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Representations of illicit female sexuality in fiction

How is illicit female sexuality portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey and The Children’s Hour?

‘While many plays centered on the concept of a woman’s sexual “fall”- the experience of illicit sexuality which inflicted irreparable damage on her moral fibre and started her on an inorexable downward path to ruin and despair- others contained hints, suggestions and performative possibilities which questioned or undermined the underlying assumptions of women’s sexual vulnerability and the disastrous consequences of extramarital sexual experience’.  Discuss the representation of illicit female sexuality in Fifty Shades of Grey and The Children’s Hour

Female sexuality is a central theme to both Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James and The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman.  Sexuality can either be defined as ‘a person’s sexual orientation or preference’ or ‘sexual activity’.[1]  Therefore, when taken in conjunction with illicit, meaning ‘forbidden by law, rules or custom’[2], this essay will explore the homophobic attitudes in The Children’s Hour and the BDSM culture in Fifty Shades of Grey as they are both examples of illicit female sexuality.  The Children’s Hour was a play first performed in November 1934 in New York, a time when homosexuality was considered a ‘mental disorder’ that required medical attention to cure.[3]  This in turn created a toxic environment for successful women who challenged stereotypical gender roles as it made them seem suspicious and become easy targets for attack.[4]  Due to this, the claim of a lesbian relationship that underpins the play can be seen as a very realistic representation of the potential dangers of illicit female sexuality.  In contrast, Fifty Shades of Grey was published in 2011 and presents a heteroerotic storyline between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey.  While this is a traditional sexual dynamic, the sexual violence and kink explored through a female perspective creates a sense of illicit female sexuality due to the deviation from the social norm, even in more modern society.  The use of the word inorexable, meaning relentless, unstoppable progress is interesting when used in the context of the question as this implies illicit sexuality is in essence, a death sentence.[5]  There is an easily traceable historical link between female sexuality and the status of the woman within contemporary society, often reinforcing the idea of sexual deviance leading to a ‘fall’.  However, this essay will prove through the examples of Fifty Shades and The Children’s Hour that illicit female sexuality has the potential to cause ruin and despair, but also that it does not have to be a death sentence in every case, and can sometimes even lead to social advancement.

It is also worth noting the differences in form of the two texts named.  The Children’s Hour is a play, which arguably has an impact on how illicit the text itself is seen as being.  A very public spectacle that people are paying to see is being made of the private issue of female sexuality, drawing close attention to an issue that is borderline taboo in such a public sphere, adding to the sense of scandal.  In contrast, one of the reasons Fifty Shades has been so popular has been linked to the rise in Kindle usage, as this enables you to read whatever you would like in public without fear of judgement.  Prior to publication in 2015 the ebook was the Kindle store’s top preorder.[6]  Both texts produced a large amount of scandal when they were initially presented to the public.  In 1934, the state of New York banned any mention of homosexuality in plays, which the producers of Hellman’s play ignored and performed the play regardless.  The Children’s Hour was banned in London, for 20 years in Chicago and for 30 years in Boston.  Despite this, it was a major hit on Broadway and in Paris.[7]  It was also deemed to be ‘too scandalous’ to be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, such a controversial decision that it prompted the New York theatre critics to form the Drama Critics Circle in protest.[8]  In contrast Fifty Shades did not break any laws, but copies of the book were pulled from the Brevard County Public Library, from 15 branches of the Gwinnett County Public Library and the Fond du Lac library in Wisconsin did not order any copies.  This was due to the scandalous content of the novel, that had been dubbed ‘pornography for mommies’.[9]  However, despite criticism from the New York Times and Salman Rushdie, Fifty Shades was the fastest selling book in Britain since records began and sold over 125 million copies.  Philip Jones, the editor of the Bookseller, claims that the novel not only ‘redefined good…also redefined digital publishing’.[10]  The controversy that surrounded such an open exploration of female sexuality had only served to pique the public’s interest in such a poorly reviewed novel.  The fact that the book had been banned from libraries caused more stir than the text itself, as the National Coalition Against Censorship claimed this was a breach of their First Amendment Rights.[11] In view of the quote above, it is important to clarify what the underlying assumptions of women’s sexual vulnerability are.  This is primarily the notion of the dominant male and submissive female gender roles that are exacerbated in Fifty Shades of Grey, however also links to the continuing taboo of female sexuality being discussed and the level of impact it has upon a woman’s social standing and how easily her sexuality can be used against her, as in The Children’s Hour.  This essay will explore the idea of a ‘sexual fall’ caused by illicit female sexuality; to what extent women are sexually vulnerable and how this vulnerability can be used against her.

