Porn for women is here to stay

If you had believed the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon was going to quietly fade away with the last remnants of summer, sorry to have to break it to you, but there appears to be a whole lot more in the pipeline.

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Fifty Shades author E.L. James last week released a companion album of classical music to go with her incredibly successful trilogy. Speculative plans are also in the pipeline for a film adaptation of the books, with arguments raging among excited fans over which Hollywood name is most suited to role of the dashing and, more importantly, sexually dominant lead, a young business magnate named Christian Grey.

Until last week I hadn’t actually taken much notice of the Fifty Shades trilogy. I was a man the last time I checked, and apart from the fact that my gender is conditioned (biologically or socially, you tell me) to sexually respond to images more than to the written word, my own “to read” list is sufficiently cramped already. Last week I was on holiday in Spain, however, and away from the gruelling myopia of the London nine to five I started to notice the sheer extent to which the Fifty Shades books were being read by women, vast swathes of women: on planes, aboard buses, and in one instance even on a moving bicycle.

Initially surprised at the sheer number of people actually reading - reading real, paper books that is, as opposed to staring endlessly into the void of wires and circuit boards commonly known as smartphones - I began to recall all the times I’d ever heard the Fifty Shades series contemptuously (and a little too enthusiastically) dismissed by men. “Silly airheads” was how a friend described to me the demographic that has so enthusiastically bought into the phenomenon of Mr Grey and the compliant recipient of his charms, Anastasia Steele. “Badly written”, was how another acquaintance cut the book down to size, apparently forgetting that a small proportion of his own income regularly goes on astonishingly un-erotic lad’s mags whose writers, I must say, are hardly banging down the door of the Orwell Prize.

But then there’s always been something slightly subversive about the idea of women enjoying sex, hasn’t there? In Stephen Fry’s book The Hippopotamus, the central character boldly claims that women “ put up with sex as the price they pay for having a man, for being part of what they like to call a relationship.” The main character in one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s greatest novels is at it too (and no, I don’t mean that). Bemoaning the fact that his wife does not want to have sex with him, the protagonist in Love in the Time of Cholera, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, concludes bitterly that women can at time have their periods “as often as three times a week”.

But then there’s always been something slightly subversive about the idea of women enjoying sex, hasn’t there?

The popularity of the Fifty Shades series is, as Laurie Penny has deftly pointed out, based on the fact that the books are cleverly crafted porn for women. Populist porn with shiny edges and a fluffy centre, but porn all the same. Of greater interest is the wave of publicity on the back of which the trilogy has ridden. Women consuming porn is still news; and that is, I suspect, because it is still deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche that men like sex and women, well, lie back and think of the Magna Carta.

The only evidence that has ever been produced to support this assertion is anecdotal of course, and mainly revolves around the fact that women are a good degree coyer than men about their appetite for sexual activity. Well quelle bloody surprise. Did anybody expect the separation of women from an early age into good and bad human beings based on how many people they have gone to bed with not to have had an impact? As the American feminist author Jessica Valenti puts it in her aptly entitled book, He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut:

“I was called a slut when my boobs grew faster than others. I was called a slut when I had a boyfriend (even though we weren’t having sex.) I was called a slut when I didn’t have a boyfriend and kissed a random boy at a party. I was called a slut when I had the nerve to talk about sex. I was called a slut when I wore a bikini on a weekend trip with high school friends. It seems the word slut can be applied to any activity that doesn’t include knitting, praying, or sitting perfectly still lest any sudden movements be deemed whorish.”

A study last year by researchers at the Kinsey Institute of Indiana University in the US found evidence that painted a different picture. As part of a study into relationship satisfaction, researchers at the university spoke to 1,000 couples from Brazil, the US, Spain, Germany and Japan who’d been in relationships for a variety of years from one to 51. The white coats asked participants how many times in the past month they had kissed, cuddled, caressed and had sex. And the result? Men's overall happiness in a relationship was based on how much hugging and kissing there was, whereas women were more likely to say that their sex life determined the quality of the relationship.

Women will almost certainly stop reading Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels eventually. It’s starting to seem a bit like old hat already. However expect many more authors, film makers and artists to tread where E.L. James has beaten a path, because thanks to the author the proverbial stereotype of the uncorrupted female gender is increasingly flanked on either side by debauched biological reality. For many men the idea that women secretly yearn for sex as much as they do is an alarming thought. But then revolutionary ideas usually begin life in that way, only later to be defended by all and sundry as common sense.

Follow James on Twitter @Obligedtooffend

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