Pure As…

Christian makes a possible job offer to Anastasia, which she doesn’t take, even though she needs a job. She then muses that she wouldn’t fit in at Grey House. Christian asks why not, and she tells him, “It’s obvious isn’t it?”

“Not to me.” His gaze is intense, all humor gone, and strange muscles deep in my belly clench suddenly. I tear my eyes away from his scrutiny and stare blindly down at my knotted fingers. What’s going on? I have to go—now.

This is not actually Anastasia having an unexpected gastrointestinal episode, which would have explained her sudden need to flee. This is supposed to be desire she’s experiencing there. That is a normal and healthy feeling, and she should have experienced it before this moment and know what it is. That she apparently has not is really alarming. Remember this is supposed to be erotic fiction, something is supposed to happen with these two characters, but our female narrator is confused and frightened and apparently unsure about her own anatomy during the meet-cute (protip for Ana: those muscles were not in your belly).

And I’m really not kidding about Ana being genuinely frightened. As she works her away through the awkward farewell, her thoughts whipsaw back and forth between Christian’s good looks and what sounds like a panic attack in progress.

The doors open, and I hurry in, desperate to escape. I really need to get out of here.

When I turn to look at him, he’s gazing at me and leaning against the doorway beside the elevator with one hand on the wall. He really is very, very good-looking. It’s unnerving.

Anastasia flees the building, literally runs out, stumbling – but not falling! – in her hurry to get out of the elevator. She races (that’s actually the word EL uses) for the doors, out into the rain.

I take a deep, purifying breath, trying to recover what’s left of my equilibrium.

No man has ever affected me the way Christian Grey has, and I cannot fathom why. Is it his looks? His civility? Wealth? Power? I don’t understand my irrational reaction. I breathe an enormous sigh of relief. What in heaven’s name was that all about? Leaning against one of the steel pillars of the building, I valiantly attempt to calm down and gather my thoughts. I shake my head. What was that? My heart steadies to its regular rhythm, and when I can breathe normally again, I head for the car.

My emphasis.

Setting up the trope of the inexperienced, virginal heroine is one thing; setting her up as someone who was totally asexual until the moment she met the male lead and is subsequently terrified by her own desire for him is quite another.

What’s strange about this is that it seems to mirror the way some women who grew up in fundamentalist Christian “purity culture” describe their experience with sexuality as teenagers. In brief, purity culture* teaches that not only is sex outside of marriage sinful, that any sexual expression is a form of adultery to your future spouse. Boys and girls are taught that members of the opposite sex are dangerous, a constant threat to your commitment to purity. Even chaste relationships are a form of emotional infidelity, giving away part of your heart a piece at a time, and for the same reason, fantasies and desires are forbidden. In order for young people in this culture to conform, these normal desires must be buried. Their sexuality has to be turned off. Not managed, and definitely not explored. Off.

Even though Anastasia is not religious, and never expresses any goal of waiting for marriage or even commitment before she has sex, she has the kind of fearful reaction to her own desire that I’ve seen described by people raised in that culture. It’s weird because she has no reason to be this panicked about what she feels. There is no force, internal or external, requiring her to resist it. So why is she doing it?

There’s not a good reason for this inside the story. It never makes sense.

It’s partly just EL’s inability to do anything with subtlety…Christian can’t just be wealthy, he has to be ridiculously wealthy, and Anastasia can’t just be a virgin, she has to be asexual until Christian enters the picture.

But it ends up sounding like purity culture because that culture has borrowed heavily from romantic narratives, especially the trope of the virginal heroine, in order to sell itself. Saving yourself for your future spouse is billed as being incredibly romantic. The payoff is supposed to be complete and total devotion with a spouse of the same sterling character as yourself, unmarred by any feelings you’ve ever given to anyone else, which is basically the point of virginal heroines in romances. The heroine’s virginity ensures this love is in fact True Love, because the heroine has Never Felt This Way Before, and more importantly it confirms her good character that she would not surrender her body for anything less than True Love.

Now if the romantic promises of purity culture sound a little out of sync with all the moral teaching, that’s because it is; purity culture is pretty toxic, and hammering into young people’s heads that sex is bad stuff to be avoided at all costs doesn’t really lead to great wedding night sex. Duh. Likewise, I’m having trouble seeing how a character who is confused and frightened by her own sexuality is going to enjoy being in an erotic romance novel.

*Further reading: I highly recommend the blog Love, Joy, Feminism’s discussion of purity culture.


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