There is definitely a clear link between female sexuality and social standing, and in The Children’s Hour it is made abundantly clear that illicit actions (i.e. a lesbian relationship) can be the end of a woman’s career and even her life.  In Fifty Shades however, Anastasia’s commitment to Christian’s illicit sexual desires increase her position within society as she is connected to such a wealthy and powerful man.  The Children’s Hour is based on a real case from 1811 in Scotland in which a similar sequence of events occurs and causes the ruin of the schoolteachers’ lives.  It is this that gives credibility to the idea of female sexuality being exploited to manipulate women and shows how much of an impact deviation from social norms can have upon people’s lives.[12] When the play is put into the context of these archaic, homophobic ideals from the early 19th century, it becomes all the more shocking at how easily it can be transposed into society during the 1930s in America.[13]  During the play, Martha and Karen are the victims of Mary’s lie which causes their ultimate demise.  Once word has spread, the children get immediately pulled out of the school and it is as if a highly infectious disease has outbroken and people refuse to enter the premises, ‘she’d wait outside because she didn’t want to enter a place like ours’.[14]  When Hellman first tried to produce the play on Broadway she struggled as may leading actresses ‘worried about their reputations and thought that the production might be shut down by police for obscenity’, which shows the social view of the ‘contagion of homosexuality’ that pervaded at this time.[15] From this it spirals showing the utter devastation that this lie has had upon Karen and Martha’s lives ‘everything we wanted, everything we were going to be – all gone. And we have to sneak away to some place that hasn’t anything to do with us –’.[16] The lie has cost them their jobs and security and has left them with nothing and no one.  Martha eventually succumbs to the pressure and admits that she does indeed have feelings for Karen, ‘I’m guilty’.[17]  The use of the word guilty here links female sexuality to a criminal act, which would make sense in the contemporary society where homosexuality was seen as an illness.  As with any crime, it must be punished and Martha gives herself the ultimate punishment for her sexual deviance.  Her haunting statement ‘I don’t want tomorrow.  It’s a bad word’ shows how guilt ridden she is and how helpless she feels.[18]  For Martha, death is the only way out once she has admitted to her illicit sexuality and this is her demise.  Ironically, shortly after Martha’s suicide, Mrs Tilford arrives with news of their absolution.  Karen gets ‘a public apology and an explanation’ and can continue with her life, yet she must live without her friend.[19]  The illicit sexuality of Martha has had dire consequences, although Karen arguably has it worse as she must continue to live with the weight of multiple burdens upon her.  Her life is irrevocably changed despite the fact she has not participated in any illicit sexual acts, therefore this proves how easily women can be exploited through their sexuality, as even the suggestion that you are involved is enough to destroy your life beyond repair.  Fifty Shades is a completely different story however.  Due to Christian’s elevated status, Ana gets many expensive presents including ‘first editions’ of Tess of the d’Ubervilles’[20]; a MacBook Pro, ‘the very latest from Apple’[21] and a flight upgrade to first class.  This clearly shows that in some circumstances, illicit female sexuality can be used to the woman’s benefit.  By being Christian’s play thing, Ana has opened herself up to a lifestyle she may have never otherwise experienced.  At the end of the novel, Ana decides to break up with Christian and loses all of the luxuries, ‘I only accepted them under sufferance – and I don’t want them anymore’.[22]  Illicit female sexuality can be used in order to advance social standing, as Fifty Shades has proven.  However, what it also proves is that this is at the expense of Ana as evidenced by James’s use of the word ‘sufferance’ to describe their relationship.  James has simply portrayed an abusive relationship through the eyes of the victim, Ana has been exploited with bribes and empty promises in order to sign autonomy over her sexuality to Christian for his pleasure.

