Has the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon proved we’re a generation of women who have neglected our sex lives for too long? Stylist investigates
Words: Collette Lyons
For the past week, my daily commute has been an hour of slapped backsides and considerable erections. I am reading graphic sex scenes on public transport, but instead of raising eyebrows, I get knowing smiles. Because every woman on the number 55 bus is reading Fifty Shades of Grey too this is not just a book, it’s a phenomenon – 31 million copies of the Fifty Shades trilogy have been bought worldwide. The first in the series has set the record as the fastest-selling paperback of all time, surpassing its one-time rival Harry Potter. Christian Grey, the book’s protagonist, has a very different sort of wand which he uses to great effect on Anastasia Steele, in all manner of bondage scenarios. the success has been a perfect storm of heavily debated factors, but at its heart has to lie one reason – the whole world was gagging for it.
We’re certainly not getting anywhere near as much sex as Anastasia (Shag count: vanilla sex, 9; bondage-lite bonks, 7), which may go some way to explain our curiosity. In our 'Stylist sex survey earlier this year, we found 27% of you were dissatisfied with your sex lives and 65% wanted more sex. Research by Relate backs this up, showing people in their 30s are the most time-poor of any group – more than one in five people say tiredness is getting in the way of sex. In short, we’re too knackered to even think about encouraging our ‘inner goddess’ to do the merengue more than once a week and our never-ending to-do list has meant sex has fallen way down our agenda – and it’s taken a sex-mad billionaire and 21-year-old virgin to remind us it might be worth prioritising.
We’re not just reading it in the bedroom either. Patchen Barss, author of the erotic engine thinks the Kindle is providing us with a brilliant cloak of erotic invisibility – no need to be embarrassed on the bus by a cover that shouts, “I’m reading about the alternative uses for riding crops, and it’s not even 9am!” Barss takes this one step further: “I think it gives people a thrill to know they look outwardly respectable, when actually they are being privately titillated,” he says. the fact it has taken soft-core fiction to break through the ebook one-million-sales barrier – Fifty Shades of Grey is the fastest-selling book ever on Kindle – isn’t surprising, he believes. “Historically, porn users have always been early tech adopters as people searching for their own particular turn-ons are determined, and will work hard to find them.”
Technology isn’t just responsible for the book’s dissemination – it also provided the platform for its discovery. Fifty Shades grew out of a ‘tribute fiction’ fansite inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. James’ earliest initiates into Christian Grey’s red room of pain provide an interesting clue to the book’s success, and our desperation for sexual kicks, explains Louise Deacon, clinical psychologist and author of Twilight, True Love and You. Two years ago, she was researching her book into why women fell for the Edward/Bella relationship, when she first encountered what became known as Fifty Shades. “I was struck then by the openness of EL James’ fans about their sexuality. This wasn’t just online either – it was openly discussed, in person, at twilight conventions. Women were sharing their masturbatory fantasies. I’ve been working in the field of sexual psychology for years, and this was totally new to me. I said to EL James that I thought she had started a major trend – but she thought it would never be more than niche.”
“It’s a way for women to play at being disempowered without giving up our hard-won power”
And there’s the rub – horny single women are masturbating over Christian Grey too. according to the office for National Statistics, the number of 25 to 45-year-old women living alone has doubled over the past two decades – so if we fancy multiple orgasms, we may have to go it alone. Rebecca Newman, GQ’s sex shrink says, “there’s no doubt that as a single woman the power of erotic fiction is huge: you can be in a room with a dream lover and never have to go through the exhausting and expensive dating ritual.” And, because of Fifty Shades, many women are not just doing it – they’re actually admitting to doing it.
“It is a seismic shift”, says Deacon. “In my years of experience as a psychologist, women have never admitted to touching themselves – but now, they aren’t ashamed. That’s down to the freedom many have found online – they can share their fantasies anonymously, and in doing so, they realise other women feel the same.”
This is not vanilla, him-on-top, stuff either. It is BDSM (bondage, domination and sado-masochism) sex. We’ve gone from nought to, well, Fifty Shades in just one book. Why? Mireille Miller-Young, Associate Professor at the Department of Feminist studies, University of California explains, “the BDSM element of Fifty shades is nothing new – it features in a great deal of women’s erotic fiction. It’s many women’s fantasy to be submissive, as in our everyday lives we are expected to be in control, balancing a job and family. Fantasies that feature a woman giving up her power to a man appeal because it is an experience most modern women do not have.”
Nation of Prudes?
Only time will tell whether this marks the beginning of a tidal wave of literary whips and chains. Historically, our relationship with explicit novels has been cyclical. Until the early Fifties, Britain could be described as a nation of prudes – despite the fact that before Queen Victoria we were at it like rabbits. Dr Kate Williams, social historian and author of The Pleasures of Men explains, “the 18th century was a time of glamour and excess – affairs were forgiven, mistresses were on show,” she explains. The word ‘pornography’ came into use around then, from Greek roots meaning ‘writing about prostitutes’. Which was exactly the subject of John Cleland’s soaraway success of a novel in 1748, Fanny Hill; the same time as celebrity courtesans were writing best-selling memoirs.
By the time Victoria took to the throne in 1837, contemporary morals had shifted. “The Queen was a young virgin and the most celebrated women were no longer mistresses but reformers and writers, such as Florence Nightingale. The Victorians preferred to read about love, not sex,” says Williams. And, broadly speaking, so remained the status quo until 1960, when Penguin won the right to publish DH Lawrence’s explicit novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover in court. The book became a bestseller and opened the floodgates for freely available, and mass-consumed, erotica. Mills & Boon, which was founded in 1908 but didn’t do any real sex until the early sixties, has seen our proclivities shift through the decades. Editor Anna Boatman explains, “In the sixties, it was husband and wife bedroom antics, in the seventies, it was all about foreign travel, and doing it on far-flung beaches. The eighties was affairs with the boss, and in the Nineties, the powerful billionaire. In a sense, Christian Grey is the logical continuation of this.”
Like many publishers, Mills & Boon is planning to cash in on the Fifty Shades phenomenon, by publishing their own riposte – the 12 shades of surrender books. Across the board, publishers are awaiting the tidal wave of hastily-penned erotica about to engulf their desks. There is a general feeling that the sexual genie has been uncorked and won’t be going back in the bottle any time soon. And that can only be a good thing for our sex lives, surely?
Photos: Getty Images and Rex Features
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