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Laurie Penny in defence of Fifty Shades of Grey

Critics' main problem with these books seems simply to be that they are porn for women.

Fifty Shades of Grey is easy to mock. The reason it's easy to mock is that it's porn. I picked up the book, with its dark-and-mysterious cover that looks, through half-closed eyes, a bit like one of the Twilight novels, in an airport. I read it on the plane, and I enjoyed it. There, I said it. I enjoyed it because there were, amongst some terrifically trashy bits of girly romance and some eye-watering blow-job scenarios[1], a few quite good, quite detailed descriptions of fucking written from the point of view of a woman who seemed to be really enjoying herself.

That's it. That's all. Fifty Shades of Grey is porn, and porn can be quite fun. With the publishing industry in such choppy waters, I fail to understand why this record-pounding paperback has come in for extra-special derision all over the world, other than the fact that some people are appalled at the idea that somewhere out there, well over ten million women might be – whisper it – masturbating.

"But it's badly written!", I hear you cry. Um, hello? It's PORN. Whilst there is some pornography out there written with a deft stylistic hand – from Anais Nin and Henry Miller to Anne Rice's luscious, filthy Sleeping Beauty series – that's hardly the point, even if you don't buy Oglaf author Trudy Cooper's adage that "erotica just means porn that works for me." A dildo painted with an intricate lubricant-insoluble motif may look delightful, but a plain old rubber shocker gets the job done just as well. This book is porn. It is for wanking to. Pornography made for men is rarely judged on its artistic merits – the average 20-minute RedTube clip has hundreds of thousands of views and practically nobody leaves comments complaining that the lighting is garish, that the pounding cheese music is weird and unsettling, or that there's someone's Bassett hound running about in the background[2].

Similarly, I can't recall Page Three of the Sun ever getting taken to pieces for its lack of artistic imagination. The point, the only point, is to show three million men some tits in the morning, and they've been happily ogling those pixellated teenage breasts on public transport for thirty years. That's understood. Exactly the same basic principle applies to the Fifty Shades series, which has the added bonus that no actual nubile, desperate postpubescents were harmed in its production – but somehow the idea that women might gobble down a poorly-written book in their tens of millions just because they've heard there might be some fucking in it is uncomfortable for the sort of snobbish commentators who have absolutely never themselves bashed out a cheeky one over FHM magazine.

When you get down to it, the problem most people seem to have with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it's for girls. Even worse - it's "mommy porn", porn for mommies, for older women to read and get excited about, and that dangerous nonsense really needs to be stopped right now. Everyone knows that the only women who are allowed to actually have sexuality are slender, high-breasted twenty-one year old virgins – rather like, it has to be said, the heroine of "Fifty Shades of Grey".

Tens of thousands of words have been wasted over whether Christian Grey, our well-tailored, long-dicked hunk of fictional man-meat, is an appropriate lust-object for today's right-thinking feminist, but less attention has been paid to the fact that Anastasia Steele, the protagonist, rather embodies the contemporary concept of "fuckable". Those of us reading Fifty Shades may not all be innocent virgin college graduates, but getting moistly involved with a hardcore sexual fantasy feels less uncomfortable if you can temporarily imagine that you are. Virgin college graduates don't have to feel guilty for fantasising about being seduced by a gorgeous young multi-millionaire entrepreneur with his own private jet and a fleet of audis who's rather unnervingly like Mark Zuckerberg, if Mark Zuckerberg were hot and well-dressed.

Derivative and aesthetically childish though they may be, women everywhere are reading these books, especially now that ebook technology uptake has reached a point where anyone with a smartphone or Kindle can read porn privately on public transport, or one-handed in their bedrooms. The only people who haven't bothered to read the damn books, it seems, are most of the journalists writing about it – which seems to be the only possible explanation for why the parts of the series that have been most anxiously discussed are also the least interesting.

