Colors Of Passion (62)

Colors Of Passion

A Billion Wicked Thoughts.......

A much hyped book goes nowhere in using internet data to investigate sexuality

I was eager to read this book. (Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet tells us about sexual relationships (Plume/Penguin, 2012). We know so little about sexual fantasy and hidden desires. Much of our information comes from surveys that depend entirely on what respondents choose to disclose or hide. Yet every day we spill out raw data on our desires and fantasies in secret isolation through our web searches and porno choices. This data can surely reveal a lot about people's real sexual interests and enthusiasms. For sure, Big Brother would learn an awful lot about my sexual secrets from my web usage! Would you like your friends and family to see yours? Oh shit!...... Yet Google has had it from the moment my grubby little fingers tapped they keys, and NSA and GCHQ are busily harvesting it for future use. No doubt to defend our liberties!

In the meantime, however, in the interests of science and human knowledge, it is intriguing to have a look behind the curtain. We got a brief glimpse in 2006 when AOL (for reasons that are not altogether clear) released the anonymised search histories of 657,426 people over a three month period. AOL members were shocked and angry at this breach of privacy and no other search engine has repeated the experiment.

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Can the internat provide a new window on human sexuality?

However, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam (O&G) managed to carry out a similar sort of investigation based on an even larger data set. Between July 2009 and July 2010 they collected details of some 400 million different searches entered into the Dogpile search engine (a meta-engine that combines results from Google, Yahoo, Bing!, AOL etc). About 55 million or 13% of these searches had some kind of erotic content and were originated by some 2 million people (two-thirds from USA). Although O&G give very little detail about the technical side of things, it seems that they gathered the information by 'scraping' a website called SearchSpy, operated by Dogpile, which provides something like real-time streaming of all the searches going on across these search engines. This seems to be a plausible way of gathering a potentially useful data set, though it actually adds up to a much smaller sample than is suggested by the book's title and the author's hyped-up claims to have based their work on "a billion web searches, a million websites, a million erotic videos and millions of personal ads, ...... combined with cutting edge neuroscience".

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The cover of the UK paperback edition

The book was published and heavily promoted as a breakthrough statistical/neuroscientific study by its publishers Plume/Penguin Books. The front cover features an endorsement by Harvard professor and celebrity psychologist Steven Pinker. The back cover contains the claim that: "Not since Alfred Kinsey in the 1950s has there been such a revolution in our knowledge of what is really going on in the bedroom." The first three pages of the book are filled with celebratory reviews from academic psychologists and published authors that create an impression that we are looking at a massive work of scientific significance. But beware of publisher's hype. Subsequent reviews have revealed that, although both authors have Boston University PhDs, the work was not institutionally linked to Boston University as many had assumed and was not peer reviewed or institutionally funded. Ogas main claim to fame before this book was probably that he won $500K on the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire TV quiz show in 2006!

The data set is intriguing. But the analysis is hugely disappointing, crude and lacking in scientific method. The authors took the 55 million sex-related searches and categorised them according to 'interests'. They found that the Top 20 interests accounted for 80% and the Top 35 for 90% of all sex-related searches. They concluded from this that: "Most people's desires are clustered together into a relatively small set of common interests. When it comes to our kinks we all have a lot more in common than you might think

So, er, maybe, sort of.... But let us look a bit closer at these 'interests'? The largest category is 'Youth'. That's interesting: tell us more! But except for the fact that this does not include child porn (so, where do the paedophiles search..... or are there no paedophiles on Dogpile?) the authors tell us only that this consists of searches for particular ages (teens, 'barely legal', 18-year olds etc) and gives the example of searches for images of nudes of certain ages. But this categorisation really tells us almost nothing. Teens doing what? With who? For who? Is it teens searching for other teens? Or older men (?) or women (?) searching for teens? What sort of sex or erotic images are being sought for? Teens flashing boobs for friends? Girls gone wild? Teens with teens or young with old? Teen porn movies? Teen sex information? Quests for sexual health or sexual rights for teens? This number is a starting point for deeper analysis. But for Ogas and Gaddam it is as far as their curiosity takes them.

The third most popular category is MILF (Mummy I'd Love To Fuck = roughly women aged 35-50) at 4.3% and the 9th is Mature (women over 50) at 2.1%. Again this is interesting and reflects the diversity of sexual interests across the life span. But similar questions apply as to the 'Youth' category. MILFs doing what? The MILF dominatrix? "Mommy" porn? Incest porn? Or just men looking for women of their own age?

Moreover, most of the categories are very small so that even with a database of 55 million searches the significance of the rankings becomes questionable. 90 out of 100 of their top categories are smaller than 2% of the total. There are a substantial million searches for Domination & Submission at #11 and 500,000 for Incest at #12. But there are only 300,000 for Fellatio at #28; 150,000 for Handjobs at #45; 100,000 for Vomit at #56; and a surprisingly low 50,000 for Bisexual at #72. Dogging comes in with a mere 30,000 at #84; and Cunnilingus barely scrapes in at all with about 15,000 at #98. At their chosen level of generality, the author's categories do not really tell us much about sexual 'interests'.

Now, there are immense theoretical and statistical problems in constructing any sort of categories like these. How is incest with older women categorised (does it belong under 'Incest' or 'MILF')? What is the difference between 'Mature' and 'Granny' porn? But we should at least be told how the author's dealt with such issues and how they defined and constructed their categories. But the biggest problem is the lack of any subtlety or depth of thought in elaborating and developing the analysis. We are told that 'Breasts', 'Vaginas' and 'Penises' are all Top Ten categories. Well, this is a survey of SEX so you'd expect lots of cocks, cunts and tits. But why are people searching for them? and what do they want to know or see about them? Searches about genital sexual health have very different implications from curiosity about penis size or the quest for big black cock. Can the authors not illuminate more?

For me the most disappointing aspect is the failure to make more use of individual search histories other than on an occasional anecdotal basis. The best of these histories seem to be culled not from their own data but from the AOL search histories from 2006. But these histories immediately reveal the riveting complexities of sexual searches. There is the user who intersperses his searches for cheerleaders, bikinis, pretty girls and girls suntanning with searches for 'the sin of masturbation', 'christian advice on lust' and 'noooooooooo!' Is it helpful, one wonders, to segregate erotic from non-erotic searches? Or there is the user who searches endlessly and repetitively for 'dicks', 'big cocks', 'monster cocks', and 'long dong sex' who suddenly needs to know more about 'Horny Amish Women'. What? Or there is the achingly intimate search chronicle of AOL user 2976906 that seems to open up a heart in front of us and become as evocative as poetry. Read it out loud. Slowly. And weep!!

skin massage for stretch marks

look ten years younger fit tv show

fake nude jane seymour

tap your intuition

chakras

pampered chef recipes

sexy vanna white

family nude beach

older men younger women

french country decor

i am in love with him

italian framed art

jealousy between friends

friends jealous after weight loss

anna nicole smith nude

linens & things

labioplasty

celebs pics

free rape movies

what does sex mean to a man

how do men feel about sex

elizabeth montgomery naked

why are single women attracted to married men

when will I see the results of pilates

sexy erica hill

anal sex benefits

june carter and johnny cash honeymoon pics

johnny carter cash pics

honeymoon pics

playgirl pics

george clooney nude

brad pitt nude

men in shower pics

porn for women

nude construction workers

making love

erotic nude couples

This tremulous glimpse of a life boils down in category terms to: Celebrity 7; Nudism 3; Youth 1; Vaginas 1; Anal sex 1; Rape 1. I was unable to categorise 'Playgirl pics', 'Men in showers', 'Porn for women', 'What does sex mean to a man', 'How do men feel about sex', and 'Making love'. Just how much are we capturing in this sort of count?

What can be teased out of such crude data? Millions of search histories provide food for thought about the anonymous wanderings of sexual imaginations but interpreting this data requires more than categories and counting. The insights from the data are limited, but there are a few worth noting. Firstly, the book correctly stresses the diversity of sex-related searches (though their categories seriously understate this). This punctures conventional images of a homogenised porn industry that simply pumps out lookalike products to consumers who just take what they are given. Secondly, it underlines some important points about sexual tastes that are often overlooked. For example, teen girls experience strong and well-attested media pressures to look skinny, and this is often blamed on 'porn' by popular writers like Gail Dines. But, in porn, searches for 'fat' women are far more popular than searches for skinny girls and BBW (Big Beautiful Women) is one of the top porn categories in nearly all porn sites. If you look at porn at all, or if you look at the bodies of top female porn stars, you'll probably have noticed the mix of body types involved, but the statistical documentation is useful. The stats also seem to confirm general observations that (big) breasts and (big) butts are very popular. Small feet are in demand while big feet are shunned. After tits and bums, feet wipe the floor with all other body parts: hands, fingers and mouths lag far behind, and hips and waists are positive johnny-no-friends.

Beyond this, the data is made to yield very little and the bulk of the book is really a rambling discussion of certain popular ideas about the differences between male and female sexuality viewed through the lens of repetitive biological and evolutionary determinism and backed up with breezy anecdotes. There is a massive 79 page bibliography (which is a useful reference tool). But little of it seems to have been actually used! Long lists of scientific papers (often very technical ones) are provided. But most of them do not seem to have been used anywhere in the text. The internet study does not inform the analysis of gender and sexuality that follows. Instead, crude statistics and anecdotes are pulled out to illustrate predetermined ideas based on the authors' take on evolutionary biology. In contrast to the scholarly bibliography, the text is highly speculative 'pop psychology', dumbed down and simplified to the point of nonsense.

Perhaps this is best epitomised by the authors' ludicrous use of cultural archetypes to define the basic distinctions between male and female sexualities and psychologies. Men are defined as 'Elmer Fudd' (a character from Bugs Bunny cartoons!) obsessively focused on the single task of hunting rabbits!!

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Is Elmer Fudd really an archetype of male sexuality?

In this archetype, men are hunters who primarily evaluate partners for breeding and respond to gender cues that are fundamental and fixed. Male sexuality is like a 'knee-jerk reaction', and "men's brains are designed to objectify females" for evolutionary purposes. The propositions are often supported by analogues from animal to human behaviour. Turkeys will copulate with pieces of wood that simulate the red comb on a female's head. Baboons masturbate more as images of female butts presented to them get bigger and brighter. Human sexual arousal is reduced to sexual wiring prompted by 'cued interests'. Porn sites present the perfect visual stimuli to order. Since men are biologically sexual hunters they cannot resist these 'cues'.

But women's sexuality is different. Like Miss Marple (the TV sleuth that the authors use as their archetype) women are constantly analysing for the relationship potential and prospects of a mate.

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Miss Marple represents the archetype of female sexuality!!

Evolutionary pressures to avoid pregnancy except with the best possible alpha partner underpin this.Thus, while men respond overwhelmingly to sexual cues, women "are more aroused by psychological cues" such as stability, commitment, social status, competence and kindness (notably via 'romance'). "Men strive for control and domination while women strive for consensus and equality". Women do not compete with each other for alpha status and they "avoid physical competition and personal clashes in favour of what psychologists call 'tending and befriending'". Hence, women 'masturbate less, fantasize less, and initiate sex less often than men' and 'are much more likely to pursue sex for reasons other than sexual pleasure'.

In other words, as O&G put it: "These portraits appear so different as to describe two different species separated by an abyss." We are back to Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus! Men are insatiable pussy chasers and women are swooning softhearts addicted to romance! The message is that men and women are fundamentally different in how they think due to their universal and eternal 'hard wired' biological desires. In this framework everything can be read to confirm the initial assumptions. For example, since men are hardwired for dominance by their neurones and hormones any submissive behaviour on their part must be the result of 'hormonal or neuronal vagaries'. The authors do not address the point, but if sexuality and desire is determined by evolutionary biology, does this make homosexuality just a 'vagary'?

Interestingly, the American edition of the book is marketed much more transparently (and more realistically) as pop psychology.

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The cover of the US edition of the book

As it stands, the book has no sense of the influences of culture, community, experience or choice. There is no sense of the plastic, interconnected and ever changing nature of the human brain. Where is imagination and contradiction? 'Cues' are seen as straightforward and uni-directional: but a moments reflection reveals that they are unruly and run in all directions. A woman who wants kindness and understanding at one level and be drawn to 'bad boys' on another. A man may want romantic love as much or more as sexual variety and promiscuity. At the same time! Can sexual desire be treated as on a par with the desire for food and water?

Ogas and Gaddam are looking for simple answers to simple questions. But these are complex questions that demand complex answers. Any useful research in this area needs to acknowledge that we do not and cannot know the answers. A Billion Wicked Thoughts offers cavalier assertions not scientific conclusions.

Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet tells us about sexual relationships (Plume/Penguin, 2012)

The Philosopher and the Dungeon

Stephen Paine revisits a famous encounter between a distinguished philosopher and the sadomasochistic art of Robert Mapplethorpe.

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Robert Mapplethorpe, Mark Stephens (Mr 10 1/2) (1976)

Arthur C. Danto, who died aged 89 last week, was widely acknowledged as the most distinguished philosopher of art of our time. He was Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, New York, for many years and was famous for his highly abstract and difficult work on the theory of 'representations'. In 1989, as part of a routine reviewing assignment for The Nation, he viewed an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. His encounter with Mapplethorpe's sadomasochistic art shocked and moved him to think deeply about the meaning of this work as art, pornography and aesthetics. His writings on these issues were subsequently published in a book, Playing With The Edge. In it he tried to unravel his responses to images that he found disturbing and unsettling and to do justice to Mapplethorpe's art and unravel some of the erotic, pornographic and aesthetic meanings that he found in the exhibits. Not surprisingly, perhaps, obituaries following his death have almost entirely ignored this book and the philosopher's encounter with art and BDSM but they are well worth revisiting.

When Danto walked into the Whitney Museum he had never previously encountered BDSM images and had only trivially engaged with pornography through shared men's magazines during his wartime military service. Yet he was a world leading philosopher of art and history, famous for his theories of representation and cultural signification. He walked out of the museum deeply shocked and moved by what he saw. To his credit, he recognized that he had to think through the implications of what he had seen in terms of his own philosophical approaches rather than merely as gut reactions. The result was a deep and sensitive reading of Mapplethorpe's work, embodied in this book.

Robert Mapplethorpe, the artist, was the enfant terrible of art photography in the late 1970s and 1980s. He fearlessly and provocatively portrayed images of nudity, the body and BDSM as high art, using sophisticated photographic techniques to create powerful images that even hostile critics struggled to dismiss as 'mere pornography'.

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Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait (1978)

By doing so, he brought a whole new visibility to styles and practices of BDSM. But he also lived his art in his lifestyle and in 1989 he died tragically young, one of the most high profile victims of the tide of AIDS sweeping through the gay community in the late 1980s.

Arthur Danto, the philosopher, had become famous in philosophical circles for his theory of 'the end of art'. He had discussed how 'art' had moved away from the imitation of reality towards becoming a theatre of representations and meanings. He looked at the difference between mere objects, actions and occurrences and how they were given meaning by subsequent narratives and cultural significations. His philosophical task was, therefore "to compose a theory of representations which would be a philosophy of what it is to be human". These observations may seem commonplace, even trite, today (and they are much more subtle and complex than my caption summary!!), but at the time they occupied a difficult and controversial front-line against rival empiricist and moral philosophers.

Danto frankly acknowledged his shock and naivete on first confronting Mapplethorpe's images. "There was a picture of male genitals trussed up in a way so at odds with anything I had seen or even imagined done to male genitals that I was unable to acknowledge it as a picture of something an actual person had allowed to happen to his cock and balls". He wanted to escape, but he was drawn to look further and think deeper. He came out of the exhibition pale and shaken at the power and cruelty of the images. But he also realised that they were "an exercise of the spirit that gave it an edge of meaning that had to be dealt with". And that was what he did in his book. "I put myself entirely into this essay as philosopher, as critic, and as person. I felt, at the end, that I had achieved a certain understanding of some of the driving issues, not just of our time, but of the human condition itself." It was what he characterised as "playing with the edge".

What did he see and what did he think? Danto drew out four main insights or reflections that can best be illustrated through his discussion of particular photographs.

1. In his discussion of the photograph Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter (1979), Danto focuses on Mapplethorpe's distinctive relationship with his models, a bond of trust and collaboration that enables the photographer to penetrate more deeply into the interiority of the scene and the people.

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Robert Mapplethorpe, Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter (1979)

Danto found the photograph deeply shocking. A chained sex slave at home in a comfortable armchair in a conventional parlour. It is as proprietary and formal as a wedding photograph. The relationship and pose are aberrant, but they are real people being themselves in their own home. The men in the photo are participants as well as objects. They, and others like them in many other Mapplethorpe photos, engage the camera and claim persona and identity (they use their own names in the titles of the photos). They "are demonstrating something they have allowed the artist to witness, not as a voyeur, but as the agent through which the ordinarily hidden is revealed as art. The images are disclosures of sexual truth".

And the sexual truth in this photo is about risk and trust. In BDSM, as in all sex, we surrender to our partners because we trust that they have our well-being in mind. We trust that our limits will be respected even when we are at our most vulnerable. We love to feel danger and feel protected all at once, "like the child who finds it delicious to be thrown in the air certain that his father will not let him fall". (p. 42) Mapplethorpe has been able to capture this because of a bond of trust with the models in his picture. Without such a bond this picture would not be possible. In contrast, most other contemporary photographers were primarily 'stalkers', pouncing with their sharp eyes and reflexes on the lives of others and making themselves invisible.

