Of female bondage

Carolyn Moynihan
20 April 2012
Reproduced with Permission

Here's something strange. Just when you thought women had cast off the last of their chains, it turns out that they are rushing headlong back into bondage. Female enthusiasm for a sadomasochistic "romance" called Fifty Shades of Grey has seen tens of thousands of suburban mums downloading copies from Amazon and now snapping up hard copies at their local bookstores. That's the hype, anyway. We don't know how many men are in the market.

Launched on the internet last year as Twilight fan fiction, Fifty Shades and its two sequels (no self-respecting female author can offer less than a trilogy these days) became a best-seller on Amazon in January and by early March had topped the New York Times combined print and e-book list. Mainstream publisher Knopf/Vintage launched a paperback edition this month with a print run of 750,000 copies, and Universal Pictures has forked out $5 million for the movie rights.

Starting where Stephanie Meyer and her vampire lovers left off, and taking a theme celebrated in the ghastly Dragon Tattoo series, British television executive E. L. James (pictured, with fan) has spun three books out of a sick sexual relationship between college graduate Ana Steele and a young business magnate, Christian Grey (note the sly first name). It's the woman who gets to be tied up etc. And that, I suggest, is all the discerning reader needs to know about the contents of these pot-boilers.

The problem for those of us who wouldn't touch this stuff with a barge-pole -- let alone download it onto our iPad -- is its popularity. It has been dubbed "mommy porn" because it is allegedly being devoured by "mainstream" and "suburban" women over 30 and not just by young urbanites. It even has its academic apologists. Two of them writing on the CNN website invoke "the novel's compelling relevance" and suggest that its "abundant references to classic literature unlock a subtler commentary [than its fan-fiction origins suggest] on enduring obstacles to women's individual freedom and rights." The classic references include Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

And here's the subtle commentary: "Whenever power relations are unequal, the novel implies, sexual consent is never black and white: it is always fifty shades of grey. Paying attention to its literary signposts shows what has changed for women in that regard and what has not."

Frankly, I think James has a cheek to even mention Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre and Tess in the context of an SM relationship, whose object is depraved sensual pleasure. Whatever male "power" they contended with in their very different ways, they were women of moral sensitivity who aspired to married love and, to a woman, would have been revolted by the Shades of Grey conceit.

Even now, the majority of women must find the idea of marinating their minds in sexual degradation repellent, but it may be difficult in future to satisfy cohorts brought up on Twilight and Hunger Games without some departure into the weird or perverse. Until recently, explicit pornography for women was the provenance of fringe feminism. But -- and I am handicapped here by refusing to read tripe -- it seems to have been gradually creeping into popular fiction: a sex orgy in The Da Vinci Code, SM in the Dragon Tattoo books, even Mills and Boon has embraced explicit eroticism and has its bondage sub-genre.

More and more publishers are jumping on the porn express. An article on the Forbes website about James' books informs us about "the successful Zane erotic series" published by the Atria division of Simon and Schuster. Atria's publisher and founder, Judith Curr, enthuses about the trend saying it "has now got a credibility that only high sales will give you". William Morrow and Avon Books is stepping up marketing of its Avon Red line "for those whose appetites…have been whetted by the 'Grey' Tales", and HarperCollins UK announced in March the launch of Mischief, its new erotic e-book imprint. Forbes reports:

"Fifty Shades helps to normalise erotica and romance," says Adam Nevill, editorial director of Mischief. "This kind of commercial success from outside the radar moves a derided genre into mainstream acceptability. Every major publisher will be taking the genre seriously now."

It is the internet and the digital book, apparently, that are driving the mainstreaming of porn. Being able to download titles electronically spares readers "the embarrassment of shopping the adult sections of bookstores, having to look a cashier in the eye or exposing the book jacket in public" the Forbes article notes; e-readers "allow women to venture into genres they may have previously dismissed…"

Anxious not to appear merely money-grubbing or pandering to base instincts, Ms Curr of Atria speculates that the trend may be "freeing up American sexuality". "Freeing", however, is exactly what eroticism is not, unless throwing yourself into a bottomless pit is freedom. The pornification of sex, if it has truly captured the imagination of wives and mothers, is a path to personal and social oblivion.

I doubt, though, that the majority of women have so little regard for their recent liberation as to squander it on such trash. Publishers are talking up the trend because it suits their business. Curiosity is always a temptation but imitation does not necessarily follow, and much of the popularity is no doubt down to the herd mentality among an entertainment and titillation focused public that sends people stampeding after the latest daring foray into forbidden subjects, whether blasphemy or bondage. Perhaps it has always been thus, although today it is amplified by the viral effect.

But, so what if a few million women read the sick fantasies of a television executive? There are roughly 3.5 billion women in the world, and when the erotica boom has finally spent itself there will be more than enough of them still with their wits and dignity to carry on the work of love and civilisation that women in particular are equipped to do.

Part of that work is producing literature and films, and perhaps nothing would help to flush away the toxic stream of female porn so much as a new flowering of genuine love stories capable of inspiring women to live up to their best instincts, not their worst. If Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte could do it without the internet, it should be a walkover now.