The Rise of the Sex Book (reprinted with permission from The Aspire Magazine)

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June 10, 2013 by aoifebrennan

by Amanda Hudson The Aspire Magazine May 2013

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There were many famous sex books before 50Shades but none that seemed to capture the imagination or audience quite so completely or indeed quite so quickly. In the space of a single year, even the name 50Shades is as powerful a term as something like the Kamasutra and that was written in circa 400BC. Experts point to technology as the great enabler both in terms of making sex books available and in spreading the word. Certainly, producers of sex in all its forms have benefited greatly from the pervasive internet, and along with gambling and real estate, have tended to hog the three top interests on the internet.  


50Shades has been given a mixed critical reaction. Originating as Twilight fan fiction, the author changed the story when the sexual content became too graphic for the teenage genre, but the writing still reflects the feverish flow of young adult copy. The sexual scenes featured BDSM have also created some controversy, firstly prompting talk of if it promoting violence against women, and then conversely of it not accurately reflected the lifestyle of the BDSM community. Sales of rope were said to have gone through the roof in New York as a result. It was also said to be the book most likely to be left in a hotel room. Regardless of the criticism, a whopping 65million copies were sold worldwide, making EL James the fastest selling author of all time, even beating JK Rowling into second place. I don’t think the early Kamasutra parchment editions went out the door quite so fast.


One reason for the rapid uptake of the book was also the instrument on which it was delivered – the ereader. The term ‘Mummy porn’ was coined to describe the vast hoards of middle-aged women who used their ereaders to buy erotica. It makes sense as mothers tend not to view porn or erotica on the home PC or even on their smartphones for fear their children may see it, work is a definite no-no, and walking into a sex shop takes some nerve. Instead, women could download the very respectable-looking book and read it without anyone being the wiser. Of course, the reading demographic for 50Shades extends to young college students as well as to OAPs, but it was a nice way to categorise the readership. The use of ereaders also led to a humorous guessing game when the 50shades hysteria was at its peak – people were encouraged to watch women on public transport reading ebooks. Were they pulling funny faces? Were they reading erotica? It was coined the 50Shades face and was a public version of a woman’s orgasm expression.


However, while it can be argued the ereaders allowed early adoption, it soon became apparent that people were content to be seen with the actual book in open view. The distinctive grey cover could be spotted everywhere: on public transport, by the side of swimming pools, and of course prominently displayed in book shops.  Erotica had passed firmed from the secret to mainstream and was here to stay.


Previously, sex books had tended to be either very exclusive or very elite and sometimes both. My Secret Life, written in the late 1800s by an anonymous well-to-do Victorian gentleman in London, is one milestone of the genre. The eleven volumes consisted of more than 1million words, making it one of the lengthiest books of any memoir, and documented the author’s obsession with sex from an early age. Privately published, he only printed six copies and sold them for an extortion amount to private collectors. The book has been reprinted and banned since, with this year UK film composer Dominic Crawford Collins converting the forbidden book into a fully scored audio version of the entire work. This is a labour of love as he releases chapters bimonthly and expects the project to take the guts of ten years.

Another exclusive book along this theme was Sex by Madonna, but this was a photographic coffee table book bound in aluminium. Again a limited print run (500,000 sold in the first week) now makes it one of the most sought after out-of-print books of modern times. The inclusion of celebrities such as Naomi Campbell, Vanilla Ice and Big Daddy Kane guaranteed it would hit the headlines but it received very mixed reviews. Madonna launched an album Erotica at the same time but this was less successful. An initial backlash against the book meant it took until 2003 before Madonna was quoted as saying she did not regret it. Sex comes with a warning it would appear.


Of course 50shades purports to be more than just a sex book. Its author says it is a romance first and foremost. Whatever your feelings about the book and its writing, this is indeed the case. Unlike other forms of erotica where plot is firmly subordinate to sex, 50Shades does have at its core a love story. This is very much a romantic novel, in the same vein as Barbara Cartland, only this version comes with some pretty steamy sex. The existence of a plot may be the reason the books have been accepted by a mainstream audience. After all, there are many BDSM themed erotica books available that have not made the transition. Another point often overlooked in the general rush to write similar books is that not all erotica is based on BDSM experiences. Editors and authors have taken up this theme, along with the left over rope in New York, and it would appear sex without kinks is not sex at all. Perhaps they should revisit Nancy Friday’s Secret Garden to experience a true variety of titillating material.


It is also interesting that the bestselling copycat books tend to be parodies and the jokes surrounding the original. One very funny take on the 50Shades phenomenon was the Amazon Mother’s Day television advertisement which said that all mothers wanted for their special day was to be left alone to read, and er enjoy, the book. The filmed advert had very funny scenes of fathers and children arriving with surprise breakfast trays or gifts as the poor mother was engaged in a very personal act of pleasure. Not such a happy surprise after all!


Another humorous development happened in Ireland on the Twitter machine. One bright spark, tweeter Paul Duggan, decided to invent a hashtag called #IrishShadesofGrey and the resulting tsunami of humorous tweets were collected into a book of the same name. Gems such as “Mary held her breath as he slowly inched in her back door … Father Molloy wasn’t the same since his hip replacement” found their home with 499 similar tweets featuring innuendos and typical Irish wit in this charity book.

Still in Ireland, another author has taken EL James’s route to selling sex by linking it to a strong plot. Aoife Brennan’s debut novel, The Cougar Diaries, Part I, concentrates on the life of a woman in her forties in the apocalyptic landscape of Ireland post Celtic Tiger. The newly separated woman battles the legal system, raising her two teenage boys and minding her aging parents – while discovering herself and sex again. One reviewer suggested it made 50shades positively monochrome and another felt her life has been stolen by the eponymous heroine – the hottest woman to come out of Ireland since Molly Malone – but all point to a certain truth. Sex may sell but without plot no one wants to read it – or at least to admit to reading it.


Batteries not included.




#IrishShadesofGrey is published by New Island books,



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