2. In his discussion of Elliott and Dominick (1979), Danto focuses on the provocative 'edge' conveyed by the use of pornographic images in high art.

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Robert Mapplethorpe, Elliott and Dominick (1979)

He found this picture "an extremely frightening image" and "one of the most difficult of Mapplethorpe's photos". For him, the image echoes scenes of the most gruesome torture in the grim cells of dictators and secret police, and if the same image had been constructed with a female 'victim' he feels that it would have been 'intolerable'. Yet, though it is 'close to the edge' the relationship between camera and participants transforms the effect. "It is the desire that we find frightening as much as the actual set-up". It takes something that should be hidden and shameful and looks through it to the desire and the thrills. Mapplethorpe is 'playing with the edge' of excitement and danger to create an image that is truly pornographic and truly high art. The image itself is pornographic: yet it is not designed to arouse. Its aim is to make people think and react and engage with the meanings of the participants. The sexuality is displayed, but also in a sense contained or negated. The tension between pornography and art enables the viewer to explore much more complex meanings.

3. When Danto comes to talk about Jim and Tom, Sausalito (1979) he is dealing with the photograph that, more than other, unleashed controversy about the National Endowment for the Arts funding for the exhibition.

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Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim and Tom, Sausalito (1977)

This was probably the first time that an image of a man pissing in the mouth of a bondage slave had been shown outside the context of hard to obtain underground porno photos and the Endowment was bitterly divided over permitting the photos to be shown in the exhibition. Danto used the image to explore how we can be drawn to an artistic image while being repelled by its content, and thereby confront many crucial issues about sexual fantasy.

Mapplethorpe deliberately emphasises the sinister and squalid elements of the scene by choosing a squalid location behind a metal fire escape and using a scary and mysterious hooded man as one of the protagonists. Yet at the same time he floods the image with contrasting sunlight and shade and fills the picture with striking shapes of light and dark that highlight the action. He achieves a provocative disjuncture of content and form which highlights the ambiguities of meaning in the actions. Is this a horrible act of degradation signalling contempt? An eroticization of humiliation? A strange gift of love? Ultimately it all depends on what the viewer projects into the picture and points to the unknowability and personal nature of sex acts. As Mapplethorpe himself put it: "I don't think anyone understands sexuality. It's about an unknown, which is why it is so exciting" (quoted p. 91).

As Danto notes in his discussion, the physical aspect of sex is only one of its components. Fantasy and imagination are vital. Yet, even within this, many individuals can be excited by fantasies but turned off by the actual presence of the fantasized object. Like this trilogy of pictures, images and fantasies can be attractive and repellent at the same time.

4. Danto's exploration of two other images, Mark Stephens (Mr. 10 ½) (1976) [see photo at head of article] and Man In A Polyester Suit (1980) looks at how Mapplethorpe plays with aesthetic traditions to foreground the beauty and danger of erotic images.

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Robert Mapplethorpe, Man In A Polyester Suit (1980)

He notes how Mapplethorpe frequently works in an aesthetic of 'beauty' that was being rejected by many of his contemporaries. Mapplethorpe deliberately combined erotic/pornographic content with chastely classic presentation and luxurious and luminous lighting. His photos looked more like 19th century daguerrotypes or formal portraits than contemporary photographic realism. It was the dissociation of form and content that created the excitement and provoked the viewers.

In particular, Mapplethorpe focused on the beauty of the penis in a way that is rare in Western art. In Mark Stephens (Mr. 10 ½) he displays the cock like a piece of jewellery. Man In A Polyester Suit is very different. The picture is a symphony of greys and textures surrounding a sullen and heavy penis that lolls through an unzipped fly between the edges of an open jacket parted like a curtain. Again Mapplethorpe 'plays with the edge': everything in the picture is harmonious - except for the disruptive fact that it is a penis.

Despite his initial shock, Danto treated Mapplethorpe's work with integrity and seriousness and tried to understand it within a broader philosophical framework. He understood that Mapplethorpe was using aesthetics to make a moral clain for the legitimacy of BDSM practices as ways of expressing deep feelings, embracing and exploring fantasy, challenging arbitrary moral lines of divide, and challenging conventional assumptions. Acceptance as 'art' can help to transform consciousness.

Arthur C. Danto, Playing With The Edge: The photographic achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe ((University of California Press, 1996)

The Anti-Pornographers' Guide To Bad Sex

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No, NO!! Don't look!! DON'T LOOK!!

Reading anti-pornography texts can highlight their authors' visions of 'good sex' and how it should be kept in its place. It can also be a springboard to reflect on what good sex really is all about.

Western societies are emerging from centuries of rigid and prescriptive sexual mores (rooted in religious thought). It is only in the last fifty years that homosexuality has been decriminalised, sexual censorship curbed, and normative views of correct sexuality questioned and rejected on a large-scale. It has happened step by step through a slow process of liberalisation, but without any clear alternative framework of rights and obligations on which to base new practices. Everything is seen as a weakening of the old rather than an assertion of the new.

Hence we speak of sexual liberalisation rather than sexual freedoms. It is also complicated by the new technologies of visibility - especially where what is acceptable for adults clashes with what we think is acceptable for children. We might like to dance naked in front of our lovers but NOT in front of our children. Since we cannot prevent the latter, do we have to forbid the former? Do we have to baby-proof the world? The conservative buzz-concept of 'pornification' mixes these two things together: a fear that we are letting sexuality 'go too far' among adults reinforced by the notion that it is corrupting our children.

Porn is actually a diverse and changing genre, including many discourses, aesthetics, imaginations, forms and fantasies But anti-pornographers generally see only a homogeneous industry imposing a specific construction of sex based on misogyny and profit . Pornography is seen as synonymous with 'bad' sex, defined as sex that is degrading, humiliating, or de-humanizing for women. The most prominent examples are chosen from a narrow range of 'nasty' gonzo porn movies, but dig deeper and you can see the targets extending ever wider to sexual advice columns, teenage sexual experimentation, and heterodox sexual practices of all sorts.

Looking at the work of leading anti-pornography activists like Gail Dines or Robert Jensen quickly makes clear the narrow moral views on sexuality that underpin their position. The 'good sex' that they approve of is sex that is 'proper' and done in the 'right' way. And what way is that? Reading Dines' book Pornland speedily helps to pin down the details.

(1) 'Good sex' should be in a relationship. The relationship should be heterosexual and loving. These days they accept that it should not only be within marriage or for procreative ends - that's so last century. Boyfriends and girlfriends are quite acceptable nowadays. But more casual relationships........ (er, hook-ups??) hum, let's not go there, OK.

(2) What is degrading and de-humanising? They don't make a list, but once they start talking about porn it is pretty clear and we can fill in the blanks for them. 'Bad sex' is:

• anal sex, no, no. Fingers up ass? (oh, alright, maybe just one finger, up to the first digit, sometimes..... if you are feeling very 'joyful').

• fellatio is OK as long as it is done in a loving and beautiful way. DON'T cum in her mouth or on her face or on her tits! DON'T make her gag! NO deep throating! (And girls, if it comes to it, please swallow quickly, you really should not hold it in your mouth and give it back to your partner in a kiss! Yuk!)

• cunnilingus? Maybe some men do it, but please don't talk about it.

• 'normal' fucking is OK - but not too hard or too rough, and no primal humping (if you find yourself liking that sort of stuff you'd better get yourself checked out). And no smacking, pinching, biting....... Well, maybe just a little ...... sometimes....... we aren't puritans after all).

• different sex positions are OK. And woman on top is really cool, guys. But as we all know, some of the non-standard positions are pretty gross and degrading and I'm sure I don't have to tell you which ones!

• masturbation is a fact of life and it is ok to do it - but not too often. Just DON'T use porn while you are doing it and be careful where those naughty thoughts are going!)

• threesomes or group sex

• some things are just WRONG: double penetration, double vaginal, double anal (see 'threesomes above), and rimming and ass-to-mouth are definite no-no's.

• vibrators have crept into the Garden of Eden, unfortunately. Sigh! We will have to live with them, discretely in a bedroom drawer. But don't use them when anyone else is around and please beware of all those dreadful de-humanising electrosex toys with all their wires and de-humanising stuff. .... And as for strap-ons (gasp!).

• gay and lesbian sex. Do we have to go there again? Really it's a lost battle anyway. Just leave them to get on with whatever they do to each other and don't complicate matters for us heterosexuals.

(3) It is PRIVATE!! These things are for couples to do out of sight. No voyeurs, no cameras. No-one should see other people having sex. No-one should describe or show the physical acts. Even the 'good' things become bad if they are shown. And the 'bad' things become totally wicked.

Well, now we know.

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"But surely there MUST be a law against it??"

But is this 'sex' as we know it or live it? The moralists desire for prescriptive rule-bound sex absolutely refuses to engage with the complexities and thrilling confusions of sex that make it so exciting in the first place.

Sex is not just beautiful, affectionate, gentle and emotionally intimate (though it CAN be all those things). Instead it is animal and spiritual, it is unruly and turbulent, it is exciting and maybe out of control. It can be tantric, it can be wild-crazy blow the mind out of yourself stuff. And it is always contradictory, complicated, revealing, and probably disconcerting. Opposites all at once:

Delicious/disgusting

Deeply sharing/profoundly selfish

Pleasure/pain

Gentle/violent (in a good way)

Reality/fantasy

Fulfilling/disruptive

Giving/taking

Melting of souls/objectification

The greatest loves/the greatest hurts

Wanting to stop/wanting more

Empathy/objectification

Holding/Fighting

And 'good' sex can come out of many different types of relationship. Casual, deeply committed, try-it-out, just-want-a-fuck, sensation seeking, experimental, comforting routine, hay-making fun, healing, even fighting.

And above all, the idea that 'committed couple' sex is somehow intrinsically better than other forms of sex is utter nonsense. So much 'couple sex' is sad and woeful or oppressive. Let us count the ways:

- bored obligation

- easier to put up with it than to say no (especially when he's drunk)

- to keep a marriage going or for the sake of financial security

- for the sake of uxorial religious duty in Christianity or Islam

- doing things you don't want to do to placate a pushy partner

- letting him bang away while you go on remote and dream of better things

- an outlet for anger or frustration

- the drab pursuit of procreation

That's right. Acts of sex are neither good nor bad but context makes them so!

And they can be intensely private OR they can be shared (= pornography!). Sex can be celebrated, demonstrated, explored as art and performance and display. It can be watched for pleasure - and to learn ....... or maybe sometimes to be warned. Sexuality is an endless learning process. You learn to dance, play sport and make things by watching others. You may like to rehearse in private: you may like to play in public.

Sex has long been very private. Behind closed doors. Humanity is deeply unfamiliar in seeing sex close up in detail and as an observer. It is a new thrill but a tricky one. Suddenly all bedrooms have glass walls. Everything can be seen in the most minute detail. The most private and secret is suddenly the most public and visible...... in the space of a generation!!. No wonder we struggle to create new norms, social practices, legitimacy, or even the language to discuss it.

The Congress Of Sexual Deviants

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Mocking parody of BDSMers? Celebration of crazy diversity? Put-down or laugh along with your own kinks? Bizarre and loving it. A wonderful Italian cartoon illustrating Gail Dines' worst nightmare.

The Road To Pornland

A Critique Of Gail Dines' Anti-Porn Crusade

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Gail Dines: leading anti-pornography campaigner

You cannot miss Gail Dines. Wherever there is controversy about pornography, she is there. Quoted in newspapers, referenced by politicians, lionised on chat-shows. She has carved out a niche for herself as "the world's leading anti-porn campaigner". Recent high profile interventions include giving evidence for the United States Justice Department against the Free Speech Coalition on the issue of Section 2257, supporting the proposed government ban on porn in Iceland, and backing campaigns that attempt to link pornography to child abuse in the UK and elsewhere.

She is a prolific author and the founder of the campaigning organization Stop Porn Culture, and she is the most prominent current advocate of the tradition of vehemently anti-porn-feminism that dates back to Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. Although she is a Sociology professor at a small college in Boston and has a PhD (a feminist analysis of Playboy cartoons) from Salford University in 1990, she is a polemicist and activist rather than an academic researcher. Her views may be based on argument and rhetoric rather than evidence, but they are highly influential and are regularly deployed in all debates on the ills of pornography. Many of them are drawn together in her best-selling book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality (2010).

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So what does she say? What is the argument she is making, and how does it stack up? Like all skilful polemicists she often carries readers along on a tide of rhetoric and colourful examples. But what is her underlying case?

Dines' dystopian vision

Dines' starting point is a vision of what is happening to society. Porn is corrupting and deforming sexuality and society. Porn is like an illness or a virus that has "seeped into our everyday world", saturating our culture, sexuality, gender and identity. Like an illness it has crept up on us unrecognised: "we are in the midst of a massive social experiment, only the laboratory here is our world and the effects will be played out on people who never agreed to participate" (ix). But unlike an illness it is actually deliberate and conspiratorial. "The architects of the experiment are the pornographers" who essentially peddle the drug 'porn' to vulnerable 'users' and 'addicts' re-shaping sex in a vile and sick form and creating an epidemic of misogyny, violence and de-humanization. "Porn is a serious public health issue...... Pornographers have hijacked our sexuality and it's about time we wrested it back". (xiii)

In view of this, you might like to know exactly what porn is. But Dines refuses to define it. "I don't think it is worth defining it. It's that stuff you find when you put "porn" into Google. Why bother defining it?" She knows it when she sees it. No need to distinguish it from the erotic, the literary, the artistic. It's the bad stuff. And for the reader that makes it simple. If you don't like it - it's porn!

All Porn Is Gonzo!

Dines' book is about porn. But it isn't. It looks at one particular genre and ignores all else. Her focus is on 'gonzo' porn (extreme sex action without storylines) which she argues is the ubiquitous form of porn today. According to her, this porn overwhelmingly involves 'hardcore, body-punishing sex in which women are demeaned and debased". Absurdly she assumes that softcore porn has virtually disappeared when in fact it remains by far the largest market segment! And there is no discussion of other huge areas of porn: no glamcore, art porn or 'crossover' porn; no male gay, no lesbian, no femdom; no women-made porn, no webcams and amateur content; no Alt-porn, no fetish niches (BBW, rubber, foot fetish etc); no romantic porn, no instructional porn.

The book is supposed to be about pornography today but in fact it focuses narrowly on a small slice of the industry, in particular the 'studio porn' of the late 1990s and early 2000s (Vivid, Anabolic, Wicked, etc) when upstart companies, the new kids on the block, were using gonzo and 'shock porn' to break the grip of the old cautious softcore video companies. These studios featured a defiantly excessive and misogynistic style with lots of physical and verbal violence, and were led by predatory pornographers who deliberately made their porn as nasty and humiliating as possible. They were most notoriously epitomised by Max Hardcore with his relentless emphasis on pain, humiliation and degradation of female performers. His story, according to Dines, is "really the story of contemporary porn". Dines conveniently ignores the fact that Max Hardcore seriously divided opinion in the porn industry and shocked and alienated many fans, resulting in his relative isolation and paving the way for his prosecution and imprisonment in 2008.

Even at its peak, the gonzo studios were only one segment of the industry (though undoubtedly a significant one), but since then its tide has very much receded because of the changing climate of the industry and aggressive legal actions against it. The rise and fall of 'gonzo' is a fascinating commercial, aesthetic and legal story, but she does not tell it, and even at its peak, and very much more today with the rise of the internet and the proliferation of 'free' content, pornography is and has been very diverse. Yet Dines just pretends that nothing exists beyond 'studio gonzo'.

On the back of one misleading generalization she layers another: the claim that as output of porn has grown over the last twenty years and that its content has become more and more extreme. Until the 1980s, according to Dines, the typical porn product was softcore. Now it is "a never-ending universe of ravaged anuses, distended vaginas, and semen-smeared faces". (xvi) To avoid the boredom of formulaic porn, she claims, pornographers have sought out more and more extreme acts (gangbangs, degradation, DP, double anal, ATM etc). The more dehumanizing and humiliating the better. In particular, the popularity of anal sex in porn reflects male pleasure in pain and a desire to revenge themselves on women for sexual disappointments.

The book is based on very little research. Dines has looked at quite a few top-selling videos from video stores, and, above all, garnered quotes from students and people who have come to her "STOP PORN CULTURE" meetings to discuss why porn is bad. But she has not done any systematic work about what porn actually IS and she has not interviewed sex workers (even though she has a lot of opinions about their lives and plight). Instead she has collected some of the 'most popular' videos from porn stores (mainly around 2002-2007 as far as I can tell) and some of the top videos thrown up by Google searches of terms like 'porn'. She quickly finds numerous lurid labels and sites like Gag Factor, Anal Suffering, and Anally Raped Whores. These, she decides, are typical of all porn. (xvii-xxi) In short she takes one segment of an industry at one point in time and simply claims without evidence that it is representative of porn as whole.

All Porn is Bad Porn!

Of course, a lot of porn is nasty exploitative shit. There is no getting away from it, and to be fair to Dines, she does make some valid observations about the portrayal of sex in bad gonzo sex movies. Often they do portray "a world of robotic studs and sluts". The men in these movies are frequently portrayed (quite deliberately) as soulless, amoral and without empathy. Their penises are always erect but they never exhibit signs of sexual excitement! Sex in these movies is a demonstration of male power and control and women simply do what men want without any desire for reciprocity. They are continually verbally abused as cunts, whores, or cumdumps, yet they seem to want sex with men who express nothing but hatred and contempt for them. And many gonzo movies are obsessed with 'body-punishing' sex pushing the woman's body to extremes with giant gangbangs, huge insertions, and bodily fluids - in short, a parade of acts that are as dirty and disgusting as a leering producer can entice drug-addled and money hungry performers to undertake. (For an insider view on this see Orianna Small's book Girlvert recently discussed in this blog). Yes, a lot of porn movies, then and now, are like this.

