150m Shades of Grey: How the bestsellers changed our sex lives

EL James’s books triggered an erotica boom. They have also been cited in sex-crime cases

I was working as a bookseller when Fifty Shades of Grey was published and spent weeks stacking shelves with the glossy tomes, only for them to be whisked away as soon as they arrived. I soon amassed a range of excuses from customers who so often seemed to be embarrassed to be buying what everyone else was buying. “I’m getting it for my wife,” men announced, unprompted, while women – often younger than the label “mummy porn” suggested – would recount whole conversations with unnamed friends who had deemed the erotic thriller “quite good”.

The trilogy by EL James, the writing moniker of the British author Erika Leonard, was published between 2011 and 2012. Late last year it was announced that they had been the runaway bestselling books of the decade around the world – including in Ireland, where Fifty Shades of Grey was Eason's bestselling novel of the past 10 years. At its peak, two copies of that first book sold somewhere in the world every second. Worldwide, by 2015, more than 150 million copies had sold, with millions more ebooks on top. But alongside the huge number of copies sold, was there a lasting cultural influence?

For the uninitiated, here's the story: Anastasia Steele, a 22-year-old college student and virgin, meets 27-year-old billionaire and BDSM fan Christian Grey. She wants to date him, but he wants to employ her as his newest submissive. Slap and tickle ensues (read: a lot of slapping and not much tickling). They dance an uneasy line between kink and domesticity in penthouses, fancy restaurants and expensive cars. There are helicopter crashes, crazed exes and a kidnapping. He opens up about his childhood trauma and becomes more loving. They get married and Grey decides he no longer wants to inflict pain on his wife. They have two kids. The end.

The world was fascinated by its success, as it often is when something enjoyed by women and girls breaks through. Much was made of the power imbalance between Grey and Steele: after years of fighting for equality, did modern women secretly want to be tied up and forced to submit? Was it a feminist win or deeply regressive? The critics guffawed at lines such as: "His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel . . . or something." The New York Times said it was "like a Brontë devoid of talent", while Salman Rushdie said: "I've never read anything so badly written that got published."

Immediately, attempts were made to measure its impact. Science was involved. Experts variously claimed that Fifty Shades was a sexual turn-off (among college-age women); a measure of women’s self-esteem (fans aged between 18 and 24 were more likely to binge drink, have eating disorders and end up in abusive relationships); responsible for increasing sexually transmitted diseases among the over-50s (anecdotal); and covered in herpes and cocaine (according to two Belgian professors who studied the surfaces of library copies). Sociologists predicted a boom in babies that could never be causally linked. Anecdotally, women on mum forums talked about their incumbent “Fifty Shades baby”, while retailers cashed in on knockoff “Generation Grey” onesies.

These days, with fourth-wave feminism, the ubiquity of hardcore pornography and the politics of the #MeToo movement, when millennials cheerfully joke about “eating ass” and choking has been normalised, Fifty Shades has been left looking a little naff. Yes, there are butt plugs and handcuffs, but the books feel very conservative now, with many of Grey and Steele’s simultaneous orgasms achieved in missionary as they gaze into each other’s eyes. Reading all 1,500 pages of the trilogy left me thinking, more than once: “I’ve had weirder sex than this on a Tuesday.”

Charity shops began refusing donations of second-hand copies. A hotel owner in France told me of the season they were saddled with 150 discarded copies in different languages, while a sex-shop worker said that, when told the vibrator or clitoral chain they are holding is Fifty Shades-branded, most customers put them down. “It’s a shame, because they’re really good products,” the shop assistant said. “Very good anal beads.”

Sex educator Evie Fehilly had experienced abusive sex; when Fifty Shades became a hit, she read all three. "A lot of survivors have this, where you were put in a situation where you have no control and come to fantasise about it afterwards. Fifty Shades tapped into that very interestingly," she says. "I began engaging with those feelings in a very formalised way with kink, where it is all about consent, best practice and safety. Playing with those roles of the dominant and the submissive was so cathartic for me and really helped me love sex again."

Was Fifty Shades instrumental in the sexual education and unshackling of millions of women? Or has it been ruinous for female empowerment?