Within both texts, there are strong allusions to the sexual vulnerability of women.  In The Children’s Hour, Mary claims that Martha and Karen are in a lesbian relationship, something that was illegal at the time.  It is never explicitly mentioned but rather alluded to, ‘they make up again, and there are funny noises and we get scared’.[23]  By not identifying what the problem is we get an increased sense of horror, as if the deed is too awful to be said aloud.   During the 1930s when the play was initially performed, the military had begun to dub the rise of homosexuality in the ranks ‘the problem of perversion…[it was] considered how the presence of perverts might harm the US military…homophobia was codified as official policy and practice’.[24]  The Children’s Hour was reproduced and performed again in the 1950s, however by this time contemporary society had not changed much and it was claimed that ‘homosexuals posed a threat to national security’.[25]  Therefore in this case, it could be argued that it is not the fact female sexuality is being explored on the stage, but rather the illicit homoerotic nature of Martha and Karen’s relationship.  This contextual background provides an insight into the vulnerable aspects of female sexuality and shows how homosexuals in particular were targeted due to their sexual preference.  Smith-Rosenberg claims that ‘by the 1920s, charges of lesbianism had become a common way to discredit women professionals, reformers, and educators’.[26]  The quote ‘women don’t kiss one another’ shows how vehemently against homosexuality the USA was at the time as the harsh contraction ‘don’t’ serves to shorten the sentence and add to the abrupt tone, almost as if it is too unpleasant a thought to dwell on.[27]  There is much less material to counter this idea of the vulnerability, as the entire play is essentially a tale of blackmail.  The only real suggestion of a redemption of sorts is when Cardin mentions a house ‘out in the middle of nowhere’, a bittersweet escape from the situation they have found themselves in.[28]  This is the only point in the play at which it seems Martha and Karen have any level of control over their own futures and even this comes at the expense of their lives, friends and family.  Fifty Shades is interesting in comparison as it gives the illusion of control to Ana and the female agency within the novel.  Upon deeper consideration it becomes clear that the terms of engagement are very clearly defined by Christian and the only real control the female character has is over whether or not the acts occur, and has no control over the finer details.  James creates this false sense of security through the introduction of an ‘NDA, a contract saying what we will and won’t do.  I need to know your limits, and you need to know mine.  This is consensual, Anastasia’.[29]  By including Christian in the equation, James has made it seem as though they are on equal footing when really these documents only exist to protect Christian.  By signing these and effectively signing over her sexuality to Christian, Ana has put herself in a legally and sexually vulnerable position.  There are multiple references within the text to Ana’s physical vulnerability including a scene where Christian takes her back to his house and undresses her, admitting she was ‘comatose’ whilst he did so.[30]  There are also many scenes that seem indicative of rape, ‘“No,” I protest, trying to kick him off.  He stops.  “If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet too.  If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you.”’.[31]  Whilst the contract indicating consent has been signed by this point, it is clear in circumstances like this Ana is being abused rather than respected.  The power dynamic is also reflected in the clinical manner in which Christian speaks about Ana, ‘fucks’ rather than ‘makes love’, suggesting that she is more invested in the arrangement than he is, as for Ana it has taken on an emotional quality whereas Christian is upfront about just being interested in the physicality.  Furthering this point, the entire dominant/submissive aspect to their relationship means there is an inbuilt skewed power dynamic from the offset.  Throughout the novel, the word ‘submissive’ and its variants appears 150 times, showing how much weight is placed upon the subordination of female sexuality to please the male figure.  Part of their arrangement is that Ana must ‘surrender to him in all ways’ and becomes in essence, Christian’s play thing.[32]  James writes that Ana must be ‘punished’ if she disobeys any of Christian’s rules, a word that is used 37 times showing a continuing pattern of abuse that is disguised as a mutually beneficial arrangement.  At one point, James dubs Ana a ‘sex slave’ and this ongoing victimizing language is what prompted feminist outcry when the book was first published as it was seen as damaging to the female psyche and created dangerous assumptions about women enjoying abuse and the exploitation of their sexual vulnerability.[33]  James also writes that Ana is ‘caught in his spell’, the lexical field of magic reinforcing this idea of having only an illusion of control over the situation.[34]  Whilst she can choose to remove herself from the situation entirely, that is the only agency she is afforded.  With emotive statements such as this, it suggests that Christian has some sort of metal hold over Ana due to his exploitation of her virginial vulnerability, creating parallels to some sort of Stockholm Syndrome scenario.  Another way in which Fifty Shades appears to reinforce the idea of female sexual vulnerability is by showing Ana’s fear of punishment, ‘it comes hard, snapping across my backside, and the bite of the belt is everything I feared’.[35]  The fact that it has been instilled so deeply within Ana that Christian must be pleased at her expense shows how truly easy it is to manipulate a woman through her sexuality as this is the most vulnerable aspect of her.  There was considerable backlash to the movie adaptation from the National Centre on Sexual Exploitation, who urged a boycott of the opening weekend, claiming ‘it is really about sexual abuse and violence against women’.[36]  On the other hand, there are many critics that cite Fifty Shades as a feminist novel that allows women to freely explore their sexual identity in a more open manner than had previously been available.  ‘Third wave’ feminism has a much more sex-positive attitude, focusing on ‘the importance of civil liberties, sexual liberation and science’ and it is within this circle that novels such as Fifty Shades are viewed as a way for women to ‘[reclaim] their sexuality and [reject] sexual shame/repression’.[37]  In this respect, by illicit female sexuality being so highly controversial that so many people wish to read about it, it has in effect become mainstream and a way for women to empower themselves and reverses the gender stereotyped power dynamic.  This is not dissimilar from Ana’s thought process in the novel whereby she signs the contracts Christian presents her with, giving her the illusion of power and control but ultimately putting her in a weaker position.  It is arguably a fair extrapolation to say that by the content of the novel becoming so reputable and this extreme level of violence towards women being not only normalized but celebrated, that women may be at a higher risk of sexual violence, thereby putting themselves in a more vulnerable position due to assumptions about their sexual vulnerability and passivity.

