There's some upsetting stuff described in this one, so be warned.
A few months ago, during a bout of flu, I read Story of O. A friend had loaned me her copy, and she and her boyfriend (both kinky) told me it was incredibly hot. In a way, I feel lucky that I read it while I already had the flu; I feel certain that otherwise, Story of O would have given it to me.
I could not have hated it more.
For the lucky readers who have never read this classic of filthy French fiction, a summary:
O gets picked up for a date by her lover, Rene. (I haven't figured out how to make accent marks using Blogger. Apologies.) He takes her to a crazy mansion in a place called Roissy, where she is dressed up in a big old-fashioned dress - which turns out to be the uniform of the women there - and is then chained up, beaten, whipped, and raped repeatedly by a group of masked men, one of whom is Rene. O is understandably distressed, but since she is intensely devoted to Rene, she gets into it, since she figures out that this is what he wants from her. She spends a month in the mansion being trained - meaning that she serves as a sort of maid, until one of the men decides that he wants to have sex with her, at which point she's supposed to be completely available to him. There's also a lot of anal stretching, described in loving detail. [I did have to have a conversation with one of my friends in which I explained that it's still rape if she doesn't consent to it and can't say no, yes, even if she secretly likes it. I'm very upset that this conversation had to happen.]
After a month of this (and I am leaving out so much seriously upsetting stuff), O gets to return with Rene to the real world, where she is a successful fashion photographer. Now, however, she is his slave, as evidenced by the fact that she isn't allowed to wear a bra anymore, or some boring, stupid garbage. She also has to wear a ring with a certain symbol on it that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who spent time at Roissy. If a man recognizes this symbol (and there are only male doms and female slaves at Roissy, big shock) and decides that he would like to have sex with the wearer, she has to let him, no matter where they are and what else she's got going on at the time. [It's worth noting that this is not a good use of Chekhov's loaded gun on the mantle in act one: no one ever solicits her because of the ring. It's just there, a sick-making accessory.]
At some point, Rene reveals that he has an English half-brother, Sir Stephen (the "Sir" indicates a real title, for once), to whom Rene has decided to give O over. She'll continue to live with Rene, but she'll answer first to Sir Stephen. [I want to say that there's something Oedipal going on here, but I'm sure what the equivalent is when it's between brothers. Agamemnal? Whatever.] Sir Stephen beats up O a bunch, she decides to make him fall in love with her, he eventually does, and after a lot of agonizing, O decides that she likes him better than Rene. Eventually, Sir Stephen sends her off to this all-women BDSM household, where she gets to hang out with a bunch of ladies and get beaten up by the matriarch for a couple of weeks, at the end of which they pierce her labia and brand her ass with Sir Stephen's initials. Fashion-forward!
Oh, and at this point she's living with this woman Jacqueline that she has sex with, and whom Rene has ordered her to trick into going to Roissy against her will, so that he can make her his slave. O has pangs of conscience about this, but when Jacqueline is totally horrified by O's new body mods, instead of being super jazzed about them the way O is, O decides that Jacqueline deserves what's coming to her. Then there's a lot of stupidity where she, Sir Stephen, Rene, Jacqueline, and Jacqueline's younger sister go on vacation together to Sir Stephen's beach house or something. The sister falls in love with O and is miserable. Jacqueline runs off with a movie producer or some such person. Sir Stephen takes O to a party where she is naked except for an owl mask and everyone admires her, and she feels like the most submissive little flower in the pond. The end.
The end? Yes. Kind of. There's this weird little footnote about how there were two alternate last chapters, both of which were rejected by the publisher. In the first one, Sir Stephen takes O back to Roissy, where he abandons her. In the other, she realizes that he's about to abandon her, and tells him that she'd rather die than live without him, to which he consents. Isn't that sweet?
Okay, so the summary ran a little long, but I had to at least take steps toward conveying how revolting this book is. Holy cow. Also, she couldn't have a real name? Seriously? I read somewhere that O is a sometimes-used nickname for someone called Odile, but still. I mean, did it have to be so ham-handed? Did it? Did it?
