In her classic erotic novel, Dominique Aury explores how love can sometimes push us to extremes only to please someone.
What would you do if the person you love asked you to become a sex slave in a secret group that practices BDSM? I, for one, and I bet many of you too, would go like, “WTF? I would run away from that person immediately!” But is it really that simple? One more question: what would you say if I told you that the book we’re going to talk about today that poses this question is considered a classic masterpiece that everyone must read at least once in their lifetime, and more importantly, a great example of feminist literature? I must admit that I started reading the book with that in mind, but I hadn’t reached the fifth page when I had to stop, wondering what was I was reading, since so far it didn’t look that feminist to me.
So, to give you a little more context, Story of O opens with O getting into a car with a man she's seeing, when suddenly, he starts asking her to take off her clothes in a very demanding tone without giving her an explanation. They arrive at a château in the suburbs of Paris, and the man orders her to go in and basically do whatever she’s asked without asking any questions. Before I spoil the rest of the story, she's taken to this secret society where she’s trained to become a sex slave. But as I mentioned before, this isn’t garden-variety vanilla sex: this particular society practices a form of BDSM in which the women (because there are many of them) have to reach a level of submission that even involves them having their labia pierced or terrible scarring in their bodies.
I’m not saying that BDSM is anti-feminist. All I'm saying is that O’s (and perhaps most of the other women’s) participation in it shocked me as a reader. I mean, she enters this society because the person she’s with asks her to do so. Once she's gotten the hang of it, she’s sent to one of the toughest members of the society and eventually ends up falling in love with him. What the novel proposes, then, is that this woman’s purpose in life is pleasing the people she loves even when this is taken to the extreme, which is what really caught my attention. Now, after I finished reading it, I wanted to get more answers to the many questions I had, so I decided to do some research.
First, the novel was published in 1954 under the name of Pauline Réage. Naturally, it caused a huge controversy in the more conservative society of the fifties, but at the same time, it captivated readers thanks to the direct and matter-of-fact language it used when describing the erotic or sexual scenes, to the point that for decades people believed that it had actually been written by a man. It wasn’t until forty years after its publication (in 1994) when Anne Cécile Desclos (who also went by the pseudonym of Dominique Aury) confessed that she was the real author of the novel that had captivated millions over the years.
What's interesting about this is that Aury was already an acclaimed author in French literature by the time she wrote Story of O. She was awarded a Légion d’Honneur and and seemed to be a very serious person in the public eye. So, the question many were asking is: from where did she get the inspiration or why did she decide to write such a different text? Once she came out as the author of one of the most important erotic novels out there, she explained that she had been acquainted with the genre after reading many erotic books from her father's collection as a teen, but the main inspiration for the text was actually her lover, Jean Paulhan, a writer and director of the literary magazine Nouvelle Revue Française, where Aury also collaborated.
According to her, Paulhan was an avid reader of erotic literature, so she decided to write it as a way to seduce him and show how much she loved him. In an article written by Geraldine Bedell for The Guardian, she collects testimonies of people close to Aury and Paulhan, and they say he was kind of a womanizer. In her own words, seeing that their relationship was starting to fizzle, she decided to write him some erotic stories. What's interesting is that in some ways, she’s clearly a real-life O in that she’s willing to do anything to be with the person she loves, but at the same time, by doing so she’s actually breaking with all the social patterns and values of her time, which is perhaps why this novel is considered a feminist novel.
Actually, this novel is a feminist text and very important one because it's written from a female perspective describing and sharing her experiences and her sexuality. If you think about it, to this day, even though we should be more open about this subject, many women (and men) don’t feel comfortable exploring their sexuality in an open way. The novel breaks with all those taboos we still carry with us, not only by portraying a sexual practice that’s extremely controversial to many, but also relationships between women, for example. This is a very interesting point about the novel: Aury shows women having sex with each other freely, something revolutionary at the time for literature. She's even discussed how, although O can be seen as the most submissive character on Earth, at the end of the day there's a possibility of her using that submission as a manipulation too in her favor (which would be interesting to keep in mind for further discussion).
What matters about this novel and makes it one of those books you have to read before you die is the question we all have to face at least once in our lives: are we willing to risk it all, even our humanity, for someone we love? But more importantly, where are the limits of love and how to know when we’ve crossed that line without even noticing it? In my opinion, the novel is open to different interpretations. The story is all about how sacrifices don't always get us what we want, and in a moment like the one we’re living right now, that’s something really worth thinking about. At the same time, although I see it as a novel about failure, it’s also valuable in the way it shows how our desires and sexuality can drive our existence up to unimaginable levels.
Here are other books you should add to your reading list:
Images by @irisalbaphotographer