It is incredible how swiftly Fifty Shades has entered the public lexicon with barely an eyebrow lifted, whether it's a serious comment piece in the Daily Telegraph entitled, 'A government with 50 shades of grey would have the whip hand' or npower's energy-saving Twitter campaign, '50 Shades of Green'.
Personally, I hesitate to call this novel a 'literary' phenomenon but it is clearly an internet sensation with its explicit sexual/BDSM content, and is taking the world by storm. Such is the power of the media hype it has become an overnight hit with young women and even teenagers who are reading it quite openly with none of the embarrassment which would normally have accompanied such a book before, even including most of the Australian women's swimming team after discovering it in a service station on their way to the Games from Manchester, presumably alongside other novels and within sight of children.
It is extraordinary to see the amount of coverage in the media with big features showing an attractive middle-aged James and her husband in their middle class domestic setting, hardly oozing 'mummy porn'. It is not just James and her own perverse imagination which are subverting public morals so dramatically; it is the whole of the communications industry which is driving e marketing to an audience who have become gradually desensitised over time by films and TV programmes targeted often specifically at the 16-34 age group, and which increasingly feature sexually explicit material and bondage.
Sexually provocative music lyrics and videos by Madonna, Lady Gaga and Rihanna's S&M are popular with teens and children. Retailers of bondage gear are also making a killing it seems with reports that the book has led to a surge in the sale of whips, handcuffs and other instruments of torture.
This skilfully packaged book is marketed as liberating for women (trussed like a turkey liberating?), and female celebrities tell us "the obvious answer is that a large proportion of women are to some degree closet masochists" and that "It's fun - whatever turns you on". H
However, in reality it actually romanticises the dangerous patterns of an abusive relationship by teaching that controlling men are sexy and women secretly enjoy being hurt.
At a time when the NSPCC has been reporting on the growing problem of sexual violence in teenage relationships and particularly in gangs, the promotion of this book is particularly cynical and morally wrong. We should all be warning our young people about the very twisted and dangerous messages it contains, not lionizing it and selling it as harmless fun.
However much we are led to believe all the phoney hype, what is really behind the success is of course the usual culprit - sex sells: "In just four months, EL James has become Amazon.co.uk's biggest-selling author of all time...", said EU director of Kindle Gordon Willoughby, and according to Wikipedia, 31m copies have been sold worldwide, setting a record as the fastest selling paperback of all time.
According to the Sunday Times, the ebooks are available on amazon.co.uk, which allows anyone to upload a book and has no system for filtering out offensive material. 'Within minutes anyone can become an author using Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing service and can even set their own price. Authors charging between 77p and £1.48 earn 35% royalty on every sale, while Amazon takes 65%. For ebooks priced £1.49 or more, authors receive 70% of the royalties." I'm no mathematician but there is an awful lot of money being made and simply by creating a demand with sex and hype.
No wonder Mills & Boon are in hot pursuit with a new series of 12 digital-only "racy reads" called... '12 Shades of Surrender' -how sad that it is the surrender of romance for licentiousness. Simultaneously, thanks to internet publishing, classics such as Pride & Prejudice are now being injected with sex scenes.
Amazon is a household name and, according to the Sunday Times, its 'content guidelines state: "We don't accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts." However, a search for the word "pornography" on its website finds 727 ebooks."
So, in common with the ratcheting up of explicit violence in films and games in order to make ever larger profits, it is now deemed necessary by some powerful publishers of literature to push the envelope further and further and create demand by accepting evermore sexually explicit and risky content.
What boundaries there were are now so indistinct they have become practically invisible, and global businesses like Amazon are bulldozing the principles and values that have underpinned our civilisation. Appealing to natural curiosity and prurience will always guarantee a full net for those with the means to ensnare and exploit the rest of us on an industrial scale and our young people are the most vulnerable to this type of corruption; the unregulated internet has made it so much easier. We are already being primed for the spin-off film; what a gift to the porn industry.
Do we really live in a world where anything goes? According to the BBC's Cherry Healey, we do. In a recent programme, 'How to Get a Life' on BBC One, she repeated this statement more than once.
The idea was, apparently, to find out if it was better to be settled or single. Now settled and married with a young child herself, Cherry was worried she was becoming a bit boring.
She asked how may sexual partners is too many after giving us statistics such as 'nearly 60% have had a one night stand' and '5% have admitted to over 20'. To back up these figures she interviewed two young singles who didn't seem to have any inhibitions about sharing the number of people they had slept with. A gregarious young man, evidently enjoying his job as a hostel manager had slept with about 80 women and cameras followed him as he showed off his prowess at seducing the young women who used the hostel. A young woman claimed 170 conquests - she said, "I'm not a slut, I'm just popular". Her social life seemed to centre on going clubbing and finding men to sleep with. She said she judged them on their kissing - if a "s*** kisser then they would be a s*** s**g". Armed with her survival kit containing makeup, flat shoes and condom, she had no intention of settling down for a while.
