BEIRUT: Say the word porn three months ago and you probably thought of cheap films catering to a certain side of men’s desires – big-breasted women saying little and bending themselves into impossible positions. Say it now and one of the first things that comes to mind might be ‘mommy porn,’ the epithet given to Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic romance novel written by a British woman, E. L. James, which has become one of the best-selling books of all time.
The book is “selling like bread” at major Lebanese bookstores, and has been at the top of bestseller lists since it became available a couple of months ago, said one buyer for a major chain. Women of all ages are buying so many copies that some bookshops are restocking each day.
While the book addresses some pretty universal, almost bland, themes of love, romance and relationships, it’s the sex that has got everyone talking. In the book, unconvincingly naïve college student Anastasia Steele enters a sexual contract with equally unconvincingly suave and rich entrepreneur Christian Grey, who has a predilection for BDSM – bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism.
Feminists across the world have written at length about whether the subject matter – a woman in an obvious position of submission – is troublesome, but in Lebanon the popularity of any book with such explicit content, targeted at women, may be surprising, given that discussing what you got up to in the bedroom last night is often met with frowns, and sex toys are illegal.
The subject matter is so sensitive that even the buyers for Lebanon’s major bookshops asked not to be quoted on why the books are so popular.
The book’s popularity comes at a time when Lebanese women’s sexual desires are being increasingly vocalized. Sexologist Sandrine Atallah says that in the five years she has been practicing, more and more women are expecting to have their needs met in the bedroom.
“Women are becoming more demanding,” Atallah says. “If they do not reach orgasm, or achieve sexual satisfaction, they will ask for it, and sometimes they will leave if they do not get it.” She attributes this to the fact that more women work and are independent and are therefore coming to expect equality in their sex lives.
“When sexuality becomes an aim in itself, when sex is for pleasure, not just for having children, women are missing something if they aren’t themselves getting pleasure.”
But although this attitude may be on the rise, it’s not necessarily something women are talking about openly yet. Fifty Shades of Grey, with its simple language and mainstream popularity gives women permission to discuss such things among their friends.
“It’s allowing them to say ‘yes, I read it and I took pleasure in reading and, yes, I’m open to more experiences than the norm dictates,’” clinical psychologist Rana Jaroudi says.
Mira Abboud, 45, says a similar phenomenon happened when Sex and the City hit its height of popularity just over a decade ago.
“It would open up the conversation,” she says. “At first friends didn’t want to talk about sex, but then it would be like ‘did you see what happened on that episode’ and it would break the ice.”
Not only does the book provide women with an opportunity to explore their own pleasure, it also introduces an experience of sex outside what many consider to be the norm.
“It doesn’t deal with vanilla sex,” says Jaroudi. “It goes further. And these things are not really talked about in Lebanon. You don’t get this with girls here, it’s still kind of a bit shy to discuss that. But with this book ... [you find that] everybody is coming out and saying they enjoyed the book.”
Jessica Karam, a 21-year-old management student who bought 50 Shades as an e-book, says that while she wasn’t shocked by any of the content, it also wasn’t a topic she would have previously brought up with her friends.
“It’s not something foreign to me, I didn’t discover anything new,” she says. “[But] after I read the book, it became something normal. It became something to discuss.”
Reading about fantasies can open up an important facet of sexual experience, Atallah says. “You can find out your own fantasies, and become more aware,” she says. “Women here do not even allow themselves to fantasize. They are ashamed of themselves, or they do not even know their fantasies.”
How far this translates to real life experience, though, is another question.
“They can use books to discover the power of their minds, but it won’t allow women to know how to use their body,” Atallah says. “You need more than this.”
The book, while being explicit, also uses pretty mild terms for what it’s discussing, which Jaroudi says makes it more accessible for women.
“The book gives context, it’s not scary. Women feel comfortable saying they like it, because it’s relatively mild,” she says. “They’re new boundaries, but they’re safe boundaries.”