Fifty Shades of Grey: Are children able to buy it?

Woman reading Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James

Fifty Shades of Grey's success highlights the lack of age restriction on selling erotic fiction. Why are books freely available to children when other media are highly policed?

Teenagers sneaking into 18-certificate movies featuring sex or violence - by pretending to be older than they are - has long been a rite of passage. Their efforts are attempts to avoid a long-established regulatory framework.

But for the same teenager to go into their local bookshop and buy Anais Nin's short stories, Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho or Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita - all of which involve either explicit sex or violence - is perfectly legal.

The huge commercial success of Fifty Shades of Grey has brought erotic fiction into shops and supermarkets like never before. Last weekend eight of the top 10 on the Sunday Times bestseller list were erotic fiction.

Unlike television - with its nine o'clock watershed - and the age classification of films and video games, and even the labelling of explicit lyrics on music, there is no age restriction on buying books in the UK.

Find out more

Radio 4's You and Yours discussed young people and modern media this week.

And yet there is apparently little in the way of moral panic about children getting hold of Fifty Shades, a paean to sadomasochism. Children's author GP Taylor has been something of a lone voice, arguing that EL James's novel would leave children "with a view of sex which is warped".

A trip to Daunt's, the venerable bookshop in London's Marylebone, offers a good example of the apparent double standard afforded to literature.

Fifty Shades boom and backlash

Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by EL James
  • Trilogy details sadomasochistic relationship between businessman and student
  • First instalment Fifty Shades of Grey has sold more than 5.3 million print and e-book copies in UK - the best-selling book in British history
  • Clare Phillipson of Wearside Women in Need, a charity for abuse victims, condemned trilogy as "vile" and plans to burn copies in November

On a shelf behind the counter, nestling next to the latest John Banville novel, is the cellophane-wrapped Shades trilogy.

It's not on the top shelf. Nor is there any sticker warning of "adult content". So does the bookshop have a policy on selling Fifty Shades to children?

Ben Paynter, the bespectacled well-spoken bookseller on duty, says they would be "mad" not to promote Fifty Shades in this way - it's probably their top seller. But he would have qualms about children getting their hands on it.

"I haven't seen any children buying it. I've sold it to girls in their mid teens, probably about 15 or 16. With children up to the age of 13 you have more of a responsibility. And their parents might come back at you." In short, he would sell the book to teenagers but not younger children.

Waterstones has issued guidance to staff on its intranet. "In the event a child tried to buy it, our booksellers would refuse to sell it," a spokesman says. But the age at which it becomes acceptable is not spelled out and readers are unlikely to be asked for ID.

Psychologist's view

"Broadcasting explicit depictions of sex leaves little to the imagination. Such portrayals are 'in your face' and once a child has been exposed to them, the experience cannot be taken back," says Barrie Gunter, professor of mass communication at the University of Leicester.

"Books are different. Texts require us as readers to conjure up our own images of the events and people described. This means we are protected by our imaginations. Children's imaginations - because of their limited life experiences - accord them even more protection.

"With books that are about sex, there may be concerns about the embarrassment factor. They might prompt kids to ask mum and dad awkward questions about sex. But there is much less reason to be concerned about the harm factor because the younger the child the less they are likely to relate to adult themes."

In contrast, the Foyles chain has no age policy on the sale of its books, a spokesman says. Tesco, which stocks bestsellers, refuses to comment on Fifty Shades of Grey.

Books are subject to UK laws, such as the Obscene Publications Acts and the Protection of Children Act 1978. And there are laws governing incitement to hatred on racial, religious and sexual orientation grounds.

In 1960 Penguin was prosecuted under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act for publishing the unexpurgated version of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. The publisher won in what was a landmark ruling for freedom of expression.

But today it is hard to imagine a book's publication being fought over in the Old Bailey. It's not just the law. Culturally, books are seen as benign in contrast to more invasive media like film, video games and the internet.

"There's a difference to being presented with sexually explicit images and imagining what you're reading," says the children's literary critic Amanda Craig. "So in that sense it's more of an elite pursuit."

The anomaly has been highlighted by the success of Fifty Shades but goes wider. Booksellers may have an age policy on this individual bestseller but it is still possible for a curious child to walk into a bookshop and leave with a stack of violent or sex-heavy novels, with no questions asked.

Start Quote

Perhaps these books should be labelled with 'not as racy as it sounds'”

End Quote Former children's laureate Michael Rosen

Sven Hassel's war novels, Last Exit to Brooklyn, A Clockwork Orange, anything by James Herbert, Nancy Friday's The Secret Garden, Platform by Michel Houellebecq, Trainspotting, and The Story of O would raise eyebrows among many parents.

