The eroticised depiction of condom use can increase safe sex in real life, says Joanne Leslie
Love it or hate it, there is no escaping the fact that 50 Shades of Grey is a publishing phenomenon. E. L. James’ debut novel has sold over five million copies in the UK alone and it has topped the best-seller chart for the past 17 weeks. It has become the first novel to sell more than one million copies by Kindle and it is the fastest-selling paperback of all time. It is estimated that 17% of women in Britain have read it and, while it is largely dubbed “mommy porn”, there is increasing evidence that its fan base has grown to include both teenagers and men.
The effects of the novel on society are being collated. There has been a general rise in sales of erotic fiction, the retail market in bondage gear is booming and a film production is in the pipeline. Indeed, there have been reports that the book is credited with enhancing readers’ sex lives and this has led experts to predict a baby boom.
Critical reception of the novel has been mixed and has focused largely on the quality of prose, or lack thereof. The relationship between the two main characters has also been the subject of scrutiny. There is much debate as to whether or not its depictions of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM) represent an invalidation of feminism and encourage violence towards women.
‘The value of having strong role models using condoms and contraception cannot be underestimated’
While the relationship depicted may be termed unconventional, it does not necessarily romanticise or condone patterns of abuse. The book emphasises the emotional connection and mutual regard the characters have for each other and is essentially about a consensual relationship. Yes, Christian Grey is described as having had a troubled upbringing and would most definitely benefit from some psychosexual counselling but, as a sexual health nurse, I cannot help but applaud him for his consistent use of condoms and his faultless instructions to Anastasia as to how to use them. The contract that Christian proposes to Anastasia highlights the consensual nature of the agreement, emphasises mutual respect and addresses the issues of sexually transmitted infections, contraception and mutual exclusivity.
It is encouraging to have a male protagonist that is knowledgeable about contraception and willing to take on part of the associated responsibility, albeit in a somewhat controlling manner in this case. However, he is instrumental in ensuring Anastasia starts the pill and, further on in the trilogy, assists in guiding her towards long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) when it becomes apparent that she is not the most reliable pill-taker.
I feel that the value of having strong role models using condoms and contraception cannot be underestimated. Young women attending sexual health services frequently cite lack of condom negotiation skills as reasons for unnecessary risk-taking and there is growing concern that young males’ sexual behaviour is increasingly being influenced by readily accessible porn, which often depicts unprotected sex, so-called “barebacking”, and then becomes something to aspire to.
50 Shades of Grey manages to bring condoms into mainstream erotica and actually makes them an integral part of the erotic scenarios. Research suggests that good erotica can be educational and that eroticised depiction of condom use can actually raise the likelihood that someone will practise safe sex in real life. And is this not what we have been trying to promote all along?
Joanne Leslie is sexual health nurse, Ninewells Hospital, Dundee