Friday 13 February 2015, Rob Lyons

50 Shades of Grey: not safe sex, but health-and-safety sex

EL James's kinky dom-rom suits our consent-obsessed era.

Regardless of the ongoing threat of Islamic State, the proposed ceasefire in Ukraine and Greece’s desperate clinging on as a member of the Eurozone, the big story this weekend is the release of the film version of 50 Shades of Grey. The film, showered with glowing reviews that are basically along the lines of ‘Not as godawful as the book’ and ‘Weirdly tame by-the-numbers Hollywood romance with less sex than you’d expect’, will no doubt be as big a hit as the book, which spawned a thousand op-eds about whether or not it encourages domestic violence (no), demeans women (no) or is a marriage-enhancing focus for talking about sexual fantasy (whatever gets you through the night).

The film does have the advantage of being able to show sex rather than describe it, which is a minefield for any author. Take this from one-time Booker Prize winner Ben Okri, who last year added the Bad Sex Award to his mantlepiece for this attempt to capture the glory of lovemaking: ‘Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail… The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night, a stray rocket went off.’ So maybe we shouldn’t be too harsh on EL James and her horny Twilight fan fiction.

Perhaps more interesting is the nature of the sex being had in 50 Shades. Yes, it’s kinky, but it’s also controlled and, literally, contractual. This is a step beyond safe sex to health-and-safety sex, as Sara Hinchliffe amusingly noted in a Battle of Ideas satellite event in 2012. Maybe that’s why 50 Shades struck a chord with an often middle-aged, middle-class audience of women: it’s an excuse to think and talk about edgy sex, but it’s really not that edgy. In an era when consent is becoming the watchword for sex, getting written permission - even for bondage and spanking - is the only (sex) game in town.





what's happening next

Battle of Ideas 2018

13 & 14 October 2018, The Barbican, London