Our books columnist Carrie Plitt weighs into the Fifty Shades of Grey debate

The breakout hit of 2012 was undoubtedly E.L. James’ erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which needs no introduction if you have been in any sort of public space in the last year, where copies of the books’ euphemistic cover sprouted like black and grey invasive plants. But it’s worth looking at the figures, which quite frankly are astounding. James’ trilogy shifted a total of10,509,988 copies in 2012, occupying the top three spots on the UK bestseller list, and making Fifty Shades of Grey the best-selling book since records began.

Publishers are always on the lookout for the next big thing. But who could have predicted our frenzy for a BDSM love fantasy or teen wizards or a middle-aged symbologist in France? Perhaps because they take us by surprise, blockbusters like Fifty Shades tend to inspire soul-searching about what this kind of book says about us. What we think it says about us says something about us too. And after a trawl of the various opinions, reviews and critical rows in the papers, I came to two major conclusions: 1. Almost everyone agrees that Fifty Shades of Grey is terribly written. 2. People are very, very anxious about women’s sexuality.

Just look at some of these headlines: ‘The Fantasy Life of Working Women: Why Surrender is a Feminist Dream’ (Newsweek); ‘Why Women Love Fifty Shades of Grey’ (Guardian); ‘Do women really want to be so submissive?’ (Independent); Are middle aged mums REALLY being seduced by porn? (Daily Mail). Whether journalists thought it was a regressive fantasy of female subordination or liberating porn by and for women, almost everyone was asking frenzied questions about women’s desires.

Yes, the majority of people who bought and read this book were women, so naturally people were going to talk about women and sex. But the tone of these articles – is this what women REALLY want? – strikes me as the same old anxious societal tendency to problematize and regulate female sexuality, the same tendency that brought about the word slut and invented female hysteria.

I’ve never seen men’s desires questioned like this: people don’t wonder what Page 3 or the ubiquity of chesty female ‘sex symbols’ in Hollywood blockbusters means about the male sexual psyche. Men’s sexuality is just there, and that most men will watch and enjoy porn is a given. But for women it’s always more complicated.

Here’s what I think. Women like having sex, and they like reading about sex. Now let them get on with it.

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