead."
She said the book is a "classic case" of fear fueling sexual attraction.
"This has always been a disturbing aspect of women's history," said Coontz. "We're all creatures of a combination of sociology and biology and often adrenaline is easily confused with love and desire."
Rather than moving backward, she said women are feeling freer to "play a wide range of [sexual] adventures."
Katie J.M. Baker, a 24-year-old staff writer for the sex and celebrity website Jezebel, agrees that women are more open-minded about pornography.
In her column, "Is the Bestselling 'Mommy Porn' Book Worth the Hype?", she reports that some women were so excited about the book they were buying their husband's silver ties [Grey's signature ligature].
But she couldn't really see the how the book could be considered such a turn-on.
"It's really bad and I don't think it really appeals to younger readers," said Baker. "Besides, 'mommy porn' is a really gross term."
"It's really cool that women feel comfortable exploring their sexuality." But come on, she insists, "a 21-year-old virgin who has never kissed a guy?"
"It's a fairytale -- the same kind of princess and prince story -- with a twist," said Baker. "I call it hate reading. We read it, to make fun of it."