It’s a publishing phenomenon. It’s erotic fiction. Or is it porn? It’s the tired old distinction. The double standard. If women like it, it’s erotica. If men like it, it’s porn.

Whilst critics like Gail Dines and Melinda Tankard Reist are the most recent to make a lot of noise about the popularity of porn, or rather, male-oriented porn, they remained silent about a similar boom in female-oriented porn. Oops, I mean erotic fiction.

Doesn’t female-oriented erotic fiction deal in the same atrocious sexist stereotypes as male-oriented porn? I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and honestly, I am unlikely to. Not because of the subject matter but because of the poor writing. Just as male-oriented porn is often cheap and nasty, female-oriented porn… Sorry, erotic fiction, is often similarly cheap and nasty.

So why the double standard? Is it really as simple as the alleged fact that men prefer visual stimulation, which then leads to the visual depiction of real women engaging in graphic sexual acts, whereas fiction is just that, fiction and does not involve real people?

This argument breaks down at a number of levels. There can be no doubt that some male-oriented porn involves debasing real women, even if most of it is acting. But the criticism of male-oriented porn extends to any graphic depiction, including painting and drawing, which does not involve real women. Similarly, some female-oriented erotica includes visual material, including getting male actors to perform as a cliche romantic stereotype.

Now, seriously, how many men actually look like this? It takes a great deal of very specific exercise to create a body like this, and the lack of body fat indicates that this male model is on a strict diet (protein shakes, chicken breast and broccoli anyone?).

And let’s not kid ourselves that such gender stereotypes do not have as long a history as female gender stereotypes. For every Hollywood female sex symbol there was a male sex symbol. For example Errol Flynn, who was a ‘heart throb’ –  a good part of his appeal was his bad boy reputation and the rumours of his large penis (whether true or not).

In an article in today’s Fairfax press, Mummy porn and the woeful art of blockbuster female eroticism jounalist Wendy Squires quotes the Director of Sexual Health Australia, Desiree Spierings.

So many women still feel ashamed or uncomfortable watching porn, and maybe even feel guilty of their body responding to it in a positive way. We cannot ignore the fact that for years women have been told that they shouldn’t watch porn, that it is inappropriate, that porn exploits, sexually objectifies and degrades women. I believe this is changing rapidly because society is starting to get a more open view about female sexuality and females’ right to express and feel good about it.

I should make it clear at this point that I don’t have a problem with erotic fiction. I couldn’t possibly, given that both Navaratri and Wild Child are clearly about sexuality, female sexuality in particular. I’m writing this because I want to see some honesty about the appeal of the erotic.

You see, its not just women that have been pressured to deny their attraction to the erotic, but men as well. The driver of course, has been the Judeo-Christian tradition which condemns any form of sexual arousal outside of ‘holy matrimony’. This was always an impossible task and the erotic impulse even managed to invade religious art.

The Dead Christ Supported by an Angel, Daniele Crespi, 17th Century

However, what I find far more problematic is simple bourgeois hypocrisy. At least the Church is clear in its objection. In contrast the bourgeois play the double game of appearing to be outwardly decent whilst privately engaging in indecency. Apparently Fifty Shades of Grey is very popular amongst women over the age of 40, the age group who are the least likely to admit to liking the book.

I think we need to ask the question, what is the purpose of this denial, of this secrecy? Whom does it serve?

I would argue that this is all about controlling women’s sexuality and there has been a good deal of astute feminist criticism pointing to just this fact. Yet at the same time there is a branch of feminism that also seeks to control women’s sexuality, to constrain it within a very narrow ideological frame work. As it turns out, the various liberation movements of the post 68 period freed a number of minorities, including sexually independent women. This seems not to have been what some authoritarian feminists had envisaged. According to them women’s sexuality was to be an instrument of the revolution. But Eros is anarchic. It goes where it will.

I have written a great deal about the moral panic over sexualisation. At its heart it is really a bourgeois reaction to the anarchic force of the erotic. An attempt to constrain the wildness of the free female erotic impulse by raising fears about its affect on children, girls in particular – which must necessarily constrain the natural wildness and sexuality of girls.

It is often argued that it is men that are afraid of women’s free sexuality. True, but only partly so, because it is other women who are the most afraid. So they conspire to constrain women and girls, to use shame and humiliation to apply social pressure to conform to ‘their’ notion of the ‘good bourgeois’ or ‘good feminist’ girl.

Meanwhile Fifty Shades of Grey becomes a publishing phenomenon. A book about male dominance and female submission, about S&M and sexual fetishes, and about the archetypal male freeing a younger woman’s true sexual nature –  porn written by a woman for women. And guess what? The movie rights have been sold for a solid $US5 million and the sequels have already been written…

Oh, and who is being touted (by some) as the ideal actor to play female protagonist Anastasia Steele? Why, non other than former child actor Dakota Fanning, one of the favourite targets of the anti-sexualisation brigade (here). What an irony.

I wonder what the wowser feminists will think of this?