The book has sold in phenomenal numbers, and the reason for our collective fascination must surely be the oldest one in publishing. Sex sells. And since we know that, what is the fuss about?
BDSM has been around for centuries. The earliest known example is a 6th century Etruscan painting of two men spanking a woman while she gives one of them a blow job. (I’m sure an art historian would have a more elegant description, but I’ve seen the picture, and that’s what it is). The Karma Sutra also describes four types of hitting, and the resultant cries of joy and pain you should be hearing if you’re doing it right. In short, this may be kinky but it ain’t news.
Despite this, right up to the 1990’s, BDSM practices were categorised as a form of mental illness. It wasn’t until 1994 that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was amended and the mainstream medical community accepted this was no longer a sickness. Suddenly, much like homosexuality before it, we were allowed to discuss BDSM without being considered a dangerous pervert.
The success of Fifty Shades of Grey lies here. It takes a subject matter that is only just respectable, and writes its story in an accessible, unthreatening way. The familiarity of tone makes the subject matter far less shocking. Suddenly, it’s a socially acceptable read. Giggle-inducing, yes. Eyebrow-raising, certainly. But no one will accuse you of being mentally unbalanced. If Helen Fielding had written Bridget Jones – The Dungeon Years, it would read like this. It’s Mills & Boon with nipple clamps.
Anonymous kindles, waffled critiques of both post and anti-feminist issues, discussions on Women’s Hour and sniping about the quality of the writing have all leant an intellectual veneer to your excuse for reading the book. Word to the wise: so much clap-trap hasn’t been talked since man first said to woman: “Put the instructions away, I know exactly how this works!”
The simple fact is that we want to know what other people are getting up to in the sack, and the kinkier the better. We want to know who’s doing it and how they’re doing it and if they’re any good at it and if there isn’t something we should be trying that we haven’t yet. For the first time a book about getting tied up and whipped has been written like any other bit of chick lit. It’s accessible and mainstream and acceptable. And we are reading it in our millions. There really is no mystery to this at all. What puzzles me is why we are all so embarrassed to admit it.