The novel Fifty Shades Of Grey has become a publishing sensation on the back of its reputation for hardcore erotica, but is it worthy of the hype? TP O’MAHONY went where few men have gone before to find out…
WHIPS, handcuffs, and blindfolds, plus a lot of writhing and moaning and heavy breathing on armchairs, carpets and beds — what in the world is going on? Why has young Anastasia Steele fallen for an older man with a fond- ness for bondage and domination?
It used to be said that sadomasochism (S&M) was the last great taboo.
The term refers to a dominant/submissive relationship, and at its extreme, it is a relationship in which one person derives sexual satisfaction from the infliction of pain while the other becomes sexually aroused by experiencing that pain.
By making S&M a central feature of the relationship between Ms Steele and Christian Grey, Fifty Shades Of Grey goes beyond your standard erotic novel, though it is by no means the first to explore this sexual territory.
A 19th century Austrian lawyer named Leopold von Sacher-Masoch did this in 1870 in a celebrated (and much-banned) novel called Venus In Furs.
It’s often said that we Irish don’t talk about sex. Those who say that usually exclude the crude sexual banter that is common whenever ‘the lads’ gather in the local.
Neither original nor enlightening, this kind of talk is rarely a sign that a new age of sexual liberation is upon us.
But our traditional reticence over sex — for which the Catholic Church is often blamed — may be about to change. The runaway success of the Fifty Shades Of Grey (the first part of a bestselling trilogy) must surely signal something. But what?
The book itself, which runs to 514 pages, is better than I expected in terms of the standard and style of writing. Some early critiques that I came across were dismissive of it on those grounds.
Well, from what I can gather, EL James (the pseudonym of Erika Leonard, a middle-aged British woman, who is now also very rich) didn’t set out to create a literary masterpiece.
The sex scenes though are repeated tiresomely. The book becomes repetitive to the point of boredom, and it was only out of a sense of duty to the author — and to you, dear reader — that I struggled on to the end.
The story itself is simple.
Anastasia is a young student of English literature at Washington State University, and also a virgin. Christian Grey, an older man, is handsome and wealthy, the CEO of a successful company in Seattle, and a self-declared control freak. This extends to his sexual preferences.
They meet when she goes to interview him for her college magazine, and thus begins what some readers will regard as a bizarre sexual adventure. At the beginning she has to sign a non- disclosure agreement and, later, a “contract” in which she agrees to observe certain rules (this idea of a master-slave contract also originated in Venus In Furs).
The essence of the contract is summed up when she asks him if he is a sadist. “I’m a Dominant,” he replies.
“What does that mean?”
“It means I want you to willingly surrender yourself to me, in all things.”
I think women will like the fact that Grey, despite his kinky tastes, is a very considerate lover, as intent in giving pleasure to Anastasia as receiving it.
It is said of Irish men that they are selfish lovers, interested only in their own pleasure. For some men “foreplay” might as well be something you go to the British Open golf to see, for all they know of it.
Not so with Grey. And there will also be approval for the fact that, in each of the sex scenes, he insists on using a condom, until later on when he introduces Anastasia to his doctor to arrange for her to go on the Pill.
The author is not without her own prudery. There’s something Victorian about the phrase “he touched my sex”. The F-word of course appears again and again (hardly surprising in a book of this nature).
Will readers be shocked by the S&M scenes? The notion of a submissive female may make some uneasy, but the psychology of sex is quite mysterious. It literally is a case of different strokes for different folks.
My guess is that one reason why this novel is proving so popular with women is precisely because it introduces them to a range of sexual situations and experiences outside of the “normal”.
In any case, in a post-Freudian world we have learned that when it comes to sex, there is no “normal”; what’s kinky to me is normal for you and vice-versa.
For a long time, the myth persisted that women did not indulge in sexual fantasy. The international success of Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies (published in 1975) did much to shatter that myth. Then came the Hite Report on Female Sexuality in 1976, which exploded the myth.
I suspect also that having finished this book (if they finish it) many Irish women (the not-so- young perhaps more than the young) will feel they have lost out where sex is concerned, that when it comes to what goes on between the sheets, they have been short- changed.
And I fear as well that the predictions will be proved correct and that the market will now be flooded with a spate of copycat versions of this erotic novel.
Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James is published by Arrow Books at 8.99 euro.