I don't think I should have to spell out what's wrong with this, but I will, since I'm so rarely on the same page as other BDSMers. Okay, Rene takes O to Roissy with only a hunch and a hope that she'll enjoy it at all. There's no way she can consent to it beforehand, since she has no idea what's about to happen. Once she's there, she's not exactly in a position to consent, either, since she's chained up and getting whipped. It's not like she has a safeword. I'd say that it's lucky that she turns out to be a big old submissive, but I think that's as much conditioning/Stockholm Syndrome as anything else. You know what else is wrong with this book? Everything. All of it.
Really, the only thing I like about it is its history. Its author, Dominique Aury, an eminent writer and intellectual, wrote the first chapter (Roissy) for her lover, Jean Paulhan. He was a big fan of the Marquis de Sade, and had said at some point that only a man could write something that dark and filthy. Aury set out to prove him wrong (and also to make him hot for her). When she presented him with the pages, he urged her to turn the chapter into a novel and publish it. (This cleared a lot up for me about the writing; the first chapter feels like a passion project, and the rest reads like a writing assignment.) The 47-year-old author published Story of O under the name Pauline Reage, and kept her authorial identity secret until her eighties. I'm gonna say, I think this is pretty cool.
What bothers me more than anything, then, is the amount of attention the book has gotten, and continues to generate, among BDSM communities. It is embraced wholeheartedly as the standard of D/s erotica - a thought which makes me shudder. And then, when I think about it, the other go-to piece of BDSM fiction, the movie Secretary, is problematic for much the same reason.
Secretary tells the story of Lee, a woman who leaves the institution she was placed in after she is caught self-harming, and attempts to join the work force. Lee is painfully awkward and shy around people, but she excels at secretarial school and lands a job as the secretary for E. Edward Grey, a lawyer with a private practice. Mr. Grey is about as socially inept as Lee is, which he barely manages to hide by barking orders at her, criticizing her appearance, and generally being a terrible boss. Seemingly at random, he softens his behavior, and begins to give her orders of a more personal nature, designed to improve her life. Finally, after he punishes a typo by bending her over his desk and spanking her, the two of them begin a D/s relationship in the workplace that neither of them ever discusses explicitly.
I know I'm being a lot more vague about Secretary, but I do think that it, unlike Story of O, is worth checking out, and I don't want to give too much away. And yes, I love this movie even though it's rife with nonconsent and sexual harassment. I know that it's unfair to compare two works written about half a century apart, one of which was intended as some erotic fluff, and the other of which was intended to have cinematic merit. Still. Secretary gets some leniency from me because it is mindful of how not-okay the characters' actions are; these are two very fucked up characters who are somehow able to find love and stability in spite of going about it in the worst way possible.
I also know that I am going easy on Secretary because it was my first real introduction to kink, as I'm sure it was for many people. I saw it in high school and thought, "I want that." Full disclosure: I have a Secretary poster on my wall.
I understand that I can only be so critical of this movie when I have such positive associations with it. At the time that I saw it, too, I had no frame of reference for how BDSM was supposed to be. Secretary was it. I knew that the movie contradicted certain of my feminist and basic ethical values, but I didn't know that there was a different and better way to do dominance and submission, or at least I had no idea how to go about it. I can also understand that the same must be true of Story of O, for lots and lots of people. Probably also those ridiculous Gor books, which I have never read and yet feel fully entitled to mock.
This begs the question: where are the beloved works of BDSM fiction that are all about consent? That celebrate negotiation as a necessary - and hot! - part of kink? Why are the standard collective fantasies about actual rape and assault? This seems pretty fucked up to me, especially since the BDSM communities that I've seen do so little to promote consent as anything other than an annoying formality.
I wonder what would have happened differently if my first exposure to BDSM had been through a piece of fiction about enthusiastic and sexy consent, rather than one about being molested at the workplace. I'm not going to say that I would never have been abused, because that's simplistic and silly, but - I'm going to say this with the full knowledge that I'm about to go home and curl up in bed, under my porny movie poster - Secretary couldn't have helped. I don't want to put all of the responsibility for creating a sane dialogue around anything on any one work of art, but it's ridiculous that there aren't really any other mainstream options. Except, of course, for porn, which is basically Story of O Lite.
I think there's got to be a companion post to this that looks at elements of good BDSM fiction - what I would like to see. That's going to have to happen later, though, because this has gotten seriously long. (Yeah, yeah, that is what she said.)