Bonded in sisterhood

1st June 2012 at 01:00

Chances are that if you are a woman, you are reading or have read E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey. Dubbed "mummy porn" in the US, Fifty Shades of Grey is a controversial erotic novel that explores suppressed female sexual fantasy. It describes in graphic detail what happens when 21-year-old student Anastasia Steele hooks up with Christian Grey, a billionaire with a penchant for bondage. Its narrative is so simple and language so cliched that even burnt-out teachers like me can follow its boy meets girl, boy spanks girl and both live unhappily ever after plot. It has all the key ingredients of a sizzling page-turner: love, lust, a disturbed diabolic hero and a trembling virgin. If the Marquis de Sade employed Barbara Cartland as his ghost writer, this would be the result.

Part of the novel's acknowledged appeal lies in its central male character. Grey is a perfect fantasy figure: he has "unruly dark copper coloured hair", a voice that sounds like a McFlurry dessert - "warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel" - and a cock the size of the London Gherkin. He's also damaged goods, which makes him the ultimate female fantasy. No doubt in one of the sequels he'll whip out an adjustable spanner and sort out a few dripping taps. But in this first novel any such realism is in abeyance; it's all gothic excess. And interested male parties should note that - after sexual congress - he never asks Anastasia to put the cat out or bring him a mug of Horlicks. Instead, the novel delivers nuggets of sado-masochism, piled high like a tray of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, sickly and garishly glamorous.

While its best-selling success is understandable, it's puzzling that it has been hailed in some quarters as a feminist coup. This is particularly disconcerting as the heroine's relationship with the sadistic Grey is dangerously submissive. Some critics claim that this public airing of private fantasies about female sexual humiliation strikes a blow for the sisterhood; by sharing these we take full ownership of our sexuality. Forgive me if I don't get out my Eurythmics collection and punch the air with joy. While it's great that our sisters are finally doing it for themselves, I'd sooner they weren't manacled to a chair.

This isn't the feminism I grew up with. OK, maybe I'm a bit jealous. 1980s feminism is as far removed from these glitzy gender politics as Hartlepool is from Tunbridge Wells. There was no glamour in it back then. We had short, tufted hair like coconuts, dangly earrings and unfettered breasts that flapped against our hardcore ribs like wet washing on a line. We weren't the champagne feminists of today, we were the SAS. We wanted to reclaim the night, not #163;25 worth of MAC makeover products. For us, aesthetics came second to politics, and we restricted our reading to The Women's Press and Virago Modern Classics, slogging our way through fiction that had as much literary cachet as an end-of-term report.

Things are different now. Not just because SM porn is being bandied about as gender politics, but because we are living in a society that increasingly views female submission as sexy. The recent TES report on sexual harassment in schools, where girls as young as 12 were asked to perform blow jobs on camera, is a terrifying indictment of this new cultural shift. And the unfortunate young girl who wrote "Jason owns me" on her naked breasts could have been lifted straight from the pages of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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