“…But, my dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all this morning? Have you gone on with Udolpho?”
“Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil.”
“Are you, indeed? How delightful! Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are not you wild to know?”
“Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be? But do not tell me—I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina’s skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it….”
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Christian brings Ana into the playroom. Ana seems nonplussed.
This is something kinky people have to deal with sometimes: introducing a prospective partner to their kink, or to kink in general. A perennial topic in BDSM circles is whether you can convert a vanilla (I.e. non-kinky) person to kink. The consensus seems to be that it is possible, but the odds are maybe one in three.
This is not the way to do it. You don’t ambush the prospective play partner with your fully stocked, lavishly furnished, 1200-square foot dungeon, especially if they have no prior experience with BDSM.
A far better way to introduce someone to your kink is, first, don’t treat it like a deep Gothic secret or fatal disease. Just present it plainly, answer whatever questions they have, let them think about it for as long as necessary, and definitely don’t pressure them.
Granted, in Christian’s position as a wealthy public figure, he has reason to be wary of disclosing this aspect of his life, so the NDA and the rest of the secrecy makes a bit of sense. For the rest of us mortals, better not to make a big deal out of it and perhaps scare the person.
They retire to Christian’s study, where he brings out the contract. Contracts have a long history within BDSM. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, in his novel Venus in Furs (1870) has a contract between his characters Severin and Wanda. The book itself was based on Sacher-Masoch’s real life affair with a woman named Fanny Pistor, and they had a contract too; Sacher-Masoch was a lawyer by training. Contracts constitute a kind of sub-genre of erotica.
As I read just the beginning of Christian’s contract, I got exasperated again. (It’s as if Ana was dating Dr. Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory.) The contract not only micromanages every aspect of her life, but includes words like punishment.
Ana does make a point of negotiating about the exercise clause, and manages to reduce the amount of exercise required. It reads a bit like Christian is intentionally conceding a very minor point as a way to trick Ana into thinking she has any real control over this situation.
There’s also the issue of discipline. In BDSM, there’s “punishment” and there’s punishment, and they are two very different things. Any form of play can be referred to as “Punishment” in quotes, ironically. The spanking or what have you is within the context of the scene or the roleplay, and is for some imagined crime or mistake. The “punishment” is precisely what the submissive wants and enjoys.
Punishment, with italics, is an entirely different thing. It means real pain or humiliation or chores, things the submissive does not enjoy, even in a masochistic way.
You can get real into real problems when people in a D/s relationship don’t agree on the definitions of “punishment” and punishment. The submissive intentionally disobeys or makes mistakes in order to be “punished”, an indirect way of controlling the dominant.
A heavy duty, 24/7 contract like this is throwing Ana into the deep end of BDSM Dom/sub relationships. Instead of sounding her out to see how she feels about BDSM, or if she has any familiarity with the concept, he takes her into the dungeon and then goes straight to a heavy, 24/7 contract. As a general rule, this is something you lead up to, over months. What Christian is doing is somewhat akin to not just proposing marriage on a third date, but showing up with ring, a white dress and a minister.
Why not start small? Why not say, “Ana, I want to tie your hands for ten minutes.” or “Ana, I want you to follow my orders for half an hour.” Or even, “Ana, here’s what I’m into. Here are a few books that will help you understand. I’ll take you home and you can think about this for a few days. Any questions?”
This whole thing reeks of high pressure sales, or pick-up artistry: set the terms of discussion, overwhelm the mark with your narrative, impose false deadlines, treat the absence of “no” as a “yes.” Christian has been controlling Ana since the moment they met, long before he opened the door to his playroom. It’s a little late to introduce the concept that Ana has equal, or any, say in this arrangement.
This is when Ana drops the V-bomb on Christian: she’s a virgin. Instead of Ana saying, “I want to try A, B and C. I might try E, F and G in the future, and I definitely don’t want to do X, Y or Z.”, she quibbles over a tiny point and then, unable to conceive of actual negotiation, she appeals to some vestige of chivalry.
The metaphor I keep coming back to is driving a car, with the controls so arranged that Christian has the accelerator pedal, and can’t take his foot off it, and Ana has the brake pedal and the parking brake. Instead of using her brake pedal to modulate the speed of the car (much less actually putting her hand on the wheel), all she can do is jam on the parking brake accidentally-on-purpose. Again, the systematic disavowal of any agency
From a writer’s perspective, I can see the point of wanting to cut to the chase, and otherwise present a highly exaggerated world. Instead of dilly-dallying with the normal getting-to-know-you process of human mating, why not take absolute, unconditional and perfect love as a given? Why tiptoe through the process of negotiation and education when the heroine can be dumped straight into Day 64 of 120 Days of Sodom? Let the imagination run free, right?
There are relative degrees of realism in fiction. The opening of Anne Rice’s The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, in which the comatose heroine is awoken via sex, doesn’t bother me because it is set in a fantastic world from word one. This story bothers me because it purports to be about something people do in the real world, and about which there are a lot of misconceptions, but has people acting in a highly unrealistic and dangerous manner.
In fact, what’s so aggravating about this premise is that it doesn’t have to be like this. I’m giving into the critic’s temptation to rewrite. Why not do a slow build, letting Ana think about this proposal, letting her research a bit, letting her develop her own sense of her own sexuality. You could structure the whole book around that process. Would it hit the same operatic high notes of emotion? No. Would it make people want to tear their hair out in frustration? No.