This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
‘‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” thought one of the editors of this new anthology at the outset of her project, if a collection of highbrow stories on BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism and masochism) “could live together in one book, in the kind of book that could sit on artists’ residencies’ library shelves?” Well, wonderful or not, that dream has now been realised, and the result is this volume, containing 15 stories by an assortment of eminent writers — all contributors to some of the most prestigious literary magazines in the world.
The stories are intended as an antidote to a popular culture that typically represents BDSM practice as either pathological or ridiculous, and kinky people as either “stock villains or exaggerated figures of fun”. In an act of rebellion against these stereotypes, the reader of this volume is encouraged to “take kink seriously”, recognising it as a “complex, psychologically rich act of communication . . . as one of the tools we use to make sense of our lives.”
It is something of a surprise, therefore, to find the content of the stories to be so very stereotypical. We have former Catholic schoolgirls with a torturously repressed desire to be whipped, dominatrixes with shiny leather boots and severe haircuts, and gay men drawn towards acting out traumatic childhood experiences of homophobia.
A wealthy man — a gallery curator, of course! — finds within himself an intense desire to dominate women, and when his poor wife won’t accept being handcuffed, he sets off to find himself a mistress who is willing to go around in public wearing a stainless-steel collar. We are, I think, supposed to see this man as a progressive maverick, given his taste for putting on “exhibits on poverty and homeless”, despite the objections of his gallery’s board. But, to me, he sounds very much like both a “stock villain” and an “exaggerated figure of fun”.
Despite the authors’ best efforts the experience of reading this anthology is rather monotonous
Despite the authors’ best efforts to represent kink as deliciously naughty, the experience of reading this anthology is rather monotonous. Although there are small variations in narrative detail, the erotic details are much the same in every story: spit licked off shoes, bruised buttocks, leather paraphernalia, and so on, and so on.
In the final story, the iconic writer and filmmaker Chris Kraus comments perceptively on the repetitive nature of BDSM: “There is no experimental theater in sadomasochism. That’s why I like it. Character is completely preordained and circumscribed. You’re only either top or bottom. There isn’t any room for innovation in these roles. It’s a bit like what Ezra Pound imagined the Noh drama of Japan to be: a paradox in which originality is attained only through compliance with tradition.”
To Kraus, then, a lack of “innovation” is the point. But, to more “vanilla” readers, the allure may well be hard to understand.
In fact, “vanilla” readers may come away from reading these stories with a diminished regard for BDSM practice, given the levels of neuroticism, selfishness and vanity that the various characters display. A common theme across many of these stories is not adventurousness or creativity, but rather affluent boredom, as characters attempt to plug a feeling of general dissatisfaction with a brief erotic thrill.
BDSM sex rarely provides any lasting solace to the characters of these stories
For instance, the first story, by Melissa Febos, features a Manhattanite contending with Woody Allen-esque ennui: “She thought of something her therapist had once said to her: you can’t get enough of a thing you don’t need . . . She couldn’t get enough episodes of the BBC crime drama because they were an escape. She couldn’t get enough money by working overtime because she already had enough money.” What’s the solution to this deeply bourgeois problem? Some might recommend religion or charity work.
Her friend recommends something else: “I think you should just go use someone . . . practise not caring about his feelings.” And so she dutifully trots off, contacts an old friend, and uses him for the purposes of cold, loveless sex. It’s not much of a solution, really. BDSM sex rarely provides any lasting solace to the characters of these stories, many of which end with a depressing thump as the participants come back down to earth, following their sexual adventure, and find their lives and relationships to be just as dysfunctional as they were before.
Sometimes, as in Alexander Chee’s story, characters find that afterwards they’re unable to even look a sexual partner in the eye: “I sent him an email, he sent one back, we even ran into each other at the gym. It was hard to speak.” It seems that while BDSM may provide a “complex, psychologically rich act of communication”, it is not necessarily a positive one.
The gender politics are also deeply troubling. In her story, the influential feminist writer Roxane Gay writes about a man who takes pleasure in slapping his wife, strangling her with a belt, and scarring her back with a razor blade. By the end of the story — surprise, surprise — we discover that the man is in fact trans, which supposedly transforms the nature of the couple’s abusive sex.
It remains a simulation of domestic violence, but with a rejigging of the genitals involved, and this — we are asked to believe — makes all the difference. Nevertheless, it is hard to wipe away the image of a man choking his wife with a belt, and dismaying to read a feminist like Gay fantasising about such a scenario.
The authors’ biographies include details of a wide range of pronouns and identities, suggesting that this is a group of people keen on challenging gender norms. It’s curious, then, that these stories are obsessed with such monstrously exaggerated forms of femininity and masculinity, orientated entirely around power, cruelty and self-hatred.
And the result is not even sexy. By laying out in explicit detail the nature of the BDSM experience, any sense of mystery is stripped away, and what’s left turns out to not be seductive at all, but actually rather sad. Without meaning to, this anthology ends up confirming some of the least flattering stereotypes about kinky sex and kinky people.
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