This weekend, in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, the Fifty Shades of Grey movie will open in theaters nationwide. The film, based on the outrageously popular book of the same name, centers around a virginal, bright-eyed-bushy-tailed journalist just out of college and the intimidating, mega-wealthy entrepreneur who seduces, deflowers and — for the first time in all his 27 years on this planet! — falls in love with her. A sex contract is signed, reportedly inaccurate kink and BDSM-play ensue.
Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, are the latest cultural phenomenon that everyone pretends to be too smart to know or care about but, were a life-or-death situation to arise and such a feat were required, would be able to rattle off at least five facts on the subject. (See also: the Kardashians, the Real Housewives franchise, The Bachelor.) As with all pop cultural behemoths, Fifty Shades is much more than a movie or a book. It has become a money-minting machine, the kind of brand that you can stamp on almost anything to move your merchandise. Among those hoping to cash in on Fifty Shades: sex shops.
Just as the Scandal obsessives starting buying Olivia Pope’s Crate and Barrel wine glasses in droves, Fifty Shades fans have been on something of a sex toy shopping spree. In 2013, the novel sparked a 7.5 percent jump in sales of sex-themed products, including but not limited to toys, videos and books.
Anne Semans is the marketing director of Babeland, a female-centric sex toy boutique in New York and Seattle. I asked her if the premiere of the Fifty Shades movie was her industry’s Super Bowl. “That’s a great way to describe it,” she said, particularly because the film’s opening weekend coincides with Valentine’s Day, which “is always our big season, as you would expect. When we heard they were planning to release the film the day before, we knew it would be like having a Super Bowl followed by the Academy Awards. It was going to be a double-whammy for us.”
“I have never seen anything like this,” she said. “Especially from a book.”
Fifty Shades is the happening that keeps on happening. All three Fifty Shades books were published within weeks of Vintage Books’ acquisition of them, in March 2012. The month was barely half over when the first book in the series landed atop the New York Times combined print and e-book fiction bestsellers list, a position it held for 30 weeks. Last year, Vintage Books reported sales of over 100 million copies of the series worldwide, putting it in the company of the Harry Potter series, the Nancy Drew mysteries, and author E. L. James’ inspiration, Twilight.
We knew it would be like having a Super Bowl followed by the Academy Awards.
To meet demand, Vintage has had to order over 60 printings; the series has been translated into over 50 languages. It is the fastest-selling paperback in history (a title once held by Harry Potter) and is the first book to sell more than a million copies on Kindle; it remains the fastest and bestselling series on Kindle, ever. Universal and Focus Features paid $5 million for the film rights, winning a bidding war among several studios. The movie, opening Friday, has become the top all-time title for advance ticket sales for Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day weekend, an honor previously held by, of all the appropriately-named flicks, Valentine’s Day.
Fifty Shades is a guilty pleasure. But what makes the craze around the series so remarkable, aside from its scale, is the way Fifty Shades has managed, by sheer force of ubiquity, to put some distance between what makes us feel guilty and what gives us pleasure. For women who have been made to feel awkward about or ashamed of articulating sexual desires or fantasies — so, most women on Earth — Fifty Shades provides a socially-sanctioned vocabulary to do just that. It’s a set of shared references, an easy way into thinking and talking about certain kinds of sex that, for the most part, are considered too taboo to discuss.
The closest thing Semans remembers to “a cultural impact” on the sex toy industry was in 1998, when the Rabbit vibrator was featured on an episode of Sex and the City. “When that came out, it really sent lots of women to the stores, because it had some celebrity cache.” Or, more accurately, has: “It’s kept in the top drawers, because of Sex and the City being in syndication.”
In a move perfected by the comic book movie industrial complex, Fifty Shades has of an art form out of the slow, deliberate reveal: a 30-second teaser here, a clip of a Beyonce song there, one sneak peek after another, for almost a full calendar year before the movie hits theaters. Babeland starting prepping for this Sex-Super-Oscars last summer, when the first trailer came out; as soon as it did, “we saw a spike in toys and a spike in the traffic to information related to the movie,” said Semans.
