It is mainly consumerism, rather than the hippie movement that massively contributed to the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. In fact, the “sex sells” truism has been attributed to Hugh Heffner, who anecdotally coined it in defense of his, at the time (1953), controversial magazine Playboy. And while sexual innuendo has been used to sell anything from cars to chocolate, actual sex was confined to sketchy alleys, blacked out windows and red light districts.
Even 2011’s Fifty Shades of Grey attributed its success to the rise of e-book readers that don’t reveal the book cover during a commute. But soon enough, the book’s physical edition not only became prominently displayed on said trains and buses, it even appeared on supermarket shelves next to the lunchtime 3 for 1 specials.
“What EL James has done is clearly taken erotic fiction to the mainstream. It’s not that women weren’t reading it, it’s just that it wasn’t available in Tesco and Sainsbury’s. So more power to her,” says Gillian Green at Ebury Publishing for The Guardian. “It’s like we’ve got permission to enjoy it – she’s the acceptable face of saucy fiction.”
Critics, however, remain puzzled by the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, since erotica has been done before and far more juicily, take for instance Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden (1973). So EL James’s success is typically attributed to the recession, when publishers would predictably turn to sex as a last resort to sell.
However, there may be far more to it and erotic fiction could be just a part of the entire sex category going mainstream. For example, a new company called Smile Makers have already taken steps towards disrupting the category through innovative design. Their intention is to take the world of sex toys into the health & beauty aisles with other consumer products; while their line of vibrators follows precisely the erotic fiction icons of male sexiness such as “The Millionaire” and “The Tennis Coach”.
One may argue that multinational chain Ann Summers has already succeeded in making sex mainstream, through its focus on women and its home parties. But we have yet to see sexual fantasy sold in pharmacies and the health & beauty sections of the “Big Five” supermarkets.
Finally, this would potentially also affect the sexual innuendo employed in other industries. Sex will still sell, except not through indulgence and ‘being naughty’ but through wholesomeness and ‘good for you’.