Battle of the BDSM Novels: Master of O vs. Fifty Shades of Grey

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It’s official: The Fifty Shades of Grey film is a worldwide phenomenon. Days ago the movie topped $500 million at the global box office, and it doesn’t seem like things are set to slow any time soon (the film will be released in Egypt this week and in India in the near future). But long before Fifty Shades of Grey created a national frenzy of book sales and a class-action lawsuit surrounding faulty lube, Story of O, Pauline Réage’s 1954 erotic novel about female submission, was creating its own uproar in France. Réage was the pen name of esteemed French journalist Dominique Aury, who had written the book for her employer and lover Jean Paulhan. Obscenity charges were leveled against the bondage classic, as was a longtime publicity ban. Aury remained mum about her true identity and only revealed that she was the book’s author just before her death in 1998. (Another reveal? Dominique Aury was also a pen name. Her true name was Anne Desclos.)

In a nod to Réage’s history-making erotica, author Ernest Greene has published Master of O, a bondage novel set in Los Angeles that reimagines Story of O from a dominant male’s point of view. A long-time member of the BDSM community in L.A. and executive editor of Hustler’s Taboo, Greene has also written, produced, and directed over 500 adult titles. In short, he has done enough fieldwork to give an authentic telling of what goes on inside L.A.’s playrooms.

Here Greene talks with us about his qualms with Fifty Shades, what BDSM really involves, and where to find power play-style kink in L.A.

How do you feel the storyline of Fifty Shades of Grey compares to Story of O or Master of O?
All three exist in completely different universes. My book is a reinvention of the Story of O set in modern Los Angeles against the backdrop of a modern society in which consensual BDSM is not unusual. In Master of O BDSM is a popular practice, and the people involved in it are all knowledgeable and eager and enthusiastic.

Fifty Shades of Grey, on the other hand, is not really a BDSM book, as the author and everybody else seems to agree; it uses dominant and submissive motifs as a way of selling a very conventional and—in my opinion—an unoriginal story about how a bad boy with mommy issues is healed by the love of a virtuous woman. That is a standard romantic trope, and I would have no objection to it if it weren’t set against a completely unreal conception of what DS and BDSM are about.

Author Ernest Greene.
Author Ernest Greene.

Photograph by Steve Diet Goedde

Do you feel as though the film and books are not a very accurate depiction of that world?
Not only is it “not very accurate;” I’d say it’s defamation. The behavior it depicts is in so many ways opposite to the ethics of our community. Everything we do is based on the idea that BDSM is sex play between consenting adults who are informed in what they are doing. They are doing so not just willingly but enthusiastically. Fifty Shades of Grey is a story about a stalker with mommy issues who’s trying to work it out through his kink and who doesn’t care very much about the enjoyment and participation of his partner. That is not what we’re about. As such, I think it presents a very dangerous misconception. Another dangerous misconception that it repeats is that people who are interested in various kinds of power exchange-based sex play are all child abuse victims who are trying to engage in DIY psychotherapy. That’s not a way you can accurately characterize what now numbers hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people.

The book and the film have gotten an undeniably enthusiastic response. Do you think they are giving any positive attention to the BDSM community?
I like to compare it to Gone with the Wind, which gave people an unrealistic view of the Antebellum South as a place full of dashing plantation owners and blushing Southern Belles and, of course, lots of happy, well-treated slaves. That’s an inaccurate portrayal of the South before the Civil War. I think these books and the film created an alternative world that leaves behind a false impression of what said world is all about. So yes, it’s good it put us on the radar, but not so good in that it put us on the radar as a potentially hostile target.

What message were you trying to get across in Master of O?
One of the things that I set out to do was to portray dominant heterosexual guys as something other than figures chiseled from granite, people with no personalities, people with no sense of humor, people with no compassion. They’re not like that at all. Most of the literature about BDSM is told from the point of view of the submissive partner, which is obviously a very dramatic position because they are the person to whom things happen. But it is a journey for their dominant partner, too. So I wanted to talk about that experience. What is it like from the other end of the whip?

I also thought that Los Angeles bears some resemblance to post-war Paris, which sets the scene in Story of O. It’s a place of self-reinvention, a place where popular culture is booming at all times, a place where people wish to be involved. There are all kinds of activities barely beneath the surface that are quite surprising, unexpected and interesting. It’s a city full of all kinds of people doing all kinds of things that are interesting, some of them in public and some of them very much not in public. I wanted to give it a noir-ish feeling, and I think at its best it kind of gets there.

For our readers who interested in this lifestyle, what are some places you recommend they check out in L.A.?
Los Angeles, in a way I never could have imagined years ago, has become a mecca for all kinds of people who are interested all kinds of power play, BDSM, and DS. There are at least a dozen very active organizations, and there are at least a dozen venues where you can go and see and even participate in BDSM on any given weekend. Of course there are clubs you can go to every Saturday night, like Bar Sinister or a number of others, where you’ll find a younger generation of players doing the kind of play you can do in public. It mostly involves rope bondage and things of that kind. They’re putting on performances and other people are appreciatively watching. There are also wonderful places like like The Stock Room or Pleasure Chest, where where you can buy all kinds of good, workable, practical playthings.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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