Oct 062022

Preaching to the Perverted (IMDB) is a 1997 romantic comedy written and directed by Stuart Urban, starring Guinevere Turner and Christian Anholt.

Preaching has a lot of similarities to Exit to Eden. Both are romantic comedies that try to present BDSM to the mainstream. Both feature dominant women who are rulers of kinky realms (with female aides de camp) who have difficulty opening up to intimacy until a special man comes along.

Preaching is a superior film in many ways. There’s no extraneous MacGuffin plot grafted on. Exit tried too hard to soft-pedal kink for a mainstream audience, and barely showed anything. This film has lots of different kink activities and more queer content. It at least considers the political realm, as the police and government act against Tanya’s parties.

Tanya Cheex (Guinevere Turner) is a notorious American performance artist who does elaborate stage shows at UK fetish clubs. A tabloid newspaper gets photos of this and editorializes about who will control this American filth. (Like the British need any foreign influence to be kinky.) Conservative Member of Parliament Henry Harding decides to make her a target of a moralistic crusade, and recruits a young Christian computer tech, Peter Emery (Christian Anholt) to infiltrate the fetish underworld with a hidden camera.

Harding holds a press conference to announce his mission, with an awkward coalition of Conservatives, feminists and Christians. He strongly hints at the Operation Spanner case, which in early 1997 was being heard in the European Court of Human Rights. Then he makes the leap from men doing BDSM on each other to the protection of women.

Harding: “Not long ago, a number of perverts were jailed for nailing their penises to plaques and even sicker acts. If it had been up to me, I’d have cut their penises off! I will cite that case to combat immoral acts or material offensive to women. Conservatives, Christians and feminists, such as these ladies, all agree that the degrading of women has gone far enough.”

The same tabloid reporter that asked what the government will do about Tanya’s shows pops up in the audience and criticizes Harding for hypocrisy.

Journalist: “Come on, Mr. Harding. The only degrading in ‘The House of Thwax’ was happening to hairy-arsed men.” 

Because of police harassment, Tanya has made the locations of her shows a secret. Peter infiltrates her text-only chatroom (cutting edge tech in 1997) and gets an invitation.

Tanya is introduced floating in mid air, covered in metal armor and with lasers coming out of her mask; an untouchable virgin goddess. She calls herself a “womon” as in “I woo no man.” While she has handsome male slaves at her beck and call, she refuses intercourse with them.

Tanya: “No. Penetration. Ever. Who do you think I am?”

Male slave: “Sorry, Mistress.”

Tanya: “No penis. Get it? My clit ring can give me more pleasure in a few seconds than that can give me in a million years. Get out. Forever!”

This is the trope of the dominant woman who is oddly asexual, i.e. a sexual object but not a sexual agent in her own right.

While films like Going Under and Exit to Eden explore the relationship between the dominatrix persona and the real woman, Tanya has completely identified with her pagan goddess image. She’d rather go to prison than compromise her lifestyle. We do get a glimpse of her childhood, which looks fairly ordinary.

Eugenie, looking at a man in Tanya’s home movie: “He looks like an abuser.”

Tanya: “My mom’s ashamed of me, now, but I grew up happy, so she keeps sending me reminders.”

Eugenie: “Of a dull past, if Mistress will permit me to say so.”

Tanya: “I used to do straight sex, go shopping, wear loose clothes.”

Eugenie: “Yuck.”

Tanya’s stubborn refusal of both physical and emotional intimacy with anyone does suggest some kind of trauma.

Peter is another difficult character. We’re told he’s a Christian, but also drawn to the possibility of a political career Harding dangles in front of him. As he goes deeper into Tanya’s party, he sees more, and even gets his nipples pierced.

Peter: “These people don’t harm anyone else.”

Harding: “You told me what they did disgusts you. I mean, you were physically sick after a night in their clutches. Now find out where that hussy’s performing next and nail her!”

He is drawn to these acts, but he can’t accept his own desires, and needs to be “forced” into it, either by his duty to Harding, by his love for Tanya, or by drinking vodka straight from the bottle. The simplest explanation is that he’s a self-hating pervert, who maintains his tenuous claim to being a Christian by setting up arbitrary rules. E.g. performing cunnilingus on Tanya doesn’t revoke his virgin status.

At a house party, there’s a lot of play, but things are a little sketchy when it comes to consent. Eugenie starts to do a cutting on a female slave who says no, and Tanya flogs her in punishment. Peter refuses to inflict pain, and instead they put him in a full ponyplay rig, including butt plug, to prove his commitment.

When Peter warns Tanya about the private prosecution coming for her, they drink together and Tanya admits her “darkest fantasy”.

They check into a hotel’s bridal suite with him in a tuxedo and her in a wedding dress. They wake up in the same bed the next morning.

Tanya: “You fucked me!”

Peter: “Wasn’t that the idea?”

Tanya: “Fuck no, it was a game. Don’t ever come near me in your miserable life again.”

She storms out in his clothes.

At the trial, Tanya is saved from prison not by a legal argument, but by Peter perjuring himself as a witness and claiming the video he made was faked.

After nine months, Peter gets out of prison to see that Tanya is pregnant, though she hints it’s a virgin birth. He becomes a member of Tanya’s extended family, with Eugenie as their child’s wet nurse and himself as Tanya’s manager. Tanya appears content with both her baby and her career. He’s adamant that he is not her slave.

In her book Vicarious Kinks, Umni Khan points out that in films like Preaching and Something Wild, the romance plotline between a dominant woman and a submissive man is resolved by making the man not submissive at all. Audiences can’t accept that a submissive man would be worthy of a woman’s love. Note that Exit to Eden ends with Lisa and Elliot as domme and sub, and it was a commercial and critical flop, though that probably wasn’t the only reason.

While Preaching is certainly a better film than Exit to Eden, a closer look reveals a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions. Preaching is a satirical fairy tale, so the characters aren’t meant to be deep or realistic. Furthermore, BDSM never gets its day in court. Peter still refers to the things Tanya does as “sick”, but he has fallen in love with her. The resolution is personal, not political. We know that the men accused in the real Operation Spanner were never vindicated, so the film is ultimately pessimistic about government and the courts. The best you can hope for is that your persecutors will be revealed as perverts and hypocrites too.

Guinevere Turner, who played Tanya, co-wrote and produced the 2005 biopic The Notorious Bettie Page. Christian Anholt also played Nigel, the male sidekick of Tia Carrere’s archaeologist/adventurer in the Relic Hunter TV Series.

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