Let’s get something straight here, I usually don’t read romance novels, even if they do win awards within their Genre, as Fifty Shades of Grey has. I find romance novels boring and repetitive. How many ways is it possible for part A to meet part B anyway? Snore.

But I wanted to read Fifty Shades of Grey because everyone is reading it. When I say everyone is reading Fifty Shades of Grey, I mean everyone. When I asked my hairdresser what she was reading she answered Fifty Shades of Grey.   When my mechanic’s receptionist gave me a ride home from the shop, there was a copy sliding around on the floor of her car. Several of my facebook friends have posted that they will read it, and fully eighty percent of the book covers I saw in the airport and on the beach during our summer vacation this year were the telltale charcoal and light grey of the Fifty Shades trilogy. The series was universally panned by critics and bloggers as really really awful, so what’s going on? Why the phenomena? Why are everyone and their grandma so captivated by a badly written bodice ripper? I wanted to read it because I wanted to know why. How can the reviewers and the readers be so polarized in their opinions?

So I did. I read it. Then I read the two nearly identical sequels that came after it. When I began the first book, I actually took it out in public with the cover showing, thinking I could while away my kids’ softball and basketball practice time with a light read. It was not a light read. Now that I know what’s between the covers (pun intended) of Fifty Shades of Grey, I’m a little embarrassed. Now all the softball and basketball mommies know what I’m guilty of reading. It’s a “bad“book. It’s a take-it-to-the-fire-pit-in-the-backyard-and-light-a-match book, so-my kids-won’t-get-a-hold-of-it-book.

The story is mostly about sex, dominant/submissive sex, with a lot of very explicit scenes. These sex scenes are linked together with choppy unintelligent dialogue. The plot, which is very similar to the plot in the Twilight series, is weak. The character development is even worse. The main character is an innocent, a very young woman who has virtually no dating experience, and who is convinced by a damaged and abusive man to join him in his “red room of pain” so that she can submit to his dangerous will in every way.

The subject matter of the book is shocking, but I have to admit the temperature in the room where I was reading Fifty Shades of Grey rose markedly as I read the “love” scenes, which is crazy because I believe that the things that happened to the character Ana in the red room of pain and in the bedroom of the character Christian Grey are abusive and wrong. My opinions, however, dissipated like mist as my body involuntarily responded to what I was reading. My intellect rejected what happened to Ana as abuse, but my body felt a hell of a tingle as I read the words before me. Geez, what is that about?

After I realized what the books were actually about, after I realized how the love scenes in the book made me feel, I hid in my room with the door locked to read the rest of the series. No one, I decided, would be allowed to see the way those ”love” scenes made me feel. Not without the benefit of marriage, anyway. One afternoon while I was reading behind my locked bedroom door, my husband knocked quietly. I got up to open it, novel in hand, and went back to my chair. He poked his head in and asked in his most non-judgmental voice “what’s going on in here? The kids are watching trash TV and eating chips. They’re making a lot of crumbs and the front door was standing wide open when I came in. You okay? I don’t want you to be mad when you come down.” I admit it: my kids were running wild while I read a trashy novel.

“I’m reading erotica” I answered. I’m pretty sure I blushed. His eyebrows went up. “It’s about this girl who falls in love with a guy who’s into S&M. The guy spanks her when he’s displeased with her behavior.” A little smile crossed his lips.

“Okay by me,” he said, and then added “Enjoy!” and winked at me. His little smile had grown into a big grin by the time he gently pulled the door closed again. I heard him chuckle as he padded down the stairs. I resumed my reading when I heard him banging around in the kitchen. I closed the back cover of the third book about thirty minutes later. I had mixed feelings. I could honestly say I hated the books, and that I really liked the books.

The critics were right, I thought, the books were badly written. But by the time I finished, I knew the answer to my original question. I understood what was going on. I understood the phenomena. I understood why everyone and her Grandma was talking about this book: the love scenes in the book were sexy, really sexy, and for that reason women were willing to put up with bad writing. This realization though, left me with another pile of questions. Why are so many women so turned on by these particular sex scenes? Why does the idea of being tied up, handcuffed, and/or being beaten by a riding crop work for us? Why does it work for everybody and their grandma? Why does it work for me? I, and women general, ought to be appalled.

A week or two later, my husband came home from work and told me that the book Fifty Shades of Grey had come up as a topic over his regular Friday lunch with coworkers, the majority of whom, on this particular day, were women. “Is that the sexy book you were reading before?” he asked me. He wanted to know because he had told the girls from the office that he thought I had read that one. “Is that the one where the guy spanks the girl?” He said he asked them. Apparently they all blushed and stammered, but then discussed at length how sexy the book was and made guesses about which muscular young actor would get the part of the main male character Christian Grey in the inevitable movie.

It helped me to hear this story. I worried less that I was some kind of sicko for reacting to the subject matter the way I did. Still I wondered, where are the feminists, the formally battered women, the mothers concerned for their daughters? Why are we all standing around giggling when the women’s movement is being reversed? What’s next? We give back the right to vote?

“I’m confused”, my husband said to me later, after the children were asleep. “I was taught to never hit a woman, but everybody’s all gaga over this book. Do women really want to be spanked? What do women really want? What do you really want?” he said, with his hands in the air, clearly frustrated.

At the time I laughed, and said “that is a question for the ages, my friend.” He laughed too, at my response, relating to the timeless impossibility of understanding women. But the truth is, I wasn’t able to answer the question. I’m still not able to answer the question. What do women really want?

Are we as women, telling the truth about what we want? Do we even know the truth about what we want? Does our collective response to Fifty Shades of Grey mean that deep down, women want to submit, sexually or otherwise, to men?

Are we hard-wired to respond to men who make our decisions for us? Are we hard-wired to respond sexually to men who control us? Are we hard-wired to be turned on by the possibility of being punished when we displease our man? Is this response I wish I didn’t have some insane leftover from our cavewoman days? What about women who are submissive for religious reasons, like members of that sect in Texas where the women all look like Ma Ingalls, and who seem happy to share their husbands with a crowd of other women, or like the famous sister wives on cable TV, or less dramatically, like my more mainstream girlfriend who vowed in her wedding to “submit to” and to “obey” her bridegroom? Do they know something the rest of us don’t know? Do submissive women have stronger marriages? Do relationships work better if one submits to her husband (or other male partner), for whatever reason?

Would I be happier as a submissive woman?

A question for the ages, indeed. Thank you E.L. James, for asking it.