Adult books are not badged to warn children or their parents.

It is irrational, says Sam Leith, Evening Standard columnist and former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph. "There is a sort of implicit class assumption that you censor the mass media like films, that the weak-minded lower orders might have their minds twisted."

Children stumbling across "dirty books" on a dusty bookcase, because of the more middle class association, is seen as okay.

"I don't think you should censor books but there is this strange anomaly - it's common sense that films can deprave and corrupt, and that books can't."

Like a lot of "commonsense" ideas, it's totally wrong, Leith argues.

Books which have caused a stir

Photographer George Freston reading Lady Chatterley's Lover
  • Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence (1928) - Obscene Publications Act used in 1960 against Penguin Books for publishing unexpurgated version. Penguin not guilty, ban lifted.
  • Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934) - Publication in 1961 in United States led to obscenity trials, but US Supreme Court declared the book not obscene in 1964.
  • Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr (1964) - subject of successful private prosecution for obscenity in Britain in 1967, brought by Tory MP Sir Cyril Black. Ruling overturned a year later.

When the novel began in the 18th Century, there was a moral panic that women's imaginations would be "enflamed", says former children's laureate Michael Rosen.

But more recently a view has taken hold that words are good and pictures bad. In the 1940s and 50s the equivalent panic was over Marvel comics endangering British youth with their violent pictures. And yet literature has been given a fairly easy ride.

"I suspect it's because people think words are quite difficult. And that children who read a book are somehow incorruptible," Rosen says.

In one sense defenders of books are right, Rosen acknowledges. Children who pick up a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover or even Fifty Shades of Grey will have to turn a lot of pages concerned with suggestion and reflection before they get to the action. "It's all in the fluttering. Perhaps these books should be labelled with 'not as racy as it sounds'."

Craig, who has teenage children, says any book seems pretty gentle these days compared with what's available elsewhere. She wouldn't leave Fifty Shades of Grey around the house. "I have read that pile of tosh. There are not many rude words. What's alarming is the conflation of sex and violence."

And yet it is nothing in impact compared to what every teenager can get on the their mobile phone, she argues.

"When you know anything about online porn, you know it's something you cannot control. It's quite astonishing what gets passed around on an iPhone. That is so much more immediate and so much more worrying."

Additional reporting by Simon Browning

A selection of your comments is published below.

The book contains descriptions of sex, masturbation, rape and infidelity. It and all similar books should be banned, eg. the Bible.

Bob, London

I have a teenage daughter and, while she does read a fair amount (unlike, apparently, most of her peers), I would actually be very happy if she would pick up a novel like Fifty Shades of Grey. The danger today is that younger people - actually, all people - will entirely give up reading for pleasure. I personally got a great deal of correct and complete information about sex at a relatively early age by reading and that is something that is painfully absent from our world.

Anon, New York, US

I regularly read my parents' books from the age of around seven. If any sex did crop up, I tended to skip over it quickly as it didn't interest me at all - seven year-olds tend to find adult relationships incredibly boring. In my teens, if I read a book which made me uncomfortable I'd leave it. I think kids have a good ability to self-regulate what they're ready for.

Laura, London

I've only just turned 16 myself but I've spent my entire childhood reading books that were not conventionally targeted at my age groups. Since I was 12 I was reading Kathy Reichs and Dan Brown. I am very much a pro-choice person. I believe children should not be denied the right to read a book because if you start putting restrictions on age related books you put people off reading. Who knows, a 13-year-old may actually get into reading after Fifty Shades of Grey.

Natasha Glendening, Sherborne

The language in this book is not one for children. Luckily in my local Sainsbury's they have an age 18 policy for the 50 Shades of Grey books.

Toni, Hertfordshire

I remember reading James Herbert avidly aged 12 and finding the lurid horror of his early novels a welcome change to the children's books on the school reading list!

Steve Tanner, Birmingham

The book certainly seems as though it was written by a child, so why shouldn't children read it?

Jilly, Ontario, Canada

As a naive 11-year-old nearly 50 years ago I took the James Bond books out of the library. My parents were asked by the librarian if they were aware that I was reading the Bond books. They told him they were, believing correctly that the 'sexy' stuff went right over my head as I was reading it for the guns and spy stuff. I would not be happy with my children doing the same with Fifty Shades of Grey as I understand that the sex is the story, rather than an embellishement as Ian Fleming made it. I hope that librarians now would do the same as that librarian then.

Wolfgang, Oxford

If it gets children reading, why not? I read American Psycho, a Clockwork Orange, the Joy of Sex and any number of sword and sorcery, real-life crime and violent thrillers before I was 12, in some cases just to see what all the fuss was about. I'm more concerned that children grow up to recognise the difference between good writing like the Story of O, and awful writing like Fifty Shades than whether it will corrupt them or not. I have a long-term partner, a good job and no criminal convictions so far, so it can't be all bad.