Yet that is only one part of the story. Dines wants to say that this is the beginning and end of ALL porn. But this is as foolish as saying that a single genre like science fiction represents ALL novels. Some novels are science fiction, but most are not. To assess the novel you have to look at all its genres, not just one, and the same is true of porn. In fact, Dines exhibits a wilful ignorance of the diversity of modern pornography and of the complexity of individual sexuality.

When Dines analyses her selected porn movies she consistently projects her own thoughts and feelings onto the performers and those who are watching it. She asks: How would I feel if I were that woman? And she answers: I would feel degraded, humiliated, used and abused....... But she is NOT that woman. She is shocked to see women ready and enthusiastic to engage in sex at the drop of a hat. But these are porn movies! What does she expect? Jane Austen? She simply cannot conceive of women liking rough or extreme sex. Similarly she believes that she knows exactly what is in the minds of all men when they look at porn. She quotes liberally from the words of bitter and twisted trolls who spew out their misogynistic thoughts in chat-rooms and bulletin boards, treating them as if they are a representative sample of all men. And out of this she conjures her image of the typical 'porn girl': sad, battered and passive, undergoing severe sexual assaults, sadly tending her wounds alone in a bathroom after each encounter, fearful of disease and injury and enduring this until she is discarded by the industry.

Of course, working for peanuts doing streaming online gangbangs for Porno Dan in a shack in East LA is a pretty lousy way to make a living. But is it worse than other gruelling ways of selling your body for cash? Worse than working as a call centre galley-slave? Worse than gutting chickens on a production line? Worse than lap dancing for tips in a seedy dive? Just hope that's not a choice you have to make. But porn can also be exciting and fun to do. Inconveniently for Dines, many performers love their work and actively choose to do it. If they can pick their way through the pitfalls they may find something there that thrills and fulfils them like nothing else.

Anti-Porn Morality

Dines' viewpoint is almost solely negative and prohibitive and she lacks any curiosity or sense of exploration. In her world there are clear lines between good and bad sexuality, and what is bad must be stopped. It's a slippery slope out there. And you can see where she is coming from. After all, society's views of the normal, the acceptable and the 'degrading' are constantly changing. For my granny's generation fellatio was so degrading it was unspeakable: now it is seen as 'normal'. Gay sex, anal sex, and oral sex were illegal and ostracised (and in many places they still are) but in more progressive societies they are now an accepted part of mainstream sexuality.

In face of this, Dines wants to stop 'disgusting and degrading' sex from corrupting society. And she and her co-thinkers think they can lay down what is 'disgusting and degrading' for all of us. But a sex act is only 'degrading' if a participant feels degraded. And what may be 'degrading' for one person is not so for another. Different people react to sexual acts in different ways. What is disgusting to some is a pleasure to others and there is a world of difference between saying: "I don't enjoy that" or "I don't understand why people would like that" and saying : "That sex act is bad/sick/weird". Dines and her co-thinkers want to turn differences of taste or interest into moral (or even legal) judgements.

Consequently, her focus is on acts rather than meanings. Some acts are good, some acts are bad. She is not interested in understanding the erotic and emotional responses and contexts in which they take place. Yet such context is absolutely essential. The same sex act may be fine when performed with consent but wrong when it is coerced. But it is the coercion NOT the act that is bad. A kiss is just a kiss? Well, no it's not. Kisses are often loving acts: but if some shitface forces his tongue down your throat against your will, then that is an assault. BDSM between enthusiastic partners may be wildly erotic: abducting someone and torturing them (maybe in very similar ways?) under duress is criminal. In contrast to Dines, I would argue that the only thing that really matters about any particular sex act or desire is the consent, pleasure and well-being of the participants. If all parties think it is pleasurable and enjoy it, it's fine.

Yet societies and courts, mullahs and moralists, are still in the business of trying to define a 'normal' and correct sexuality that people should only enjoy in specific ways. Ideas that sex is sinful and shameful, and the taboos and proscriptions that go along with that, may have shifted their boundaries but they remain pervasive.

I'm not saying that you cannot or should not have strong personal reactions or dislikes, or even that you may choose to question or criticise other people's choices. Of course those debates are just part of everyday human conduct and we engage in discussion about these choices. And in many other areas of life modern societies have moved away from the proscriptive moral codes that so often attach to sex. Most societies no longer seek to define dress or foodstuffs as socially and morally 'good' or 'bad'? Certain religious dietary prescriptions still remain, but outside fundamentalist ranks they do not seem to have much purchase any longer. People may not like hot curries but I have never heard calls for them to be banned on moral grounds! In many other areas of social life it now seems ludicrous that preferences and dislikes could be embodied in moral and legal imperatives. Should cricket be shunned by decent living people (Cromwell thought so!)? Is rock and roll the tool of the devil? Is eating pork a sin? It's surely time to make the transition in relation to sex. The best answer to the question: "Where do we draw the line?" in relation to sexual practices has to be: "Don't bother".

It is not necessarily an easy thing to do. It is very hard to respect the sexuality of other people when you find it confusing, ugly or threatening. It is hard to accept that something may disgust you but not be 'wrong' (I shudder at the thought of eating tapioca pudding or live squid, OMG!! - but I don't try to stop other people eating them). Until this transition becomes commonplace, entrenched social prejudices make many people suffer shame and trauma over perfectly benign desires and sex acts, or come to believe that they are sick or shameful. That was what happened to me (and millions of other men) the first time we masturbated, had a gay thought, or felt excited by bondage. Why do we do this to ourselves? Anti-sex evangelists like Dines are the sort of obstacles that need to be overcome so that we can have the conversations that we really need to be having about sexual freedoms.

Censorship looms in the adult cloud

Google and Wordpress clamp down on adult blogs

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In July, Google deleted thousands of blogs displaying 'adult' or NFSW ('not safe for work) content with almost no notice. Google had introduced new 'terms of service' for its Blogger service and was closing any blogs that they deemed to be displaying adverts or links to other adult websites.

The blogs affected included diaries, erotic fiction, reviews, sex toy reviews, art photographers, film-makers, visual artists, sex activists and campaigners, sex educators, and even fasion and feminist blogs. Google was not striking at big corporations but at individuals and small entrepreneurs whose sexual politics it does not like. In short, it is an outright attack on free speech - at the very time that Google has been found to be opening it's back door to the NSA and GCHQ so that they can spy on the emails and texts of ordinary people.

In the last few weeks, many users are reporting that Wordpress is also taking down large numbers of adult blogs for 'violations of terms of service'.

Many users faced outright confiscation of their content as a result, without any means of appeal. 'Deleted material will not be returned' they are told. Many bloggers are shocked to find that they do not own their own content.

Individuals affected have limited options. They can move to Tumblr. But Tumblr has long had very restrictive rules on any monetization of content and its blogs are not indexed by Google. Some have turned to smaller sites like Hostgator, Liquidio and Go Daddy. But disruptions like these may easily kill off many valuable but non-tech-savvy blogs.

The government no longer feels the need to censor sexual speech through the courts on a routine basis. As readers of this blog will know they generally prefer just to martyr some unfortunate individual from time to time to discourage the others and send out a signal.

Instead, it is happy to delegate its gagging role to private corporations who can set their own rules arbitrarily and are not subject to any democratic oversight whatsoever.

Increasingly the key agents of censorship are becoming the unaccountable giants: Amazon, CCBill, Paypal, YouTube etc. And behind them often stand the most powerful paymasters of them all: the credit card companies. Visa and Mastercard get to lay down the moral law.

Behind The Scenes As A Porn Star

Ashley Blue's Memoir Is A Powerful And Troubling Picture Of The Gonzo Years

Who wants to be a California porn star? What's it really like? Hedonism and excess? Degradation and exploitation? Reportage often tells us more about authors than their subjects. Memoirs are often airbrushed or self-serving. We need good reports from the front-line and Oriana Small's memoir (Girlvert) gives us just that. It's an honest and vivid book that does not avoid the difficult issues. When you read it you can almost taste the industry (which isn't comfortable).

Oriana made over two hundred hardcore movies between 2002 and 2010 mainly under the name Ashley Blue. Half of those came in a wave in her first two years in the industry. After that the pace slowed, but she enjoyed fame as the star of the best-selling Girlvert series. She was a front rank porn star who won the prizes and pushed the boundaries. She worked for the most notorious studios and worked with the most infamous characters. She truly had her fingers (and more) on the pulse of the industry's shaft.

The Road To Porn

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Ashley Blue: "A decorated soldier of sex hell bent for glory" 

Oriana did not grow up in a 'porn culture' and she had barely seen porn before she started performing it. At the turn of the 21st century, porn was still expensive and hard to get hold of. It was a world peopled by 'porn stars' with glamor and notoriety that made it titillating. But for most people porn was 'the other side of the tracks', an alien and sordid place where no decent people would go. But Oriana's background and lifestyle made it a tempting option in a world of few options.

Oriana came from a calamitously broken family. Her parents were deadbeat drug addicts and throughout her teens, all she wanted to do was to go out, party and have fun. "And my idea of fun consisted of experimenting with drugs and having sex with older men." She lost her virginity at 13 and during high-school lived for random one-night stands, meeting guys and having sex with them. "Sex gave me a feeling of power..... made me feel wanted, needed and smart". (p. 15)

Sexually porn was not so different from what she was doing in her everyday life by her late teens. She had group sex with boyfriends and buddies and did anal and double penetration "with cheerleader enthusiasm". When she came across anal sex (in Henry Miller short stories!) she hastened to try it out...... with no idea of how to do it properly. She got a boy to just to just shove it up her ass without lube. It was so painful she passed out. But then she discovered lube and patience and after that it felt really good. Double anal came early and easy. The first time she did it she was so high on ecstasy that she did not know she had done it till her giggling hook-ups told her afterwards. She just gravitated to the wild side. She liked it rough and dirty: hair-pulling and having her face smacked while she gave blow-jobs. "They wanted to do all this crazy stuff and I was the girl who was down for it". And it was all eased along on a cloud of ecstasy and coke. "I thought everyone in Hollywood did coke and got double penetrated". (p.22)

Oriana got into art school in LA, but then she dropped out and moved to Hollywood hoping to become a rock groupie. But she hated the boring jobs as secretary, waitress or shop assistant she had to take to earn $250 a week for working all hours. So when she drifted into a sleazy modelling agency looking for work and found it was a front for porn, well, why not? Just do the stuff she was already doing but on film (plus her boyfriend thought it was a great idea!). Overnight she could earn $1,000 for a few hours of regular porn or $1500 for double penetration, gang bangs or harder stuff. Before she knew it she was earning unheard of sums and blowing it instantly on cars, clothes and drugs.

Quite a lot of women followed similar routes into porn. Family background, lifestyle choices and sexual non-conformity made it an option. Money made it a very tempting option. Maybe that is a fairly predictable profile for an LA porn star. But Oriana is an acute observer of how her sexuality and emotions were shaped by her dysfunctional family background. By the time she was ten, her Mum (who had been abandoned and adopted as a child herself) was 'a doped up specter'. She got pregnant in her teens and did not know how to love her daughter. She let Oriana drink vodka from the bottle aged 13; gave her dope and taught her to dress sexy. She failed to pay the bills and spent all the money on drink and drugs. She could be wild and funny but most of the time was an out of control drunk. Oriana's Mum and Dad fought and lied and screwed around or lay around the house out of their minds on weed and speed while Oriana aged 13 was becoming bulimic and having random sex. Her Mum abandoned her. But Oriana could not bear her Dad and ran away from him. Eventually she ended up joining her Mum again (who was by then a heroin addict), living with her latest loser boyfriend in California. No doubt her later mix of fierce independence in some things combined with emotional dependency, as well as her hedonism, had roots (complicated ones) in all of this. So too, no doubt, had the sexualised bulimia that came to play such a big role in her life.

The Beautiful and the Vomiting

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Ashley Blue's trademark: The hand down the throat

I have never come across such a detailed picture of throw-up/gagging/throat sex before. And after reading Oriana's book I'm not going to put it down as 'bad' sex. Different cultures see and use the body differently. The Romans, for example, loved a good purging puke between courses as one of the pleasures of their banquets. And I, and many men, can get a kick out of a good choke on a strap-on. But for Oriana sexualised bulimia was sexually and emotionally central. She became a bulimic by the time she was ten. But she also (I think less commonly, but correct me if I am wrong) found it a profoundly sexual experience. It turned her on to shove her own hand down her throat and barf up her food in the toilet. "I loved it, it was exhilarating. I could feel a rush in my entire body, a rush of fluids out of the stomach, mouth, eyes, and nose all at once. I found it more orgasmic than sex, until I finally had orgasms at age 19". She used to hide her puke away from her mum around the house in home-made barf-bags. "I have always had a high threshold for the gross, the vulgar, the sickening. For me it is a source of happiness and excitement". When she started having boyfriends: "I just incorporated the gratifying feeling of self-purging into our sex". (p. 171) How widespread was this among her peers? Maybe more than you'd think. At her school, she tells us, the most beautiful girls were frequently bulimic: a clique, 'the beautiful and the vomiting'.

There's a defiant contrariness about her throat-sex and also her later prolific ass-sex. It was an overturning of the hierarchies of the body, an embrace of craziness, taboos and filth. (Note to self: Time to look again at George Bataille, the writer who has dug deepest into the eroticism of taboos and disgust). Quite rightly she refuses to see it as pathological. On the contrary, she defiantly puts a picture of herself shoving her hand down her throat on the paperback cover of the book! As she tells us: "I cannot have any kind of sex to this day until my hand goes in my throat....... I can erase everything I know with that hand down my throat...... recreating innocence". It has changed a bit over time. At the end of the book she notes that today: "I can't throw up any more. I've graduated to natural laxatives and enema bags..... I focus on the asshole now. ..... Thanks to porn I know about this mysteriously resilient piece of the Digestive Lexicon. I'm fascinated by faeces anyway. I love to look at shit and fantasize about how it came to be. It's so disgusting. I do love that feeling of strong repulsion". (p. 172) My guess is that though many readers will find this disgusting and sick, many others (even those who do not and would not do such things themselves) will engage with these challenging ideas and practices of the plastic and porous sexual body.

Misogyny and the porn industry

Reading this book might make you ashamed to be a man. It is peopled with an appalling collection of creeps, jerks, and misogynists. Apart from her current husband who only makes a brief appearance at the tail-end of the book, the men are unremittingly awful. Not because she does not make every effort to find any good side to them, but because there is no good side to find.

There were some very evil sexual predators, creeps and misogynists around the industry. Producers and directors like Victor Viewer and Khan Tusion regularly abused and molested girls around the shoots and preyed on the naïve and messed-up girls who came to them. They fed on the weaknesses of performers who did not know how to say No. It is shocking that in comparison to some of these creeps the notoriously coercive (and later imprisoned) Max Hardcore looks like a 'good guy' in this book.

Khan Tusion in particular was notorious for his sheer violence towards women. His trademark was to scare and shock. He wanted girls to cry on film and feel like shit. He was perhaps the most infamous producer of the new raw hardcore style of gonzo movies in the early 2000s typified by the fast rising Anabolic studio. Producers like these carved out a new and lucrative market by using the shock factor. They flaunted the nasty, the aggressive, the extreme and the taboo and blatantly embraced misogyny. They used hand-held cameras, sleazy sets, scary soundtracks and ugly aggressive men. The emphasis was on the degradation of girls. They featured the sort of name-calling, slapping, choking, ATM and DP which previous companies had avoided. Khan Tusion's series Rough Sex and Meatholes pushed the boundaries of taste and eventually created a backlash both within and outside the industry.

Oriana walked into the high tide of this era and rode the wave. She took pride in doing the dirtiest stuff that disgusted others. She was almost permanently off her face on coke and ecstasy and ready for anything. "I wanted everyone to think that I was a great performer and that I would rise to any sort of challenge. ...... A decorated soldier of sex hell bent for glory!" (p. 65) The idea of being caressed or kissed on set was far more shocking to her than double penetration or gangbangs.

Even so, she was many times pushed and manipulated into stuff she did not want to do. She was shocked and confused when she was pushed into her first Ass-To-Mouth. Later, Tusion and her boyfriend bullied her into being a 'human toilet' for the first time in Pissmops #2 (the clip below complements the intense and vivid description of her experience pp. 85-9).

But even more shocking was the incident in which Tusion choked her unconscious on camera which you can see below.

Ashley Blue choked out by Khan Fusion

Oriana's description of this incident is deeply disturbing. [See Girlvert pp. 105-7] Tusion was a gross old pervert who disgusted her, but she felt unable to say no to him. She had never been throttled during sex before but Tusion pressured her (bullying, daring, flattering) until she agreed to let him do it. Her fear and confusion was what turned him on. As she describes it: "Darkness and murder filled his eyes. He was strong and he had me. I couldn't protest. I didn't know what to do. I wasn't ready. [Tusion] was hurting me. I was naked and this man was strangling me". ...."The sole purpose of Tusion's actions was to hurt and scare me. It's what he always and ultimately had in store for any porno girl that he hired for a scene. Tusion is a sick person. I wouldn't even call him a sadist because that would sexualise him too much. I was green and vulnerable enough to allow myself into the situation."

