On the one hand, we have women all over the Western world lining up to enjoy the story of a powerful man and his sex slave, whom he treats with savage abandon. References to rough sex are everywhere: the world is aflame with what are usually considered the seediest of practices.
On the other hand, at precisely the same moment that Fifty Shades Of Grey is storming the box office, there’s another story in the news — about a powerful man said to have used not one but several disempowered women as his paid sex slaves. In this case, the world is outraged.
The coincidence between the release of the film of E.L. James’s S&M blockbuster Fifty Shades Of Grey last week and the court case involving the sex ring allegedly co-ordinated by former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn makes a curious and disturbing conjunction.
Why, in one case, should violent sex have become such a collective female fantasy, while in the other, it should be a cause of international condemnation?
Even though Strauss-Kahn’s trial may end soon — his lawyers have asked for an acquittal after four prostitutes dropped their civil actions against him — the details to emerge from the hearing have nevertheless been stomach-churning.
From 2007, DSK was one of the world’s most influential decision-makers. His career ended abruptly in May 2011 when he was taken into custody, following accusations of sexual assault by a New York hotel maid. These claims were eventually dropped.
However, what we learned last week is that this key global figure viewed women as nothing more than objects, and despised objects at that.
Lawyers for the 65-year-old concede that he took part in sex parties between 2008 and 2011, but argue that he did so without knowing that the women were professionals (in France, it is against the law to solicit or run a prostitution operation). They also deny that he organised the parties
Regardless, the manner in which he treated these women was brutish. He is accused not only of being a pimp, but a violent pimp who routinely and barbarically abused the women in his employ.
In one chilling account, a witness told the court that she was ‘forced into’ certain sex acts against her will, while Strauss-Kahn gazed on ‘smiling’.
He is accused of having engaged in anal rape. Meanwhile, his orgies were described in terms of the most extreme violence as both ‘a massacre’ and ‘slaughterhouse’ with a ‘mishmash’ of writhing bodies.
Despite holding the fate of the world in his hands during the financial crisis, he evidently viewed half its population in terms only of their sexual function.
‘I dare you to distinguish between a prostitute and a naked socialite,’ he taunted the court. Swaggering and self-assured, he was robustly unrepentant. ‘I was one of the world’s most powerful men,’ he bragged. ‘Many people wanted to please me. Women have offered themselves to me ten times. It is nothing unusual to me.’
He styled himself not as a rapacious monster, but a ‘libertine who likes to party’, noting merely: ‘I have a rougher sexuality than the average man.’
Few would not recoil from his words. But as one man asked me this week: ‘If this is what sadism looks like in the sagging flesh, then what the hell are so many women doing fantasising about being tied up and beaten?’ ‘And why,’ he demanded, ‘is this happening at a time when they have never been more empowered?’
It is easy to understand the disbelief. There may still be a massive amount of work to be done in preventing women being subjected to discrimination and harassment. Nevertheless, most of us consider ourselves if not as strong as men, then considerably stronger. Historically, we can be more sure of ourselves than ever before.
Girls beat boys hands down at school. A review of 308 studies involving 1.1 million children and published by the University of New Brunswick in 2013 found that boys have performed worse than girls at every single subject over the past 100 years across the globe. Meanwhile, male students are outnumbered by females at most British universities, despite the fact there are actually more young men than women in the UK.
In adult life, women become Herculean multi-taskers, juggling workplace and family demands in a way than makes the majority of men look like amateurs. We are exhorted to aim for nothing less than a seat at the boardroom table by campaigners such as Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg. The IMF itself is now headed by the formidable Christine Lagarde.
For today’s superwomen, submitting to Fifty Shades-type behaviour might seem utterly incongruous — but the appeal is clearly strong. A friend’s nine-year-old daughter mused over spaghetti hoops: ‘Lucy’s mother is having a handcuff party to celebrate this new film.’ Cue parental jaws dropping about the kitchen table.
Apparently, the hostess in question (sassy, assertive in her job) views this as being innocuous: a celebration of herself, her friends, and a manifestation of what used to be referred to as ‘girl power’.
And that’s the strange logic at the heart of this sexual conundrum: now that women find themselves increasingly empowered, many seem to be finding more enjoyment from being playfully disempowered in the bedroom.
And though this is a long way from the brutality of Christian Grey and the allegations facing Dominique Strauss-Kahn, if there is one area of life in which women can take a break from being in control in a loving relationship, while men try their hand at reclaiming it, it may just be here.
As one senior female executive of my acquaintance tells me: ‘Obviously, it goes without saying that none of us wants real violence in our lives.
‘However, I am in charge in every aspect of my existence: my work, my family, my relationship. Just occasionally, I want to surrender this control and enjoy not being the decision maker.
‘I feel like an idiot admitting it, but exploring these fantasies makes me feel feminine. This is one area in which I don’t always have to be calling the shots.’
The same — in reverse — may apply for what we now refer to as ‘new men’.
A lawyer friend, who boasts a predilection for bondage, insists: ‘My husband needs this vent, too. In his public life, he is the ultimate new man: kind, caring, a good father and colleague. He’s so good, it becomes exhausting. The bedroom is a safe space in which he can try on traditionally masculine roles without compromising his personality.’
Even women who maintain more traditional roles insist they, too, require escapism. A full-time mother-of-three told me: ‘I may not be ball-breaking in the boardroom, but I still need some sort of release, not least on days when I feel more of a feeding machine than a female.
‘I think of this sort of sex as a healthier take on “wine o’clock” — that moment when everything else can be shut out. I can stop running a one-woman show and switch off.’
In other words, it is not so much rough sex as an opportunity for imaginative escapism that these women truly want.
Besides, Christian Grey is a sadist recreated in Mills & Boon form. He may treat women as objects, but the right woman will be an object hotly and tenderly adored. He will dominate only her, a faithful tormentor. A ‘safe’ sadist women can control.
The answer, then, to the paradox as to why so many modern women appear to be seeking to cede power in the bedroom is that they are still in control; crucially, they have given their consent.
Where the problems, as evidenced all too horrifically in the DSK trial, emerge is when consent is not granted. It is then that the grisly reality of what can happen when such fantasies veer out of control is brutally exposed.
This story was written by Hannah Betts.
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