Raunchy bestsellers are making it a tricky time for the male of the species, writes Max Davidson.
SOMEWHERE in Britain there is a very lucky man. The unnamed individual is, according to reports at the weekend, being divorced by his wife, a high-flying city banker, on the grounds, inter alia, that he is "boring" in bed and refuses to take part in the kind of bedroom antics popularised by the raunchy blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey.
Well done, that man! He is not only escaping what sounds like a miserable marriage ("Thank you for whipping me, darling, but you forgot the handcuffs"), but in doing so - he's admitting "unreasonable behaviour" for a quick divorce - he is striking a blow for his sex. Like Bradley Wiggins, like Mo Farah, he can go into any pub in the country and know that every man there would be happy to buy him a drink if only they knew his story.
Up to now, Fifty Shades has been no more than a bad literary joke, a triumph of marketing over substance. Millions have bought E.L. James' execrable novel about a sadomasochistic affair between a billionaire entrepreneur and a naive literature student, and millions have wished they had kept their money in their pocket.
But now that the book is being deployed as a weapon in the marital bedroom, with wives using James' saturnine billionaire as a benchmark against which to measure their husbands, the joking has to stop. This is war, with men in the firing line and common sense the first casualty.
Feminists are rightly quick to censure the kind of male-inspired pornography which pressures women into behaving like Swedish nymphomaniacs with pneumatic breasts. But isn't E.L. James guilty of much the same, peddling unattainable sexual fantasies, setting wife against husband, introducing the worm of dissatisfaction into solid, if unspectacular, relationships?
And it gets worse. You would assume that men of retirement age would not be feeling under the same pressure to perform in the bedroom as men who still have their own teeth and hair, but you would be wrong, judging by the latest women's "romantic" novel to shoot up the bestseller lists, confounding the pundits.
Thursdays in the Park by Hilary Boyd features a sexually frustrated pensioner (married to a man who has given up on sex) who meets the man of her dreams while looking after her grandchildren in the park.
If Fifty Shades of Grey is "mummy porn" in marketing jargon, Thursdays in the Park is "gran-lit", a steamy tale of sex and sixtysomethings - the Kama Sutra meets Antiques Roadshow.
The novel sank without trace when it was published last year, but is now topping the charts in its ebook edition and outselling E. L. James. It is certainly an intriguing storyline and you can see why it has caught on with the public, even in our youth-obsessed times. With Charles Dance said to be in negotiations for a film version, Thursdays in the Park could spark the same kind of buying frenzy as Fifty Shades. You don't even have to go into a bookshop to purchase it: you can get your jollies by downloading the book in the privacy of your own home - perfect for retiring spinsters with vivid imaginations.
"Old people falling in love and having passionate relationships is not a story that's had much exposure before, but I'm in no doubt that the market's out there," says Boyd, a 62-year-old grandmother, adding: "All I can say is that sex in the park beats sex in the basement."
Who would argue with that? And in finding the sex lives of mature people far more interesting than those of teenagers, she is following a tradition as old as Antony and Cleopatra.
It is good, other things being equal, that women writers are producing novels of sexual exploration which challenge and subvert the works of their male counterparts. And it is good that older people are being presented in a positive, outgoing light, not portrayed as sexually extinct.
Jane Juska's bestselling 2003 memoir, A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late Life Adventures in Sex and Romance, tapped into the same market. Its bittersweet account of a 66-year-old woman, seeking no-strings sex via an ad in the New York Review of Books, struck a chord with mothers and grandmothers who, after years of making sacrifices for their families, dreamt of putting the sex into sexagenarian.
But it is one thing to celebrate grey sex, another to encourage delusional attitudes, as Fifty Shades of Grey does. When the dividing line between daily life and escapist fiction becomes blurred, when women expect their partners to satisfy their most intimate needs as if it was as easy as unlocking handcuffs, we are all the losers. Shouldn't a book with a title like Fifty Shades of Grey alert readers to the fact that life is nuanced, and not perfect?
But, one way and another, it is going to be an uncomfortable time to be a male of the species. We don't mind trying our hands at this multi-tasking malarkey, but do we have to become proficient with handcuffs and find out how to give sexual satisfaction to women born when George VI was on the throne? Time to reach for the remote, I think.