Wednesday, 15 August 2012

50 shades – of female sexuality

One of the more amusing topics to have arisen in the UK in recent weeks is the extraordinary success of EL James's 50 Shades trilogy.

It tells the story of the developing relationship between Anastasia, a young graduate, and Christian, a rather rich businessman with a predilection for a spot of S&M.

Well, actually quite a lot of S&M.

It has become, as everyone knows, the fastest-selling paperback to date, with record numbers sold for ereaders.

But while books have sold vast amounts before - and even to unexpected audiences (think Harry Potter and adult sales), James's success seems to have sparked another entire sub-industry – that of asking: 'why?' and 'what does it mean?'

One commentator (tearing their hair out for the Independent, if memory serves me correctly) suggested that it means the end of civilisation as we know it.

Okay - they didn't. I exaggerate. But only a bit. They actually suggested that it was the end of Real Literature.

Which is extraordinary, because if Dan Brown hasn’t managed that ...

What it means, in essence, is very simple:

• People - and this includes women - like rude stories. They like sex, and not just actually the business of having it.

• Electronic devices such as Kindles make it easier to buy books, so probably making it easier to buy (and read) titles that you might not otherwise buy out of embarrassment.

• There has been so much talk about the trilogy that many people will have bought the first book (or more) because of word of mouth.

That's what we can say with a fairly high level of certainty.

Personally, I’m so culturally backward that it was only a few weeks ago that I first really became aware of it.

So far, I haven’t been tempted to buy. Indeed, from what I’ve seen and heard, it’s badly written and the S&M aspect seems to be have been penned by somebody with little actual real-time knowledge.

Plastic ties are NOT a good idea for bondage. Seriously. Without wishing to sound as though I’m importing ’lf ‘n’ safety into the world of kink (truth is, perves are very safety conscious), they could cut off the blood supply badly.

Which does rather make you wonder why the book isn’t being prosecuted by the CPS under the Possession of extreme pornography law, really, since that is dependent, in part at least, on the issue of more than transitory physical harm.

Indeed, it’s one of the quirks of timing that this publishing phenomenon comes as the same time as #PornTrial, and it reinforces the idea, gained from the speed and clarity of the jury's decision in that case, that the CPS is out of kilter with attitudes at large.

But that aside – stick to ropes and silk scarves, or fluffy handcuffs.

Anyway, the success of the books does, as I mentioned earlier, suggest that lots of women like some pretty hardcore fantasies, including ones of submission.

It’s no wonder there’s handwringing going on – although this is hardly new.

When it emerged that the real writer of Story of O really was Dominique Aury (née Anne Desclos; pen name Pauline Réage), there was a similar sort of handwringing.

Although it came with bells on, since copies of the book were apparently burned on US campuses in the 1980s by some feminists.

Burning books has never struck me as a particularly progressive approach.

So perhaps we should not be surprised that 50 Shades has caused a furoré.

What James has done, yet again, is to raise the spectre of female sexuality neither being Madonna-like or quite as dominant as some feminists appear to demand and expect.

In other words, female sexuality does not fit into any of the narrow templates that some people would like. Who’d a thunk that, eh?

There are other, related, deeply irritating – and revealing – issues that 50 Shades has brought to the surface.

For instance, the 'mummy porn' tag is a snide and essentially ageist comment on female sexuality.

But then again, only a coupleweeks ago, writing in the Daily Telegraph after the death of Irish author Maeve Binchy, author Amanda Craig asked whether Binchy would have been 'deeper' as a writer if she'd actually managed to pop some brats out of her vagina. (Story)

I can’t answer for anyone else, but I knew who Binchy was. I had to Google Craig.

And it should tell people something that the old Pope would love such sentiments: the deification of motherhood and, with it, the implication that a woman who is not a mother is not a real or really fulfilled woman.

Indeed, when Joseph Ratzinger was, in effect, still Inquisitor to his predecessor, one of John Paul II’s last encyclicals was to say that, even women who wouldn’t or couldn’t have children had value. Which was nice of him.

Even today, the London Evening Standard has published a ‘report’ about the murder of businesswoman Carole Waugh, in which it uses speculation that she might have had a double life as an ‘escort’, to describe her as “a fantasist”, in a way that hints that she only had herself to blame.

But that’s the way with women and sex, isn’t it?

It is extraordinary that, in the 21st century, so many people – male and female – still seem so bothered by any indication of female sexuality that is seen to step outside certain boundaries.

If EL James has upset a few of these limiting voices, then good for her.

Finally, a little ‘admission’. Some years ago, for various reasons that I’m not going to bore you with, I penned some decidedly pornographic short stories.

One was published in Forum (not for free – don’t worry), while 10 more were picked up by a publisher in Germany, translated, and are still available in a second edition.

My parents were so shocked that the matter was brushed under the carpet with a haste that was at least as indecent as the stories themselves. Okay – maybe not quite that indecent.

I’ve always refused to refer to them as ‘erotica’, quite simply because that seems a tad disingenuous. They were written to arouse. Apparently they do.

As a friend said at the time: it’s not everybody who gets paid for their wet dreams.

And it was a liberating experience too.


  1. Sweetie, the book is dreadful and, as you say, does a disservice to the BDSM community with it's ability to completely ignore the basic tenets of "safe, sane, and consensual." Yet, it has somehow given a load of women permission to explore a side of the sexuality that both conservatives (all sex is bad unless it is for making babies) and some feminists (women should not want to be dominated ever) have told them is bad and wrong and makes them dreadful people. It's really a shame the book is such crap.

  2. Totally agree! I hate the mummy porn tag, and if a woman chooses to be a submissive isn't that her choice which she is free to make. Yes the writing is horrific but I think you'll find the scripts for most mainstream porn films are far far worse. I'll leave you with this ;)