I confess, I'd been wanting to participate in the BlogHer Book Club for a while. It seemed like a great way to read something different, and participate in broad discussion with voices I wouldn't ordinarily encounter.
So when I got the email about the BlogHer Book Club discussions about The Diary of a Submissive, I almost jumped at the chance.
Almost, I say, because I actually did read the book summary. And honestly, I was a little nervous. It's not my kind of book. (I'm, you know, the kind of person who write about cupcakes, yoga, and my CSA.)
You see, Sophie Morgan--a pseudonym, the reason for which becomes clear not long into the book--is a successful journalist in her early thirties with a penchant for children, animals, books, DVDs, handbags, Marmite, and ... oh, right ... being on the "s" side of a D/s sexual relationship. People claim that her memoir is the "real-life Fifty Shades of Grey" (which, by the way, I didn't read, and which Sophie Morgan herself lambasts in an article from a few months back in the Guardian).
I decided to review it because I consider myself a feminist, and I needed to understand how someone who willingly renounces her power in this way could be a self-proclaimed feminist, too. In the midst of a highly contested U.S. presidential race where women's issues have been front and center, and as a woman who has experienced sexist treatment, the voice of women, and our ability to speak for ourselves and be treated like our voices matter, is particularly important to me.
Sophie's "awakening" is, thankfully, not a "diary," but the story of a submissive coming to terms with her identity, of finding herself empowered within a D/s relationship. Oddly enough, or perhaps predictably, that sense of self comes through most effectively in the words of another, James, one of her lovers, when he writes, "the difference between [a D/s relationship] and any form of abuse lay in consent" (199) and "you like being pushed to do things you find difficult because you enjoy overcoming them" (201). And unlike what I've heard about the Fifty Shades trilogy, for all of the juicy erotica, there's also a lot here about the negotiation that happens in a D/s relationship, about agreements (if not contracts), and about establishing and maintaining trust.
I do think that the book, though it could have used some tightening (it was released previously as a novel under another name, and I get the feeling that Penguin rushed it to press to capitalize on the success of Fifty Shades), is well-written overall. While it does contain extensive graphic and--for me--disturbing descriptions of Sophie's sexual exploits, I feel that its strength is in the author's reflective commentary about her journey to self-knowledge and search for someone who will be able to be her partner, with all of the paradox that entails. I thought that her portrait of James, the man who nearly ends their relationship over the extreme guilt he experiences for inflicting "punishment" on the woman he loves, and who has to come to terms with his own identity as a Dom, was well-handled and three dimensional. Sophie--a well-chosen pen name--knows that her relationships are, as Facebook would say in its reductive way, "complicated."
While I tried to read Diary of a Submissive with an open mind, I still worry about what Sophie's story, and others like them, do for--or to--the voices of women, even though I know not all subs are female. Despite, or perhaps because of, her experience in journalism, the paradox she presents of being feminist and still enjoying a sexually submissive role is highly nuanced, and could have been more deeply explored. After all, we live in a world where "legitimate rape" was an acceptable phrase to use, even if only temporarily. On the other hand, the book did make me wonder whether we talk enough about the need for deep trust, continuous communication, and empowerment of both partners in non D/s relationships; I suspect that the answer is "no." And the personal is political; if these conversations and negotiations don't happen at home, how can they happen in the public sphere? Perhaps that, for me, is the real food for thought.
**This is a paid review for BlogHer Book Club, but the opinions expressed above are my own.