Making Movies

Oriana's experiences are probably typical of the exploitation of female performers in the gonzo porn industry of the time, and, though some of the excesses of this period may have been capped off in recent years, much of this no doubt still remains today. Working in the industry, she felt that she had 'signed over her basic rights as a human being'. If she said 'No', or even got upset about something, she feared she would never work again. The thrills, the sex and the money were great. And when decent producers treated performers decently it was a great ride. She was excited by sex and exhibitionism. Her boyfriend was in it with her. It was one big crazy joke and a quick way to buy their dreams. But 'decent' treatment was the exception rather than the rule and the downside was nasty.

Oriana's first movie was More Dirty Debutantes #227 (Dir. Ed Power, 2002) and after that for two years she was in constant demand as a top hardcore girl. Being able to throw up on command was a valuable asset in porn and her asshole soon got trained to take bigger and bigger cocks and bigger insertions rougher and longer. Lick ass? Suck toes? No problem. "I didn't care what I put into my mouth. I was literally a sucker for new sexual experiences" she recalls, "I wanted to be the toughest girl on the planet". She did blowjobs and ass-eating, however gross and disgusting the bodies. (Her image of the stinking 'white cheesy stuff under the foreskin' of one guy has indelibly smeared itself on the walls of my mind). Recurrent gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes and vaginitis were facts of life. "My body was an STD cesspool exploding with outbreaks". Not for everyone!! But those were her own choices. Her body, her lifestyle. Deal with it.

But the balance between choice and coercion was always fragile. One turning point was making the large-group gangbang movie Seven The Hard Way (Dir. Brandon Iron) in 2004. Read her account of making this movie pp. 182-4 and watch the movie alongside it. You can see the weird distressing mix of choice, wildness, coercion, pressure, weakness and defiance that work their way through the shoot! After this, she swore to herself that she would never do another gangbang. Yet a year later her boyfriend and his porn director mate bullied her into doing another. "I cried all the way through it", she writes.

For Oriana, as for most women in the industry, the life-cycle of porn stardom was short. After two years the jobs were drying up; she had become 'old news' and yesterday's girl. The jobs offered to her became less attractive, or painfully humiliating. Anal Cream Pies involved being fucked up the ass and having cream pies stuffed in her face. The pies were more degrading than the fucking! But she had to take what she could get to carry on feeding her lifestyle and drug habits and propping up her loser boyfriends. After three years of porno, Orianna was beginning to hate sex. The smell of balls and man-sweat became repellent: she was grossed out.

What saved her from a slow slide down the drain was getting cast in the Girlvert series for JM Productions. Despite numerous ructions and problems this series at least provided more decent conditions (A contract! Guaranteed regular work! Regular pay of $6K per month! A smart company BMW!! A measure of respect on set!!!). Unusually in gonzo, these movies had characters and storylines, and Oriana played a mischievous and abusive young girl who tricks or forces other girls into rough sex. It gave her a chance to be outrageous, more creative and more in control. As she saw it, these movies were more than just XXX videos: for her they were 'performance art'. And they caught on. Oriana won the Female Performer of the Year Award for Girlvert at the Las Vegas Annual Porn Convention in 2004. Her personal life and drug addiction might still be disaster areas, but less arduous work and conditions at least gave her a chance to find her way to something better.

Love, drugs, sex and porn

Oriana's book opens a window on the gonzo years, but it is not a misery chronicle. She wants to explain the both the highs and lows of her experience. And crucially she insists that it was not porn, or sex, or sex acts that were the source of the ills. Anal sex, double penetration, gangbangs, and all sorts of 'dirty' sex on camera could be fine and fun. It was the people that came with them that were sick and destructive. As she puts it: "The sex on camera was not what dehumanised me. It actually made me feel more of a human being, while simultaneously connecting me deeply to an animal world. The dehumanising happened outside of the scene, at home, in the hands of the ones I loved". ...... "The sex business taught me compassion and tolerance". (p. 237)

I've already discussed the abusive role of porn producers but for Oriana the more pernicious relationships were the ones much closer to her. Her own family had fucked her up, but in her porn years the men and boyfriends in her life did more than anything to wreck her emotionally and personally.

Throughout this period, Oriana was involved with a series of self-obsessed boyfriends who attacked her self-esteem and shamelessly manipulated her affections and need for 'love'. She clung to them in sad dependency almost completely passive in the relationships. The book is a remarkably clear-eyed reconstruction of how she embraced these men, her agonisingly slow discovery of how damaging these boyfriends were and the ways she kept slipping back into the old patterns, even while she was starting to understand what was going on. It must have been a very hard thing to look at her own weaknesses and failings without trying to evade responsibility for her own actions. The way she conveys her inability at the time to see what she can see so clearly now and to recreate that state of mind is an outstanding piece of memoir writing.

The saddest story is her relationship with her long-term boyfriend, Tyler.

Tyler was a six-foot sexy slim boy. He was her first serious relationship and it seemed very romantic. She was 'in love with him to the point of insanity'. From the start, Tyler loved the idea of her doing porn, particularly because it could give him an entrée to an exciting sleazy world that turned him on. He hoped that she could make him into a porn star. But he soon began to resent her success and attention. He needed the money (he took half of everything she earned) and he pimped her out while complaining about her acting like a whore. He bossed her with his passive aggressive ways but she was drawn to "a lost soul who would need me to resurrect him".

They lived in a drugs culture even before porn, but Oriana's porn earnings unleashed the flood. They had money to buy all the drugs they wanted, and then they could deal drugs to buy even more. They got heavily into coke. "It revolutionized my world. It felt amazing". Ecstasy made them into 'emotional idiots'. Crystal meth became essential to get through a day. It became impossible to do anything without drugs. They earned thousands of dollars a week and spent most of it on drugs, partying through the nights or fighting through the nights. Looking back Oriana can now see that she was a complete 'cokehead' and addict. A couple of years into porn Tyler almost died of a heart attack from too much coke.

It is hard to sympathise with Tyler's character. But, like Oriana, it had been shaped by an awful family background, blighted by abandonment by his father and the addiction of his mother. No doubt this explains in part his drive to own and control Oriana, notably through endless tantrums and putdowns. He was manipulative and devious. He knows just where to hit her emotionally. If she ever resists him accuses her of not loving him. He pulverises her with emotional blackmail to make her do things she does not want to do for his own benefit. He cannot bear her successes. He has secret affairs and denounces her as a whore. He asked her to marry him and then borrows money from her to take his secret girlfriend on holiday. Over time it got worse. Tyler became cruel and angry on a diet of steroids, Viagra, coke and ecstasy. He had no interest in Oriana except 'as a piece of property'. Yet, even knowing this, she still struggled to drop him. She felt an obligation to look after him and still believed he cared for her despite all the evidence to the contrary. When she eventually dumped him he quickly became a heroin-addict.

It is shocking to read Oriana's account of her dependency on Tyler, and perhaps even more painful and frustrating to see her keep falling back into the same pattern even after she had split from Tyler. She is drawn to boyfriends in the porn business who see her as useful to their careers and egos and at the same time resent and envy her success and relentlessly attack her self-esteem. As with Tyler, these relationships are held together as much by drugs as by sex and love. Again and again Oriana hopes that if she gives enough love her partner will change, only to be disappointed again and again.

It took a lot of courage to write this book. Misery memoirs often tell stories of survival from victims who were damaged from without, but autobiographies that are ready to face up to complex stories of bad choices, collusion and self-damage (as well as exposing exploitation and abuse) are much rarer. I'm grateful for this powerful and troubling book.

Oriana Small (aka Ashley Blue), Girlvert: a porno memoir (New York, Barnacle, 2011)

MPs wanking fit to bust?

New 'webporn' data from Parliament

In November 2012, official figures obtained by the Huffington Post show that computers at the Palace of Westminster "attempted to access websites categorised as pornography" on 114,844 occasions. The figures cover usage by MPs and peers and their staffin the workplace. How could anyone get any work done above the buzz of vibrators and the smell of damp tissues? How insatiable are the erotic urges of the powerful? Could we get a breakdown of the statistics on party lines? Do Tories wank more than liberals?

But hang on a minute. In February 2013 there were only 15 (fifteen!) attempts to access online porn. What was going on? Had the MPs taken new vows of monkish celibacy? Were they implementing on themselves the rules of self-denial that they seem to want to impose on everyone else in the country?

The truth is that both sets of figures are rubbish. Parliament itself has no meaningful way of defining 'online porn' even while it is trying to come up with ways to ban or restrict it. They say the variation may result from "pop-ups, auto-refresh and other web design features".

Actually they cannot tell the difference between porn and any other talk about about sex, psychology, culture and society. Yet these are the people planning to impose automated blocks on designated offensive words and phrases.   

David Cameron and Child Pornography

Prime Minister wants to filter out outrageous search terms. The results will be absurd.

The story of David Cameron and his campaign against online pornography has dominated newspaper headlines this week. Cameron wants filtering and blocking on all fronts, supposedly to protect children against pornography while actually driving a much wider agenda based on his own moral and political goals.

cameron_pornography_outrage

So I turned on the Adult Content Filter on my computer (the sort of thing that Cameron would like to see fitted as the default on all machines and googled "David Cameron and Child Pornography". The computer responded: "We did not find results because your query contained restricted terms". In other words, Cameron's own campaign is blocked by the software he wants to make universal.

Oh dear! Maybe I should contact an independent group that is trying to keep the internet clean:
"Stop Porn Culture". BLOCKED. "Protect Children Against Porn". BLOCKED.

Help. I need some information on the problem.Maybe the recent Children's Commissioner's Report on the Impact of Pornography. BLOCKED.

I'm getting worried. What about "Sex". Thank God, that's OK!!!

But "Vaginal Sex" - NO.

Oral Sex - NO.

Anal Sex - NO.

Aren't we supposed to do these things? Are they illegal and I had not noticed?

Is there something wrong with sex?

Masturbation - BLOCKED

Ejaculation - BLOCKED

Orgasm - BLOCKED

Sexual Intercourse - BLOCKED

Is there something wrong with my body? Nobody should talk about it?

Clitoris - BLOCKED

Cunt - BLOCKED (but they've solved the "Scunthorpe" problem: I'm allowed to go there).

Pussy - BLOCKED (sorry cat lovers!)

Cock and Balls - BLOCKED

BUT I'm getting the idea: I try "Male genitals" instead. That's OK. Thank you! I am glad my genitals are all right even though there is clearly something wrong with her "Clitoris"!!

Something wrong? What if there is something wrong? Really wrong?

Sexual Health Penis - BLOCKED

Anal Herpes - BLOCKED

Maybe I should just calm down and read a book.

Somerset Maugham Of Human Bondage - BLOCKED

Lolita - BLOCKED

De Sade is OK!!

Sacher-Masoch is OK!!

But Sadism is BLOCKED and Masochism is BLOCKED.

This is doing my head in. I need some relief.

Fortunately some things are allowed:

Brothels Manchester - OK

Brothels Leeds - OK

Prostitutes - OK

and even.........

Kink - OK

Hey, things are looking up. These guys won't let me look at Masturbation, clitorises, oral sex or vaginal sex ........ But I'm free to search:

Hot Teens - OK

Barely Legal - OK

Creampie Videos - OK

Jerk Off - OK

Ballbusting - OK

BBW - OK

Big Butts - OK

CBT - OK

Facials - OK

Gonzo - OK

Gaping - OK

Strap-On - OK

Tit Play - OK

Footjobs - OK (but not "Handjobs" Bah!!)

Truly this blocking software is, as they say, a very blunt instrument.

Privacy in Social Media

Gone in a stroke of a pen!

A recent Appeals Court judgement has shredded the right to privacy in electronic communications in the UK

For a while the internet and new social media got a headstart on the regulators, freeing up the scope of sexual speech and proliferating new ways of communicating. Traditional forms of censorship were eroded and the old laws lacked teeth or tools for implementation. But things do not stand still and what were once liberating technologies are being turned on their head to create ever more intrusive surveillance systems while existing vague laws are being reinterpreted to impose new threats to freedoms of sexual speech.

Several recent shadowy developments have cleared a path for much more active censorship of the content of social media. Many people have assumed that the worlds of electronic communication and social media were private spaces where they could talk and share ideas in a way analogous to personal conversations. OK, these were conversations that other people could overhear or join in (like in a pub or dinner party), but essentially they were beneath the radar of public scrutiny. How naive we were! It is now abundantly clear that state intelligence communities have been hoovering up this data on a grand scale, notably in the USA and UK. They have not yet started to use this information systematically but they will soon be in a position to do so whenever they choose.

At the same time, although no new laws have yet been passed on internet and social media censorship, legal reinterpretations and new 'guidelines' on existing laws are paving the way for prosecution of anyone who the state decides it wants to target. So far, as in the cases, of Simon Walsh and Iwan Harding, these powers are showing their teeth in a rather haphazard way, but the police and prosecution services are quietly building up new strengths. Comprehensive surveillance plus vague laws that can be interpreted to mean whatever the state wants them to mean are setting the stage for more strategic repressive prosecutions in coming years.

One of the most important of these changes slipped by almost without notice last year - the virtual abolition of rights of privacy in social media and personal electronic communications.

A key step was a judgement in the Appeals Court in the case of Gavin Smith. Smith is a nasty piece of work. A convicted paedophile, he was jailed for two years in 2001 for his involvement in an international paedophile ring called The Wonderland Club. He does not seem to have changed his spots, and, unsurprisingly, Kent Police were keeping a sharp eye on him.

R_v_GS_Gary_Smith_2010

Gary Smith on trial in 2010

In 2011 the police seized and examined his home computer resulting in charges on nine counts of publishing an obscene article under the Obscene Publications Act. On the computer were chat logs of nine one-to-one conversations with an anonymous contact discussing incestuous and sadistic paedophile acts on young children. The discussion was explicit, but the prosecution accepted from the start that it was entirely FANTASY and did not relate to real events in the real world. The computer contained the comments that the defendant had typed and transmitted to another individual in the chat-room. The identity of this other party was not known and there was no evidence that the material had been shared beyond the two of them. The prosecution contended that the chat session constituted 'transmission' and that the content was 'obscene' and could therefore be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act.

At his trial in Maidstone Crown Court in November 2011, the defence made a submission of 'no case to answer'. Judge Charles McDonald ruled that, while a case could be made that the material was 'obscene' the conversation did not constitute publication, unless there was a reasonable expectation that the other party would go on to publish the material to a wider audience (which had not been shown or argued in this case). He stated that transmission to one person was not publication and therefore could not be an offense under the OPA. Judge McDonald likened the case to two people sitting alone together in a room, not overheard and sharing their fantasies. He said that it was revolting but not a crime. The prosecution appealed against the judge's ruling

The case went to the Appeals Court before Lord Justice Richards in February 2012. Richards unequivocally overturned the Crown Court judgement (R v GS). His judgement is an astonishing piece of sleight of hand. By various twists and turns he essentially argues that ANY communication other than a face to face communication with another individual in person and in strict privacy constitutes 'publication' (and therefore comes within the scope of the OPA). Accordingly, he states: Judge McDonald was 'wrong to rule as he did'.... and 'in our judgement, to publish an article to an individual is plainly to publish it within the meaning of the Act'. .... 'There is nothing [in the Act] to support the view that publication has to be to more than one person before it can constitute publication'.... 'Accordingly, by transmitting comments to another person in the context of internet relay chat, the defendant was publishing those comments'.

The judgement slipped out quietly and received little attention but its implications are huge. At a stroke 'private' conversations on electronic media are eliminated. They are all 'publications' subject to the legal test of 'obscenity'. In other words, as Myles Jackman of Hodge Jones Allen puts it: "You're fine having a one-to-one conversation in person. But the moment you transmit that conversation as data by, for example: text message; email; DM on Twitter; private message on Facebook; MSN, Yahoo or Skype text messenger, IRC, or chatroom, you're in trouble". The way is clear for the police and courts to criminalise a huge range of sexual speech online whenever they choose to do so.

Following the Appeal ruling, Gavin Smith went back to court in September 2012 and was found guilty of offences under the OPA and was given a three month suspended sentence. A bad man and his bad deeds have opened the way for bad law.

Can A Private Conversation Be 'Obscene and Indecent'?

Legal attempt to apply obscenity laws to private communications ends in failure

Picture this: You go on an adult contact website. You chat with a flirty friend. You send them a naughty explicit pic of yourself and a horny porn clip. (Tut-tut!) You chat and laugh but nothing comes of it and you pass on. Two months later the police come and arrest you for 'sending an indecent message'. You are put on trial. You lose your job as a teacher. Your reputation is dragged through the mud.

Six months later the case comes to court and is thrown out by the judge. It could have been worse, of course, but a lot of trauma and damage has already been done.

This was the experience of Iwan Harding, a teacher in North Wales. And if certain elements in our surveillance state have their way it may become a common risk for online daters, sexters and other free sexual spirits. Remember the ominous words of William Hague in relation to state data trawling. "If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear". It turns out that many of us are doing 'wrong things' all the time and may have quite a lot to fear if the state decides to turn our attention to us.

So, why did the police turn their attention to Iwan Harding? It is a sad story all round and would have been best left for quiet personal healing. At a time when they should have been concentrating on help and healing for the family, the authorities dragged them into court for a misconceived prosecution, seeking to capitalise on personal troubles to create a 'useful' precedent. Unfortunately, their action made the tragic events into a very public legal test case on personal freedoms.