Firstly, there's the sadomasochism. Katie Roiphe's now-infamous Newsweek cover story claimed that the popularity of the Fifty Shades books was evidence that women everywhere are tired of all this feminist liberation and secretly want to be tied down and whipped by wealthy plutocrats. But in fact, there are barely two spanking scenes in the whole of the first book – by far the most in-depth and detailed sex-scenes are "vanilla" – and our protagonist spends most of the time feeling shocked and horrified about her paramour's predilictions, to an extent that anyone actually involved in the S&M community might well find offensive. The watered-down approximation of sadomasochistic sex in the first book, at least, is merely an extended fantasy of possession, of being utterly desired by a person who takes full physical, moral and social responsibility for any boning that may or may not ensue. In a world where women are still made to feel ashamed of ever wanting to experience sexual pleasure for its own sake, that's an appealing fantasy.

Secondly, and most importantly – these books started out as smutty fan fiction. The publishers are extremely keen to underplay this aspect of the Fifty Shades books, and E. L James doesn't discuss it in interviews, but the fact that these books began as extended stories published on the internet in the Twilight fandom community is, to my mind, the most fascinating aspect of the whole Fifty Shades phenomenon.

If you're not familiar with fan fiction, or "fanfic", please just take my word for it that there are countless thousands of men, women and girls out there on the internet – mostly women, mostly young women, and some of them extremely young women – writing and sharing long, dirty stories set in their favourite fictional universes, from Harry Potter to Buffy and Twilight. These stories tend to place beloved characters in sweaty pairings that make private sexual fantasies a community experience – readers comment on and critique one other's work, correcting the most anatomically implausible details and discussing the ins and outs and ins and outs of possible scenarios at breathless length.

Not all fan fiction is filthy, but a great deal of what makes the enormous volume of dirty short fandom stories out there on the internet so exciting is that it's a unique way for readers to re-occupy a text, to rewrite anhedonic, sexless sagas like Harry Potter or actively disturbing chastity propaganda like Twilight with all the bonking and bodily fluids back in. Dirty fanfiction existed before the internet, but online forums have allowed enormous communities of antsy fifteen-year-old girls to crowdsource the education their classmates are getting from RedTube. It was in one of those communities, written largely by women, largely for women, that Fifty Shades emerged, and that fact probably goes quite a long way towards explaining why it works so damn well as what it is. Which, to reiterate, is porn. For women. To masturbate to. Horrifying, I know, but I suggest we all get used to the idea.

[1] "My very own Christian Grey-flavoured popsicle" is not a phrase I'm going to be able to burn out of my brain any time soon.

[2] For more on this theme, visit the absolutely genius indifferent cats in amateur porn tumblr, which just goes to show that the oceans of human time lost in the lonely, backlit wank-alleys of the internet have not been entirely wasted. If you're under 18, get someone who isn't to Google it for you.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Turkey's darkest night: can democracy survive the failed coup?

President Erdogan has hailed the foiling of the coup as a triumph for democracy, but some fear it will serve as a cover to crack down hard on his critics.

It was 3.30am and the Turkish leadership was insisting that everything was under control. It didn’t feel like it. I was backed into the corner of a hotel room in Istanbul, trying to keep away from the windows as the building shook from sonic booms made by fighter jets tearing over the city’s rooftops. Three hundred miles away in the capital city, Ankara, plotters seeking to overthrow the government had seized tanks and jets and were bombing parliament. Civilians were being mown down in the streets. The presenter on CNN Türk was narrating with admirable calm the takeover of her own station’s building.

Each new update seemed to bounce off my brain before rebounding and coming back to hit with full force. Had President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he of such deliberate machismo, really just addressed the nation by FaceTime, on an iPhone held aloft by a TV anchor? Was my mind playing tricks when I saw helicopters strafe terrified civilians on a three-lane highway in Ankara? The significance of those dark 12 hours is still sinking in.

