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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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Everyday superheros - how pop culture can help overcome trauma

Whether your hero wears spandex or cat ears, inspirational pop culture figures can help deal with real life difficulties. 

On Monday evening, scores of people, united in their excitement for a concert promoting female empowerment, suffered a devastating attack.

Undoubtedly, following the tragedy, many concertgoers will be traumatised, and many others will reconsider how they publicly demonstrate their passions. However, there is a reason why Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman” tour was attacked. Any dystopian novel will tell you that such empowering individuals are dangerous to backwards ideologies and regressive regimes.

This weekend, London will host MCM Comic Con, a hugely diverse gathering of people who are passionate about any number of things. Not every fan that attends Comic Con will love the same books or television shows, but each event sees people embracing their differences. And for anyone experiencing public or private trauma, comic books may be able to help too. 

Distress at an attack like the one this week might cause some of these fans to escape into their favourite stories, where such violence is commonplace, but less stirring. “Ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” This was Joker’s question to Bruce Wayne in the 1989 film Batman. The villain claims he “just likes the sound” of the line, but he is reminding Batman that he, too, has experienced trauma. Viewers are also prompted to consider the question: have you survived pain, and how has this shaped you?

This theme emerges in most superhero narratives – a hero defined by the continual reminder that they must fight to keep from becoming warped by their harrowing past. It is often interpreted by the audience (and sometimes nodded to in the plot) as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although not everyone who has lived through tragedy has PTSD, many characters in superhero chronicles are driven by and forced to dwell on their ordeals, and are evidently traumatised. A fateful theatre trip renders Bruce Wayne an orphan. Clark Kent’s childhood is one long slog of hiding his true identity.

These details no longer simply form a pub-quiz niche, but are being used by real psychologists in so-called “Superhero Therapy” – a concept that integrates a complex understanding of the internal motivations of pop culture heroes in order to psychoanalyse and facilitate the recovery of troubled ordinary people. 

One demographic likely to be severely traumatised is military veterans. Like comic book superheroes, they can find it difficult to cope with their intense experiences, while also trying to conform to high expectations. Dr. Janina Scarlet – a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the acclaimed website and book Superhero Therapy – told me that she has seen members of the military who feel “added pressure to become a hero or self-judgment about having survived the traumatic experience, [which] can make it even more difficult to cope”.

Unlike prose, which may describe combat in euphemisms, or on-screen violence, which may be so graphic as to trigger panic or anxiety, comic books can deliver images of war in manageable chunks. This serves to validate readers’ memories without denying the disturbing nature of conflict.

However, there is more to comic book therapy than simply being a reader. In 2011, a programme for members of the military was started by the US “Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency” (Darpa), a branch of the “Department of Defense” charged with developing military technologies. Its name: “Online Graphic Novel/Sequential Art Authoring Tools for Therapeutic Storytelling”. Its mission: to assist veterans in relating to their painful experiences through an innovative and healthy outlet. According to Dr. Scarlet, the Darpa programme has the potential to help people with emotional wounds by making them “more likely to be able to better cope with [their] painful symptoms through [their] heroic connections”.

The idea of recognising and working through the feelings and issues following distressing incidents is also reflected by Something Terrible, an autobiographical comic by Dean Trippe about his childhood experience of sexual abuse and his subsequent dread that he would perpetuate the “cycle of abuse”. Something Terrible is a perfect example of how comic books can help with the daily psychological battles with which survivors of trauma may be familiar. By revealing his vulnerability to the world, Trippe was able to create something that mirrors a journey of self-development despite memories of a traumatic event.

Relating to the stories of other people who worked to become stronger – but not infallible – reminds survivors of trauma of what they think is worth fighting for. Dr. Scarlet said “just like us, many superheroes struggle with losses and mental health issues […] But what makes these heroes exceptional is that despite their struggles, they are able to connect with what’s most important to them – helping others”.  

Dan Goldman, co-president and creative director of Kinjin.co (“stories galvanised for social change”) had this in mind when he co-created Priya’s Shakti. Priya’s story is that of an Indian rape survivor, who was empowered to create solidarity with others who have experienced similarly horrific events. Goldman told me “that's what Priya is all about: her trauma connects her with other trauma survivors, with the aim of making a change with a great wave of changing consciousness”.

This, then, is the key message, if you are worried that you have danced with the devil in the pale moonlight. Cherish your heroes and inspirations, whether they are clad in spandex suits and espouse that “with great power comes great responsibility”, or wear cat ears and teach young women that they are always worth respect. It is crucial to remember that, really, it is by coming together and being courageous in the face of adversity and fear, that ordinary people become heroes.

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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