When Alicia Cristina, 29, first read “Fifty Shades of Grey” when it came out in 2011, she felt something shift in her life.
“I felt like it helped me understand my sexuality as a woman,” Cristina said of the best-selling series, whose main character, Anastasia, enters a kinky relationship with a dominating millionaire named Christian Grey.
Inspired by the books and their blockbuster movie adaptations, Cristina, who works as a caseworker at a nonprofit by day, eventually founded APlus Events in 2019. On Friday nights, she hosts weekly erotic paint-and-sip classes in Harlem where women are in control: Female guests are served drinks (and, if they desire, are massaged) by the nude male models they’re there to draw. It doesn’t go farther than that, she said. “The women are taken care of … I think women need this.”
She says the books not only gave her permission to start this side hustle, but empowered her as well.
“I tell every guy I date that I want a little sex dungeon room,” said Cristina, who shifts her energy from dominating to submissive depending on the emotional connection she has with a partner. “I like the leather costumes, the lace and the whips. For me, ‘Fifty Shades’ was a beautiful introduction to a world that a lot of people don’t know about.”
Whatever you think of Christian and Anastasia’s sexcapades, this week marks the end of an X-rated era: E.L. James’ final book in the sexy series, “Freed: Fifty Shades Freed as Told by Christian,” comes out today.
And, while there has been criticism as to whether the two trilogies — James’ first three books are from Anastasia’s perspective, and the second three from Christian’s — accurately depicted the world of BDSM (bondage and domination, sadism and masochism), few can argue that they sparked a revolution in the bedroom and mainstreamed kink.
For starters, they added several new words and phrases, including “safe word,” “flogger” and “hard limits,” to the lexicon, said Sari Cooper, a New York City-based certified sex therapist and founder of Sex Esteem, an online forum that helps people navigate relationship boundaries.
“Once the books came out, many women also felt less shame about being into rougher sex, lusting after a ‘bad boy’ type or expressing a desire for their partner to gain more mastery as a dominant,” she said.
It’s no surprise that sales of certain products can also be traced to the “Fifty Shades” phenomenon. In 2012, “clothesline” rope sales boomed at New York City hardware stores and sex toy shops have continued to reap the benefits of a “Fifty Shades”-esque awakening, said Kim Ibricevic, owner of Lady Konfidential, a “pleasure boutique” in Midtown.
Sales of bondage items, paddles, riding crops and blindfolds soared, she said.
More recently, the series helped popularize app-controlled sex toys. In a twist on a game from “Fifty Shades Darker,” a partner can use their phone to amp up their lover’s vibrator settings from afar.
“It’s you and your partner’s secret. It’s fun,” Ibricevic said. “Couples don’t even need to be in the same zip code, and they can find ways to play and explore.”
Mistress Xena, a 39-year-old dominatrix in Brooklyn who read the first book to stave off boredom on a plane ride, has more mixed feelings about the hype.
“Housewives were excited about going to book club with it — even my mother-in-law talked about it,” she said. “What was amazing was everything that followed, including ‘Fifty Shades’ classes and ‘Fifty Shades’ whips being sold at sex stores.”
Still, the dominatrix, who is married, believes that neither the books nor the movies accurately depict the importance of consent in the BDSM world; early in their relationship, Christian goes too far and ends up hurting Anastasia after a spanking session.
“When you’re at my safe space, I get to tie you up and spank you, but you have to express your limits as well,” she said. “You’re supposed to lose yourself in a session, and it’s supposed to be fun.”
And while the books and movies allowed some fetishists to come out of the closet, Mistress Xena says that most of her clients are still tight-lipped with their partners about their fantasies.
“They tell me that their wives don’t know that they’re here with me,” she said. “When I ask them why, they say things like, ‘She’ll divorce me’ or ‘She’ll think I’m a freak.’ I always tell them that this is a healthy lifestyle when done right.”
Although viewed as stay-at-home mom porn, men have certainly gotten inspired. Kahlil Martin, 49, said seeing the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie roused his desire to tie up his then-boyfriend.
“Using restraints and talking or touching each other while wearing blindfolds woke up something in both of us — it spiced up our seven-year relationship,” said Martin, a creative director in Harlem. “I’m single now, but I still think it’s hot!”