The first sign that something was up came with reports that the army had closed the two bridges in Istanbul that span the Bosphorus strait. Fighter jets were in the skies over Ankara. The most likely explanation seemed some kind of counterterror operation. It was just 24 hours after a lorry ploughed through a crowd in Nice and only two weeks since the suspected Isis bombing of Atatürk Airport. Turkey had been on high alert, with bag checks and armed guards at every Metro station, but there was almost a sense of resignation to terror threats.

It seemed inconceivable, though, that Turkey could face another coup d’état. The Turkish military last pressured a government from power in 1997. Knowing that his stance as the most openly religious leader in the history of the Turkish republic was at odds with the generals who saw themselves as the guardians of the secular state, Erdogan had moved to clip their wings. He launched waves of purges of the top brass after they tried unsuccessfully in 2007 to halt Abdullah Gül, a co-founder with Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), from becoming president.

It wasn’t until Prime Minister Binali Yildirim spoke by phone to a television station and confirmed that an attempted putsch was under way – and the military declared martial law – that it began to seem real. I rushed down to the street, where people who had been enjoying a Friday night out in the city began pouring out of bars and restaurants. They queued at cashpoints and hailed taxis home.

Most of those I met were subdued and nervous. Erdogan has many critics. They accuse him of abusing electoral landslides to rule by tyranny of the majority. But in a sign of just how far Turkey has come in recent decades, I found not one person who was jubilant at the prospect of him being toppled by force. “Whether you like him or not, he was democratically elected,” said Ahmet, a waiter smoking outside his empty café.

We now know that a relatively small, badly organised group was behind the plot, but for some time the scale of the putsch was unclear. The soldiers ordered into Taksim Square in Istanbul were soon outnumbered when thousands responded to a call from Erdogan to take to the streets. But I feared Turkey was about to plunge into civil war.

There was terrible loss of life, with at least 290 dead and 1,400 wounded. Many of those who died were civilians who showed daredevil courage, lying down in the path of tanks or wrestling with soldiers for their weapons. Yet the insurrection would be almost completely put down by morning. If you had gone to bed at 10pm and woken up at 7am you might have wondered why the streets were so quiet.

Shortly after dawn, the soldiers on the bridges over the Bosphorus surrendered. I found a taxi driver willing to take me most of the way to the first of the two, then walked the last stretch.

At the far end were the plotters’ abandoned tanks, now being clambered over by men waving flags and chanting the president’s name. About half a dozen motorbikes whizzed up and down carrying pairs of men with white beards and skullcaps, like a crew of Islamist Hells Angels. Trails of crimson blood ran along the tarmac. I later saw images that appeared to show that a captured soldier had been beheaded by the angry crowds.

Even after the confrontation was over, the atmosphere in the city still had a nasty edge, especially for foreigners. Pro-government press continually accuse Western powers and their citizens of orchestrating terror attacks and plots. Spitting with fury, eyes popping, one man shouted at me from the top of a tank: “Tell the West to stop playing games in our country.” Later in the day I was hounded out of the grounds of a hospital by a group of men, furious to learn that not only was I a reporter, I was also English.

The climate of retribution in the aftermath of the failed coup could threaten Turkey’s minorities. In four towns in the south-east, offices of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were attacked, even though the party had come out against the coup. There were reports of attacks on Syrian-owned properties in Ankara. In these turbulent times, an aggressive nationalism laced with intolerance and xenophobia is sometimes finding outlets.

Erdogan has hailed the foiling of the coup as a triumph for democracy. His opponents fear that he will use the failed plot as cover to crack down hard on his critics and push on with divisive plans to concentrate more powers in the hands of the presidency. They argue that the speed with which thousands in the military, police and legal system have been accused raises concern about due process.

It is far from clear how things will play out. But with war raging against Kurdish militants in the south-east, growing unhappiness at the presence of 2.7 million Syrian refugees, and suicide bombings at a rate of almost one a month, Turkey is highly flammable. It feels like the beginning of a deeply uncertain chapter in this country’s history. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt