Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Fifty Shades of Grey: Repression V Curiosity

I finished Fifty Shades Of Grey last week, having read it on my phone from time to time. Don’t worry, I’m not going to rehash the contents of the book here. It’s an alright read, a pretty decent erotic novel …

Tue, Aug 21, 2012, 16:55


I finished Fifty Shades Of Grey last week, having read it on my phone from time to time. Don’t worry, I’m not going to rehash the contents of the book here. It’s an alright read, a pretty decent erotic novel as erotic novels go. But as a curious reader, I was disappointed. Hearing all the talk around the phenomenon the book and the trilogy as a whole has become, I was expecting a sensational, jaw-dropping and unbelievably explicit and boundary-pushing rollicking ride, as it were. Instead the craziest thing that occurs is the odd bit of spanking (OMG) and the lead female character being tied up (WTF) as well as loads of stuff about her “inner goddess” (LOL). So far, so vanilla (IMO).

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Melanie Morris, the editor of Image Magazine tweeted a photo today of books arriving into her office, all various spin offs of the Fifty Shades buzz. Apart from a publishing industry that has erected itself (sorry) around the trilogy, sex shops must be experiencing some kind of boom as well, because I’ve walked by a fair few with printed signs in their windows that read ’50 Shades accessories available here’.

Perhaps most visibly of all, Fifty Shades has given the media a broad license to talk about sex. The media is always looking to talk about sex, because it sells. So we have sexy Leaving Cert students doing sexy things drunkenly in the street as news reports, sex columns, sex advice from agony aunts and uncles, Page 3 still existing, and the Sunday Independent’s Life magazine continuing to sleaze over Irish women in various states of undress, which generally takes the rather odd form of photoshoots of television presenters in the underwear leaning against bookcases in stately homes. And that’s before we get into the bulk of what most women’s and men’s magazine at the more prurient end of the market are made up of.

As Jezebel reported in April via an article in the New York Times on romance novels and erotica or ‘smut-lit’ as they put it, the wider public and the media was surprised by the success of Fifty Shades simply because no one really writes about the romance and erotica genres. The books within these genres are rarely reviewed, interviews with authors are practically non-existent in mainstream media, and there aren’t the big PR book signings that chick lit, celebrity autobiographers, children’s writers and other novelists see as par for the course on the promo circuit.

When we talk about sex in the mainstream media, we talk about emerging trends, invented ones, or conversations that we as a society have gradually become ready to have; the sexualisation of teenage girls, footballers sexting various mistresses, the current trend in people writing about sex and the elderly. Or we talk about the kind of sex that has some kind of popular culture hook; the discourse surrounding Sex and the City being the obvious example, or how Twilight handled abstinence, or how Girls paints women in their twenties and whether boyfriends can be that horrible, or how The L Word or Queer As Folk handles the niche gay end of the spectrum, or how Skins depicted teenage sexuality, or how Grindr and ‘load more guys’-culture allowed gay men to embark on a new era of cruising and how that has impacted on everything from relationships to Fire Island, or when a Republican dim wit says something about rape, and we wonder how people in a modern society can still think of it in different terms to the bloody obvious. Obviously, plenty of men think rape is acceptable like Mike Huckabee, or indeed, the men who buy sex, something women very rarely do.

Blanket coverage of a product, especially when the product is of the titillating kind, begets sales. Talk to most people who’ve read it (myself included) and they generally say they picked it up “to see what all the fuss is about”, and of course, there’s also the opportunity to read something slightly smutty and use the excuse that you just wanted “to see what all the fuss is about”. There’s not much difference between 14-year-olds scanning women’s magazines and problem pages for the sexy bits to women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond picking up Fifty Shades. And there’s the nub right there. Both of those actions are born out of the same compulsion: curiosity. For a heterosexual teenager, it’s consuming information about the basics of sexual activity, for gay teenagers, it’s about latching on to anything that has a bang of homo-interest off it, so perhaps for women who’ve covered all the bases and beyond, the S&M element of Fifty Shades provided new ground to discover.

But that’s not how the narrative around why Fifty Shades is so popular has panned out. One word arises again and again: repression. Blog posts and newspaper articles and talk shows batted around the idea that women are buying Fifty Shades because they are repressed. I also reached for the word ‘repressedi when I was reading about the rise of Fifty Shades’ success. But I was wrong. Surely, if someone is sexually repressed, then buying an erotic novel is the last thing they would do? I would imagine someone completely uptight and repressed would run a million miles from Fifty Shades. No, women are buying Fifty Shades because they are sexually curious, not sexually repressed. These two attributes are at two completely opposite ends of the scale. And now here’s the real life aspect that no one is really talking about: that sexual curiosity is born out of sexual needs not being met.

