Bring on Mr Grey

So, I have been asked to write a guest blog about Fifty Shades of Grey. The big problem with this, I thought, is that I’ve not actually read the book. However, undaunted by my ignorance on the phenomenon that is Fifty Shades, I set to.

So why didn’t I read it? My book club read it, several of my friends who hardly ever read a book read it. And maybe that’s why I didn’t; not for any good reason, just being contrary. Nevertheless, over 100 million copies have been sold worldwide and it is the only erotic fiction on the top 10 best-sellers list.

Not wanting to appear a slouch, I have done a little bit of research. I have discovered that the heroine of the book is an innocent; virginal, hasn’t explored her own body and doesn’t know what an orgasm feels like at the grand age of 21 (she has the key to the door, but not to her body). And so comes along the gallant hero, the eponymous Mr Grey, to help her find her way along the path to sexual fulfilment. I know that there has been some discontent about this particular facet of the story; why does a grown, intelligent woman require a man to help her explore her own sexuality? Sadly, perhaps that is the case for some women? Everyone expects boys to masturbate (socks at the ready); but the same openness doesn’t exist about girls.

After all, there is nothing wrong with sex and enjoying sex; let’s face it, without it we wouldn’t be here. As one Guardian interviewee commented: "People confuse love and sex, but to us they are different things. It's a bodily function. In many ways, it's just like having a good shit, no more than that." (What’s Love got to do with it, 2003.)

In Daniel Bergner’s book “What Women Want” he explores the uncomfortable, taboo even, research finding that some women have rape fantasies. It seems odd that one would fantasise about something happening that, by definition, one doesn’t want to happen. The hypothesised explanation in his book is that women are constrained by society’s judgements of those women who have multiple sexual partners (contrary to men being applauded for the exact same behaviour: “studs” and “legends”) and the rape fantasy takes away feelings of guilt about desiring sex; she has no choice but to submit to the demands of the man. (Note that it is not just men who apply the double-standard; women are just as guilty.) Is this why Fifty Shades has become so incredibly successful? Anastasia is submitting to her man; she is depicted as engaging in these acts because she is told to by Grey, and because she wants to make him happy.

Now, there’s another element of the relationship that is worth exploring. Are women expected to be the ones who work hard to make their men happy whilst men give little thought to making women happy? Is this perspective fostered and encouraged by traditional pornography? During the 17th century, there was, perhaps surprisingly, a lot of openness about sex; before the Victorians made us all dysfunctional. But they got one important fact wrong and it’s a terrible shame that science has since established the truth; the populace believed that women could only conceive if they had an orgasm. Of course the men worked a lot harder to make their women happy! Sadly that’s no longer true - for some. I remember with some sadness my Nan reminiscing when she was in her 80s that: “…if that’s all you get married for, it’s not worth it”.

So who has been reading it? Anastasia is a young woman, yet Fifty Shades, written by a 40+ woman, has been called “mummy porn”. According to the stereotype it is read by bored housewives and cougars, and has even been blamed for a rise in chlamydia amongst older generations. Writing on the subject of Fifty Shades, internet bloggers are often derogatory about housewives and older women, as if it’s somehow despicable that they should have an interest in sex. I have a vignette in my head: grannies clad in leather chaps chasing young men down the street…whip crack away, whip crack away…

I find it difficult to believe the stereotype; my highly scientific (not) sampling suggests that both men and young single women have read the books – and that’s just the ones who are prepared to admit it. 

One big positive is that I detect no embarrassment in women, or men, who acknowledge that they have read the book. And the only thing that gets apologised for is that they read it despite it being so poorly written (what’s that I hear you say? Something about the pot and the kettle?). So is this the advent of women being able to openly enjoy pornography – and the birth of a new type of pornography which is not just aimed at men, but which women and couples can enjoy? I wholeheartedly support Caitlin Moran’s perspective that pornography is not a problem per se; it is the depiction of women in porn that pervades the internet that is.

And if this is the advent of a world where we can start to dispel some of the damaging myths and stereotypes about women and men’s sexuality, then bring on Mr. Grey.