Thursday, October 18, 2012

Feminisms, and The Diary of a Submissive: BlogHer Book Club

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.
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  1. This is an excellent assessment, and a thoughtful review. I, too, thought the book was compelling and well-written, but could have used just a little more time to pull it together. I also had to push through the graphic scenes that took me way beyond my comfort level, and struggle with how narratives like this play into the political arena. Especially now.

  2. Do you mean talk within the relationship about those things or talk as a society about those things?

    Reading your review made me think about Biden's comment in the VP debate about being Catholic and yet not foisting his beliefs on others via policy. Is it possible outwardly be a feminist, to support women and believe in the strength of women and to privately be submissive? We had a question like this come up in college when a professor in the Women Studies dept was suffering from anorexia. Could she be a teacher for a women's health class when she wasn't taking care of herself physically? Is she capable of teaching what she cannot do herself due to mental illness? I think she could -- I think humans are complicated (as you say) and we can balance both the outward and the personal. But not everyone agreed.

  3. @Mel: I mean talk both within the relationship and as a society ABOUT our relationships. And that maybe both kinds of talk happen together. But this is something I've been worrying over for a while, since we started to see so much legislation passed attempting to control women's bodies. At first I was angry at the women who would vote for Akin. But perhaps they're like Sophie Morgan, too; perhaps they have chosen a different way of being in the world. Though it's less about choice, I think that your WS professor is a great example; I agree that suffering from anorexia doesn't mean you can't believe in the importance of teaching about body image. In fact, it may mean that you believe in it even more passionately ... because you can understand, even if through a clouded lens, what those unreasonable expectations are doing to you.

    @M: thanks ... heading over to yours now!

  4. This sounds like a read the provokes lots of thinking and clarifying of one's own positions. I like the way you make the personal the political: " if these conversations and negotiations don't happen at home, how can they happen in the public sphere?"

    The comment section makes me wonder about teaching yoga. I've always thought I shouldn't pursue it because there are so many poses I can't do. May never be able to do (even basic ones!). But. What if I could teach even the ones I can't do? What if there is even an extra value to students of me doing that?

    Weird how I got from D/s to yoga.

  5. My answer is no; when it is yes, it's usually too late, although 'too late' is a poor choice of words. I mean it in the sense that the conversation doesn't come about for its own sake, which is what should be happening. It comes about after what's done is done, what's said is said, what's wrong is wronged. So much of that wouldn't even happen in the first place if trust and communication were valued at the level they deserve. I know I value them a lot more now that I can't take them for granted.

  6. What a great review. I raises a lot of interesting questions. I too wonder how someone could be a self-proclaimed feminist and put themselves at the submissive end of a dominant/submissive relationship. But then again, feminism is all about choice and if a woman CHOOSES to enter into a relationship like that, that is what being a feminist is all about. Just like you can be a SAHM who never works a day in her life outside the home, and still be a feminist. Feminism is about women having a choice to do whatever they want, whether it be currently acceptable to society or not.

    Very interesting review. I just might read that book.

  7. A very thoughtful and interesting review.I passed on this book when it came into my inbox for BHBC, but appreciate that you chose to read it and that I got to hear your take on it.


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