In conclusion, both novels center around the concept of illicit female sexuality and the effect that this can have upon the lives of the women involved.  Lillian Hellman said about The Children’s Hour ‘this is not a play about lesbianism, but about a lie’, however the main view the audience takes from the play is about the dangers of homosexuality and the enormous stigma that surrounds the exploration of female sexuality as a whole.[38]  The play is set in the context of a society where homosexuality was criminalized, and therefore the suggestion of a lesbian relationship between women in a position of power and care for children unsurprisingly lead to Martha and Karen’s rapid downfall.  Whilst Martha’s fall could be classed as inorexable, as the play ultimately culminates in her suicide due to the truth behind the rumours, Karen get absolved of her accusation and is once again able to carry on with her life, admittedly a life irreparably changed.  Both women throughout the text are seen as hugely vulnerable due to their sexuality affecting their livelihoods and there is very little sense of control over their own destinies.  The society in which Fifty Shades was published was vastly different and although the tale described a heteroerotic narrative, there was a strong abusive undertone and it is this that gives it the ability to explore illicit female sexuality to great effect.  In James’s narrative she proves that illicit sexuality does not always lead to a fall and can in some respects be used to advance status.  There are many clear references to female sexual vulnerability yet there are hints at Ana having control despite this all being an elaborate illusion to trick her into submission.  Despite this inherent abusive dynamic, the novel was a massive success amongst women, particularly housewives.  James’s ability to make a novel centered around a topic such as this and to make it the book everyone is talking about is potentially the most surprising example of illicit female sexuality.  Both texts have shown how the echoes of female subordination have stood the test of time and have become ingrained in our society.  Whilst Hellman writes showing the negative consequences this can have, James spins it and takes a more sex-positive stance on the traditional gender roles and creates an uneasy sense of enjoyment in female subservience, perhaps implying that this is the best outcome for women who do not have a ‘traditional’ sexuality.


Bean, Hamilton, ‘U.S. National Security Culture: From Queer Psychopathology to Queer Citizenship’, QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 1.1 (2014), pp.52-79

Berson, Misha, ‘“The Children’s Hour”: Sex, lies and Lillian Hellman’, The Seattle Times, 27 May 2015 <> [accessed 09 January 2019]

Bosman, Julie, ‘Libraries Debate Stocking “Fifty Shades of Grey” Trilogy’, The New York Times, 21 May 2012 <> [accessed 09 January 2019]

Ellis-Petersen, Hannah, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey: the series that tied publishing up in knots’, The Guardian, 18 June 2015 <> [accessed 09 January 2019]

