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"Who's on top? You'd be surprised"

on Friday, 30 March 2012. Posted in Front Page Headline, Media Updates

Globe and Mail

In an era of political correctness, the last thing in the world you’d expect to be a hit is a novel about sadomasochism, about how much women like subordinating themselves to men in bed.

Bottoming is the term. Who knew that women had such a longing to be bottoms? Yet, London TV executive E.L. James’s novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, has proven a huge hit in the United States, and the trilogy it belongs to has sold more than 250,000 copies, rocketing to No. 1 on The New York Times e-book fiction bestseller list.

What’s going on here? Collective lunacy on the part of today’s autonomous, self-propelled career woman? A kind of mass erotic auto-da-fé? Or were we sold a bill of goods in the 1970s about women and sexuality?

If you’ll remember, the feminist message in the ’70s was about sex and power. Sex wasn’t really supposed to be fun and joyous. It was an exercise in power relations between men and women. So the idea of bottoming for some guy was about as appealing as gouging out an eyeball. But what if that analysis was wrong? What if sex is really about sensuality and not about power? Then the huge success of Fifty Shades of Grey starts to make more sense. This kind of fetish/S&M sex, way over to the right on the spectrum of normal (but still on the spectrum), can be delicious because it involves not the infliction of pain but the exchange of control.

I’m going to tell you about mainstream opinion in the world of fetish/S&M. This is the script that’s out there:

What is erotic in fetish/S&M is the feeling of surrendering completely to someone else’s control over your body. But only for a limited time and in a strictly defined setting – yet, within that setting, giving absolute control to someone else. Hence the idea of handcuffs – you grant physical control to someone else. Hence the popularity of fetish, a symbolic acknowledgment that the one who wears the boots holds the reins.

Leather and latex are symbols, not of the jollity of whipping someone hard and inflicting pain, but of the establishment of control.

So it turns out that all these independent, high-powered women out there long for this erotic frisson of briefly, and revocably if need be, surrendering control over their own bodies. This really represents the definitive burial of ’70s-style feminism. ...

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