“Fifty shades of Grey”: awakening women’s sexual identities

The wildly popular New York Times bestselling series Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James has garnered fans from all walks of life, becoming the fastest selling book of 2012.  The series centers around a young, impressionable woman who falls for a troubled, domineering older man, and aims to find out whether he is capable of love.  This archeotypical tale laden with S&M and bondage stirs Newsweek to explore the notion that modern working women want to be dominated in the bedroom, even in an era where women are overtaking men as America’s breadwinners.

A UK Guardian review proposes that Fifty Shades of Grey thrusts erotica into mainstream media, transforming the way erotic fiction is consumed by the public.  According to the publisher’s data, “gleaned from Facebook, Google searches, and fan sites”, more than half the women reading the book are in their 20s and 30s, in spite of the prevailing stereotype that the largest consumer of this series are middle-aged suburban women, sexually frustrated Twilight fans, or conservatives foraying into adult fiction in search of more palatable sexual fantasy reading material.

Dr. Mehmet Oz  dedicated a recent show to exploring this book series with an audience of women and men who have read them.  EL James “has gotten people talking about sex in a way that no one else could get them to talk about it,” Dr. Oz said from the red carpet of a gala honoring Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the worldDr. Oz included James with the likes of President Barack Obama and Rihanna stating “this book is about people having an honest conversation about what sex should be like, what makes it feel better, what are the timing issues, how do we make it an important issue in our life rather than an afterthought.”

As a clinical psychologist in private practice, a large segment of my psychotherapy patients are young women in their twenties and early thirties.  Like the protagonist in Fifty Shades of Grey, many are struggling to awaken and understand their sexuality  during a developmental time when the goal is often to find and secure a loving life partner.

In my professional opinion, one of the biggest challenges these women face is learning how to cultivate the necessary self-confidence to enjoy sex.  This is a generation that grew up watching Sex in the City, had a wealth of sexual content at their fingertips via the world wide web, and whose favorite musical artists and actors relied upon sexual exposure at younger ages and more heavily then ever before in American history.  Perhaps due to wide-spread sexual overexposure that continues to objectify women, this generation of women continues to struggle with identifying and indulging their sexual desires as did earlier, more sexually conservative generations.

During psychotherapy sessions I conduct with many women, I hear feelings of inadequacy based on pressure to be aesthetically perfect for their partners, or a focus on fulfilling partners’ desires without identifying or communicating their own- all of which which robs them of their ability to truly develop their own unique sexual identity, and discover one of life’s greatest pleasures.  As a clinical psychologist, I use a problem-solving cognitive-behavioral approach to help individuals become more comfortable with the process of awakening and fostering their sexual identity.

What are some treatment recommendations for developing one’s sexual identity?

  • explore (with a mental health professional, peers or through journaling) how cultural, familial, gender and religious norms, values, experiences and biases may have shaped your views of sexual behavior in both positive and negative ways
  • explore the expectations you place upon yourself and others when engaging in sexual behavior- do these these expectations allow for healthy self care? Reciprocity?  Are they realistic?
  • Identify images, fantasies and forms of touch that awaken your desire- what kind of judgment do you place upon them?  How might you gradually increase your comfort level with them in order to fulfill your needs?
  • Are there materials that can support your exploration of the above?  Explore adult novelty websites such as Adam & Eve, or local bay area stores such as Feelmore 510 or Good Vibrations.  Bookstores such as Amazon/Kindle and Barnes & Nobles/Nook are also well equipped with reading material which can be procured discretely.

This article was written by Dr. Christina Villarreal, Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Oakland, California.  For professional inquires contact her at christina.villarreal@gmail.com

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