Hellman, Lillian, The Children’s Hour (New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1981)

James, EL, Fifty Shades of Grey (London: Random House Publishing, 2012)

Larabee, Ann, ‘Editorial: 50 Shades of Grey and the Moral Reading’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 48.2 (2015), 223-224

Ngak, Chenda, ‘How BDSM e-book “Fifty Shades of Grey” went viral’, CBS News, 13 December 2012 <> [accessed 09 January 2019]

Tuhkanen, Mikko, ‘Breeding (and) Reading: Lesbian Knowledge, Eugenic Discipline, and The Children’s Hour’, MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.4 (2002)

Tunc, Tanfer Emin, ‘Rumours, Gossip and Lies: Social Anxiety and the Evil Child in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour’, Journal of Literary Studies, 28.3 (2012) <> [accessed 09 January 2019]

Unknown, ‘Illicit’, Oxford Living Dictionaries (2019) [accessed 09 January 2019]

Unknown, ‘Inorexable’, Cambridge Dictionary (2019) <> [accessed 09 January 2019]

Unknown, ‘Sexuality’, Oxford Living Dictionaries (2019) <> [accessed 09 January 2019]

van Reenen, Dionne, ‘Is this really what women want? An analysis of Fifty Shades of Grey and modern feminist thought’, South African Journal of Philosophy, 33.2 (2014), 223-233


[1] Unknown, ‘Sexuality’, Oxford Living Dictionaries (2019) <> [accessed 09 January 2019].

[2] Unknown, ‘Illicit’, Oxford Living Dictionaries (2019) [accessed 09 January 2019].

[3] Tanfer Emin Tunc, ‘Rumours, Gossip and Lies: Social Anxiety and the Evil Child in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour’, Journal of Literary Studies, 28.3 (2012) <> [accessed 09 January 2019] p.37.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Unknown, ‘Inorexable’, Cambridge Dictionary (2019) <> [accessed 09 January 2019].

[6] Hannah Ellis-Petersen, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey: the series that tied publishing up in knots’, The Guardian, 18 June 2015 <> [accessed 09 January 2019].

[7] Misha Berson, ‘“The Children’s Hour”: Sex, lies and Lillian Hellman’, The Seattle Times, 27 May 2015 <> [accessed 09 January 2019].

[8] Ellis-Petersen.

[9] Chenda Ngak, ‘How BDSM e-book “Fifty Shades of Grey” went viral’, CBS News, 13 December 2012 <> [accessed 09 January 2019].

[10] Ellis-Petersen.

[11] Julie Bosman, ‘Libraries Debate Stocking “Fifty Shades of Grey” Trilogy’, The New York Times, 21 May 2012 <> [accessed 09 January 2019].

[12] Tunc, p.35.

[13] Ellis-Petersen.

[14] Lillian Hellman, The Children’s Hour (New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1981), p.47.

[15] Mikko Tuhkanen, ‘Breeding (and) Reading: Lesbian Knowledge, Eugenic Discipline, and The

Children’s Hour’, MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.4 (2002): 1003.

[16] Hellman, p.64.

[17] Ibid., p.69.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p.72.

[20] EL James, Fifty Shades of Grey (London: Random House Publishing, 2012), p.55.

[21] James, p.178.

[22] Ibid., p.511.

[23] Hellman, p.39.

[24] Hamilton Bean, ‘U.S. National Security Culture: From Queer Psychopathology to Queer Citizenship’, QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 1.1 (2014), pp.52-79 (p.54).

[25] Ibid., p.55.

[26] Tunc, p.37.

[27] Hellman, p.55.

[28] Ibid., pp.62-3.

[29] James, p.103.

[30] Ibid., p.66.

[31] Ibid., p.192.

[32] Ibid., p.100.

[33] Ibid., p.126.

[34] Ibid., p.394.

[35] James, p.505.

[36] Ann Larabee, ‘Editorial: 50 Shades of Grey and the Moral Reading’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 48.2 (2015), 223-224, p.223.

[37] Dionne van Reenen, ‘Is this really what women want? An analysis of Fifty Shades of Grey and modern feminist thought’, South African Journal of Philosophy, 33.2 (2014), 223-233, p.226.

[38] Ellis-Petersen.

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