Iwan Harding was a 34-year old primary school teacher from Llanberis, North Wales. He went on Love Leap, "a mobile phone dating site for guys and gals". It is an adult dating site and you have to be 18 years old to register. In October 2012 he responded to an ad from Anthony Stubbs.

Stubbs came from Leyland in Lancashire. He had set up an account describing himself 'young sexy gay'. Over a period of a few months he had been in touch with fourteen other people by text and spoke to twelve others via a related Skype internet phone link.

Harding described himself as a 'horny lad' and sent intimate pictures of his body along with a clip from a video of two men having sex. His texts were salacious. He asked Stubbs about the size of his cock and raised the question of meeting for sex. But it never got beyond fantasy, nothing came of it, and the messages ended.

Although Stubbs claimed to be 18, he had in fact only just celebrated his 16th birthday. He was living with his 18-year old girlfriend Charlotte who had just given birth to their daughter in September.

anthony_Stubbs_with_girlfriend

Anthony Stubbs with his girlfriend and newborn baby

On the 24th November 2012, Charlotte examined Stubbs' mobile phone and discovered his messages to gay sex contacts. There was an angry and distressed conversation and Stubbs walked out of the family home. In the next day or two he hanged himself in the nearby woods. His body was not discovered until two months later.

The police tracked Harding and some of the other contacts down. Harding admitted sending the text and video. He was charged with 'sending grossly offensive, or indecent, obscene messages'. He denied the charges but was suspended from his job by his school.

The Crown Prosecution Service in Wales considered the case at the highest level and decided to go ahead with a prosecution under the Communications Act of 2003 on the grounds that there was sufficient evidence and a public interest criterion in prosecuting.

The case was heard at the Carnarfon Magistrates Court in North Wales in June 2013 under Judge Andrew Shaw with Julie Hughes as prosecutor. Defense counsel Tudur Owen argued that the cae "raised issues of public concern because the Crown was alleging that the sending of salacious texts between two individuals amounted to a criminal act".

At the end of the hearing, the Judge reserved judgement and the Senior Advisor to Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, reviewed the case. Following this Starmer ordered the CPS in Wales to drop the prosecution. The case was dismissed and Harding was awarded costs.

The prosecution is part of a continuing pattern of attempts to stretch existing laws to repress sexual speech and erode sexual freedoms. As in the cases of Michael Peacock and Simon Walsh, the prosecutors targeted a gay man, perhaps feeling that gay sex might be seen as less respectable or more susceptible to public outrage. It is hard to imagine prosecutors taking similar heterosexual chat on that chat on match.com or eharmony to court! Moreover, as in the Simon Walsh case, they tried to tar the case with untrue or irrelevant suggestions that there was some connection with under age sex. The Prosecution accepted that Stubbs age was not an issue in this case since he had represented himself as over 18 and the two men never met and Harding had no reason to think otherwise. Nevertheless, the fact of Stubbs' youth was referred to in court and could potentially cast the defendant in a bad light.

It also reflects efforts to stretch old laws to criminalise otherwise legal actions. Under the Telecommunications Act of 1984 and he Communications Act of 2003, sending 'obscene' messages by telephone has been prohibited. However, as far as I can tell, this law has only been used against offensive, threatening or harassing phone calls where the recipient made a complaint. In 2012 a consultation was opened by the DPP about extending these rules to Twitter and Facebook after homophobic and abusive messages were sent to the diver Tom Daley during the Olympic Games. But the Harding case was effectively the first attempt to use this law against personal text-chat between two consenting adults.

In this particular case, the DPP decided that the case was far too fragile to use as a precedent. But the Crown Prosecution Service remains happy to keep the law obscure on these matters and is not interested in laying down any principles to defend free speech. Similar attempts to undermine whatever sexual freedoms now exist are sure to recur.

The Diary Of A Submissive

Stephen Paine wonders whether a valuable personal story has been compromised by dubious publishing tactics.

A review of: Sophie Morgan, The Diary Of A Submissive (Penguin, 2012)

There is nothing wrong about blurring truth and fiction. The great erotic classics (Miller, White, Nin, Genet etc) do it freely. They use their lives as material to explore and express 'inner truths' through literature. And it works. But when publishers play fast and loose with fiction and memoir for reasons of commercial opportunism, as they have done in the case of Sophie Morgan's book, they can end up with an uneasy mix of real and fake that annoys and frustrates.

Morgan's book was first published under the title Subtext: a modern day tale of female submission with the author named as Kate Marley. It came out under the imprint of Xcite Books in September 2010 and it made little impression, lingering at Rank 219,691 in the Amazon charts until August 2012. But in the 'Post Fifty Shades' erotica boom, it was picked up and re-published by Penguin Books as The Diary Of A Submissive by Sophie Morgan. In its new guise it quickly moved to Rank 1,238 in the Amazon chart, entering the Amazon Top 50 in November 2012 .

sophie_morgan_diary_of_a_submissive_cover_300_x_461sophie_morgan_diary_of_a_submissive

The changes in the text itself were perfunctory, some passages removed a few pages rewritten. Fair enough. A bit of re-marketing and re-packaging can be a great tonic. But not only the title and author changed. The book also changed its publication category from 'Fiction' to 'Memoir'. On the front cover of the paperback (to make sure no-one missed the selling-point) it acquired the strap-line: "A real-life Fifty Shades Of Grey" (not included in the publicity photo reprinted here!!). At the same time, rather oddly, in the title on its Amazon page the book acquired the subtitle "A True Story" - though those words nowhere appeared on the cover or in the front matter of the actual book!

(Left: The Penguin cover of the book and the cover of the original Xcite version of the book: Subtext)


Even in the small print in the Penguin edition there was absolutely no mention of the book's previous incarnation. This highly dubious publishing practice - which I think amounts to deliberate deception and concealment- brought howls of protest from Amazon reviewers. "I have paid twice for the same book!"..... "Very annoyed to have been tricked into wasting money in this way".

There could, of course, be legitimate reasons for the re-classification. Sophie may have hidden behind anonymity and fiction, but now felt free to reveal that it had all been true. Instead, the origins were concealed. The book trades on its authenticity but it is a an untrustworthy mix of real and fake that compromises the book. It presents itself as the 'real world' of BDSM in contrast to Fifty Shades fairy tales. But is it? There is certainly some 'real world' in there, but in this book you don't know where you stand. Is this a Belle De Jour exercise, prettified and witticised with its feet in reality and its head in the clouds? Or is it a wannabe Fifty Shades clone enhanced by 'added truth?

It ends up as a crude mish-mash of truth and fiction that compromises both. And we are not talking about simply obscuring identities, changing names, or tampering with chronology to preserve discretion. Rather it claims truth and strains credibility. The 'Prologue', for example, describes an incident involving shocking public exhibitionism and humiliation. But such an incident (a nice start to a racy novel) does not fit at all with Morgan's subsequent description of how her D/s relationships worked. And her account of meeting and falling for her ultimate BDSM lover (James) (pp. 162-174) is a laughable near parody of Anastasia's meeting with Christian Grey (Fifty Shades pp. 8-16) complete with journalist interviewing tycoon in luxury glass skyscraper; a super-rich man into 'fluffy ethical finance'; his accidental touch that strikes her 'like an electric shock'. James even sports a killer fragrance (though this one has tones of lemon rather than musk) which makes her weak at the knees. (I'm clearly missing something in life. I always thought the Lynx effect was a silly fantasy. But what do I know?!).

Sophie thoroughly dislikes James' smugness in the interview but his swoon-making beauty flusters her and at the end of the interview he invites her out to dinner and against her better judgment she accepts because his presence makes her wobbly from lust and unable to string a sentence together. Thereafter, he turns out to be a confident and experienced dominant who flirts her into bed and into submission through nice dinners and text messages and creaking 50-Shades-style 'repartee'. The perfectly calm and well organized Sophie suddenly becomes an Anastasia-style clumsy blunderer and seems not to realise that James is a Dom even though that is what she is looking for in life and this guy has a 'Christian Grey' label glued to his forehead (fortunately without the contracts!!! - though for a moment in the texting duel I thought we were going to go there as well!!!).

This clumsy episode serves to undermine the already tenuous credibility of the storyline. Can it be true that, in the space of (as far as I can judge) about three or four years, Sophie (at University, in a cinema queue, and through a work assignment) meets entirely at random three drop-dead gorgeous men who she subsequently turn out to be experienced Doms who help her to bring out her inner submissive. Hey, what are the percentages? If Only!! (In the original 'novel' the James-figure is a much less romantic and adorable guy who she meets through a BDSM contacts website! - clearly truth IS stranger than fiction.)

But don't be put off by the annoying rubbish side of the book. Shake your head and laugh your way through it, because there is also some real food for thought about dominance and submission in relationships that is worth the trouble of a fairly easy read. I just wish that Sophie had given us the unvarnished story which, whenever it surfaces, is so much more interesting and intriguing than the romance pastiche that is occasionally ladled over her life story. There are real insights into ways in which dominance and submission form part of the tapestry of 'normal' relationships, about how 'submission' and masochism fit together, and about the relationship between BDSM and sexual 'submission'. They are food for thought and I will come back to them another time. At the moment, I'm just sad that a fascinating memoir was hijacked by the dictates of the 'romantic fiction' market.

Private sex is porn!

Police open new front in use of pornography laws

Simon Walsh is an openly and happily gay man with an active sex life. Until recently he also had a successful professional and political career. He was a barrister, specialising in actions against the police, a member of the London Police Authority between 2002 and 2006, a magistrate, an alderman of the City of London, a member of the London Fire Authority, and an aide to the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. At one time he had been tipped as a future London mayoral candidate.

One evening in January 2011 he partied with a group of friends. There was sex and fun and games. Nothing that was in any way illegal and, in the normal course of things, nobody else's business. So, why are we even speaking of these private matters? Well, In the course of the evening, as commonly happens these days, friends took pictures of each other partying on their phones or cameras, and later messaged or emailed the pictures to each other. You know the sort of thing. A laugh! A happy memento! Those enjoyable but embarrassing moments caught in an unflattering flash. Click, click and they slide into the electronic vaults.

simon_walshBut a few months later the nightmare started. Someone must have been telling lies about Simon Walsh (pictured above) , because without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning. To be precise, as a result of an unfounded suspicion or false accusation (it has never been explained what) the police arrested him, in highly public circumstances, while he was shopping in Tesco. The police claimed that they had information that Walsh was involved in child pornography. They then raided his home and office and seized his computers, Blackberry, memory sticks and camera. Walsh freely gave them his passwords so that the police could inspect the devices and exonerate him.

The police trawled through his electronic files with a fine tooth comb. How many of us would feel comfortable with that? What about that little bit of dodgy porn from that spam that you idly clicked on one day. (Naughty! Naughty!) But no illegal material was found on his downloads or files. Walsh

subscribed to various gay contents sites (Recon; Manhunt; Nasty Kink Pigs etc), but all such content was given a clean bill of health. But the police also searched his personal texts and emails in search of incriminating evidence. Again they found absolutely nothing connected to allegations of any role in child pornography.

But, in the 'Sent' folder of his email they eventually found something. Five images of Walsh and his mates from the party in January 2011. Burrowing still deeper they discovered a short story that had been sent to him in an unsolicited email in 2008. The email contained an attachment with another image 'of interest' to the police. On the basis of these images, Walsh was charged with five counts of possessing "extreme pornography" under Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 (CJIA) and one of possession of an 'indecent image'.

As a result, Boris Johnson promptly fired Walsh from his job. He was suspended from his legal practice by his chambers. He could not practice as magistrate and his political reputation was wrecked. For more than a year he lived in limbo facing charges that could carry up to three years in prison. Lurid allegations about his personal life were spread by national newspapers like the Daily Mail. His life was thoroughly screwed up. Eventually in August 2012 the case came to trial in the High Court. After three days of evidence, the jury acquitted Walsh on all counts after just ninety minutes of deliberation. At least Walsh was free and the jury had arguably made a powerful statement against state intrusions on the privacy of individuals. But the damage done to his life remains.

The case illustrates disturbing new trends in police and Crown Prosecution Service use of the CJIA and 'extreme pornography' laws as they attempt to blur the boundary between private and public communications by treating private communications (texts, emails etc) effectively as publications and examine them under pornography laws, thereby massively extending the scope for pornography prosecutions. Intimate photos sent from boyfriend to girlfriend or between same sex couples or friends become 'porn' in the hands of the cops. Millions of everyday communications are potentially criminalised. With a couple of clicks on a mobile phone, anyone can be a pornographer now!

So, what was in the pictures.

The images showed perfectly legal sex acts among a group of consenting adults and the prosecution did not contest either the legality of the acts or the consent. Walsh and his friends were having perfectly legal sexual fun and games. Their play included fisting and urethral sounding (three of the prosecuted images were of the former and two of the latter). Walsh and his friends were familiar with safe sex practices and experienced in these acts. As Walsh explained in court " fisting is a pleasurable activity...... Takes several hours...... there is constant dialogue during it".

One of the pictures showed a man's wrist inserted 20-30cms into an anus. Another showed a man in a harness with his legs apart and another man's forearm inserted into anus. The court was told that the photo showed 'a huge amount' of shit over the man's fisting arm and body (something that is not very common in fisting scenes). Two other pictures showed a urethral sound (a steel medical probe) inserted in a penis. In one of the images there was also a cock-ring around the base of the penis.

The pictures were spontaneous and amateurish. Visible flash. Out of focus. As was immediately apparent, they were not posed or lit as pornography but were taken as personal records and mementos for the players engaged in the acts. Walsh took some of the pictures himself and someone else took pictures when he was inserting the sounds: "otherwise I'd have run out of hands".

The police and CPS alleged that Walsh's personal possession of these photos of these legal acts performed with consent in private constituted a criminal act of 'possession of extreme pornography' under the CJIA.

In addition, the police brought a further, even more bizarre, charge. In 2008, Walsh had received an unsolicited email containing a short story, together with an image in an email attachment. Walsh never requested this picture and the prosecution never entered any evidence to the contrary. Walsh remembered opening the email but did not remember whether or not he had looked at the image. There was no evidence that he had done any more than look at the text as part of checking his emails.

The short story was about a young soldier named "Jason" being hanged (within a fairly graphic sexual context). It is written in the first person and Jason is described as being in his mid 20s. The story-writer says that the accompanying photo in an attachment is of himself. The prosecution did not allege that the image was 'extreme pornography'. Such a picture of a man in his 20s would be innocuous under the law. Instead, the prosecution alleged that the picture showed a 14-year old boy (!!) and charged Simon with possessing 'an indecent image', namely child pornography.

This element of the case was never prosecuted with great seriousness. The "Jason" image had been sitting in Walsh's inbox since 2008 and there was no evidence that Walsh had ever opened it. In fact,

in 'interrogating' Walsh's computer the police failed to conform to ACPO guidelines on gathering electronic evidence and destroyed any evidence that Walsh might have been able to produce that he had not looked at the attachment. They videoed the screens to record them rather than digitally recording the images together with their meta-data. By opening files they thereby altered data, for instance making it impossible to tell if an image had ever been watched. Despite the fact that their incompetent handling of evidence seriously damaged any prospect of conviction on this charge, the police still ploughed ahead with this prosecution. Walsh's defence team were confident that the claim that the image showed an 'under age' male was laughable. They had several expert witnesses ready to give evidence that the picture showed the body of a man in his 20s, but they were never needed. The jury acquitted Simon based on their own common sense observation of the picture.

So why was this charge brought? The inclusion of a 'child pornography' charge in the case provided the police with some cover for their initial trawl of Walsh's computer in connection with suspicions of child pornography. In addition, it immediately poisoned public perceptions of the accusations. The Mail Online, for example, highlighted the accusation that he had viewed child porn in its coverage of the case. Mud sticks, and the reputational damage was already done by the charge, even if it were eventually to be laughed out of court.

Coming soon: What lay behind the prosecution strategy and practices in this case? How were 'extreme pornography' prosecutions used in this case and how is the state trying to apply them? What are the new threats to sexual liberties and free speech as the state tries to find new ways to monitor and control sexuality on the internet and the mobile phone?

Unravelling The Mystery of Fifty Shades of Grey

The Twilight and Fan Fiction Roots of Fifty Shades Of Grey

Investigating the origins of Fifty Shades of Grey, Stephen Paine reveals a bizarre case of literary painting by numbers. 


The plot of Fifty Shades is sloppy and at times apparently random. As many commentators have observed, the story is a complete mess and characterisations and motivations are full of glaring gaps. Is this because E.L. James is a poor and disorganised writer? Maybe in part. But a better explanation can be found by looking at the origins and evolution of the trilogy. Once we understand this, many of the pieces slip into place and the reasons for various whims and twists in characters and story become apparent. Don't worry: this is not an article about Illuminati codes! It is more like a case of literary painting-by-numbers.

To understand the quirks and vagaries of Fifty Shades, you have to go back to its origins in Twilight fanfiction. E. L. James originally started composing the book as a serial, episodically published on fanfiction websites under the title Master of the Universe (MOTU) using the pen-name Snowqueen's Icedragon. The piece featured the leading characters of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight vampire series, Edward Cullen and Bella Swan.