For years, BDSM practitioners and domestic-abuse campaigners have accused the series of normalising abusive behaviour, arguing Grey's possessiveness, jealousy and obsession with Steele had been unhelpfully conflated with BDSM. Natalie Collins set up the Fifty Shades Is Domestic Abuse campaign in 2014 because she was concerned about "how many women and girls might think abuse is normal or sexy, and how the series might add to that".

She adds: “Fifty Shades brought a niche sexual practice with its own rules, nuances and safety mechanisms into mainstream consciousness, without bringing any of the rules, nuances or safety mechanisms with it. It led to a shift in cultural consciousness which now presumes that, rather than this being a niche thing, large swathes of women are turned on by pain and powerlessness.”

BDSM practitioners also hated the connection between Grey’s childhood and his sexuality. (“I like to whip little brown-haired girls like you because you all look like the crack whore – my birth mother,” Grey tells Steele.) At the height of its popularity, the US sex-advice columnist Dan Savage issued a plea to Fifty Shades fans: “BDSM is cops and robbers for grownups with your pants off . . . It’s not a cry for help.”

A few years ago, students in Fehilly’s kink classes would cite the books as their reason for being there. Now, no one mentions them at all, although Fehilly does credit them for bringing BDSM into the mainstream – despite the caveats about Grey. “It is okay to be damaged and enjoy kink, as long as you do it with a lot of communication and enthusiastic consent. For that reason, the kink community would kick Christian Grey out in a heartbeat,” Fehilly says. “There are four pillars in BDSM – trust, communication, respect, and honesty – and they are not always there in Fifty Shades.”

Fifty Shades even, and the subsequent ubiquity of kink on morning television and in women’s magazines, had an impact on people who hadn’t read the books. Adele (not her real name), a 23-year-old dominatrix, only skimmed the first as a teenager, but believes they allowed her to explore kink without shame. “My mum and aunties were reading them, and everyone was talking about BDSM,” she says. “When I realised I wanted to try being domme at 19, there was no confusion about it. I knew what it meant just because it was always part of the conversation about ways to have sex.”

“For the first time ever, kink is cool and we have to credit Fifty Shades for starting that conversation,” Fehilly says. “For James to introduce people who have P-in-V [penis in vagina] sex a couple of times a month to things like spreader bars and butt plugs, that’s pretty outrageous and exciting.”

The companies that made the spreader bars and butt plugs found it pretty exciting, too. In 2011, Bonny Hall, a product developer at Lovehoney, was watching the industry go through a gloomy patch. Then Fifty Shades of Grey was published. The English company proposed an official line of toys to James; it had a deal by July 2012, and within a week Hall was in China starting development. "It was the perfect relationship. Both Erika and I wanted customers to be able to re-enact what they liked in the book exactly as she wrote them," Hall says.

The first products sold out in two weeks, and Hall says they were “working around the clock” for six months straight. In 2012, there was a worldwide shortage of kegel balls due to Grey’s fondness for inserting them into Steele; overnight, Lovehoney went from selling 300 a month to 3,000. A decade on, Lovehoney’s annual sales have increased tenfold, to more than €100 million a year; its biggest growth area has been bondage.

The series changed the conversation about women’s sexual desire. “It was amazing what a boost it gave us,” Hall says. “There are businesses that would not exist today without Fifty Shades,” says Hall. “People who had never been inside a sex shop started going in, particularly women, as it didn’t feel seedy any more. These days, 45 per cent of our customers are new. People have permission to experiment, to be curious.”

For publishing, Fifty Shades was like a boulder lobbed into a small pond: a huge initial impact, with gentler repercussions that are still rippling. Much was made of its beginnings as Twilight fanfiction. At a time of anxiety about ebooks killing the print industry, Fifty Shades taught publishers they could spread successes over both markets.

Selina Walker, who edited the UK and Ireland editions of the books for Penguin Random House, recalls staying up all night to read the series. "We acquired and published all three within a month of each other, so keeping them all in print and available online was an enormous piece of work," she says. The publisher assembled a dedicated team to focus solely on Fifty Shades. "We could barely print fast enough."

For erotica writers, it was a godsend, with publishers scrambling for authors to write copycats with silver fonts and dark covers. (“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery . . . none of them were a patch on Erika’s books!” Walker says.) One was Maxim Jakubowski, who had spent decades writing fantasy, thrillers and some literary erotica. “Fifty Shades is an insult to what good erotica can be, but I am eternally grateful to it; it changed my life,” he says.

