Fifty Shades of Epstein

Hope Kesselring

I’ve never been a big fan of the genre, but when someone recently told me I could self-publish erotic romance novels for money, I did check out the situation.

A few weeks ago, half the top ten Amazon best sellers in romantic erotica were based around the trope of the BDSM billionaire, with Grey by E. L. James holding firm in the top ten.

In the world of erotic romance, the 50 Shades of Grey series has been a continuous presence for over seven years. Thousands of riffs on the sexy and sadistic billionaire exist: Russian billionaire, billionaire blackmailer, billionaire stepbrother.

I’m not trying to kink shame, but it would take a lot of money to convince me to write detailed descriptions of torture sessions in a gilded dungeon.

This is especially true in the shadow of financier Jeffrey Epstein’s death. Mental and sexual abuse by an obscenely wealthy man now just seems, well, obscene.

I should point out that James’ character, Christian Grey, strikes me as more a domestic abuser than a real BDSM enthusiast. He is a billionaire in the tech industry who fixates on Ana, a 21-year old virgin. He puts surveillance software on her phone. He harasses her to sign a submissive’s contract, and even though she never signs it, he still treats her like a sex slave. He manipulates Ana into doing sex acts for which she doesn’t give consent.

Blatant consumerism sits on the page in stark contrast to real life. 50 Shades of Grey eroticizes money and abuse. The writing is universally panned and mocked by critics, yet it’s sold 125 million copies. How in the world of publishing did it even come to be?

Let’s go back to 2008.

That year the economy was melting down, Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to a felony sex offense, and the Twilight series of vampire romance novels for teen girls were bestsellers.

Twilight was a young adult twist on the long-popular vampire romance, which had flourished in that market since Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire appeared. Probably some of Epstein’s victims read the Twilight books.

50 Shades of Grey marks a shift in the erotic romance genre from vampires to billionaires. In 2009, E. L. James started publishing her version of Twilight on fanfiction websites, churning out a chapter every couple of days.

Master of the Universe, as it was called then, was popular but criticized for being too racy, so she moved it to her own website and renamed the characters.

James didn’t know it yet, but she was about to be catapulted to international fame by some upper middle class moms in the suburbs of New York City.

In the autumn of 2011, news about Occupy Wall Street, a movement that began in reaction to the deeds of the predatory class, dominated headlines. Posters portrayed the 1% as greedy Monopoly men, far from sexy. Occupy protesters had the media’s attention for a short time before the idea was squashed.

That November, Jeffrey Epstein registered as a sex offender in New York after completing his jail term and moving back into his Manhattan mansion, free to continue abusing girls.

2012 was E. L. James’ year. A prominent lifestyle blog (started by an NYU communications graduate married to a talent manager) promoted James’ fanfiction novel as sexually liberating to fashion-conscious moms in upscale suburban New York. James got a book deal and “mommy porn” was born.

Paperbacks with necktie covers appeared on bookshelves and in beach bags everywhere. Moms weren’t the only people reading it, though. In the same way mothers had read their daughters’ copies of Twilight, daughters read their mothers’ 50 Shades of Grey novels.

Imagine Jeffrey Epstein’s thoughts if he’d seen that book in the hands of one of his trafficking victims. Billionaire sadism. How convenient.

I’m not saying that people who read 50 Shades of Grey or similar books want to be sexually abused in real life. It’s just a fantasy. The romance genre has a long history of eroticizing non-consent, as shown by the “bodice rippers” of the 1970s and 80s.

I do wonder, though, if this theme of non-consent is only a reflection of the hidden fantasies of women and girls, or does the media create them? Could a romance novel trend play a part in manufacturing society’s consent to billionaires abusing their power?

I think so.

We are living in a time of extreme inequality. The ultra wealthy who profit off gambling our mortgages away and human trafficking also own most of the media we see. After Epstein got out of jail the first time, websites like the Huffington Post and Forbes published articles praising his philanthropy. Now, why would they do that?

The CIA has a history of working in publishing to control culture. I’m not saying E. L. James was working for the agency, but that kind of thing has been known to happen. Even one of my favorite authors, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, apparently worked with them.

Many people have noted Epstein’s ties to intelligence. His girlfriend/partner in crime, Ghislaine Maxwell, is apparently the daughter of an assassinated Israeli spy. Recently, the New York Post published a picture of Maxwell with a book, which their source claimed was The Book of Honor: The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives.

It has since become a bestseller on Amazon.

The Post story is an example of the many rabbit holes of Epstein disinformation you can find in the media these days. The picture of Maxwell seems to have been staged. Who knows if she was really at that In N Out Burger when they say she was?

A person calling herself (or himself) G. Maxwell left a review of the CIA book on Amazon. I don’t think it was Ghislaine because she’s English and the reviewer used a “z” instead of an “s” in the word “realized.”

I thought it was interesting, however, that when I checked out G. Maxwell’s profile page, I discovered that prior to The Book of Honor, the account mostly reviewed romance novels and goes all the way back to 2012. The first review calls the 50 Shades of Grey series by E. L. James a “Good tale.”

I’m sure that’s just a coincidence, though.