Supermarket porn

Kara Martin

A review of Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James.

Knowing I was a book reviewer, people started asking me about this book a few weeks ago. When I was travelling overseas I realised it was the book of choice as an airport novel. It had been described to me as “Mummy porn”, “erotica”, and the “latest romance”. All these were good reasons not to read it!

Then I began to become aware of the extent of the popularity of this book, and the rest in the trilogy. Fifty Shades of Grey has outsold the seven Harry Potter books on Amazon! Estimates of sales range between 30 and 50 million!!

It has spawned a new popularity for erotic romance, or “cliterature”. Booksellers are embracing it as helping to save the industry, with paper copies matching e-book sales. Suddenly it had become something that I needed to read and discuss, especially when it was reviewed on the First Tuesday Book Club on the ABC!

The author, EL James, is actually Erika Leonard, a former TV executive and mother of two children. This book started life as an online book, written for fans of Twilight. It was Erika’s intention to appropriate Bella and Edward into a different setting, and let them run free sexually. Due to its heavy borrowing from Twilight, some have questioned whether it is plagiarism. Obviously, readers don’t care.

Like Twilight, the heroine is submissive, naïve and breathy; and the anti-hero is a monster, in this case a very rich man who is into bondage and discipline sexual activities. Like Twilight, the relationship is obsessive, the male is a stalker, and the heroine is unable to reveal the extent of what is happening to her to friends or family.

Uni student Ana interviews Christian Grey for a student magazine, and he instantly falls for her, seeing her as a possible Submissive for his Dominant sexual practises. He pursues her and woos her with gifts of clothes, a computer and a car. She agrees to a non-disclosure contract, and an agreement to participate in his sexual practises.

I read this book, all 514 pages, but skipped the detail of the sex scenes, which means I only read 400 pages! However, many of those were descriptions or discussions about sex. This is not a book with some sex scenes, it is a book where sex is actually the main character. Certainly the human characters are pretty weak.

People are not reading this book for the writing, characters or plot. As Alicia blogged on the Goodreads website: “This was a poorly written, utterly ridiculous, never ending mess… The writing is insipid and juvenile. The characters are static, one dimensional, and unbelievably vacuous.”

As an example, Ana’s most repeated articulation of her “love” for Grey is “Holy crap! He is so hot!”

People are reading it for the hype, for the titillation, and for the exploration of a deviant lifestyle. Fantasy sales are up due to the global recession, and this book provides a romance fantasy that helps women escape any deprivations, loneliness or boredom in their own lives.

However, this book goes much further than the usual romance. The sex scenes are explicit and designed to arouse the reader. There is a wide range of sexual practices described in detail.

I picked up the book for less than $10 in Big W. Three 14-year-old girls were flicking through copies, and giggled nervously when I reached for my copy. For young teens this book is a sexual manual.

Here are some serious concerns I have with Fifty Shades:

  • This is obviously not presenting a healthy relationship, in any sense. I know that I cannot expect the rest of the world to accept Christian values, however, this relationship is plainly abusive. Grey uses his power, money, influence, age and physical presence to force a young virgin to participate in activities she does not enjoy. Yet, it is being presented as a romantic ideal. On the author’s website fans beg her to reveal the true Christian Grey so they can meet him!
  • This is making popular the sort of female thinking that can lead to women making excuses for abusive partners: “That is just the way he is”, “I know I can change him, help him to see the light”, “If I agree to let him spank me, he might tell me more about him.”
  • This is making mainstream, sexual practices that are fringe. It is popularising bondage and discipline practises, and legitimising sexual experimentation, without any warning about some of the psychological and physical consequences. The New York Post reported a tenfold increase in rope sales at New York hardware stores, and 30% increase in kinky sex toys.
  • This is making soft porn widely available. If this book had images it would carry warnings, be restricted in sales and be covered in plastic. There is no warning on this book, except for the tiny words “erotic romance” on the back.
  • This is encouraging females to be the victim of male fantasies. The heroine is incredibly passive. All acts are carried out on her. She is not allowed to even touch her “boyfriend”.
  • This is encouraging females to see obsession as a positive thing. The heroine, and even her friend and mother, see the boyfriend’s stalking as “romantic” and indications of his “love” for her. The friend and mother might see things differently if Ana was allowed to reveal the true nature of the relationship.
  • This book sets up an idealised view of sex, from a male perspective. Ana is submissive, available, willing and in awe of him. Grey is rough, persistent and dominating, yet the heroine is still able to orgasm every time. Grey can be selfish in his sexual activity and yet Ana still gets her needs met.
  • This book is disturbing and addictive. Porn works on stimulating physical desires in the reader/viewer, but cannot satisfy those desires. The reader falls into a pattern of voyeurism, yearning for the excitement, but left unable to be fulfilled. It results in feelings of guilt and shame. It begins to impact on the way the reader/viewer looks at human beings as objects of desire, things to be used.
  • This book is a symptom of our society. We are so exposed to pleasure, we have to do keep looking for different ways to enjoy the same level of pleasure. Increasingly our society is looking for more adrenalin-rushing ways to get stimulated, whether it be buying more things, doing riskier sports or engaging in risky sex.
  • This book has a poor spiritual core: Ana relies on her “inner goddess” for guidance, which frequently leads to following her physical desires.
  • This book has a very faulty and dangerous ethical mindset. It suggests that pleasure-seeking is the basis on which to make most of life’s decisions. Ana’s mother warns her not to “overthink”, but just to trust her desires.

How should we respond to the popularity of this book?

  • Point out how crappily written it is, and the poor values expressed.
  • Offer an alternative view of real love in relationship, which is about: knowing and being known, mutual giving and receiving, wanting the other to be fulfilled, and mutual submission.
  • Encourage people to avoid reading it, and getting trapped in its snare.

For those who have read the book, and want to escape from its snare: I found great comfort in some Bible verses that reminded me of true love and true relationship:

  • Ephesians 2:4-5 “But God was merciful! We were dead because of our sins, but God loved us so much that he made us alive with Christ, and God’s wonderful kindness is what saves you.”
  • Zephaniah 3:17 “The Lord your God wins victory after victory and is always with you. He celebrates and sings because of you, and he will refresh your life with his love.”
  • Colossians 3:12-14 “God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.”

Fifty Shades of Grey will be a force to contend with for the next six months, and could be an opportunity for discussion of the nature of real love and relationship, and good ethical thinking. However, I fear it is simply another signpost on the journey into greater sexual expression as “freedom”, and accessibility to explicit material.

(This review is in print in the September Edition of Southern Cross. Grab a copy from your local Anglican church)

Feature photo: bubbletea1