For generations, sado-masochism has been characterized as a disorder of the psyche. Those who subscribe to this position view the sexualized desire to inflict or suffer pain as abnormal and unhealthy. Usually, they claim that this desire can be traced to traumatic events in the deviant individual’s past that caused discipline or punishment (as either giver or receiver) to become linked with sexual excitement. No one could possibly want to participate in such bizarre sexual rituals, they reason, without some childhood experience that warped their sexuality into perverse forms.
Nonsense. That has always been my reaction. I’ve found intense pleasure, joy and fulfillment in a BDSM relationship, yet I had the most normal, supportive, loving childhood anyone could ask for. It’s true that I was drawn to submissive scenarios at a very young age. Many practitioners of BDSM will say the same. But I don’t think anyone will find the key to this early attraction in my real world history.
After reading Melanie Abram’s novel Playing, however, I do find myself wondering whether this perspective of kink as pathology might in fact be true for some people. Certainly, Ms Abrams paints a convincing portrait of a woman tortured by her past, seeking momentary release in the punishments inflicted by her dominant lover.
Josie is a smart, attractive young woman, just starting her graduate work in anthropology. She takes a job as live-in nanny to a borderline autistic boy, supposedly to eke out her stipend, but actually because she feels drawn to the boy and his beautiful, vivacious mother. Mary reminds Josie of her own mother, with whom Josie has an extremely conflicted relationship – but Mary seems to accept and approve of Josie in a way that her own mother never could.
Josie’s and Mary’s relationship is strained to near breaking when Devesh, a charismatic Indian surgeon whom Mary wants for herself, chooses Josie instead. It turns out that Devesh is sexually dominant. As he and Josie “play”, he fulfills fantasies that have haunted her ever since the death of her infant brother. For Josie, their scenes of discipline and desire are cathartic and overwhelming. Little by little they break down the walls of self-deception she has built to protect herself from the awful truths of her childhood.
Josie is an extreme and yet believable character. Though she is in her late twenties, she is in some sense a victim of arrested development. She sulks and throws tantrums. She is petulant and deliberately disobedient. Though she has an adult’s sense of responsibility, she acts like a child.
Devesh loves her, and thinks that he understands her, but he can’t see the dark secrets that swirl inside her, the nightmares that will release her. As he comes closer to knowing the truth, Josie pushes him away. He begs her to join him on his visit to India, but she refuses. Finally, disappointed and hurt, he travels by himself, leaving Josie to face her demons alone.
If erotica is defined as writing intended to arouse, I’m not sure that Playing qualifies for this label. The scenes where Devesh and Josie “play” constitute a relatively small portion of the novel, though they are sufficiently intense that their influence lingers:
The unfairness of it pricked her, and she tried to turn her back to him, but he held her still. He ran his fingers through her hair and held tightly. “Now,” he whispered. “I’m going to give you five more, and you’re to count each of them, nice and loud. Do you understand?”
It was unfair, but she felt her head expand, her body yield, and she nodded.
“Good.” He stepped away and brought the crop down, a hot fiery snap.
“One,” she said.
Quickly, he did it again, and she cried. “Two.” It was electric, and she could feel the welts rise, the heat emanating from the crop to her flesh to her very center. “Three.” The top of her head seemed to open up, and with the next molten snap of the crop, she felt sucked into the ether. It was a familiar feeling, this going outside herself, but this time, her consciousness disintegrated, leaving her body below and counting. “Four.” Just bones and flesh planted firmly. “Five,” and then he was telling her to beg to be fucked, and she was begging, over and over until he was cupping one of her breasts in his hand, and then pushing inside her, his mouth tight on her ear, telling her all the nasty things she’d only thought to herself for years and years and years, and her head was pushing into cold iron, full of nothing but space and air, her insides alive and present, her outsides his completely.
As illustrated by this passage, the novel is far less explicit than most work characterized as erotica. At the same time, this book primarily is about sex, about the intricate relationships between sexuality and all the other emotions in our lives. The core conflict revolves around Josie’s guilt, which has become eroticized and now can be expiated only through punishment at her lover’s hand.
Playing succeeded in making me wonder, briefly, whether there is in fact some key childhood experience that accounts for my kinkiness, something that I’ve blocked from my memory but which continues to affect me. And yet the novel concludes by suggesting that D/s fantasies can be as much a cure as a symptom, if they’re played out in the context of a loving relationship.
Devesh readily admits to having had dominant desires for as long as he could remember. Still, he denies that this is pathological. For him, BDSM is simply a path to intimacy and pleasure. Josie, on the other hand, needs to confront the reality of her past, stripping away the sexual charge that has accumulated around her deeds and those of her family. Once she does this, she discovers that playing with Devesh, surrendering her self to him, becomes a process of healing.Playing is an intelligent and reasonably well-crafted inquiry into the dynamics of sexual “deviance”. Although it is not one-handed reading, it satisfies on other levels.