As with plenty of things aimed at women, a lot of the coverage is extremely snarky. The use of ‘mommy porn’ evokes images of women rushing from their people carriers to sit down at the kitchen table with their Kindle and a slightly flushed demeanor right after dropping the kids to school. There is a sense of projecting a layer of pathetic sentiment on to the audience, much like the sniggering coverage around the massive popularity of the Sex and the City film franchise. Plenty of that coverage boiled down to ‘ha ha look at these stupid women and their stupid film’. Of course female film reviewers and feature writers don’t use up endless column inches to take the piss out of men filling cinemas to look at robots, spaceships and fast and furious cars. These are called ‘popcorn movies’, as if crowds of popcorn tubs are levitating into cinemas to watch them, and not blokes themselves actually holding the popcorn.

But back to sexual curiosity being born out of needs not being met. No matter what advances women have made in being “given permission” to talk about sex, a woman requesting different sexual behaviour from a man can be interpreted as undermining his sexual prowess, something that is can be seen as unforgivable in relationships, something that is deeply hurtful, a direct attack on his very being and purpose. Something that says: you are not fulfilling me and I want to try something else. Of course, in reality, it’s a completely reasonable part of healthy sexual communication. The taboo of sex being absent from relationships – marriages or otherwise – is also something that no one really broaches outside of awkward conversations in relationship counseling sessions. It’s hinted at, of course, in articles about spicing up one’s sex life with generally ridiculous tips, and occasionally there’s a remarkable moment of realism in popular culture that actually addresses this taboo, such Lester Burnham masturbating in American Beauty.

Men don’t really need Fifty Shades because men watch more porn than women. Obviously women watch porn, but only a miniscule amount of pornography is made for women. As Caitlin Moran pointed out in How To Be A Woman, blokes tend to get off on the now traditional porn narrative –the artificial-looking woman being mercilessly pounded before her face gets the money shot – more than women, because it’s their fantasy. It’s largely alienating for women. You can bet there aren’t women sitting around a boardroom for a porno preproduction meeting saying, “you know what we need here? Longer nails, bleach-ier hair, and more bukkake.” So unless women want to subscribe to some lame ‘porn for women’ website which generally features women dressed like they’ve just come out of an Avoca sale embarking on a drawn out vanilla fantasy – or watch gay male porn, because at least then there’s a sense that both parties are consenting (most male on female porn is becoming increasingly, for want of a better word, ‘rapey’) and may even possibly be enjoying it – something like Fifty Shades fills a gap, so to speak. And as I said, men have greater access to fulfilling sexual fantasies, needs and their lust for sexual power, as men fuel the sex industry. The boom in prostitution in Ireland, which has increased ten-fold over the past twenty years, sees thousands of Irish men buy sex and rape every week with little thought for the lives these women lead, many of whom are trafficked and effectively imprisoned. Paul Maguire’s Prime Time investigative report on prostitution remains a must-watch. We rarely talk about that kind of sex outside of landmark reports such as Prime Time’s one even though it’s our boyfriends, husbands, fathers, brothers, colleagues and friends who are buying sex. When you think about the lust for sex in those terms, women marching into Easons to buy Fifty Shades Of Grey seems remarkably tame. At least no one is getting hurt, raped, trafficked, imprisoned or killed.

I suppose it can sometimes be difficult for all couples to feed their sexual curiosity. Men and women in a relationship still exist within an uneven powerbase in comparison to two women or two men in a relationship, where the likelihood of domestic violence and rape occurring is much lower. Gay and bisexual women are more likely to be sexually adventurous (there’s an interesting article on Slate about this), possibly because they experiment more with men before they decide it’s not for them, or because they have greater permission to access more ‘advanced’, shall we say, sexual behaviour from their partners as the fear of reprisals from sexual requests are lessoned when they are asked of a gender equal. Obviously, these are all gigantic generalisations. You’d presume (GIGANTIC GENERALISATION ALERT AGAIN) most happy couples have great sex lives and that their sexuality and length of relationship is irrelevant, and that both partners (or more, as the case may be) are fully open, accepting and understanding.

For now, the sexual curiosity of millions of women is being fed by a series of books. What impact that will have with real life sexual behaviour will probably remain un-surveyed, and almost certainly behind closed doors. But either way, that curiosity is there, and it’s certainly not repression. And as the erotica industry gets more exposure, there’s surely another Fifty Shades around the corner, because as we’ve seen, if you build it, they will come.