How can it be that in a society near-saturated with sexual imagery, the media is still unable to digest the simple notion that women may enjoy reading about sex? Here in the UK, the sexualised female body is in one’s face from dusk til dawn – one of the country's most popular newspapers displays a topless young woman on page 3 every day. Our ‘lads’ mags’ – also regularly displaying topless young women on their cover, yet inexplicably not classed as porn, or sealed or placed on high shelves with all other pornography – are usually to be found at child eye-level in your average newsagent. A quick flick through the music channels in the middle of the day will bring you a catsuited Ciara crawling down a catwalk with legs spread and backside in the air, and a look at any of our 10+ ‘celebrity’ magazines will provide the reader with an in-depthy analysis of famous women’s breasts, backsides and sex appeal (or lack thereof). So why is it news that women might be sexual beings, to the point where major British newspapers have described the contents of 50 Shades as ‘depraved’ and pondered ‘are post-feminist ladies finally off the leash?’ (whatever that dubious metaphor is supposed to imply).
To me the answer is clear – for all the supposed liberation female sexuality is supposed to have undergone, the idea of women seeking pleasure on their own terms is still taboo. Women remain harshly judged on all their behaviour (when was the last time you heard a man called a ‘mouthy bitch’ for expressing his opinion?), and nowhere is this judgement more severe than when it comes to sex. Condemned as ‘prudes’ and ‘uptight’ if they don’t want to jump on the orgiastic bandwagon, and written off as ‘sluts’ if they do, women cannot win. Furthermore, our sexuality is rarely treated as a force with which to please ourselves – instead the media constantly frames women’s sexuality solely as a source of male pleasure. Women are expected to dress, act and have sex in ways that please men, not themselves. And this, for me is where the hullabaloo over women reading dirty books truly originates – the conservative media remains deeply suspicious of, even frightened of, women finding pleasure all on their own.
But the truth is, women have been curling up with naughty books longer than our media cares to remember. Colette and Anais Nin brought female-centred erotica to the masses back in the 50s and 60s, followed by the fantasy-uncovering of Nancy Friday in the 70s. And yes, it may not be classy literature but all those Jackie Collins bonkbusters in the 80s and 90s weren’t being bought in their millions by men, now were they?
Sadly, the more progress women make in refusing to hide their desires or be shamed by a society that demands we only be sexual in entirely prescribed, male-approved ways, the more certain elements of the media will clamour to shove us back in our boxes. They’ll try to politicise our desires, using one example of a fictionalised S&M relationship as evidence that women actually want to be mistreated or overpowered, or patronise us with terms such as ‘Mommy porn’ – as if the only women who could possibly enjoy erotica are frustrated housewives, or as if the idea of a mother being sexual is beyond comical.
Still, I felt a flicker of embarrassment when I went to buy 50 Shades in my local bookshop to see what all the fuss was about. And taking it out to read on the London Underground felt like quite an act of bravery. But in a country where the man opposite me is likely to be reading a newspaper with a 19 year-old’s naked breasts just inside the front cover, why should I hide or apologise? I’m a woman. I’m a sexual being. And unlike so many readers of The Sun, at least I’m not going to leave my bit of recreational smut behind for children to see.