After the release of the book Fifty Shades of Grey, which is enjoying a resurgence with the opening of the movie adaptation this week, I had a very Daria Morgendorffer–esque impulse to despise it simply on the basis of the rampant mainstream fandom, but compulsive conformity to nonconformity is still conformity, so I decided to give it a chance.
I just couldn’t do it. As a non-initiate to the BDSM lifestyle, I didn’t have the specific knowledge to fully “disprove” what I was struggling to read, but I knew that the sex scenes just didn’t feel authentic at all. They read like someone had described what they thought BDSM might be like while playing a game of Telephone and the fifteenth person at the end of the line had written a book about it.
Learning that Fifty Shades began as Twilight fanfic aided in my choice to not continue reading it. I hated that I felt a cynical sense of superiority creep in as I observed Midwestern Mommy Book Clubs gushing on Rachael Ray’s show about possibly enjoying a light spank. If people are discovering new ways to feel pleasure, then that’s wonderful!
I had to check my gross knee-jerk reaction. Still, it all felt very contrived and excessively commercialized, and even though I’m not a card-carrying member of the BDSM lifestyle, the bottom line is that it is horrific to watch mainstream celebration of a watered-down thing that is a way of life for many people, particularly when they’ve often been ostracized for it.
Also, the hype around Fifty Shades is steeped in so many heteronormative gender stereotypes that it just feels sad. I want to be happy for anyone enjoying invigorated sex with their partner, but the stories of the housewives cheering in the audiences of talk shows are predicated on a certain sitcom-ish premise that they had been refusing sex to their horndog husbands until this book gave them permission to be sexual beings in a new way, but really it’s still about doing what your man wants and UGH.
Feminista Jones’s self-published debut novel Push the Button relieved me of any pesky feelings of coolness almost immediately; around page three or four, in fact. The very first scene is sexually explicit, but in a simple way that communicates that this is a couple and this is their way of life as opposed to oooh, get ready here comes some naughty sex stuff, watch out! As a non-practitioner, I felt excitedly uncool reading things that titillated me in ways with which I was not specifically familiar.
Push the Button is not written for tourists, which I appreciate. I love learning about new things and I think that any storyteller who is skilled and sincere can also educate the reader without pandering, watering down their content, or turning it into a textbook. To quote the book’s summary, it’s the story of Nicole and David, “two 30-something, professional, Black Americans chasing their dreams and accomplishing their goals while investing in a romantic future together. On the surface, they appear to be like any other couple—they travel, work hard, and spend quality time with family and friends. Behind their masks, David and Nicole live an erotic, intense dynamic based on the complements of domination and submission and the peaks of pain and pleasure known as ‘The Life.’”
“Push the Button explores a side of the BDSM lifestyle that often goes ignored—the normalcy.” I love that. As I read the book and was drawn into the story, I was repeatedly struck by what I would call near-universal feelings that manifested themselves in very specific behaviors and practices.
To recognize relationship patterns and obstacles in Push the Button as familiar while reading the BSDM scenes that happen to be unfamiliar to me specifically was fantastic. However, everyone I’ve talked to who is in the life and has also read the book tells me that the BSDM scenes ring very true. They usually smile broadly as they say so.
Something that struck me right away was that David’s dominance over Nicole is a facet of their relationship that operates in conjunction with clear love and respect, not as a substitute or “freaky” random thing. They’re committed to each other and to deeply indulging in kink, as opposed to being “kinky” for kicks.
Without ruining too much, there is a scene early on that takes place after Nicole has had a difficult day at work. David is addressing her by her sub name, but he is actually being quite loving and comforting. As she tearfully recounts what went wrong at her office, he tells her, “You did not fail me. You did not fail yourself.” He goes on to say, “You did the best you could. You encountered a few mishaps, but it happens to the best of us.”
This same scene involves use of a bamboo cane to strike Nicole’s bare flesh and an explicit depiction of oral sex.
Push the Button goes so much further than the hackneyed "You’ve been a bad girl . . ." trope that is so often portrayed, and I learned a lot about the different ways BDSM may be enacted, like with the specific distinctions between different collars and levels of “achievement” being met to acquire them.
In the novel, at the beginning of Nicole and David’s relationship, it was Nicole who was into the life and educated David, not the other way around. This makes a crucial difference and further communicates that the submissive identity doesn’t also automatically involve coercion by a dominant figure, usually a man. That icky feeling I got from the dynamic laid out in Fifty Shades of Grey has been called something much worse: abuse.
I was intrigued to learn that Jones wrote Push the Button as a direct response to Fifty Shades. In her own words:
“As someone who has participated in this lifestyle for a while, when I read Fifty Shades of Grey, I found myself very angry. It was not BDSM. It was abuse. The story is about a man who is abusive and has an appetite for rather violent sex. He’s an abuser who can’t seem to get it together and he’s trying to find redemption through this young woman who he kind of forces into this position, to redeem him from whatever abusive tendencies he has.
"I read it and I noticed that a lot of white women loved this book! And they were calling it ‘Mommy Porn.’ I was really troubled that so many people were consuming this and thinking that this is what BDSM was about, so I decided that I was going to provide a counter-narrative.”
Feminista Jones is a writer, blogger, public speaker, activist, social worker, and mother. She has a huge online presence and a busy schedule of speaking engagements, but still finds time to party, as we did last week to celebrate the official release of Push the Button. It is not arbitrary that she notes the overwhelming whiteness of Fifty Shades fans; as an author and activist, it was important for Jones to write specifically about a black couple. Not only to adhere to tradition and “write what you know,” but as a larger statement as well.
She says, “It’s hard for people to connect with black characters. We have to show black love. We have to talk about it, we have to put it on film . . . . When we talk about how Black Lives Matter, we also have to say Black Love Matters. Art is resistance. Art can help in these movements, so for me, this book is my way of saying yes, black people love each other and yes, we occupy so-called white spaces, but this is what we do for us and how we create for us.”
Truly, there is a devastating dearth in entertainment of positive portrayals of black love. And since intersectionality matters, Jones explains why Nicole teaching David “the life” in her book was key:
“It was important to me, as a feminist woman, to show that feminism is not the opposite of BDSM and submission. I believe that you can be a feminist woman and choose to engage in a submissive role in this lifestyle, as long as you’re comfortable and you’re doing it with someone that you trust. It was important to me to have the woman lead the man because every other BDSM story is about a man, a dominant man, picking up and turning out a submissive woman, often really teetering toward abuse.”
Speaking more to the vital distinction between BDSM and abuse, Jones says, “A really crucial part of being in this lifestyle is trusting your gut and really believing in your own instincts. There are people who look for those who doubt themselves so that they can manipulate them, so it’s really important that you believe in yourself because if you do, and you’re engaged in something and your gut kicks in and that voice says, ‘No, this isn’t right,’ you’ll believe yourself and you won’t allow someone else to tell you otherwise.
"What happens in some of these situations is that because people are novices who may not know better, manipulators will come in and say, ‘Oh, yes, that’s definitely part of it; don’t worry everyone goes through that’ when it’s not the case. And even still, even if ‘everybody’ went through it — if it doesn’t feel right to you, don’t do it. You have to feel fulfilled by this.”
In mentioning something that fulfills her, Jones, who holds three degrees, declares herself “a pain slut. The sting of pain is an amazing rush and feeling, and to be able to see the print, as a visual person . . .”
At that point, she trailed off wistfully and I nodded knowingly; the details are in the book.