Fifty Shades of Grey -- the titillating story of how a shy virginal university student is seduced by a mysterious magnate (Mr. Grey) with a penchant for bondage and domination -- has become the fastest-selling book in history. A "mummy porn" phenomenon, the book has been expanded into a trilogy and is reportedly earning author E.L. James $1.35m a week!
While people are reading it on buses and trains worldwide, debate rages over whether it's an entertaining diversion or a sinister users' guide for setting feminism back 100 years. It seems a little generous to suggest James set out to "dismantle" decades of good work by women's liberation activists. She says she drew on her "midlife" fantasies and set out to write a Twilight fan fiction piece that imagined what would happen if that book's "notoriously abstinent" lovers did the deed instead of simply staring at each other. The spanner in the works is the nature of the sex enjoyed in Mr Grey's fifty shades; when Ana finds love and, yes, power in submission. You'll have to wait till page 136 until there's any "real action".
Inexplicably, women everywhere are talking with "giggly delight" about this raunchy "chick-lit." Bettina Arndt in The Advertiser newspaper, says, "There have been a number of soft porn books and Ebooks directed at female tastes in the past few years but none has ever ignited their loins as much as Fifty Shades of Grey." Positive female reviewers have blithely dismissed the "dreadful" writing and claimed "how liberating, how empowering," this book is for women. Yet men who use porn are cast as perverted, or infantilised by assuming they can't distinguish their sexual fantasies from what happens in real life. How readily female commentators can switch from their normal stance that men and women are equal to suggesting that women are essentially superior. With wide-spread reports of Fifty Shades of Grey "awakening long-dormant female sexual appetites", men are probably not complaining, but why such different rules for girls?
The Way I See It....is that the popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy demonstrates how common enjoyment of sadomasochistic fantasies is. I know some psychologists feel the books uphold damaging myths about people who are into S & M, including links to childhood abuse and dangerous behaviors, but these are unsupported by clinical evidence. I've heard that a top San Francisco hotel is offering "Fifty Shades Weekend" packages with a complimentry box containing satin ties and a jar of "lubricant".
More troubling for me is the possessive relationship between Ana and her seducer, Christian, which perpetuates "problematic myths" about love: that stalking behavior is romantic; that it's OK for a man to control a women's life; that a woman should change a man into what she wants him to be. Gina Barreca, of the Independent, has a point when she says, "If Christian wasn't rich, Ana would have him followed by the police or arrested for kidnapping." To say he was vulnerable and hid his own distress under his compulsion to offer pain is laughable. The book is pushing absurd psychosexual rituals and doesn't always make for "happy-funny-relaxed" times in bed -- unless you're into terrible prose as punishment.