In 2011, before Fifty Shades had even been published, Jakubowski was asked to write a novel to compete with it. He teamed up with an unnamed female author who has a background in BDSM; they produced outlines for two books. “Within 24 hours, a publisher came in with a huge offer, more than anything I’d been offered in my life. We ended up selling the books for an utter fortune,” he says, putting the deal with Orion in the ballpark of seven figures. “Then we wrote the first book in four weeks because it had to be in the shops within a month of Fifty Shades.”

The books have been cited in cases of men who kill their partners during sex, most often by strangulation

The major supermarkets – a huge influence on publishing in the UK – had two requests: the books had to be under a woman’s name with a colour and a number in the title. Eighty Days Yellow went straight in at No 8 on the Sunday Times bestseller list. Over two years, the duo wrote 10 books.

But, as with all fads, the market shrank. Multiple authors who had made a living from writing erotica during the Fifty Shades boom told me that within two years they were unable to pitch it. The only author to stand out after James was Sylvia Day, whose 2012 novel Bared to You – about a damaged billionaire and a young woman – was also a huge hit. “The industry was flooded with Fifty Shades rip-offs, some by hacks, and it spoiled the market. These days, no UK or US publisher will touch it with a bargepole,” says Jakubowski, who has gone back to writing thrillers.

This isn’t the same as the appetite for writing and reading it going away, says Monique Roffey, the author of the acclaimed 2017 novel The Tryst. “There are masses writing erotica online. It is thriving. It just isn’t in the mainstream any more because the book elite – publishing and media – see Fifty Shades as low and wrong.”

Roffey praises James for her bravery. “I’m 54, and it took me until I was 40 to put my foot down and say: ‘I’m not having the sex I want,’” she says. “It is very hard for women to have good sex because we all find it hard to talk about. P-in-V is the dominant portrayal of sex in our culture, but a bad way to bring a woman to orgasm. Top marks to James for starting that conversation.”

Yet in a society where our public discourse about sex lacks nuance, perhaps it is not surprising that Fifty Shades became a lazy shorthand for rough and non-consensual sex. Most recently, it was reported that Reynhard Sinaga, the UK’s worst serial rapist, who has just been jailed, dismissed his crimes as “Fifty Shades of Grey-type stuff”. The books have been cited in cases of men who kill their partners during sex, most often by strangulation, cases that have rocketed in number by 90 per cent over the decade. In court, lawyers have used what has been dubbed “the Fifty Shades defence” – blaming the defendant’s partner’s supposed appetite for sexual violence for their assault and death.

Fiona Mackenzie, from the British campaign group We Can't Consent to This, says her group avoids the term "Fifty Shades defence", as it puts the responsibility on the mainly female readers of the books, instead of the male perpetrators. (It is perhaps important – and interesting – to note that Grey specifically rules out erotic asphyxiation with Steele.) "But Fifty Shades is so frequently used in news reports of violent sexual assault of women that it's one of the search terms that we monitor to find new rough-sex defence cases," she says.

Women, of course, die not from butt plugs and handcuffs but from violence. As the British Labour MP Harriet Harman said recently: "What an irony it is that the narrative of women's sexual empowerment is being used by men who inflict fatal injuries." Ironic? Or useful to keep the rather conservative, female-driven Fifty Shades in the spotlight, instead of misogyny and the violent pornography mostly made by men?

Yet campaigners such as Collins argue that Fifty Shades led to a dangerous escalation in sexual play, to a culture where magazines such as Women’s Health now make suggestions such as: “If blindfolds and role play have veered into vanilla territory, there are still plenty of sex moves . . . like choking.”

So was Fifty Shades instrumental in the sexual education and unshackling of millions of women? Or has it been ruinous for female empowerment and contributed to a terrible misunderstanding of violence and sex? Did it help erotic publishing or create a bubble that quickly burst? Perhaps all of these things are, to a degree, true.

Influence is a hard thing to measure, but what stays with me from my time selling Fifty Shades, even more than the creative excuses, was what so many people said when they returned for the sequels. “You know, I’d never been in a bookshop before,” they told me, clutching their haul. “What else is there?” – Guardian

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