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Mommy porn? I don't buy that...

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A famous '70s advertisement for hairspray features a man watching admiringly as a woman with swinging hair and an enigmatic smile walks past. It bore the tag line: "Is she or isn't she?"

If the hype is to be believed, we may soon be wondering the same about the enigmatically smiling female readers of Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic novel by EL James that is, apparently, resurrecting dormant sexual desires in American women.

Grey has topped the New York Times bestseller list and the planned trilogy has garnered the author a seven-figure publishing contract. The film rights went for a reputed $5m last week.

The novel, which was reviewed in the Irish Independent last Saturday by Edward Helmsmore, follows the sexually charged relationship between a student, Anastasia Steele, and a "dashing but damaged" young entrepreneur, Christian Grey and centres on their BDSM (bondage domination, submission and masochism) activities.

It is bracingly euphemism-free -- few "tidal waves" or "manhoods" here. Chat rooms are alive with discussions about what is being described as "mommy porn" or "the pornography that it is acceptable to be seen reading".

The feminist website Jezebel notes that its 16,000 reader reviews on Goodreads are split between those who see it as "a flawless rendering of the internal struggles of a novice submissive in a BDSM relationship" and those who dismiss it as "poorly written" and "ridiculous".

It is certainly unintentionally funny. Will I ever read a less erotic sentence than: "My medulla oblongata has neglected to fire any synapses to make me breathe"?

The prospect of harnessing, and igniting, female sexual desire has long prompted feverish responses -- and many disappointed business ventures (Playgirl or The Erotic Review anyone? Female Viagra?).

But as the growth of the e-reader allows women to read porn in secret, the idea of a nation of women secretly being turned on to some light bondage is more fun than discussions about quantitative easing.

The truth is, however, that Grey is far from radical. So when publishing executives state that this is "the future of female erotica", this particular female replies, oh really?

Women have always enjoyed material far more challenging than this. Ask any woman, and she'll be able to reel off the genesis of her erotic awakenings. From a school encounter with Cider with Rosie, interspersed with some recreational reading of Jilly Cooper's early oeuvre, we graduated, in the 1980s, as Jilly did, to the rather sweatier Riders and Rivals, to Rupert Campbell-Black of the sneering lip and horseman's thighs.

They are far more imaginative than anything to be found in EL James's canon. Nor is the bondage element that shocking. In the introduction to her compilation The Dirty Bits -- For Girls, India Knight writes: "We have to accept that powerful women may, in their fantasy life, like the idea of relinquishing control."

Perhaps it is unfair to criticise Grey so. There is a reason we have bad sex awards; sex is hard to write.

As with the best commercial fiction, Grey does zip along. But for all its supposed subversiveness, it's curiously vanilla. The plot is no more than a variation of Pretty Woman, or perhaps a Nine and a Half Weeks (Lite).

I'm unconvinced that film executives will make their money back on Grey. Televisual erotica for women has rarely worked at the cinema.

Real "mommy porn" is the partner who comes home from work, vacuums, puts the children to bed and says: "Here, darling, put your feet up and I'll pour you a glass." It might not be a publishing phenomenon, but, believe me, gentlemen, it will up your chances every time.

Irish Independent