By Andrew Cowley
I first became aware of 50 Shades in the US on a family holiday last Easter. We were in Boston, one of the most literate and creative cities in the States, and there was an article in the Boston Globe about this phenomenon- they called it ‘mummy porn’, and explained that what had started as an e-book had become such a talking point amongst California housewives that the text went to print. Later that day several of the bookshops had displays of all three volumes. I dismissed this as an American trend, but on returning to the UK discovered that it was on sale here and that ELJames was a Brit.
Now for any writer, word of mouth recommendation, the ‘Tube Book of the Moment’, and people following a trend is manna from heaven. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, One Day, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the Millenium Trilogy and of course the Harry Potter series all sold, it could be argued, in the volumes they did because of this particular channel of communication.
In my school, leading the English curriculum for many years, I have always struggled to convince some colleagues of the value of reading. I am regularly dismissed as ‘boring’ because I read. In the summer term however Fifty Shades took off and copies were being passed around the staffroom between teachers and support staff, and conversation about the ‘raunchy bits’ dominated lunch and break times. I am no prude, but I found the way in which these were described in conversation bawdy at best, uncomfortable at its worse.
An initial thought was ‘at least they’re reading’ even if it was only because everyone else was. We are in a more sexually liberated and egalitarian society than some decades ago, and women are just as entitled to talk about sex as men so often do. However the more that I listened to conversations, it made me realise that these were not just ‘books with some shagging’! I haven’t read them, but have seen enough on blogs, in synopses, and being next to a woman on the plane this summer reading it, where the words ‘he tied me up, and f***ed me hard up the a***’ caught my eye. I am no literary facist either; people need to make their own minds up about what they read.
I used to work in the City of London, and a more sexist, mysogenist and repressive atmosphere couldn’t be imagined. Extra-marital affairs seemed not only the norm, but compulsory, strippers brought in for birthdays, and there was always someone who appeared to be the source of hard core, illegal and quite depraved pornography. As a young man, single and I was told ‘not bad looking’ it was assumed that every woman I spoke to I was trying to get into bed. Any notion that I was talking to them as friends or equals was beyond many people. When I moved onto teaching, my true vocation, it was assumed that it was to ‘take advantage’ of the fact that 95% or more of primary teachers are female.
So, we can see; deeply held opinions about the role of women from a large section of men in UK society. Which brings us back to Fifty Shades. This site is designed to campaign against domestic abuse encouraged in this book. There is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that behaviours and attitudes amongst women are changing as a result of these books and that some of the things that the female lead allows to be done to her are becoming commonplace. Yes I did write ‘allows to be done to her’; in an era of Germain Greer and Erica Jong I perhaps mistakenly thought that this was a thing of the past. Consider this alongside the evidence that teenagers and even younger children are getting their sexual education from internet pornography, and that threesomes, anal intercourse, and encouraging girls to experiment in faux lesbian sex are regarded by many younger people as acceptable, as too it would seem is the use of violence in sexual conduct, or the use of it if sex is refused. As a father to two pretty daughters, that concerns me, though my wife and I have encouraged them to be tough, independent and to know their own minds.
I have a writers blog and have included three parodies of Fifty Shades, as a bit of gentle mocking of the tastes of some of my colleagues. Most of them I am sure are reading it for some light relief, but there are others, I am quite convinced, who would participate in such activity.
Domestic violence, sexual violence, rape. Its not rocket science to say it is unacceptable. None are about sex, they are about power. The one time I served on a jury, we convicted a man of rape, of his own sister believe it or not, but that was about power within a family, and not about sex, even though it was a sexual act. He objected to the majority of women, tried to appeal to the feelings of the three of us, not realising we were of similar opinions to each other, probably more strongly held than some of our female jurors.
It would be naive to suggest that the sexual revolution has ended abuse of women by men, though it has highlighted it’s existence. Regretably similar attitudes are held by some men in teaching- a former male colleague for example tried it on with parents and teachers, especially if vulnerable- recently separated for example- on one occasion having admitted to bedding a teacher 20 years his senior, announcing that ‘the plumbing is still in full working order’. Gruesome!
I have few close male friends, mainly because I don’t associate myself with attitudes like that one so described. I have many close female friends, strong, intelligent and beautiful; my former colleagues and a number of other men couldn’t get that concept, and of the loyalty and fidelity that goes with it.
I am not alone in this though. There are plenty of like minded men out there who would not dream for one minute of treating a woman in such an abusive way. The behaviours that Fifty Shades encourages may only be acted out by a minority, but one case will be one too many. I sincerely hope that the legacy of this trilogy is just in the volume of book sales, and not in a case of someone meeting an untimely end as a result of what it seems to make acceptable.
Andrew Cowley is a 47 year old father of two teenaged girls, and has been married for nearly 18 years. He is a primary school teacher in South East London and in his spare time is a cook, gardener, film goer and avid reader, as well as a prospective writer.
He blogs at: http://supposeshakespearestartedthiswaytoo.blogspot.co.uk/ and you can find him on twitter: @andrew_cowley23