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This post was written for The Third Estate by Eloise, who tweets here
I had a conversation with a friend recently where she said she found it hard to swallow as a feminist that women were being encouraged to get their rocks off to’50 Shades of Grey’ – a book which portrays a vulnerable virgin being seduced and controlled by an experienced older man, and then drawing sexual pleasure from being physically harmed (and being forced to clear her plate after each meal – what is up with that?).
Usually I would agree with this kind of argument. I should probably point out at this point that I am very much against the sex industry. I am a feminist, and I think that lap dancing, prostitution, and the billion pound pornography industry are violent, degrading and coercive institutions based on exploiting women’s bodies to make money. Not cool. But that’s not the only reason that I am opposed to the sex industry – I also think it’s boring.
Sorry society, but watching a perma-tanned blonde with fake tits in Perspex heels faking orgasms whilst being screwed by an ugly, uber-muscly bloke with a (frankly terrifying) huge penis is not my idea of a good time. Asking around my female friends, it’s not theirs either. I really worry that girls and boys growing up watching porn are being sold a very particular vision of what sex should be (decided no doubt by those reaping its sexy, sexy profits – do you really want your sexuality influenced by a paunchy middle-aged American man who probably has awful taste in both footwear and cocktails?*), and are not going to have the chance to figure out what they like for themselves.
However, caveat in place; I don’t take umbrage with women getting off to (the fantasy or reality of) spanking, being controlled, whips and chains, you name it – if everybody’s happy and consenting, it’s all good. Like wanking to spanking? Great! If this book means that some people will experiment more in their sex lives, excellent! Maybe some of them will like it, and the more good sex people are having, the happier they will be. Who doesn’t want to live in a society where people are happier? There would be less shoving on the tube for a start.
What I find frustrating is not the hanky-panky-wanky-spanky element of the book that the media has pounced on, but the reaction the media itself has had to women reading the book in the first place, which has seemed to go something like “Look! Women reading a sexy, not totally vanilla, book! In public! How sexy! Sexy sexy sexy!” as if this is the first time in history that women have been enjoying themselves to something other than the typical “romantic date followed by emotionally charged sex with (David Beckham/ George Clooney/ Jonny Depp / insert celebrity here)” fantasy that is peddled by glossy women’s magazines (note – Viggo Mortensen, if you are reading this and you are willing to don your Aragorn outfit again just one more time, this does not apply to you). In fact, I don’t know any women who are actually hot for these men – the women I’m friends with mostly like skinny men who read, and look at art, and can quote Wes Anderson films, and understand politics, and can make disparaging jokes about the failure of Rio+20 and social care and pensions.
I think women are being sold short on our sexuality by the media, and the sex industry, but not by a book about a woman getting spanked. I think it’s great that people are starting to understand that women might need something more than a glimpse of Brad Pitt with his shirt off to get them going. The rich tapestry of women’s fantasies – time travel! Shape shifting! Weird shit that would make other people sick! – is rarely discussed, even between women. But maybe if we thought about this and talked about this and wrote about this more, sex would improve for everyone.
For better or worse, at least the media furore around 50 Shades of Grey reminds us as a society that women enjoy sex too – even if there is no one else involved! – and will hopefully pave the way for a more socially-accepted wave of erotic fiction that is more varied, more fantastic, breaks down some of the stereoypes and assumptions about sex that we get from porn, and (importantly) doesn’t start off related to Twilight.
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