50 Shades of Grey is not a black and white issue for women

50 Shades of Grey has been credited with sparking a new era in women’s sexuality. For the first time women can claim — some without shame — that they read sexually explicit material and enjoy it.

Yet, long before women were publicly toting their copies of Fifty Shades, they were reading it on e-readers and discussing its content in online forums — a simple act that, according to two Waterloo researchers, is complicating our understanding of women’s sexuality.

Women looking at laptops near a pool

“The Fifty Shades series is an excellent example of the way that technology is facilitating women’s consumption of erotica or pornographic material. In the past, consumers and producers of sexually explicit material were almost exclusively men,” said Diana Parry, a professor of Recreation and Leisure Studies.

How does the Cinderella fantasy play out online?

But men’s ownership of the digital realm is raising questions about exactly how liberating technology can be when it comes to online erotica.

In a paper published in the Journal of Leisure Research, Parry and Tracy Penny Light, a professor in Waterloo’s Sexuality, Marriage, and Family Studies program, discuss how the evolving landscape of tech and erotica affect women’s well-being.

The researchers point out that even newer forms of erotica, including that written by women for women, tend to perpetuate patriarchal values.

“Despite empowering women to openly read erotica, the Fifty Shades trilogy reproduces one of the oldest stories in the book: the Cinderella fantasy where a young, poor, heterosexual woman is swept off her feet and rescued by an older, highly successful and domineering, but damaged heterosexual man,” said Parry.

Diana Parry

Diana Parry


The digital gender gap

A growing school of thought, called technofeminism, is working to address the digital gender gap and make a sphere traditionally associated with the masculine more balanced.  “Technofeminists are looking at the ways that emergent technologies can enhance women’s lives and capacities or constrain them” said Penny Light.

Women aren’t only using technology to consume the erotic material, however. They are also discussing the material in online communities of interest such as book clubs, chat rooms, and blogs.

“The support women found in online communities and blogs normalized the act of reading erotica, giving them the confidence to take the hard copies of books into the public sphere,” said Penny Light.

Despite the complexity that surrounds technology as a liberatory or constraining medium, many women still see their engagement with online erotica and sexually explicit material as an experience that positively impacts their sexual wellbeing and quality of life.

Tracy Penny Light

Tracy Penny Light

“This is a complex issue that needs further investigation,” said Parry. “Women’s sexuality in relation to technology isn’t black and white, it really is fifty shades of grey.”