In the world of flogging books, books about flogging are all the rage
WHEN YOU CAN’T BUY a kinky book anywhere in the land, and a “surprise” delivery of 400 copies to Eason in Dublin sells out in three hours, it’s clear that something strange is going on. Dubbed “mummy porn”, “pornographic Cath Kidston” and “clit lit” – even talking about it can carry a taste warning – Fifty Shades of Grey has become the fastest-selling paperback of all time, outselling The Da Vinci Code and the Harry Potter books.
Since it came out in print, 12 weeks ago – it was originally published as an ebook last year – it has sold 85,000 copies here, though retailers estimate it could have sold 150,000 by now if its publisher, Random House, had been able to keep up with demand. In Britain, in the week up to June 30th, the sexually explicit trilogy – there are two more Fifty Shades books – sold almost a million copies, and the trilogy’s total global sales have reached 20 million copies. What do people – let’s face it, women – get out of it?
“For me, primarily, it is a romance, an extended Mills Boon,” says Patricia Murphy, who is “fiftyish” and lives in Ranelagh, in Dublin. “The S&M [sadomasochism] is really just the classic obstacle in the relationship. He is closed and distant, and feels he can’t be in a conventional relationship, and they negotiate their way through that.”
The plot, in which a literature student and virgin, Anastasia Steele, falls for a cold, obscenely wealthy businessman, Christian Grey, who turns out to be into whips, leather cuffs and cages, has attracted some feminist criticism. But Murphy says there is nothing demeaning about the relationship. “As the book goes on, [Anastasia] is really calling the shots. I don’t think the fact so many people are reading it says anything about their sexuality. It’s just a great piece of escapism. It’s a straightforward romance with some graphic sex.”
Sinéad, a 32-year-old single woman who lives in Cork, came across the book in early June when a friend couldn’t stop reading it. She borrowed it and has since read the other two in the series as well. “It’s pure filth,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a bit disturbing; so much of it is completely unrealistic, and the ending was disappointing.” But did she enjoy it? “Yes.”
An older man she works with had bought it for his wife. “I have definitely heard the book is helping sex lives, with wives suddenly hopping on their husbands.” But she believes women also use it for sexual self-pleasuring.
Karen Mulreid, who is 33 and lives in Celbridge, Co Kildare, has read all three books, having seen them reviewed in a magazine. “I used to like the Mills Boon and the Black Lace books, and I thought it would be something like that. It is drivel, nonsense and hilariously badly written, like Twilight for grown-ups but without a good story. There’s no mutual respect between Christian and Anastasia. I read all three just to see what happens. Christian has a dark secret that keeps getting hinted at, and you do want to see where they are going with it.”
The author behind the pseudonym EL James is Erica Leonard, a 48-year-old British married mother of two who used to be a TV producer, working on the BBC shows Have I Got News for You and Room 101. She recently admitted the series was her “midlife crisis writ large”, adding that she had “put all [her] fantasies in there”.
Marian, a Meath woman in her 30s, who is married with two children, says: “People say it’s very racy, but I think for anyone in their 30s it wouldn’t be too shocking. You might get a bit flustered reading it, red in the face. It depends on what imagination you have. It’s definitely graphic, but I don’t think you’d use it as a sex aid. That’s a compliment to my husband.”
GERALDINE, WHO ISin her 50s, is originally from Donegal and lives in Boston. She is home for the summer and heard about it from mothers at her children’s school. “A friend said, ‘Oh my God, have you read this book? I can’t leave it down,’ she says.
“It’s very degrading for the young girl, and she just seems hooked on sex. You do read on and on, though. I would say people are reading it and rearranging things. You do get bored with things the same all the time.”
No one says they are embarrassed about buying the book. “It is bananas,” says David O’Callaghan, a buyer for Eason. “We had a delivery of 400 at the O’Connell Street branch at the start of the week. The manager went on her break at noon, and when she came back every copy was gone. It isn’t available anywhere at the moment. I’ve ordered 26,000 copies to be delivered next week, and 20,000 of those have been presold, pretty much all to women.”
The nondescript covers help. All three books have sedate, grey-toned covers with innocuous illustrations of such things as neck ties, which may be a master stroke by Random House. If the cover showed a naked woman tied up on a chair being whipped by a man clad in leather, book clubs might be more reticent.
