Fifty Shades of domestic violence, and yet some call it romance

HERE’S AN alarming thought

HERE’S AN alarming thought. There are more copies of Fifty Shades in circulation than there are people in the whole of Argentina.

Here’s another. More people have bought into the trilogy than ever owned the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.

In all, EL James’s novels have sold 40 million copies – that’s about the same as the lower end of estimates for the civilian death toll in the second World War.

You might be forgiven for thinking there’s not much more that can be said about the publishing phenomenon that is Fifty Shades.


I thought so myself after I read it three months ago, and dashed off an article in which I declared it a lowbrow Pretty Woman with bondage gear, and about as sexy as a stale cheese sandwich.

I was wrong – or at least, woefully premature – to dismiss it as a bit of silly fun. Fifty Shades might be laughably puerile, but it’s not harmless.

Strip away all the talk of mummy porn and female empowerment and the whips, chains and nipple clamps, and what you’re left with is the story of a damaged bully who manipulates, sexually tortures and spends his way into the life of an inexperienced young woman. The books’ singularly charmless hero instructs her what to wear and what, when and how much to eat – as he goes about eroding the boundaries of what she considers acceptable physical force.

Yes, that’s right. It’s the classic narrative of domestic violence, with a few more wifi-enabled Apple devices thrown in. If Christian Grey was your mate’s new boyfriend, you know you’d have staged an intervention the first time he used GPS to track her cellphone across the country.

None of this would matter a jot if EL James’s trilogy had remained the preserve of readers of Twilight fan fiction and a handful of mildly titillated newspaper columnists, but somewhere in the early days of the summer it became a fully-fledged, worldwide cultural phenomenon.

How did we get to a place where the equivalent of the entire population of Kenya are happy to kick back on their lounger to devour a story that might have been lifted straight out of a Women’s Aid training manual, and call it romance?

I can answer that in a word. Porn.

Specifically, it’s because our cultural perceptions of normal sexual relationships have been so skewed by porn that it’s possible to read Fifty Shades and fail to notice how disturbing it is that a woman reluctantly allows herself to be tied up and beaten in exchange for a new laptop.

You don’t even have to have sat through a movie with a title like Help! I Shrunk The Cheerleader to have been socialised by the essential message of porn, which is that all women are always ready for sex with all men – and even if they think they aren’t, a little force will soon bring them round.

If you want to really see how far the industry has spread its tentacles into mainstream society, you only have to look at the rise in genital waxing, breast augmentation, lap dancing clubs and labiaplasty operations. Or listen to politicians like George Galloway or the republican congressman Todd Akin expound on the topics of sex and rape.

In fact, Christian Grey’s epic contract negotiations with heroine Ana Steele may be marginally more subtle than Galloway’s “when you go to bed with somebody, take off your clothes, and have sex with them and then fall asleep, you’re already in the sex game with them” – but the thrust is the same. Women have become something to be haggled over; sex their stock-in-trade and violence is just another way of expressing ownership.

I’m not a total kill-joy. I recognise that in itself, Fifty Shades may indeed just a bit of escapist fantasy. But it’s the manner in which we have embraced it so unquestioningly that bothers me, and the notion that reading is a rite of passage, the way Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying was for women of my mother’s generation in the 1970s.

What does this say about us?

Does it mean we have become a society in which women are seen – and see themselves – as commodities whose worth is measured in chest inches or willingness to be spanked and subjugated? It’s not that surprising that the porn industry – which is primarily geared towards men – has had such an impact on the reading habits of a generation of women: it generates more profits annually than Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple, and Netflix combined.

Its reach is so great, in fact, that a whole generation of young men are apparently emerging into adulthood with absolutely no idea that grown women have pubic hair.

And now, a whole generation of young women may grow up thinking happiness equals a pair of nipple clamps and a free Macbook Pro.

Jennifer O’Connell’s column will be appearing on Wednesdays in the Features pages of The Irish Times. Please get in touch with comments, suggestions and other gender-based marketing aberrations by emailing or tweeting @jenoconnell.