Many books have offered us a sampling of sexually dominant men. In Pauline RÃ©age’s classic Story of O, we meet RenÃ© and Stephen. In Elizabeth McNeill’s 9 1/2 Weeks, we meet a nameless man — later named John Gray in the 1986 film adaptation starring Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke — that seduces and possesses the pseudonymous author of this memoir. In E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy, we meet the haunted Christian Grey.
RenÃ© is as vacant as Stephen is steely and unrelatable. John Gray may be in control and acting on Elizabeth, but he’s more like a sexual storm that happens to her without rhyme or reason than he is a subject — or even much of a character. And Christian Grey, though much better outlined, is at best a caricature of Twilight‘s Edward Cullen, better defined by a neurotic over-possessiveness and an inherent inability to understand others’ boundaries or maintain his own, than a taste for pain.
Ernest Greene thinks this narrative is incomplete. In his novel Master of O, he sets out to show the world — buzzing as it is with its new interest in kink — that dominant men have inner lives. Unlike RÃ©age and McNeill who wrote under pseudonyms to distance themselves from their work, which may or may not have reflected their desires or experiences, and certainly unlike James whose representation of such a relationship is entirely theoretical, Greene is on the record about his experience as a sexual dominant.
For as long as he can remember, Ernest Greene has been into cruelty and possession — and sharing these aspects of himself with women who enjoy them.
“What gets to me whenever I see heterosexual dominant men portrayed in books and on film, is how simplistically they’re designed and how utterly inexplicable their appeal is to the fabulous women they attract,” Greene writes in his book’s foreword. Referring to the film adaptation of 9 1/2 Weeks and the subsequent power-exchange film Secretary, he asks, “How in the world do Mickey Rourke and James Spader hook up with Kim Basinger and Maggie Gyllenhaal? Yes, they’re successful men with all the outward trappings, but these things alone hardly explain their attractiveness, especially when they’re otherwise so difficult to like.”
Master of O is the product of a year of writing and over twenty years of thinking about this deficit in this type of power-exchange narrative. Though it is his first novel, this isn’t the first time he has tried to tell the other side of the story.
Greene started working on sets for the adult industry after an unsatisfying stint in Hollywood. To his dismay, he discovered that porn was even worse than mainstream books and films at portraying alternate sexuality. He describes the “specialty bondage videos” popular at the time as a weird universe devoid of men and sexual activity, populated by “a whole lot of pissed off women who tied each other up and beat on each other for no apparent reason” and without deriving an ounce of pleasure from inflicting pain or receiving it.
Greene stuck to the work, making his way until he finally got behind the camera and was able to direct scenes that more closely resembled his reality. Eventually, he would become the first editor of Taboo, the Larry Flynt magazine in the kink niche, where he would continue to labor to present a more realistic vision of BDSM.
The adult film representation of power-exchange has changed since Greene began — both because porn has never been afraid to challenge norms and laws opposing the depiction of sexuality, and because, as feminism gave women a platform, more and more of them began to speak out about female sexuality.
Porn and feminism have an uncomfortable relationship, and one that’s even more uncomfortable when it comes to female submission. We do not mention that Ingeborg Day, writing as Elizabeth McNeill, was probably working at the feminist magazine Ms. at the time that the affair depicted so vividly in 9 1/2 Weeks unfolded. We just don’t. There is something seemingly incongruous about liberating women from oppressive and disenfranchising norms only to watch one of them them blissfully waltz into a man’s apartment so he can tie her up, beat her, have his way with her, and leave her handcuffed to the bed while he goes out to do whatever he likes.
Feminism is, of course, a living thing, rather than a set of commandments written in stone. Slowly, we’re coming to accept that giving women agency means that they are the ones who will decide for themselves, as individuals, what they want to do with themselves, whether that means becoming a senator, a sex worker, a stay-at-home mother, or something else. And a woman’s agency extends to the sexual arena as much as it does to any other aspect of her life.
That doesn’t mean it’s been easy for women who see themselves as feminists to be open about their interest in submission. It can be disturbing to discover one derives personal satisfaction in something that so blatantly reinforces a cultural trope that outside the dungeon, or bedroom, or home, is used to infantilize, control and otherwise disempower women. Those who have accepted that aspect of themselves, and those who have come out about it, owe it to the women who have done so before them.
It’s not a coincidence that men who derive satisfaction from sexual dominance over submissive women are equally hesitant to come out. It is not difficult to explain that women are equal to men unless and until one of them consents to submit to the other for a previously-negotiated period of time, but a lifestyle doesn’t come with an explanation. To the outsider, the idea of a man that not only dominates but deals out pain and humiliation to a woman is the logical conclusion of everything feminism was born to destroy.
“No, women are not all naturally submissive,” writes Greene. “No, masculinity is not essentially dominant. No, there has been no cultural deviation from the immutable laws of nature that emasculated men and forced women into shouldering responsibilities for which they weren’t constructed. And there is no such planet as Gor. That’s all just preposterous and I don’t blame anyone for finding it offensive. I might if they don’t. I don’t believe that ‘real’ masters won’t recognize there’s such a thing as domestic abuse and sexual predation in their midst.”
For Greene, as for most people in BDSM, power-exchange is a sexual thing to be enjoyed only among consenting individuals. It relies on trust — trust that all participants will communicate their boundaries, and trust that all participants will respect these boundaries — and is fueled by enjoyment. The enjoyment of the submissive is key, and this is where a male dominant’s perspective is most effective. In depicting such an interest in the satisfaction and enjoyment of the submissive, the last piece of the puzzle falls into place, bringing into focus the big picture: that sexual submission is a preference and not a duty.
Header image via Ernest Greene. Banner image by Veronica Bautista.