This time around, she said, they want to be prepared. “When the book came out and picked up steam in 2012, it was a surprise to everybody. I can remember, after a month of hearing about it in the spring of 2012, I was like, ‘What is going on with this book?” Semans and other Babeland staffers did the reading. In between all the “quivering” body parts and “holy crap!” exclamations were plenty of wares Semans sees in Babeland stores every day. “Like, wow! These kegel balls that we sell!”
The Fifty Shades books brought in a whole new wave of customers — the regulars are “a little bit more sophisticated [and] a little put off by the whole thing — and Semans expects the movie will do the same.
Semans knows the criticisms of the book: that the writing is terrible and that it misrepresents the BDSM community. As for the former, Semans was an English and marketing major in college; she used to review erotica. “We all read it and didn’t think it was very well-written. That’s the English major in me speaking,” she said. (It was while marveling at the phenomenon that was Fifty Shades incredible sales that Semans learned what “hate-reading” was.) “But the marketing major in me is thinking, wow, she’s really providing something that women and readers wanted, which is kind of a bridge between Harlequin romance and an erotic novel, which hadn’t been particularly successful in the past.” James’ series — though it is, basically, the final draft of her Twilight fan fiction — “really brought something that was kind of trending at the time to a wider audience.
“My criteria when I reviewed erotica was: does it turn you on? Did nine out of ten of us get turned on when we read it?” said Semans. And in the case of Fifty Shades, the answer was a resounding, “Yeah!”
Semans is aware of the sensitivities surrounding the depiction of BDSM in the books. (Keep in mind, with Twilight as its DNA, the odds that Fifty Shades would present anything resembling a healthy, admirable relationship were close to zero.) “It’s not the most accurate portrayal of a consensual relationship,” said Semans. “But it’s fiction. It’s fantasy. And it’s okay to fantasize about whatever you want.” The Babeland party line is that “you can come in and learn how to explore this, and we’ll give you the tools.”
About those tools: “We saw this snowball, basically, that through that summer [in 2012] of readers passing along the book and women and couples coming in, wanting to try to either reenact scenes from the book, or learn more about kink, or get those balls,” said Semans. “That wave was so significant. It really boosted our sales for that year. So we anticipate with the release of the movie, we’ll see another wave.”
She says they expect the wave to be “a bit shorter, just because of the way people read the book and passed it along. People will either see it or they won’t. For this, we’re really expecting it to be a real quick burst.”
We saw this snowball of readers coming in, wanting to try to either reenact scenes from the book or learn more about kink.
“We’ve seen a lot of products come in in preparation for the movie that weren’t there for the book, because nobody knew it would be that big,” she said. Babeland is carrying “everything from entry-level — we sell something called Bondage in a Box, that’s a pair of blindfolds and a pair of bonds. And there’s Fifty Shades vibrators that are cleverly named, like the Charlie Tango, which is the name of the helicopter. [The official producers of Fifty Shades products] just brought out a line of really nice luxury equestrian-style leather kinky products, which are the toys you would imagine Christian Grey owning, because they’re really high-end. And they brought out this line of vibrators. One of the things that we discovered was that women came into our store for the first time and one of the things they wanted to buy was a vibrator.”
But the number one seller, by far, “are the balls.”
Technically called Luna Beads and used in the book, as all things must be, for erotic purposes, the balls originated “as a sexual health tool” to strengthen the muscles that help women have better orgasms, Semans said. “That’s how they’ve kind of existed in the world, and that’s the way that we’ve always sold them. But when people came in asking for them, there was an opportunity for us to say: if you’re trying to recreate the scene in the movie, just so you know…”
This is the sex shop staffer equivalent of a hairdresser looking at the photo you’ve brought in of, say, Zooey Deschanel’s bangs, and letting you know that perhaps that straight-across fringe is not going to look on you the way it looks on her. “You just kind of have to provide the context and get at what the customer’s expectation for that is.”
In addition to stocking the shelves, Babeland has also implemented a workshop, event and private party program with “some Fifty Shades themes.” Semans is straightforward about the aim of capitalizing on the film. “We’re trying to tie into the premieres. We’ll play in the sandbox with all the movies.”