The release of the 50 Shades of Grey movie trailer has lit up the blogosphere with condemnation and praise. I haven’t read the books, mostly because descriptions of the plot make my skin crawl. The individual freedom lover in me would like to find something redeeming about the series’ depiction of sexual pleasure, but the feminist in me just can’t stomach the problematic power dynamic depicted. Being originally Twilight fan fiction, it isn’t surprising that the books take all the troublesome male/female relations of Twilight and twists them into disturbing new highs (or lows.) Maybe it’s because I’ve dealt with a negative sexual power dynamic in my life or because I recently disrupted a domestic abuse incident outside my house by calling the police, running outside, and shouting at the fucker to stop hitting his wife. That wasn’t even the first time I rescued a woman from physical violence. So yeah, 50 Shades of Grey makes me more than uncomfortable. Consent does not redeem it.
Still, the idea of sex for pleasure, pain, or love is still an intriguing one, touching the heart of what it means to be human. Is our copulation an expression of a holy union, Aristophanes’s halves finding each other and becoming whole? Is it merely pleasure, or an evolutionary development to form close social bonds? The dichotomy of earthly and holy sex is the subject of Paolo Coelho’s book Eleven Minutes.
The story follows Maria, a young rural Brazilian who dreams of a life with travel and excitement. She is recruited to model in Europe, but upon arriving in Switzerland is given employment at a seedy go-go club, and she becomes a prostitute. This story deals with the upper class of prostitution, and the author does not delve into the troubles of sex trafficking with rape, drug addiction, and exploitation. I think this book could have fallen into a trap of romanticizing the world of high-class sex work, but Coelho is able to expose the desperation of some of the clients and the moral struggle Maria experiences. Coelho excels in revealing the humanity in his characters.
Maria experiences both sexual pleasure for its own sake, in the darkness of a sadomasochistic relationship with a client, and sacred sex when she falls in love with a painter. While graphic, Coelho shies away from actual violence. It’s the tame end of S&M, and that might be why I didn’t tear the book to shreds. In Maria you find a woman who is in one way, in control of her sexuality, and in another, deeply dysfunctional about sexuality. We get a short but moving glimpse into a troubled woman’s psyche and her redemption. Eleven Minutes avoids being overdramatic or heady. Like sex with the majority of her clients, Maria is shockingly normal and boring, which makes her relatable.
So why did I find this book moving but am avoiding 50 Shades of Grey? Ironic how “50 Shades of Grey” has been dubbed “mommy porn.” Hello Madonna/whore complex. There are plenty of negative reviews of Eleven Minutes. You could call it a silly fairy tale. Maria does not experience the hardships one would expect of sex work. She is not forced into it, she is not victimized, and she keeps most of her money. Is this Coelho taking the easy road to telling this story, or is it merely a result of her being in a place where the work is regulated to provide protection to its workers? There is a lot left untouched, but Coelho’s books are always narrow in scope, instead choosing to delve deeply into the psychological subject matter. The narrative also avoids being gratuitous or exploitative.
Ultimately it might be because Maria is a strong person. She is lucky enough to be able to make her own life choices and takes responsibility for those choices. She is observer and participant of the human condition, the darker parts of us we prefer to leave hidden. For these reasons, I find her a positive feminist character.
“I can choose either to be a victim of the world or an adventurer in search of treasure. It’s all a question of how I view my life.” – Maria, Eleven Minutes.