50 shades of revolution

If a book publisher’s sales rep had walked into a Coles buyers office 12months ago and said, ‘We’ve got this really raunchy book that will sell like hotcakes, how many do you want for your supermarkets?’ – I reckon they would have been laughed out of the office with a derisive – ‘We don’t sell smut in our family supermarket!’ hurled after them.

Who would have guessed that 50 Shades of Grey would have gained so much traction in 6 months that our major supermarket retailers would be stocking it alongside chocolate bars and loaves of bread? No one. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening. A poorly written, sexy book is now available in 50 shades of shops, from supermarkets to indie bookshops. Beyond the question ‘why?’, which has already been examined ad nauseum, is another question I find intriguing – to what end? What effect is the hunger for erotic fiction having on its readers and their relationships?

Our world has already had one sexual revolution. It happened about fifty years ago, alongside the women’s liberation movement, when women who’d kept the Western world ticking over in during the war years discovered a meaningless life in an apron is no match for a meaningless job on a factory floor making parachutes and ammunition.

At the time women were breaking free of the social bonds that had kept them leading relatively futile lives maintaining perfect homes and volunteering on hospital fund raising committees. Women wrote rebellious books and did rebellious things, like burning their bra’s and refusing to make the bosses coffee. They asserted their equal rights and freedom of choice on issues like abortion, work, pay and sex. Social attitudes towards female sexuality shifted significantly. Because of the pill, women now had the freedom to say yes – and because of women’s liberation, women now had the freedom to say no.

Fifty years on Western cultures are much more accepting and supportive of everyone’s sexual choices and proclivities, yet it would appear that the liberation of women’s sexuality was never quite complete. With all the sexual freedom women have now, contemporary attitudes toward female sexuality are still restrained by outdated moralities and definitions. The word ‘slut’ is still a derogatory term, reporting rape is still an issue because women fear they won’t be believed, and our beloved Bettina Arndt believes it’s extraordinary that fifty years after sex was ‘revolutionised’ ‘…the world is full of women who feel absolutely entitled to shut up shop if they’re not interested.’

Bettina recently presented at the Wheelers Centre on why sex matters so much to men. Her research shows that, while men continue to crave physical intimacy with the woman they marry, long term domesticity kills desire in women (personally I don’t know why this is a surprise). She claims that, these days, women no longer view sex as an obligation in marriage (intimating that they should) and, because they are the ones controlling the sexual purse strings, men simply aren’t getting enough – which is, apparently, a tragedy.

Then along comes 50 Shades and the women Bettina believes should be ‘choosing’ desire instead of waiting for it to ‘descend’ upon them, are devouring smut with an appetite rivalling a teenage boy after a vigorous footy match. Women’s hunger for erotic fiction tells me that, contrary to Bettina’s assertion, women’s libido is not dead, it’s just dormant. What 50 Shades and its progeny are doing is fanning the embers of longing within women. Erotic fiction is reminding women that being desired, and desirous, feels wonderful.

50 Shades has unlocked something that has always existed within women. I’m not the expert Bettina is, but I know one thing is true – women love to have sex when it’s worth having – and herein lies the problem. Many men can’t be bothered with the kind of sex many women want. They don’t understand the sensual complexities of a woman’s body, nor have they been initiated into the joys of physical and emotional intimacy for their own sake. A lot of men have fairly limited ideas of what constitutes eroticism, which is why women are flocking to supermarkets to buy 50 Shades in droves. This pap is waking up women’s latent desire for the ever-elusive ‘more’.

What interests me most is what effect this phenomena is having in couple’s bedrooms. I suspect there’s a quiet revolution going on behind closed doors, where the women Bettina talks about are inviting their partners into a new kind of sexual relationship. It’s possible that erotic fiction is giving women who’d previously ‘shut up shop’ the confidence to articulate their desires and reopen the shop doors – but perhaps to discerning customers only. So pay attention lads, if you’re willing to learn how to ‘make love’ rather than ‘have sex’ this could be your big chance to break the drought.

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