HSA, Aberdeen

I've thought for many years that books should have an age restriction on them, just like films have. The assistant in the shop can then cross check age with that shown on the book before selling it. My daughter is 14 and absolutely loves reading, she can easily read a novel in a day, but I am never sure if what she is reading might contain something explicit until it's too late and she has read it. She knows not to read the Fifty Shades books but only because they are so well known. I would obviously stop her from reading it, but a shop would not stop her from buying it.

Carol Elam, Sidcup, Kent

I first read Bram Stoker's Dracula aged 12, and at the time found it a fascinating 'monster contact/interaction/hunting' story - not noticing/realising the sexual elements until re-reading it as a much older teenager and adult. I think if a young teenager were to read just one book, which depicted a deviant kind of sex or sex-with-violence, that could give them a skewed view of 'normality' - but that is very unlikely.

Anon, Fareham

I would be more concerned about children reading this and thinking the appalling quality of the writing is acceptable. With pain I endured the first book but couldn't bear thought of the remaining two. Explaining a flogger whip to my children would be easier than explaining how such a poor quality book made it into print having clearly never been anywhere near an editor.

Jim Hudd, Swindon

When I was 13 I tried to take out a copy of 'A Clockwork Orange' from my school library. It was on the recommended list for seniors and the librarian told me it was for sixth formers only. I just laughed, waited till she was off duty and then had it issued by a less uptight member of staff. It was a great read, and didn't scar me half as much as 'American Psycho' which I read at university - still have to cringe at some of the mental images in there. I do remember a conversation though with the latter librarian about Jean Auel's 'Earth's Children' series (by which time I was a sixth former myself) and whether you would really want your little sister reading all the sex scenes - but personally I think a lot just washes over the young, especially if it's not extreme. When I watched 'Dirty Dancing' at the cinema when it came out (I was 11) I didn't register any of the sex/abortion stuff and was a bit shocked when I saw it again aged 16 at all that I had missed...The whole question is really quite individual so guidance from someone who knows the child in question probably helps, and would be more likely to be heeded than some sort of general ban.

Caroline, London

It would be wrong to assume that just because the subject matter is not in picture form that it would not have an impact on a child, or anyone for that matter - the Bible and the Quaran were written words, not films, and they are two of the most influential medias of humankind. Exposure to sex and violence at a young age, in whatever form, should ideally be limited. I know that is difficult considering the times we live in. It's not just for fear of what a child may do but also because childrens perceptions are different to adults. Seeing or reading a news item may cause them to be overfearful as they sometimes lack the understanding that events are isolated and rare. Regarding '50 Shades Of Grey' - I have not read it so cannot comment about it directly. I have read 'American Psycho' however and to this day it is the only book I had to stop reading due to the graphic and unsettling descriptions of violence and I am not easily fazed! What children are allowed to read should be decided by their parents/guardians. How books affect them can very widely from child to child, depending much on their imagination, intellect and experience.

Rebecca S, London

Personally, I'm more concerned about the new, growing genre of "teen fiction". Look at those shelves in Waterstones, and you will see them packed with books that glamorise the more self-destructive side of romance, with characters constantly falling for vampires, werewolves etc, and having to choose between doomed love and life. Often, they choose suicide over love. This sort of storyline, marketed directly at the demographic most likely to commit self-harm, is just irresponsible.

Mark Langford, Suffolk

I have found searching for books for my daughter in book shops, there are never any age appropriate guidelines, only in younger children's books. I found this mostly when my daughter was around 10 or 11 and she used to like jaqueline Wilson books. I never knew if a book was appropriate for her. I do think books should be classified by age appropriateness or at least a contents list as found on films ie, language, sexual content etc.

Kay, Perth, Australia

Fifty Shades is called mummy porn for a reason - sex is the core subject of the text, not a brief interlude in an exploration of love, lust and the human condition. This isn't tame Mills and Boon-type stuff, but could potentially expose young minds to ideas they wouldn't have necessarily come across themselves - for this reason I think it's dangerous. Young people are increasingly being encouraged to think that niche activities and preferences are the norm - including how they perceive their bodies and what defines attractiveness. The arguments that Fifty Shades is nothing compared to what they see on the internet and it might get people reading just don't wash - children absorb a lot more than we give them credit for and the free availability of trash like Fifty Shades is potentially more harmful than you'd think. I'm all for youngsters reading adult themes in a bid to understand their own emerging sexuality, but lets not start encouraging them to think that whips, chains and male domination is the norm!

Sinead, London

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