Fifty Shades of Grey peddles the tired old fantasy of romance that keeps women in their place | Suzanne Moore

What's dangerous about EL James's erotic novel isn't the kinky sex but that it promotes men's power over women

I admit it: I am so aroused I just don't know what to do with myself. "I am daunted by his kitchen. It's so sleek and modern and none of the cupboards have handles." This is Anastasia, the "heroine" of Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic novel by EL James that has sold more than 10m copies. Has the woman ever been to Ikea, one wonders. She would drench the place. Handleless cupboards full of unawakened desires. Still, if women are turned on by this book, who am I to judge? Money for new rope, if you ask me.

Is it a daft question to ask why women must be permanently turned on? To frig themselves stupid while fantasising about a strange, rich bloke who speaks fluent French with a thing for being in control? Is this what women want? A man who orders them to see a personal trainer four times a week, has a Red Room of Pain (who doesn't?) and, after a good thrashing, offers arnica and Advil?

To say that the writing is dreadful is to miss the point. This is character-driven fantasy with totally daft characters. Ana, the ever-willing submissive, is a virgin with no gag reflex, which comes in handy. Rather like the ideal woman being a deaf-mute nympho who lives above a pub. What the book has going for it is that Christian is a man who knows what he is doing sexually and everywhere else. This appears a compelling rarity. He is not interested in making "lurve" but in having a woman submit to his every whim. Anastasia has got in touch with her inner goddess and, luckily, her inner goddess does not get thrush, cystitis or even suspect the guy is a psycho stalker whose permanent erection must surely get in the way of his mega business meetings.

Still, it is fantasy, and the policing of fantasy has caused all sorts of quite mad rifts within feminism. The point at which we started to explore ourselves internally – literally, with speculums and mirrors – was also the point that many right-on women admitted the thought crime of having rape fantasies.

The difficulty was that the id, the unconscious, the libido, will not always conform to vanilla – or what I call "Our bodies Ourselves" – sex. Freud was brilliant on this in his 1919 essay A Child Is Being Beaten.

But I hadn't read that then. Instead I used to read aloud Andrea Dworkin on rape – as a model of all heterosexuality – to my then boyfriend in bed. Don't tell me I don't know about foreplay. Actually, Dworkin was saying by 1995 to her friend Michael Moorcock that "bothintercourse and sexual pleasure can and will survive equality".

I wish she were here to see Fifty Shades of Grey making bondage aspirational. Holy crap, as she might say. Anastasia is always exclaiming "Holy crap" when she comes for the umpteenth time without being touched. She is Robin to his Batman.

So it doesn't float my boat, but that's because I am a snob and prefer Jenny Diski, Jean Genet and some David Lynch for my kink. Of course, it's difficult to write about sex yet this book isn't really about sex but power.

When Angela Carter wrote about the Marquis de Sade, or we read Michel Houellebecq's greasy account of sexual liberation or Catherine Millet's incredibly monotonous memoirs of being banged over and over at orgies in the Bois de Boulogne, one has to ask if writing about power is always more erotic than writing about penetration – and how this plays out for women. For we live in a sexually saturated culture in which lots of porn is simply an exercise in orifice cramming and fairly remote from most people's sex lives.

So-called raunch culture, in which women look like female impersonators and "empower" themselves with siliconed bazookas and pole dancing, is ridiculous, but the erotic charge of women objectifying themselves is hardly new. EL James's book at least understands that the power in sadomasochism lies with the submissive. Women like this as much as they like the idea of a dominant man who knows what he is doing, although one glance at the real world indicates that dominant men have made quite a mess of things. I don't suppose anybody's safe word is "banker".

In fact what is dangerous and horrible about Fifty Shades of Grey is nothing to do with sex. It is that it sells the old fantasy of romance. It is about finding "the one". Here, the woman has to find a man who does not know how to love and to change him so that he can. Sex, even with some Ann Summers accoutrements, is but a prelude to living happily ever after. A life of sex slavery.

This mythology, the polar opposite of what sexual liberation is about, keeps women firmly in their place. In fantasy this place may be a rich man's dungeon, perhaps followed by a glamorous restaurant by way of a private jet. In reality, it means being trapped with a man who, after the thrill has gone, has to be endured for ever more.

This ongoing cult of "romance" ultimately ties women down far more than any rope. More, even, than the neck and wrist restraints and gags now available on your local high street.


Suzanne Moore

The GuardianTramp

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