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The fanfiction internet serial Masters Of The Universe explicitly drew on Twilight images and story and became the basis of Fifty Shades

Fanfiction is a massive genre on the internet. Essentially these works take the original characters and incidents in popular works like Twilight, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Star Trek and then extend the originals, perhaps by creating further stories around the well-known characters, perhaps putting the characters into different worlds or contexts, or perhaps parodying and mimicking the originals. There is a strong fanfiction tradition, for instance, of outraging the initial readers by making characters do things their originals would never have done, notably introducing unlikely or kinky sex. Look at what Spock and Scotty do to each other in Star Trek fanfic!! - it often gets very rude and BDSM crops up frequently. But there is also a mass of homage-like fanfiction, 're-imagining' the original stories and characters in different contexts and stories.

fifty_shades_pattinsonThe great attraction of 'fanfic' writing is that there is no need to create the 'characters' because they already exist: the fanfiction can simply 'inhabit' them. There is a ready-made world of character, aura and identification, and in the case of Twilight this became even more huge when the Twilight movie was launched in 2008 with the leading characters played by Robert Pattinson (photo on left) and Kristen Stewart. Say 'Edward and Bella' and the avatars bring with them a pre-existing taken-for-granted cluster of images, traits, histories, and significances from the books and films. As Lou Grossman put it in an article on fanfiction in Time Magazine: "fans don't read it, they want to climb inside it and live in it..... it makes you feel as if you should be able to buy real estate there".

There are tens of thousands of Twilight fanfic pieces on line, and many of them 're-imagine' Edward and Bella not as vampire/mortal but as Dom/Sub with various degrees of watered down kink. E. L. James's MOTU was one of the most successful stories on the Twilight fanfiction websites ("TwiFic") and it built up a huge following. After controversies about the amount of sex in her material, James removed the story from the fanfiction sites and published it on her own website (fiftyshades.com). At some stage she and her publishers realised that she had built a huge platform that could be monetized by moving from 'free' fan-sites into conventional publishing. James reworked MOTU (fairly lightly, as we shall see), changing the names of the principal characters to Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, and shortly before the publication of the work as Fifty Shades she withdrew the MOTU version from her website.

James and her publishers, Random House (Vintage/Arrow) then tried hard to conceal Fifty Shades''s origins in MOTU. They tried to take down all versions of MOTU from the internet and battled search engines like the Wayback Machine in trying to blot it out. They have also vigorously declared that Fifty Shades is a wholly new piece of work quite distinct from MOTU. This does not seem to have been driven by plagiarism issues. Stephenie Meyer's lawyers have not been inclined to go after fanfiction, partly because it has been a great marketing asset to the Twilight series. In in any case it would probably be immensely difficult to make a fanfiction plagiarism case stick in a court of law. A long history of Star Trek fanfiction has demonstrated these points. Rather it was about the publishers desire to thoroughly rebrand and re-image Fifty Shades to reposition it in the market.

Despite the efforts of Random House, however, it is still possible to track down at least parts of the original MOTU texts on the web, where Christian and Ana still have the names of their Twilight characters: Edward Cullen and Bella Swan (see: www.epubbud.com/read.php?g=RTHUKGUX&p=1) As you can see in these sample pages and on the basis of statistical calculation, about 90% of the text is identical between MOTU and Fifty Shades except for small verbal changes, particularly names and places. Turnitin, an anti-plagiarism software commonly used by universities to check student essays gives the two texts a similarity index of 89%.

In MOTU Christian and Ana are still called Edward Cullen and Bella Swan (the names of the original Twilight characters). The online version was quite explicitly a 're-imagining' of the Bella and Edward love affair relocated from the small town of Forks to contemporary Seattle. The key elements of the macro-story remained intact and MOTU (and consequently Fifty Shades) shadowed the incidents and characters of the ur source, Twilight.

This is not at all a matter of 'plagiarism' from Twilight. This is a relatively visible and explicit form of the borrowing and inspiration that is always part of the stuff of life for novelists. Fanfiction openly acknowledges its practices of transposing, re-imagining, and paying homage in ways that pre-internet modern fiction rarely did. Thus, for example, Bridget Jones could be said to be fanfiction of Pride & Prejudice, and books like Les Miserables and Don Quixote ride high in 'fanfiction' listings.The point of identifying these echoes, transpositions, resemblances and debts is not to criticise and make pointless arguments about 'originality' or otherwise (we would have no Shakespeare and Chaucer without this process of creative borrowing), but to understand the form and meanings of the text better by illuminating the roots and evolution of the story and its ideas.

The macro-story of Fifty Shades /MOTU naturally embodies the broad conventions and tropes laid down by Twilight. Young virgin meets masterful man with a secret history (a mystery that makes him 'special' and distances him from conventional social roles). He is a threat to her, but she falls unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him. In Twilight the secret is vampirism: in MOTU/ Fifty Shades this is 'transposed' to BDSM. The story then proceeds through distinct phases.

  • the experience of an overwhelming mutual attraction that transcends obvious explanation
  • the clash of personalities and the passage through great internal angst
  • the gradual discovery and understanding of the 'secret'
  • the central role of the caretaker alpha male
  • the external threats from other bearers of the secret that precipitate crisis
  • the quest for a path to deal with the dividing secret (involving the power of romantic love)
  • the resolution in a 'Happy Ever After' ending.

But MOTU/ Fifty Shades does not simply follow the macro-story template (which in itself would offer countless degrees of freedom in plotting and narrative - after all there are supposed to be only a very small number of basic plots in ALL literature in some sense.

Rather, fanfiction conventions mean that the DETAILED plot is also strongly shaped by the inspiration text. The new work needs to be a re-imagining, NOT just a take-off point. The shadow beneath the skin of the ur text needs to be apparent. The legacy of familiar character and incident needs to be carried over. The fan has to be able to recognise the original characters in a new context. Familiarity has to be preserved. There is a subtle line between imitation and novelty. And this explains many of the peculiarities of the Fifty Shades text. Plot and narrative NEED to echo and recall incident and action from the original in ways that fans of the original will recognise. This is a source of satisfaction and familiarity in the fanfiction version, but becomes a puzzle and awkwardness when the fanfiction is rebranded as a fully autonomous work.

These imitations work at several levels, from fairly minor incidents and character traits up to major plot elements.

At the most trivial level, familiar Twilight incidents are transposed into the new context. Bella's beat-up truck becomes Ana's Beetle. The first embrace comes when Bella nearly gets knocked down by a truck and when Ana nearly gets knocked down by a bicycle. The flight through the forest in Twilight becomes the magical helicopter and private jet flights in Fifty Shades. More directly, Edward and Christian both turn out to be virtuoso piano players whose performances stir the hearts of Bella/Ana.

Similarly, familiar key lines are repeated. "Will you hurt me?" "I am a danger to you" etc. And broader verbal themes are carried over.

  • I am a killer/I am a sadist.
  • We don't show ourselves in daylight/public, people will know we are different.
  • I love you but I want to kill/hurt you.
  • I don't have the strength to stay away from you.
  • My secret 'is like a drug to me'.

Moving up the scale, key events and actions in the Twilight story are regularly replicated in a new guise in MOTU/ Fifty Shades. Fans of the original will affectionately and knowingly recognise the references. But the process of transposition often creates peculiarities in the derivative text. What makes perfect sense in Twilight may well seem a bit 'strange' when moved into a different 'world' where the same imaginative rules do not apply. For example, when Edward and Bella meet there is an immediate almost super-sensory attraction. Bella immediately senses Edward's aura and Edward finds that, unlike most women, he cannot read Bella's mind, and this disturbs and fascinates him. The same instant hyper-real magnetism occurs in Fifty Shades, but without the vampire context, the source of this remarkable energy is harder to fathom. Ana has an 'odd exhilarating shiver' at first touch (attributed simply to his beauty and sexual attraction): it is as if there is 'a current zapping through me like I've touched an exposed wire'. The thunderbolt attraction at first sight is absolutely comprehensible in the vampire tale, but looks a bit odd and far-fetched in terms of everyday sexual chemistry!

Likewise, Edward's extra-sensory capabilities enable him to sense where Bella is at all times and appear just at the right moment to save her from danger. But the very mortal Christian has to effectively 'stalk' Ana through hacking her e-mails, using GPS and getting people to follow her so that he can turn up on the scene just in time to protect or rescue Ana from danger or predatory rivals. Not quite the same glamour to it, I think.

More broadly, Edward has an instant 'tribal' antipathy to Bella's best male friend, which makes perfect sense in Twilight because the friend is a werewolf! In Fifty Shades, Christian just really doesn't like him. Edward's almost super-human male beauty is unsurprising in a vampire. But Christian seems to have just got unbelievably lucky with nature! And similarly, many of the other vampire characteristics seem a bit baffling when transposed to mortaldom. It is not surprising that a vampire might be a loner with a near total absence of other human relationships to inhibit his transforming love affair. But a mortal (29 years old and a handsome billionaire) with no previous girlfriends seems (to say the least) a bit of a Johnny-No-Friends. More generally, the transposition of 'the secret' descends from mysteriously romantic fantasy to, well, sad! "I am a vampire" becomes "I am a sadist". "I never sleep" (because I am a vampire) becomes "I don't sleep with women" (because they make me feel uncomfortable). The prohibition to touch his body (because he is a vampire and his body is cold) becomes "I can't bear people touching me" (because of his abusive past).

These quirks and compromises are essential to the genre of fan-fiction. Too much originality would destroy the connection. But this puts the author in shackles and chains the new text to all sorts of uncomfortable work-arounds. The space for flair and imaginative integrity shrinks. This is especially true in the fundamentals of the story. Twilight's powerful moral and emotional dilemma is that Edward loves Bella, but they cannot have sex because it is too powerful and too dangerous between vampire and human, giving rise to an existential dynamic of pleasure and danger and the thrilling delights of abstinence porn. In comparison, the dilemmas of Christian and Ana are trivial. They can fuck like rabbits but cannot do BDSM because it is too disruptive and dangerous. Similarly, the key role of the 'external threat' that makes absolute sense in Twilight becomes a gratuitous and barely credible adventure in Fifty Shades. In Twilight, Edward and Bella are threatened by a rampant homicidal vampire from a predatory rival tribe, a kindred spirit gone bad. But in Fifty Shades, Ana is pursued by her mad rapist boss who appears at first to be a random psycho until it turns out that through a chain of coincidences he has some shadowy link of kinship to Christian which forms the basis of some sort of 'blood grudge'. In consequence, the whole kidnap/blackmail/ransom/self-sacrifice denouement that is a logical and effective part of the Twilight plot comes out as implausible, random or egregious in Fifty Shades.

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From Vampire...... to Dungeon Sadist


Of course, the most radical transformation between Twilight and MOTU/ Fifty Shades is the replacement of vampirism with BDSM. At first sight this is a quite daring innovation that fundamentally changes the nature of the 'fanfiction' work. Twilight has been described as 'a new popular genre of abstinence porn' promoting anti-abortion messages and 'happy ever after' relationships. To 're-imagine' this as a novel with lots of sex and a strong BDSM profile (even if it is BDSM-lite) seems to be a fairly profound shift, though the imprint of the original lingers on when Ana gets pregnant and everyone in the book simply forgets that abortion even exists as an option!!

How did E. L. James carry her audience from abstinence to sadomasochism? It helped that many other Twilight fanfictions had already used Dom/Sub as a functional equivalent for Vampire/Human, though usually in a more restrained way than James. Indeed James was often seen on the fanfiction sites as pushing the sexual sadomasochism boundaries too far (though some vampire fiction, such as Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake novels blended bloodsucking and BDSM). Equally important was that the printed publication was being repositioned not as Vampire fiction but as "Romance". In publishing terms, Romance (though low profile) has been a great cash cow for decades. It is a bigger publishing category than science fiction or mystery. But it is often dismissed as tame and old-fashioned. The leading publisher of Romance (Mills & Boon) has a reputation for churning out boy-meets-girl and softcore bodice-ripping stories. But it is a long time since Mills & Boon and its competitors fit this description.

Mills & Boon in the last ten years has created its own erotic imprints like "Spice" and 'Twelve Shades of Surrender" which include books and authors like Alison Tyler, Cuffing Kate and Giving In; Tiffany Reisz, Submit To Desire, and Seven Day Loan; Lisa Renee Jones, Taste Of Pleasure; or Victoria Dahl, The Wicked West, who feature kink and even mild BDSM.

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Mills & Boon's new Imprints "Spice" and "Twelve Shades of Surrender" incorporate BDSM themes in the Romance genre

The sex in Fifty Shades would be fairly 'moderate' in the M&B range and other popular publishers like Black Lace and Silver Moon go even further. Erotic romances that focus on menage a trois, swinging, anal sex, and other vanilla kinks have been released by other major publishing houses. Hardcore sadomasochism remains fairly marginal, though it is a more distinct sub-genre in gay romance novels, such as Anah Crowe, Uneven (Torquere Press, 2007) and Joey Hill, Afterlife.

Fifty Shades has so far sold 4m in UK which is a huge number. No M&B title comes anywhere near this. But this is partly to do with M&B's marketing strategy. Basically, M&B publish their books like magazines with new titles every month and generally no effort to keep anything in print after the first print-run. In 2008 it published over 100 novels a month and 13 million books in all. Of these 75% came in the 'Romance' category, and the proportion of these with a BDSM component is substantial and growing. So Fifty Shades is selling into an already established market segment as well as creating a new niche. Random House/Arrow/Vintage saw the opportunity to take a highly successful piece of internet fanfiction with a large established base and to invest heavily in re-branding, shifting the image, promoting and marketing it, and broadening turbo-charging an already attractive market niche. They hit the jackpot!

Mainstreaming or Demonizing Kink

Fifty Shades of Grey and BDSM

Fifty Shades of Grey has become famous for its mainstreaming of 'softcore sadomasochism'. From Newsweek to The Sun we read stories of how the book has conquered mainstream publishing markets with its scenes of overtly kinky sex and bondage.

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"There will be nothing so good for flogging books as books about flogging". Vanessa Thorpe in The Observer 1 July 2012

The 'idea' of BDSM looms large in the promise and image of the book. Yet in over 1,500 pages of text, actual BDSM play rarely figures. Instead there is lots and lots of vanilla sex played out in front of a titillating backcloth of sadomasochistic shadows. There's a lot of bait and switch. Striptease without the 'reveal'. So what role does BDSM really play in the books? Does it signal a new popular vogue for kink? Do the books open doors for kink and sexual adventure? Or is this ultimately just another exercise in demonizing and pathologizing unconventional erotic styles?

fifty_shades_of_greyThe storyline is simple. Anastasia Steele is an innocent: a 23-year old university student who is a virgin, has never masturbated, has never got drunk, never stayed out overnight, never had a boyfriend and only kissed twice in her life (I kid you not!). She goes to interview mega-millionaire Christian Grey for a student newspaper. Not only is he richer than Mark Zuckerberg, he is also, in Ana's words, "the epitome of male beauty". Desire sweeps over her like a rash. His body is like a magnet, awakening her nascent desires. She staggers around in a romantic swoon. He is "a white knight in shining, dazzling armour". Christian is intrigued by her and basically stalks her till she agrees to go on a date with him. But Christian has secrets. It seems he does not sleep with women and does not date. He identifies as a BDSM Dominant (apparently because of some mysterious childhood trauma) and is only interested in finding sexual submissives who will agree to sadomasochistic sexual relations on the terms that he sets down. He wants Ana to become such a submissive, but to his own consternation, he begins to fall for Ana and to bend and break his own rules in order to keep her.

The first volume of the Fifty Shades trilogy tells how Christian tries to bend Ana to his will, while Ana struggles to get him to modify his disconcerting demands for domination. They tumble into a rapturous vanilla sex relationship and Christian slowly backs off (despite his continuing passion for command and control) and finally agrees to abandon his contracts and rules rather than lose Ana. In volumes two and three, various figures from Christian's past return to haunt the couple, but sixteen days after meeting him she accepts his proposal of marriage and after surviving the test of some stalking, kidnapping and blackmail, they marry, have children, design and build a palatial mansion in Seattle, and live rich and happy ever after. Ana finds that she likes a bit of kink to spice up their sex life, while Christian gives up being Master in the Red Room Of Pain, tears up his contracts, and settles down to fatherhood, breadwinning and mild kink on Ana's terms. But his soul is healed. A flawed man has been saved by the love of a good woman and her extraordinary tolerance for his overprotective, disrespectful and invasive efforts to control her behaviour (which still continue).

So what is the role of BDSM within this boy-meets-girl romantic fairy tale? In terms of narrative and story, BDSM is the dog that barks but does not bite. The book scares everybody with a big bad BDSM wolf who turns out to be a reluctant Prince Charming. It tantalises with the dark frissons of his Red Room of Pain when all that Christian and Ana ever do is some mild Ann Summers-style 'kinky fuckery'.

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The Red Room of Pain goes to waste: Christian and Ana stick to the Ann Summers' route for their BDSM romps

Christian's deluxe equipped Red Room of Pain totally goes to waste. But in terms of the staging, the language, and the discussions that run through the book, BDSM is omnipresent. Christian and Ana may not actually do much BDSM, but they endlessly discuss and negotiate the terms of their relationship in terms of it. BDSM is supposed to be the outcome of Christian's childhood traumas and the driver of his adult dysfunctionality which needs to be cured. And BDSM is the fault-line through which the past keeps resurfacing to disrupt Christian and Ana's passage to happy conventional coupledom. Let's have a closer look.

Christian's BDSM contract is the issue that completely dominates the first volume of the trilogy (even though it is fairly unceremoniously discarded at the end). This is a six page document defining the terms of the relationship and its rules that is printed in full twice in the text (the original plus a slightly amended later version!).