Another couple Cherry Healey interviewed were into threesomes (Cherry thought this was "sexy, hot turns me on - but I don't think I could do it") and bondage, and we saw their bedroom and some of their 'fun' equipment. She took them to a shop specialising in bondage materials and there was the usual giggling and dressing up in latex (the girl, "I love this shop so much"), and then off to a fetish club where we were treated to some spanking and descriptions of other dark activities going on. Thankfully, the young couple were not so impressed and decided fantasy was not better than reality and to concentrate on their own relationship in future.
Cherry Healey then decided to try her hand at match making. Unsurprisingly, this did not work as once again the pressure was on to have sex and the first thing she asked the embarrassed pair after their date was, "did you have sexual intercourse?". Enough to make Cilla Black's hair stand on end.
To be fair, we did meet someone who was very happily married with a baby although her twin was still enjoying the single life and having no responsibilities. So, throughout, the messages were mixed and to the BBC's shame, there was no information about the risk from STIs or emotional fallout.
While this was on BBC One, a previous offering from Cherry Healey, 'Like a Virgin', featured as part of BBC Three's voyeuristic and explicit 'Sex Season' series earlier this year. The often graphic imagery and language, verging on pornographic, and casual acceptance of promiscuous and risky behaviour in these series run counter to received wisdom; independent research evidence shows that viewing material of an explicitly sexual nature, or even simply discussing it, can encourage early sexual activity and experimentation by young people and children. BBC Three is a youth channel targeting an audience of 16 to 34 year olds and the BBC justifies BBC Three as a place to nurture talent for BBC One. Clearly Cherry Healey and her gratuitous nonsense have now been promoted to the BBC's flagship channel.
Unfortunately, these programmes will also be viewed by younger children who will have no trouble accessing the Channel's content whether on television or by a wide variety of internet-enabled devices both inside and outside the home. Current parental controls, where all you have to do is tick a box stating you are over 16 or 18, are not effective in preventing this as many parents do not set the controls, or are even aware of them. (Ofcom's 'Children and parents: media use and attitudes report' 25.10.11). At a time when so many young people are struggling in an economic crisis which is badly affecting their life chances, surely it is a public service duty incumbent upon the BBC to produce output which will increase their knowledge and raise their aspirations.
We must expect nothing less for our money, so it is hard to reconcile the cuts being made to the excellent channel BBC Four and elsewhere, with BBC Three's budget (projected at £85m after the 10% cut) being spent on the sort of dross one should not expect to find on the BBC, let alone considered fit for the minds of young audiences. A scan of its schedules shows only an occasional rare sighting of output that could be described as good quality and not dumbed down to attract ratings.
As concerns about the sexualisation of children continue to grow, that the BBC should think this is useful instruction on 'How to Get a Life' is deeply troubling.
At long last there is a reality check going on about the dangers children face on the internet from pornography. We read with horror of children as young as eight admitting to pornography addiction, or the 12-year-old boy who raped a nine year old girl because he wanted to 'feel grown up' after viewing explicit images. As with so many other things in life, it has had to reach crisis-point before people begin sitting up and taking notice.
Only last week the deputy children's commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, told MPs that online porn "is turning children into sex attackers, that the young act out depraved scenes they see on the web and there isn't a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited."
This came in the same week that Wikipedia's co-founder Mike Sanger, disclosed that "Wikipedia features some of the most disgusting sorts of porn you can imagine," "while being heavily used by children."
The awful thing is that once children see these images they are imprinted on their brains. Dr William Struthers, a neuroscientist and expert in sexual arousal who researches the impact of pornography on young people, said, ="You can't "un-see" something. These images are not easily erasable and become almost tattooed on the cortex. It is a powerful shock to the system." He describes his research in his book,Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain.
In November 2010, Safermedia's Parliamentary Conference on the harm that pornography does heard evidence of growing exposure to internet porn and concomitant harm to children and adolescents from several expert speakers, including Pamela Paul, US journalist and author of Pornified.
Since then we have been running our Block Porn Campaign which backs Claire Perry MP's ideas for making the internet safer for children. The recommendations of her parliamentary inquiry (supported by over 60 MPs) into online child protection are the way forward. These include a proposal for a formal consultation on the introduction of an opt-in network-level filtering system for all internet accounts.
The default setting for pornography would be 'off', and it would be restored only after strict age verification for those over 18. This therefore is not censorship, despite howls of protest from some quarters about freedom of speech, and offers the best protection for children.
Network level filters are particularly important as most parents are just not up to speed with the pace of technological change or the type of hardcore, violent and abusive material their children can now access. With the best will in the world many struggle to install device level filters and are lagging behind their tech-savvy children. The problem will only get worse with the proliferation of the latest must have smartphones being used by children.
So far TalkTalk (with a female CEO) is the only ISP which is delivering a package that filters at network level, although the default is still on and parents have to choose to block pornographic content. TalkTalk have also recently decided to extend this service to all their existing customers, not just new ones as is the case with the other large ISPs such as BT, Virgin Media and Sky who are not catching the 70% of existing customers.
Sue Berelowitz has backed the proposal for ISP level filters with an 'opt in' for pornography; Mike Sanger is calling for Wikipedia to install a filter to protect children and now Louis Theroux has also added his voice to the need for network level filters. So pressure is mounting on the ISPs to do the right thing and put children's safety and well-being ahead of profits.