Eoin Stephens, a psychotherapist and the president of the Personal Counselling Institute at the National College of Ireland, sees sales of the books and their being read, openly and unashamedly, as healthy. “Why shouldn’t Irish women read it? The only thing that strikes me about the phenomenon is that it’s popular, open. If people are reading it and enjoying it, it reflects a positive change, an openness in sexuality. It’s a good thing.” On the issue of S&M, as long as it is between two fully consenting adults, there is no problem with it, he says.
Marie Daly, a psychotherapist at Relationships Ireland, also stresses the centrality of mutual consent. “Erotic literature can be enjoyable and can also be useful to open people up, bring them to another place, other ideas. It doesn’t have to be great literature.”
Great literature or not, publishers have taken note. O’Callaghan says a number of previously published erotic books are being reissued – tellingly, with new covers. Look out for a fresh-looking edition of Haven of Obedience, by Marina Anderson, due in bookshops next month. In the world of flogging books, books about flogging seem to be all the rage.
Healthy or harmful? A counsellor’s opinion
WHAT THE BOOK SAYS
“When you are in here you are completely mine,” he breathes, each word slow and measured. “To do with as I see fit. Do you understand?”
His gaze is so intense. I nod, my mouth dry, my heart feeling as if it will jump out of my chest.
“Take your shoes off,” he orders softly.
I swallow, and rather clumsily, I take them off . . . “Good. Don’t hesitate when I ask you to do something. Now I’m going to peel you out of this dress. Something I’ve wanted to do for a few days if I recall. I want you to be comfortable with your body Anastasia. You have a beautiful body and I like to look at it . . . Do you understand?”
“Yes, what?” He leans over me glaring.
“Good girl.” His eyes burn into mine.“When I tell you to come in here I expect you to kneel over there.” He points to a spot beside the door. “Do it now” . . .
“I’m going to chain you now Anastasia. Give me your right hand.” I give him my hand. He turns it palm up and before I know it, he swats the centre with a riding crop I hadn’t noticed is in his right hand. It happens so quickly that the surprise hardly registers.
From Fifty Shades of Grey
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS
“If there is full adult consent – full consent includes lack of regret afterwards – we are looking at a form of sexual role-playing.
The category for this particular type of sexual play is BDSM – bondage, dominance, sadism, masochism – but a lot of sexual role-play uses the thrill of power dynamics, pretend danger and so on, so we might not be talking about a very strict category. Still, we are looking at a fairly extreme version in this extract, by most people’s standards, and this is what makes it a talking point.
“From a psychological point of view it is assumed that many people have a wide range of sexual fantasies, which for some people may include fantasies of dominating, being dominated or both, with or without physical pain. This is no longer considered pathological in its own right.
“A smaller but significant number of people are interested in acting out some of these sexual fantasies, including in some cases the dominance/pain ones, with a willing partner. This is also now considered to be within the realms of normal, if less common, sexual behaviour.”
* Eoin Stephens is a psychotherapist and president of the Personal Counselling Institute at the National College of Ireland
Fifty shades of parody
Sweat was trickling down my back and the windows were steaming up. Was this real life or fantasy? I looked up at the display. The Dart really had broken down. I glanced around to see how my fellow travellers were taking it. And it was at that point, stuck on a clammy train, that I got a grip, so to speak, on the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey is an Irish phenomenon. Without turning my head more than a fraction I could see four women engrossed in the book. On the Dart. At teatime. In broad daylight.
But where there’s a sensation there’s a send-up. Literary erotica being an easy target for parodists, it wasn’t long before celebrities were doing their own “readings”, from Twilight’s empress of pout, Kristen Stewart, to the veteran gay comedian Ellen DeGeneres.
Here the Twitter strand #IrishShadesOfGrey has seen tweeters creating paragraphs for an Irish version of the book. Some are irresistible. “ ‘I want you to tie me down for 18 months and treat me like dirt,’ she said. The man from Vodafone got the contract out. . .” raises a few smiles. My favourite is: “ ‘Come on, get the glove. Smear it all over me. Everywhere!’ she screamed. Seán hated applying Mary’s St Tropez.” Both came from Philip Nolan (@philipnolan1). Anne Marie O’Connor (@Kitsgirl1) weighed in with the cruelly topical, “‘Give it to me, give it to me,’ he roared aggressively. Some days Mary hated working at Ulster Bank.”
Expect to see 50 shades of everything, from tennis whites to mortgages, this silly season. Arminta Wallace