˜When I first heard about the literary sensation that has now made more sales on Amazon than J K Rowling, E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey felt like a bit of harmless fun. What can the problem be with a bit of sex and escapism – surely more exciting that some dry book on our reading list this vacation? Where women used to get their kicks under the bed covers from Lady Chatterley’s Lover they are now getting it from this literary sensation of ‘porn fiction’ – Lawrence would be turning in his grave. At first glance this book is very readable; you can quickly understand why women on tubes have been getting out their kindle to bury themselves in a sexual fantasy before they’ve had their morning coffee. Half way through reading though, I begin to feel differently. It did become a book that ‘obsessed me, possessed me and will stay with me forever’ – but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.
If fifty shades was simply a member of the ‘erotic fiction’ genre then the poor prose and unsubtle language could perhaps be forgiven. If it’s raw sex that people are after, it should hardly bother them that the characters have little substance or development. However, James has created a genre that tries to bridge the gap between romantic fiction and porn. It is not just that you are supposed to fantasize about the amount of sexual pleasure Mr Grey could bring to your ‘inner goddess’, but you are supposed to fall in love with him too, despite the fact that his favourite pastimes include beating you when you roll your eyes at him, requesting that you keep all of your body hair removed at all times, exercise and eat regularly to keep yourself in excellent shape for him so that he can easily objectify you into your play thing. But the fact that the idea of sleeping in a bed with a woman he’s just screwed is repulsive to him counts for nothing when you read about him soulfully playing Chopin on his piano in the middle of the night, imagine his ‘penetrating’ grey eyes undressing you, and hear him talk about his tragic parenting which has rendered him so unable to love.
At one point E L James generously allows Ana Steele a rare moment of ‘feistiness’ as she tries to pay for a meal rather than letting her millionaire boyfriend pay for everything (he’s already bought her a laptop so he can keep control over the whereabouts and where necessary stalkerishly follow her to a different state if she leaves aspects of their relationship dubious). However, after he accuses her of trying to ‘emasculate’ him by paying for a meal she gives in and allows her troubled man to regain his sense of authority. At the end of the first novel she so bravely manages to walk away from this man, who this time has thrashed just a bit too hard, but she blames herself – it is she that is unable to love this man and accept his dark ways.
But now let’s turn to the sex. The sex that if you were Ana Steele would give you mind-blowing, body-shattering orgasms at least ten times a day and if you weren’t having sex with this man then you would at every moment of the day be so “wet” simply thinking about the skill with which he could produce these miracles. In whatever way you were being tied up, beaten or contorted into positions frankly Olympic gymnasts would struggle with, you would be experiencing some kind of dangerous new sexual pleasure you never knew existed. Perhaps I’m being a little unkind; after all it is simply erotic fiction and where would the compulsiveness be if the sex being described wasn’t an extraordinary fantasy?
Where the danger lies however is that this literary sensation is being publicised, accepted and devoured as every western woman’s sexual fantasy – we all want a Mr Grey of our own to dominate us. The media have been joking that up and down the country men have been getting a lot more sex from their suddenly passionate and more experimental partners. You can’t help but feel sorry for the hundreds of surely disappointed women across the country as their average blokes fail to fulfil their fantasies. But pause to think of it like this. Distressingly, this kind of sexual fantasy is something that for lots of women across the world is a frightening reality. Only three weeks ago a young female student leaving a bar in India was grabbed by a group of 18 men, held down by them and repeatedly attacked and abused for over forty five minutes. They pulled down her top, exposed her breasts and began groping her in front of many onlookers, some of whom filmed the incident and broadcast it. Across the world last month troubling stories have emerged from the depressingly narrow minded to the downright disgusting and shocking. Whether we are dealing with a group of thoughtless and sexist French politicians who felt it necessary to heckle and wolf-whistle when one of their colleagues wore a modest dress in the assembly, to a group of abusive and misogynistic men in India who blamed the student for the attack because she was allegedly drunk, women are still facing the kind of prejudice that many of us couldn’t even imagine experiencing. It makes me very uncomfortable and ashamed to think that a creation like Fifty Shades that is being so thoughtlessly publicised as verbalising a western woman’s fantasy can be a very unpleasant and damaging reality for so many women all over the world who have to tolerate repeated rape, violence and prejudice on a daily basis with no hope of escape.
If this is currently all western women’s sexual fantasy then I have to say I’m an outcast. Call me old-fashioned but I highly doubt that mine or indeed many women’s ‘inner goddesses’ could get excited over the prospect of a powerful sex addict tying me up, beating me and then stroking me with a velvet glove. I never thought I’d say this but give me “vanilla sex” with an inexperienced, socially awkward, welfare-condom bearing student any day over this quite frankly troubling rubbish. Let’s hope Fifty Shades gets accepted as an example of niche taste and fetish, not proof that every woman has a bit of the submissive in them and that we’d do anything for a good-looking millionaire, however demeaning it might be.