The Contract is all about obedience and control. Ana's body is to be fully available to him for sex and punishment every weekend from Friday evening to Monday morning. At all other times the care of her body, diet, exercise and lifestyle are closely specified. Christian and Ana will have no wider emotional or sexual relationship outside the specified periods. The submissive will accept whatever corporal punishment the Dominant sees fit (subject to health and safety!), and accept restraints, monogamy, and safewords. She will only look in his eyes if given permission and always call him 'Sir' or 'Mr. Grey'. In other words it defines Ana's surrender and submission. Christian defines himself as a 'Dominant' (though he explicitly does not call himself a sadist). "This is the only sort of relationship I am interested in", he tells her. This is the way he lives. He has had 15 previous such submissives and is looking for another. He cannot handle any sexual contact in which he does not have absolute control to use his partner as he sees fit. "It's the way I am."

As Ana herself recognises when she hears all this, it is bad news. The guy is a control freak. An obsessive compulsive. A nutter! There is no relationship to be had here. Run away!! The only satisfaction to be had on these terms would be for a willing and experienced hardcore submissive who will be turned on by exactly this combination of lifestyle and disciplinary sexual submission. And if this is truly and exclusively Christian's sexual 'thing' a man of his resources would surely have no difficulty in lining up a constant supply of (more or less) willing submissives to play his games in return for his 'generosity'. Kings, princes and millionaires around the world have pimps organising such things for them all the time (think Uday Hussein in Saddam's Iraq!). They have contractual or coerced submissives because they do not want relationships NOT because they want to regulate relationships.

But in relation to star-struck virgin Ana, the contract makes no sense at all. It resembles Sacher-Masoch 's notorious contract in Venus In Furs - but Sacher-Masoch was a submissive offering to bind himself to his mistress. A Sub signing a Dom's contract (at least in a free society) is meaningless. If the sub cannot fulfil the requirements or chooses to no longer do so, they can simply leave! The contract is unenforceable. It could be a nice fantasy symbol between two willing players, perhaps. But in relation to Ana it is all absurd and it makes Christian look like an idiot. He wants to agree the contract line by line and clause by clause. He will even negotiate on individual words. (Negotiate!?!) But he wants her to agree rules before she even knows what the rules mean! There is a long laughable scene where they go through the list point by point and Ana shows her utter ignorance of BDSM: spreader bars? anal toys? gags? genital clamps? She does not even know what these things are!!! She has to go look them up on the internet. The whole idea and process is laughable and clod-hopping. 'More like a job offer than a relationship" according to Ana.

Christian wants the contract because he does not want a relationship. So what does he do when Ana is confused, intimidated and unwilling to sign? He takes her to bed for a night of passionate love-making - which is exactly the thing that he is supposed not to be prepared to do(!) and which he has no experience of!! He "has never had vanilla sex before". But it turns out he is a super-duper conventional lover!! Holy cow!! And Ana, the 23-year old virgin who has never even masturbated, is on Cloud 9 throughout. No fears about first sex, no issues of discomfort or strangeness. And two gloriously fulfilling orgasms.... her feelings memorably described as "like the spin cycle of a washing machine, wow!...."The pleasure was indescribable." You said it!! In short, it's the perfect romantic night of lovemaking with the perfect lover with the magic penis. Ana sums it up: "Honestly, fancy falling for a man who's beyond beautiful, richer than Croesus and has a Red Room of Pain waiting for me."

And every time Ana fails to sign the contract, Christian just shrugs his shoulders and takes her to bed for another night of great vanilla sex. The only problem that inhibits their romantic lovemaking is that Christian still cannot bear to let Ana touch his body with her hands (!!) because of "issues in his past" that he will not talk about.

After lots of luxurious and expensive dating and plenty of rapturous fucking, Ana eventually lets Christian give her a light spanking...... on page 274! She quite likes it. On page 320 he takes her into the Red Room of Pain at last, puts her in cuffs , and gives her 'small biting licks of the crop all over her body". She comes 'gloriously and loudly'.... 'my legs turn to jelly'. They celebrate with more joyous fucking. Christian is getting confused. His passion for Ana is becoming powerful, but she will not sign his contract. "No-one has ever said No to me before", he whinges. ..... and just keeps fucking her, in the bed, in the bath, on the office desk.

Ana tries to coax his back-story out of him without success, and battles between her hopeless romantic love for him and her angst over his 'emotional flaws'. Meanwhile they meet his (adoptive) Mum..... they meet her Mum (yawn....), he flies her in his glider and his helicopter, gives her expensive presents, and they keep making love (with a few kinky embellishments - vaginal balls inside her, blindfold, stroked with fur. (All very Nine-and-a-Half Weeks!) Finally on page 491 Ana has a go with a suede flogger and likes that too. Christian decides he's not going to bother with the Contract!! (page 498).

Whoops! It seems the story has run out of steam. But Ana wants to understand his fierce desire for rules and control. It mystifies her .... plus she's getting a bit kinky frisky herself! So she invites Christian to do his thing in the Red Room of Pain. "Show me how much it can hurt..... I want to know how bad it can get." If she takes his punishment, perhaps in return he will allow her to touch his body. She gets six hard strokes of the belt.... and it hurts, and it shocks her. "Is this really what you want to do to me?" Is this how he gets his kicks? Shock horror. What a wake-up call. "He has needs I cannot fulfil..... I don't want him to hit me like that ever again." She has glimpsed the extent of his depravity and has to leave him. "He's no good for me, and I'm no good for him.".... "I love him, but we can never get past this. ..... "Shit, I've left him." At the end of Volume One, Ana, in tears, leaves him. Twenty-five pages into Volume Two they are back together. They are both thoroughly miserable. Christian agrees to drop all his demands and enter a purely vanilla relationship and Ana accepts.

After this, the second and third volumes no longer have the organizing concept of the struggle over the contract and the narrative loses its thread. Instead, the focus shifts to several parallel themes. First there is Ana's quest to find out and understand the secrets of Christian's past. Second there is the problem of Christian's obsessive and controlling personality which goes much beyond his BDSM predilections. Thirdly, there is the emergence of external threats to the protagonists arising from Christian's past history. And fourthly there is the emergence of Ana's own 'kinky' desires. But more and more the books are swamped by endless scenes of softcore sex that seem to be written by reshuffling a set of pre-programmed cliches and that add nothing to the story. The narrative plods along: repetitive, dawdling, unedited. They do X. He says "A........", She says "B......". There are tedious blow by blow accounts of ordering meals, driving cars, having breakfast, verbatim reports of banal texts and e-mails, salacious pages of expensive shopping trips. Every time they go anywhere there are two pages describing the journey and one page of "Hello, how are you, come on in", when they arrive!!! The book gawps at luxury lifestyles, brand names and wealth, yet the gifts and shopping are surprisingly unexpensive, as if the author can't quite make the leap to imagine being seriously rich. It's a pastiche of old-fashioned rich, not 21st century Mega-Midas-Rich.

The quest for the secrets of Christian's past and an explanation of his sexual pathology is the central element of the second and third books. What drives him? We find out a few points in outline. His mother was a crack-whore who died of an overdose, and as a four year old boy he spent four days alone with the body waiting for discovery. His Dad was violent and uncaring. A friend of his adoptive family ("Mrs. Robinson") seduced him and made him into a sexual submissive for six years from the age of 15. The girls he likes to dominate all need to look like his mother (including Ana). But none of this background is filled out with any substance. What did Mrs. Robinson do to him? - bad things, it seems, but we are not told what. How did his birth parents abuse him? - not told. What did he do with his previous fifteen submissives? - not told. Why has he been so allergic to girlfriends in the past but so instantly swept away into lovey-dovey romance with Anastasia? Who can tell? You'd think Ana would really want to find out more. But her quest is perfunctory and lacklustre. She asks him. He prefers not to tell. Most of the information that emerges comes when people occasionally tell her things about his past almost incidentally.

Much of this information comes out in response to the threats arising from Christian's past. Ex-Submissive Leila turns up, crazy and threatening with a gun. (What made her mad? We are not told.) Ana's boss at the publishing house (Jack) turns out to be a sadistic psycho rapist. When Ana rejects his advances, he tries to kill Christian, blackmails Ana, and tries to rape her. It turns out that he and Christian briefly shared foster parents on the mean streets of Detroit before Christian went to his loving adoptive parents while Jack was sent to a home - creating a grudge he had borne ever since, until he was fortuitously able to wreak his revenge when Christian's new girlfriend just happened to turn up as a new hire in his publishing company. The threats create some action to keep the book ticking, but they reveal little about the principal characters.

Christian's super-controlling personality shifts its focus from his BDSM to his obsessive interference and protectiveness. When Ana gets a job he buys the company. He keeps giving her lavish gifts she does not want to accept. He has her followed and electronically monitored. He manipulates her office to stop her going on a business trip to New York. He throws a tantrum when she does not change her name after they marry. He gives her love bites on her breasts to stop her sunbathing topless. In short, he is controlling, jealous, over-protective and wants to 'own' her. His wealth and power and achievements just keep getting bigger. As well as being the most beautiful man on the planet as well as one of the richest, he is also wine expert, piano virtuoso, philanthropist, and business genius. Along with this comes palatial homes; helicopters and private jets; the finest tables in the finest places; and all-you-could-ever-desire consumption. The BDSM beast fades from sight but the petulant child remains. Ana's job of reforming her flawed prince continues.

But the most interesting development is probably in Ana's sexuality. Ana starts out as virgin ingenue

with a subconscious that 'does a happy dance in a bright red hula skirt' when nice things happen. At first she is drawn to a sort of all-powerful father figure who makes her feel stupid and tongue-tied, shame-faced and apologetic, and who 'protects' her from rival suitors (like a Dad). Her attraction to Christian is a classic romantic love at first sight, driven by physical desire and a mysterious chemistry (that looks to all the world that it might be the 'Lynx effect' of his fragrant bodywash since it is mentioned nine times in her glowing descriptions of him in volume one!)

But Ana does change as the story develops. She becomes more, not less feisty. She is not into 'submission'. She is into romantic love and she also finds out that she is a highly sexually driven woman.......... who eventually begins to explore her own 'kinky' desires (arguably ending up with her using Christian for these ends rather than him using her. Ho-ho!!). In fact, Ana is a romantic who wants her own "Romance Contact"..... and gets it! She wants marriage, kids, hot sex, career, luxury and riches. And that is what she ends up with. She also learns to manage, if not eliminate, Christian's flaws.

Perhaps because many of these developments are buried in the dross of volumes two and three, most commentators seem to assume that Ana eventually 'submits' to Christian's perverted desires. But that is not the case. Once the whole matter of the Contract is sidelined, Ana gradually becomes more aware of own kinky desires. On page 153 of Volume Two (yes, stick with me!) she induces Christian to give her a second spanking (12 smacks) which makes her come. On pages 243-6 she provokes him into giving her a spanking with a plastic ruler while they are playing pool. Later, Ana explores the Red Room of Pain out of curiosity. It becomes an opportunity for kinky show and tell as she goes through the toys (nipple clamps, Wartenberg wheel, clothespins, anal beads, genital clamps etc) and when Christian finds her there she is well up for a bit of kink and they have sex using a spreader bar on her legs. Mmm, what fun they have! Significantly, it is only after they are engaged to be married that they play fully in the Red Room (page 484 of Vol. 2!!! - are you paying attention?). There is some bondage, blindfolds, nipple clamps, a vaginal plug and one finger up the ass. Ana experiences the soaring giddiness of novice explorations of BDSM and the sweet-painful feelings and shattered super-pleasured aftermath even brings back some enthusiasm to E. L. James's tired writing. Nice soft sensuous BDSM (mild bondage, butt-plug, vibrator) becomes part of their marital repertoire and is nicely told and quite hot (pages 30-40 and 114-118 of volume 3 if you are interested) alongside copious straight sex (which seems to have been written by an automatic sex text generator). By the end, Ana is quite into moderate BDSM sex games and takes the initiative. In the Epilogue set in 2014, Christian and Ana are happily married, having their second child, and continue to mix in some happy kinky sex and Dom/Sub play. Truly Happy Ever After.

Does this mainstream or pathologize kink? Many people complain that it is an inaccurate representation of BDSM. And certainly you won't find a Christian/Ana relationship every day! On the other hand, it's just fiction: why complain that it isn't accurate. Is police fiction an accurate account of the way the police work? Do Scrubs, or General Hospital or Holby City give an accurate view of how hospitals work? Do mega-millionaires ever work the way Christian does (occasionally giving orders on the phone while flirting with Ana). Don't worry about it. Sit back and enjoy the show!

It's not BDSM as I (or you) know it! And it never will be, because what people do in BDSM is as varied and crazy and mixed up as what they do in every other aspect of their personal and sex-lives. What people want will vary enormously. And the boundaries surrounding S&M are all basically false and confusing. Not all joggers want to be competitive runners! You can enjoy playing with toys and being spanked without being a 'sadomasochist'. It's fun. It's hot. Or you can enjoy playing with toys and being spanked ....... and ALSO build your own dungeon, plunge deep into the complex joys of torture and flagellation, and wholly embrace the lifestyle and practices of sadomasochism. It's up to you. Or it would be if state and church and law kept their grubby fingers out of it.

So it is not so much verisimilitude that is at issue, so much as the messages and image that the book conveys to its readers. And in the end it is a mixed picture. Yes, there are lots of nasty implications that (like Christian) you will only do this stuff if your psyche has been disturbed and traumatised by childhood or other similar experiences. Of course, this conclusion can itself be interpreted in different ways. For example: BDSM is just one of a multitude of sexual and emotional responses that are thrown up by our complicated and difficult passage through life and should be understood and accepted (or even celebrated) as such. Or..... it is stuff that only sick people do! Well, let's hope that more people go with the former than the latter. One of the really puzzling responses that come out of the book is that many women who think Christian's BDSM is 'sick' are simultaneously enraptured by him as a romantic figure (beautiful, enigmatic, powerful, alpha-male) and ignore his jealous, controlling, intrusive, stalker aspects. Clearly Christian does give a bad name to BDSM, but you would hope that he would also help to do some reputational damage to fairy-tale princes.

Given that BDSM is widely demonized and marginalised, however, there are some positives in the book. It brings BDSM into wider mainstream discussions. And the fact that it is something that can be both 'scary' and 'OK' in the book is probably not a bad place to end up. Christian's abusive, self-obsessed, emotionally screwed up BDSM is pretty dismal, but Ana finds her way to some fun places. Perhaps the worst thing about the book is not what it does or does not do for BDSM, but what it does for 'romance'. The book has let the junk of 'romance' fiction out of the closet and into the mainstream. Boy-meets-girl and 'Prince Charming' fiction has always been a thriving industry. Yes, people do buy books (and in large quantities) from those lookalike shelves of 'Romance' in W. H. Smith or Barnes & Noble. But at least they kept it to themselves and didn't trouble the world of up-market literature. Under the cover of risque sex, Fifty Shades has sneaked romantic crap back into the best-seller lists. But please don't blame that sin on BDSM!!

Critical Carnage For Fifty Shades Of Grey

But "BDSM-Lite" Author Has Last Laugh As The Millions Pour In

The critics agree. Fifty Shades of Grey is garbage. The writing is lazy and formulaic: 'so horrible it is painful' as one critic put it. The plot is ludicrous and insults the intelligence. The sex is cliched and repetitive. The characters are shallow and unbelievable. The books lack drama or credibility.

But the book has sold 20 million copies in the USA and UK alone in little more than three months, making it the fastest selling book ever! The marketing tie-ins are booming and Hollywood is about to jump on the bandwagon. Something is happening. But what?

It would be pointless for me to add my voice to the wall of critical reviews that have come out in the last few months - especially since so many of them are so incisive and brilliantly written. What I want to do is to explore what the book is actually saying and doing and what its implications and significance are for contemporary sexuality, romance, aspiration and attitudes to and perceptions of BDSM. Why do people love it and buy it? What does it say to them?

But first, before I start ............ you've just got to sample some of the wonderful slam-dunk critical assassinations out there. So here's a selection. Made easy. Instant links to the wittiest, cruellest, best and most brilliant of the reviews I have come across.

Starting with, not a text ....... but a couple of images. KendraKiss's recreations of scenes from Fifty Shades with Barbie and Ken style dolls [KendraKiss Photostream] captures the hollow wooden banality of E. L. James' prose and plots at a stroke. Quite simply it is a literary version of 'playing with dolls'!!

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"I will spank you again each time you do it, do you understand" [KendraKiss, Fifty Shades Dolls House"]


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"Because I'm fifty shades of fucked up, Anastasia" [KendraKiss, 'Fifty Shades Dolls' House]


Equally brilliant and perhaps even more devastating are the critiques through parody and pastiche (though of course there cannot be parody without a little affection too........).

John Crace, 'Digested read: Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James' The Guardian 30 April 2012

Wonderful! Totally captures the style and spirit of the text, especially Ana's bizarre internal debates between her unconscious and her 'inner goddess'. Crace is unerring in all except one thing - in the actual book the thrashings and pain only happen in dreams!! - no more than a spanked red bottom for the actual Ana.

Laura Antoniou, 'Fifty Shades of Sellout' (antoniou.blogspot.co.uk) 20 May 2012.

Unfortunately you need to read the book to understand how good this is. Great pastiche and parody. But if you read the book you'll get confused..... because you'll think that E. L. James is the parody !?!? Holy Cow!

Then there are the 'literary' demolition jobs!!

Zoe Williams, 'Why Women Love Fifty Shades of Grey', Saturday Guardian, 7th July 2012

A wonderfully witty demolition of the style and plot of the books in what she calls "Mills & Boon for the generation that would once have been embarrassed to be seen reading Mills & Boon".

