At FIRST, I thought she was joking. It was a plea on Facebook from a friend in North America that said: “Anyone have extra copy(ies) of 50 Shades of Grey? We’re looking for some to bring to the women’s prison. Message me if you can help!”
If you haven’t yet heard of the best-selling bonk-buster of the century so far, you are probably pure of heart but perhaps a bit sheltered. Not that I have read the book, written by EL James, otherwise known as British author Erika Leonard. Nevertheless, it has been impossible to avoid the furore it has caused.
I first came across the “mummy porn” phenomenon when I read an article about how it was racing up the charts as the biggest download in the brief history of the Kindle. Because of its racy content, people – mainly women – were browsing it safe in the knowledge that no-one would judge the book, or its reader, by its cover. But it didn’t take long for all hell to break loose and the thing became a genuine publishing sensation, being piled high and sold by the lorry load at Tesco. So much for the shame of being caught reading kinky stuff – it was being put, along with the milk and bean tins, into the shopping trolley.
By the time every woman I knew was reading it, it had sparked a furious debate. Most of my female friends insisted they were just curious and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. From what I could gather from the avalanche of articles and giggly discussion, the worst part of it was that it seemed to be largely untroubled by literary merit. The fact that its protagonist, the young and virginal Anastasia Steele, gets it on with a sexual sadist, Christian Grey, in his “red room of pain” also seemed a bit troubling. As one critic put it, it was, essentially, “ignorant trash that sets feminism back decades”.
So when Allison’s request came in, I thought: do women in prison need to read a masochistic bonk-buster?
Or at least I thought that until I realised how patronising it was that I had set myself up as some sort of moral arbiter. I suddenly imagined myself with hair tied back in a fierce bun, wearing petticoats and sucking in my lip while giving a hard stare as I decided whether or not 50 Shades would be suitably edifying reading material for my fallen sisters.
But then I snapped out of it. Because while female prisoners might not “need” 50 Shades of masturbation fantasy, they probably do need to read.
I wrote back to Allison, who is a librarian by day, and who told me she had been working with a group of volunteers to bring books, author readings and writing workshops into the prison for four years. The group listens to what the inmates want and, it turns out, they want a bit of literary rumpy-pumpy to keep them warm in their cells at night.
And the prison staff are OK with this, because, frankly, they would rather this than true crime novels or, I’d imagine, Mein Kampf.
There would probably be some who take a hard line when it comes to the use of incarceration as punishment and argue that prisoners don’t deserve to enjoy what they read. Not only would this be heavy-handed, but it is also a blind bit of ignorance when you consider that most inmates eventually get out – and when they do, it probably improves their chances of not going back into the pokey if they are able to reintegrate into society, all the better if they have improved their reading skills. Recent estimates show that half the UK prison population has literacy difficulties.
Nor do I think it is valid to worry too much about any deleterious effects on prisoners who read about a woman who deliberately submits to the machinations of what, by all accounts, is a nasty piece of work. Quite likely, any woman in prison has probably met her fair share of unsavoury blokes. And it would be even more patronising to assume that just because it’s jail, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t spark a similar debate about its rights and wrongs that it has on the outside. So I did what I think maybe more people should do and ordered some copies of 50 Shades of Grey to send to the prison library.
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