At the beginning of the last school year, many of my English department colleagues and I decided to try free-choice reading in our high school classrooms. The practice, which has been used at the elementary and middle school levels for years, has gained popularity in the upper grades in its proven capacity to raise students’ reading ability by increasing the amount they are reading. Among the many questions we had about accountability and evaluating student progress, one question rose to the top: what if a student wants to read EL James’ 50 Shades of Grey?

Before I write on I need to make two things clear: I’m neither a prude nor a fan of censorship when it comes to reading material. When I was a teen reader, books like Judy Blume’s Forever or VC Andrew’s Flowers in the Attic were gateway books that led on to more high-brow naughty books like Peyton Place or Lady Chatterly’s Lover. These led me to discover more classics and to eventually start trying my own hand at novel writing.

One day the librarian in our small town New Hampshire library chastised me for what she deemed my inappropriate choice of a Judith Krantz novel. She shouted, “I don’t think your grandfather [who was an Episcopal priest in town] would approve of you reading this.” I knew that she was wrong. Everyone in my house was a fan of reading – everything.

However, our concerns over our high school students reading this particular naughty book caused me to think about the situation, not because I wanted to censor what my students chose – free choice reading is free choice reading – but because of the mainstream popularity these books were gathering. The trilogy of books have been best sellers for a while. Casting for the mainstream movie is taking place as I type this, with Gilmore Girl’s Alexis Bledel rumored to be one of the picks for the staring female role. At the mall you can buy 50 Shades merchandise – t-shirts with quotes from the novel and bracelets with handcuff charms. I didn’t see this merchandise in Victoria’s Secret or Frederick’s of Hollywood, though. These products were being marketed to teenagers in Icing, a store like Claire’s but for slightly older girls. And there is the problem.

The reigning story is that EL James started writing her books as Twilight fan fiction. Now, I don’t want to get too side-tracked with the quality of Stephanie Meyer’s writing, but I find the ultimate message that her books send to girls disturbing. Twilight is the story of a young woman who is manipulated by and falls in love with a man who’s nearly 100 years her senior. Throughout the course of their relationship, he is angry at her and emotionally abuses her. Eventually, she is willing to give up all of herself, including life, to be with this man. Not a good message for our young women to be receiving. Enter 50 Shades of Grey to up ante on abuse and make it seem like a normal part of a romantic relationship.

It’s one thing if girls are sneaking to read this book in the privacy of their own homes and feeling a little bit guilty about it. After all, isn’t that part of the fun of a dirty book? But people are reading this book openly at tables in restaurants. When I visited Star Island last summer, their tiny library contained the complete 50 Shades trilogy. Newsweek, while still in its print form, sported a blindfolded woman on its cover. What’s happening here is that through the relentless marketing of these books and merchandise, S & M is becoming normalized. And doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

By the end of the school year, our teacher-fears about the droves of students who’d be lining up to read 50 Shades of Grey proved unfounded. I had only one junior level student who included it on her reading reflection, and she’d read the book on her Kindle, so no one would know.

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