J. C. Johnson, 'How 50 Shades of Grey ended my romance with romance' inourwordsblog.com/so12/04/20

How 50 Shades spoils the joys of trashy romantic novels and fails the test as a quick and dirty bodice-ripper.

Alessandra Stanley, 'Glass Slipper as Fetish' New York Times, 2 April 2012

An insightful analysis of the 'literary formula' behind Fifty Shades: "an antiquated product re-imagined as innovation".

Vanessa Thorpe, 'Why does Fifty Shades of Grey turn British women on?' The Guardian, 30th June 2012

A nice discussion of the issues of porn and romance and the reception of the book in mumsnet circles. Not quite sure whether Thorpe has actually bothered to read the book, but she has read the social zeitgeist.

Jenny Colgan, 'A fair crack of the whip' Saturday Guardian, 14th April 2012

A kind review. Wittily dispatches the stitched together text, the stereotypes and the unsexy sex but enjoys the laughs (mainly unintentional) along the way and confesses she'd rather read this than the miserable literary porn of Catherine M or Wetlands. "It is jolly, eminently readable, and as sweet and safe as BDSM erotica can be without contravening the trade descriptions act".

Followed by the socio-sexual commentaries.....

Alyssa Royse, 'Fifty Shades of Fiction' notsosecret.com/2012-04-26/fifty-shades-of-fiction

A brilliant and provocative review from a sex-positive libertarian. Alyssa sees all the faults and crappiness of the books, but she reads it all with wonderful sympathy, seeking out the positives and genuinely finding some! Yes, you can wade through the crap to find some very worthwhile things..... and she does. But if the crap is that deep will anyone who is not as humane and intelligent as Alyssa find what she finds? A critical reading that does the book amnesty rather than justice!!

Pamela Stephenson Connolly, 'Fifty Shades of Grey is bad for bondage' The Sun, 9th July 2012

The popular media psychologist gives short shrift to the implications in Fifty Shades that BDSM desires are a result of being psychologically 'sick'. Nothing to do with mental or physical illness and should not be a reason for discriminating against people in jobs, children or civil rights.

....... and the political, social and cultural critiques.

Suzanne Moore, 'Fifty Shades of Grey' The Guardian, 7th July 2012

Witty, incisive political and cultural critique. Written by a feminist, but that's not really relevant here. This is a Laugh-Out-Loud indictment of the crude conservative romantic worldview that lurks behind the oh-so-daring kinky surface and the book's abjectly lumpen treatment of sexual attraction, wealth and power.

Andrew O'Hagan, 'Travelling Southwards', London Review of Books, 19 July 2012

A smart cultural critique of how popular soft porn is not so much about sex but about the lifestyle aspirations and social doubts of the generations who buy it. Fifty Shades reads "as if feminism never happened and invites readers to be submissive, not to punishment, but to a 1980s style dominance of money and power".

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, 'Fifty Shades of Grey', The Independent, 1st July 2012

This is a hard hitting feminist critique. A-B's feminism is too moralistic and black-and-white for my taste, and she has not taken on board recent feminist theories about the complexity of desire and fantasy, but she makes some hard hitting points that force you to think about why this pile of trash is topping the best-seller lists.

My own thoughts?........ coming up next.....

Thomas Tallis, Spem in Alium

Best BDSM Music Videos #7

In the intensity of a BDSM scene, the pain and tension in the body can allow the mind to slip a gear. It creates freedom under pressure. As the mind seeks to control fierce almost uncontrollable sensations it can lock onto an image, a look, a sound, hold it, cling to it. Maybe the eye of a partner, maybe a rolling fantasy, a word, a melody. The right music can be a profound resource in masochistic pleasures.

Gregorian chants, operatic arias or techno sounds can make a session soar. But Thomas Tallis' motet Spem in Alium (1567), an extraordinary piece of Elizabethan choral music can really take you to another place. The conception and execution of this piece are mind-blowing. Tallis was pushing the technical limits of musical performance and the result is a sound that is under rigorous control, held within the tightest possible boundaries, but aching to escape and burst through its restraints.

The piece is a 'motet' sung interactively by several choirs. Tallis pushed the boundaries by using 40 voices in 8 choirs of 5 voices each. The melody moves around, passing from choir to choir with patterns of call and answer, synchrony, solo, repetiitions and variations, creating successive shifting waves of musical ideas as the themes weave their way back and forth across the choirs to produce an overwhelming effect.

It is highly technical and complex, with many acoustical and performance difficulties. Tallis surroundeed the audience with performers, using the balconies of an octagonal banqueting hall in Arundel Castle for the first performance but the skills and logistics required mean that it is rarely performed these days. Its sense of uplift and transcendence made it perfect for use in the mountain-climbing movie Touching the Void in the scene where Yates and Simpson reach the summit. But now it has found remarkable new popularity thanks to the reference in E.L. James' best-selling novel Fifty Shades of Grey. It has to be said that the novel is an awful piece of crap. But in bringing the music to wide attention and highlighting the hook to BDSM it has achieved at least one redeeming feature. Suffer and soar!

A Dominatrix in New York

Melissa Febos explores her difficult years as a pro-domme in her book Whip Smart

The New York real estate market stamps its imprint on the city's BDSM dungeons. It is a rare individual dominatrix who can afford to set up her own independent dungeon in Manhattan. Yet there are plenty of clients on the doorstep, men with money seeking a quick high or instant release. And so a small industry of high-class multi-mistress dungeons has sprung up downtown in high-rise blocks alongside offices and commercial premises.

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Inside Pandora's Box, the famous downtown New York dungeon

These are the famous New York names of BDSM: Pandora's Box (as featured in Nick Broomfield's film Fetishes); Mistress Elizabeth's; Ball and Chain; Den of Iniquity; Rapture; Arena; and the anonymous dungeon that is at the heart of the memoirs of one-time pro-domme Melissa Febos.

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Melissa Febos and her book Whip Smart

Melissa's book is a sort of coming of age story. A young woman with a soul in turmoil, wrestling with the engulfing desires of drugs and sex, and drawn into the business of sexual domination for reasons that even she struggles to understand. It is a world that fascinates and repels her at the same time. The sprawling palatial dungeon is 'more lush than I had ever remotely imagined'. Like a movie set. Marble floors and heated towel rails. 'A highly-styled big budget dream.....Think David Lynch." There are huge Red, Black and Blue session rooms, three medical rooms, and a cross-dressing room. All festooned with state of the art bondage furniture and torture equipment and frequented by a cross-section of the 'seemingly normal' denizens of Manhattan. Or at least the rich ones. Successful (mainly married!) stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors, rabbis, restaurateurs, or fire-fighters, all comfortably able rich enough to drop $200 a week to satisfy a compulsive but routine itch. It makes you pity the poor masochist! - that is to say, the masochist without money!! This was sadomasochism that did not require the darkness of night and a great fanfare. Men who scheduled their sessions the way they scheduled business lunches.

And it is a world where the Dominatrix is employed as labour power, controlled by the dungeon and controlled by the clients. Hired, like Melissa, through small ads in the Village Voice or other New York papers and magazines, and working for an absentee boss (in this case the retired successful mistress/porn star 'Mistress X') and her sleazy officious agent who ran a regime of strict rules, fines, surprise visits, and non-stop surveillance by ubiquitous CCTV cameras. Unpaid hours sitting around waiting for appointments to come in are punctuated by periodic 'meat markets', competitive line-ups 'like pageant contests' where the girls compete with each other to be picked by clients ten times or more a day. This is not a place for 'lifestyle dommes' who seek pride and pleasure in their work and don't fancy quick handjobs and getting their tits out. As Melissa quickly realised, "If you started to be a Dom out of desire, you would not make it through the second week."

This is the world Melissa stepped into at the turn of the millennium as a 21-year old college senior with standout grades, looking for money to finance her studies and her drug habit, and captivated by the dark allure of sexual taboos. Melissa came from a 'good' family and happy childhood in Cape Cod. She had been a bright highly-sexed adolescent who could not find satisfaction in her sex life, troubled by unruly desires and shocked by the strength of her own sex appeal. She loved seduction but was not so keen on the sex. Irritated by adoring boyfriends, she found that brief infatuation was quickly followed by repulsion at their desire. She dabbled with girls without commitment and was drawn to the thrills of the dark side with restless cravings for power and submission, taking drugs to control the world. 'I wanted to be wild, brilliant, sexy and a little bit tragic", she says.... and she did. She was a heroin addict by the time she started college.

Melissa drifted almost casually into domming. There was a conversation with a neighbour, an intriguing small ad. She told herself it was 'curiosity and 'social tourism', and she knew almost nothing about what she was getting into. The day she went to the dungeon was the first time she had ever seen a dildo and she nodded her way through lists of sexual practices she had never heard of. But that was no barrier to being hired on spot without question - though unlike many others she did not end up leaving almost as quickly as she had arrived. Instead she stayed for three years, and at first the job made her thrill to her own wildness. She was the possessor of a magic secret that put her above others around her. And she was holding down the best paid acting job in town!

For the first year she was on the day shift, consisting mainly of half hour sessions of tease and denial, role play with hand-jobs, or spanking. At least half her sessions required golden showers and brown showers were regularly requested. She generally had to do little more than act like a cartoon tease and it felt slightly shameful. The clients were men who dropped in to session and then went back to work in their nearby offices, and more often than not they wanted to 'top from below'. As Melissa describes it, "I would spend an hour having every movement of my tyrannical role dictated to me.....I walked out of the session flushed with furious humiliation." And then there were the 'sadistic masochists', men whose sessions were more humiliating for the Dom than for themselves. "Is it worse to be fisted as you fantasize, or to shove your arm up a strange man's ass for money?" she wondered. "The dungeon was so soaked in shame that I could hardly breathe sometimes."

She handled it by doing sessions high on heroin, cocaine and speedballs. Heroin killed the daily stream of fear and cocaine brought a rush that raised her above the grim predictability of the sessions. But she still woke up in the mornings with blocked nostrils and suicidal fantasies. Yet the job also had its seductive rewards and thrills. As a dominatrix she moved in her social circles swathed in confidence, an edgy celebrity who could turn heads with the merest mention of her occupation. And she had cash burning holes in her pockets. It was a lifestyle of cabs to everywhere, fashion, restaurants, beauticians, and a drug habit that could eat up more in a night than she earned from her sessions in a day.

Over time Melissa acquired the skills and clout to graduate to the night shift, with its scope for longer more elaborate sessions and more bondage, cross-dressing and corporal punishment. What did professional domination mean to her? One of the most interesting things in the book is tofollow her as she tries to work this out. At first she felt she was fairly clear about it. "The arousal I felt as a dominant was not sexual but psychological", she says. Sadism did not grab her and turn her on, though she did enjoy the delicious pleasure of hurting someone who wants to be hurt. She enjoyed corporal sessions most: 'even without the drugs it could induce an altered state'. But non-corporal sessions got harder to bear over time. Role play at times made her feel powerful, but recurrent humiliating and grotesque roles (mother/baby, teacher/schoolboy) that started out making her feel powerful, came to seem sad and sordid. She puzzled over the power relations she was involved in. Many sessions were "a kind of inversion of misogyny, the subjugation of women re-enacted by men on themselves." And she got fed up with bad breath, groping hands, and enemas. "I never made a decision to go emotionally numb in my sessions: I did it by default".

At first her fellow dommes impressed her as powerful women with a confidence she had rarely seen and, contrary to her expectations, the dungeon was not a cesspool of cattiness but a site of unexpected solidarity, where women like her shared their experiences of sexual abuse and sexual wildness, of insecurities and eating disorders. But as she got to know them better, she found that they were not the women they had appeared to be. Many were dominant in the dungeon but submissive in their personal lives. Suddenly, "they seemed damaged little girls, compulsively subjugating themselves to men outside the dungeon.......... women relying on men who let them down, choosing those men, men who were an expression of their own lack of self-regard. .... We were all topping from the bottom it seemed".

Disillusion worked away at her. Was she powerful? Or was she being used and abused by others? Was she in control of her own life? Or was it running away from her? She went downhill. Hiding alone to take drugs. Consumed by extreme anxiety. She went to AA to get off drugs. But she just carried on taking heroin and compounding her own guilt and lack of self-respect by lying about it. This is the most complicated, and raw and revealing, part of the story as Melissa struggled to come to grips with herself. Her battle to come off drugs turned a corner with a cathartic confession of her lies. It also helped to expose her illusion that being a domme made her more powerful and better than others around her. The result was complicated. Understandably the narrative becomes less controlled, the self-reflection more confused, the logic more opaque. You wonder what is going on? It is disturbing. But it is real.

The changes in her that followed look paradoxical. Melissa began to cross lines in the dungeon, drawn into things she had formerly condemned in others. She shits on a client and watches in repulsive fascination as he writhes and cakes himself in her excrement, and she begins to do submissive sessions" she says, "Passivity looked like a vacation." She had always had submissive fantasies: being ravished by faceless male phantoms. But now she began to switch in role play, going on the receiving end of psychological and verbal abuse and humiliation. As she describes it, "Experiencing submission was excruciating and ugly: but it was also freeing." She even began to platonically date a client (a Hasidic submissive who liked to be bullied by a schoolgirl). She embraced what she had condemned. But above all, she grew more and more alienated from dungeon work: "sessions felt like surgery without adequate anaesthesia". One day she just walked off the job.

Melissa writes vividly and does not dodge her confusions and failings. But she is prone to rather dodgy self-psychoanalysis. As I read it, her self-interpretation is as follows. From the start, she had needed to tell herself that she was not really into domination. It was for money, anthropology, maybe an ego trip. She needed to feel different and separate from her clients. 'I was not like them!" And different to the other Doms who copped out and subbed or stripped for clients and put up with oppressive boyfriends. But she slowly realised that believing she was apart from the people she dealt with was a way of protecting herself from things that she deeply feared in herself. And so she put on a persona that even fooled herself. She 'scapegoated others with my own shame and secrecy'. In fact, she was NOT in the dungeon out of financial desperation or curiosity. She was "a member of that world, with reasons for being there." Just like all the others. Obsessed with power, with having it and losing it. And out of her experience: "I found in the dungeon a way to give myself permission to admit to my own fantasies of powerlessness." She had been small-minded, trying to feel powerful by judging others. "Scary, how easy it was to judge and belittle those around me, even while I shared their experience."

Good. She realises that she is not as special as she once thought! She no longer thinks she is smarter than everyone around her. (Well, perhaps with just a little slip-up in choosing a title for her book?) She has learnt from life. And no one should require good autobiography to be good analysis. How boring would that be! My problem is that she wraps everything up too neatly. She seems to have found her answers and feel that she can now sit back and reminisce over fond memories of a wicked past. Well, at least she didn't find God!! But she has done the next most cliched thing after that. Her redemption seems to come from finding Mr. Right, the man who has made her world whole. The ragged life is now neatly wrapped in a romantic happy ending and sealed with some rather tenuous notions of finding redemption by letting go the defended self and accepting her own vulnerability. Maybe I am just too cynical and churlish, but such an ending seems too neatly tailored to fit the publisher's typical 'misery lit' cover blurb about "a fearless journey through drugs and dungeons".


Melissa Febos, Whip Smart: the true story of a secret life (St. Martin's Griffin, 2010)

article menu

A Billion Wicked Thoughts

The Philosopher And The Dungeon

Anti-Pornographers' Guide To Bad Sex

The Congress Of Sexual Deviants

The Road To Pornland

Censorship Looms In The Adult Cloud

Behind The Scenes As A Porn Star

MPs wanking fit to bust? New data from the House of Commons

David Cameron and Child Pornography

Privacy In Social Media

Can A Private Conversation Be 'Obscene and Indecent'?

The Diary Of A Submissive

Private Sex Is Porn!

Unravelling The Mystery Of Fifty Shades Of Grey

Mainstreaming Or Demonizing Kink

Critical Carnage For Fifty Shades Of Grey

Thomas Tallis Spem in Alium

A Dominatrix In New York

The Drip-Drip-Drip of BDSM Censorship

Silicon Sadomasochism

What Makes Hentai Sexy?

Cruelty and Pleasure

What'sGoing On? The Story Behind The Session
Playing On The Edge

Alternative Views of Anal Sex

The World Viewed From The Asshole

Eurovision Torture Pop OTT!!

Venus In Furs Revisited

Erotic Secrets of Tentacle Porn

The Slimy World Of Live Tentacle Porn

Urotsukidoji (The Legend Of The Overfiend)

Pornography Without Genitals

Forbidden Words

Song Of The Grass Mud Horse

Strung Up By The Balls For Extreme Stress Torture

Making Cocks And Cunts Invisible!!

Paperback Writers What Do Publishers Want

The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife

Worst Ever BDSM Session

On The Trail of Tentacle Porn

If You Can Imagine A New Fetish

Structured Reality and BDSM

What is the future of "Obscenity"?

Devendra Banhart

If You Can Do It, Why Can't You View It?

Creating Obscenity

Pissing Inside the Law

These DVDs are NOT obscene

Peacock Obscenity Trial

Barebacking Porn Realities and Illusions

Culture of Barebacking

To Kill4

Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Breathless on the Internet

Reflections on Barebacking

Rihanna Recomposed

In Search of Vile Porn

Lady Gaga

Dildo Shoes and Penis-Heels

Cock-Whipping Movies

Rihanna's S&M

Louboutin's Fuck-Me Shoes

Colors of Passion - Your Comments