In photographs, Erika Leonard (EL James) appears dependable and blameless, like a deputy head of a girls' school who quite likes floral dresses.
Looks lie. With Fifty Shades of Grey, this erstwhile TV executive has cannily exploited “post-feminist” confusion and sexual restiveness in a period of plenty.
The narrative is so corny you couldn't caricature it and the S&M bits grubby. In sum, a student in Seattle, a virgin (yes, really) meets a handsome millionaire, swoons and allows herself to be taken into his “red room of pain” to be punished and enslaved - for, I assume, being a woman.
I was not titillated and couldn't cleanse my mind of rising rage and desolation. James has sheathed hard porn in a soft summer wrap, sold fantasies of sexual subjugation to yummie mummies and middle-class female singletons who are clueless of its implications.
Okay, I hear all you fans of the book yelling at me. I have no business chastising people for the sexual games they choose to play.
Agreed. But the phenomenal spread of this bonkbuster takes it out of that intimate space and should make us think about the social and political landscape and the dissonance between female equality achieved and equality willingly surrendered by females.
What does it say about life for young women in our times? And the men, too?
One of the most foolish assumptions of modern life is that fantasy cannot distort the way we actually behave. It can and does.
Another S&M book that has sold millions of copies is The Story of O, first published in 1954. You can see why it took off in the period when post-war female emancipation was being pushed back and women were expected to go back into the home, rediscover the “pleasures” of serving men and suffering happily for love.
Today's Western societies couldn't be more different. Women expect to get the same successes as men. And yet internal guilt, low self-esteem and inchoate fears still deny females real confidence. High-fliers often have no luck with men. Others have babies, flee the workplace and turn into wifies, as it is so hard doing it all.
Could it be equality is too much responsibility? There are, I think, darker reasons. When young women become instinctively assertive and free of gender constrictions, their liberty threatens the “natural” order. So they have to be reminded of their place and must re-learn submission.
I have been shocked to discover how regularly female university students have their drinks spiked so they can then be raped. Sex is freely available, but what these men want is domination.
Fifty Shades of Grey reinforces those dynamics and gives the message that even educated women can only be fulfilled if entrapped and tortured by rich and powerful men - that abused victims ask for it and love their abusers.
Will all the mumsy fans of the book want their daughters to learn that? I've thrown my copy on to the pile of other trash in the garden: to be burnt.
The last time I burnt anything in protest was my black lace bra, back in the 1970s. What hopes we had then. - Belfast Telegraph