The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon has brought into the public domain what should really be kept private, argues Tiffany Jenkins
ONE well-thumbed book when growing up, the one that I would take down from the feminist section of my parents’ bookshelf and read in secret, was Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies.
It is an account of women’s private sexual fantasies, collected through letters and taped interviews. You don’t know who any of them are – you just learn their first names – but you do find out what they were really thinking about should happen under the bed sheets.
Or, indeed, elsewhere.
When it was published in 1973, My Secret Garden caused outrage. It challenged conventional ideas about female sexuality. In the same month it was released, Cosmopolitan magazine ran a feature with the opening line: “Women do not have sexual fantasies, period. Men do.” The writer was not joking. They were reflecting what was then a fairly common opinion.
Things changed very quickly soon after. Nowadays, public discussion about all kinds of sexuality activity is completely mainstream. You get sex education at school, advice at university; at the freshers’ fair I attended, I was handed a bag of condoms, advice on safe sex and a dental dam. And sex is prevalent in popular culture – there is something of a lifelong learning ethos when it comes to thinking and talking about foreplay and post-coital etiquette.
Today, the strapline for Cosmopolitan professes a central component of the magazine is “sex tips” and this month the magazine is full of explicit references to the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, by EL James, in anticipation of the film, released today, on St Valentine’s Day. This year I have received more promotional material for this film about BDSM – the abbreviation used for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism – than the usual PR guff about love and romance.
I devoured the Fifty Shades trilogy and I can say that even though it does not “obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever”, as breathlessly promised by the marketing, it does do what it should do – arouse millions – and it provides a laugh. It is good, cleanish, fun. But to make a film out of it, to put out on national release an adaptation of what is, really, pornography, even if it is more vanilla and soft-core than many other more sexually explicit films, should raise eyebrows. You don’t have to think all women should wear a chastity belt to wonder if something not quiet right is going on.
And yet the protesters who are against the showing of the film – who say “Fifty Shades is domestic abuse” – are wrong. The argument, from those who picketed the premiere this week, is that the relationship depicted in Fifty Shades, between the college student Anastasia Steele and the handsome, rich but emotionally damaged Christian Grey, is abusive. They point to the fact that Anastasia is manipulated, tortured, and beaten. This is not a love story, they say, even though – SPOILER ALERT – the last book in the series ends with the couple getting married, having a baby and renovating a nice house with a good view.
Because as well as showing that women, like men, have sexual fantasises, My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies also revealed that these fantasies are often transgressive. And then some.
With men and women and whips; being in charge, or being a submissive. Stripping in public, assault, rape and even dogs are included – there is some seriously weird stuff. Far dirtier than Fifty Shades. I probably shouldn’t have been reading it before I had even kissed a boy.
But then – as now – these were the everyday fantasies of normal women. And the important word in that sentence is: fantasies. These fantasies in the book were probably not what the women actually wanted to happen in real life, but had fun imagining or playing around with in bed. The same goes for Fifty Shades. As consenting adults, we should be free to imagine – and do – whatever the hell turns us on, even if it’s not quite politically correct. The thing about what is going on in our heads and in the bedroom, or in the elevator, as Anastasia and Christian Grey are so inclined, when we are fooling around or thinking about doing so, is that it involves a side of us that isn’t all that rational.
But I do have concerns. Sex is an important part of our lives, but a part that does not benefit from too much public exposure. Not because we have something to hide, but because some ideas and acts are simply private. To be conducted between ourselves. And yet today it’s hard to avoid discussions about, references to, and displays of sex. In our increasingly conservative, risk-averse culture, flaunting ones sexuality seems to pass for edgy, when it’s tired, old and – I hate to use this word but it fits – inappropriate.
This month’s Cosmopolitan has an animated feature titled If Disney couples starred in Fifty Shades of Grey. Cosmo may be for the liberated woman, but I not sure I want to see cartoon pictures of a blindfolded Jasmine with a naked Aladdin. And the visual of Anna and Kristoff from Frozen is plain wrong.
Sex is on show everywhere.
In music videos, in the lewd songs of the average and always gyrating pop stars, the kind with tunes and lyrics that young kids innocently sing – like Miley Cyrus and Rihanna, and in stuff like Madonna at the Grammies, with her boobs and buttocks on display. Call it what you want: pornification or sexualisation, and regardless of whether you are relaxed about it, or if it makes you hot under the collar, it’s hard to deny that there is a lot of sex about.
There is a good reason why I took My Secret Garden surreptitiously from the shelves. It was because porn, and these kind of fantasies, is not something to be shared.
It’s for private consumption not national release.