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A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us about Sexual Relationships
A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us about Sexual Relationships
by Ogi Ogas
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.33

6 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing Pseudo-Science, 9 Jan. 2014
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I was eager to read this book. It promises to use a huge database of individuals' internet searches to see what this reveals about people's most intimate sexual interests and desires. The book is heavily promoted by Penguin as combining a truly massive database with cutting edge neuroscience. The covers and front matter are full of celebratory reviews (including Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker) to create the impression that we are looking at a work of scientific significance. But it is nothing of the kind. Despite efforts to make it appear so, the book is not based on peer reviewed research and has no real scientific method. The `billions' of data points come down in practice to a far smaller sample of some very basic data that is crudely analysed using bland and simplistic categorisations that do little to probe first impressions.

The core of the study is actually 55 million searches, and 60% of those are simply dropped into 20 big `categories' (Youth, Gay, MILF, Breasts, Baginas, Penises, Amateurs, Lesbian, Black etc) with a long tail of quite `specialised' interests (Pantyhose, Upskirt, Squirting, Hairy, Tickling, Enema etc) with just ten to 150,000 each (for the details of this analysis see the review on my blog colorsofpassion.net). At these levels of generality the categories tell us very little about sexual `interests'.

The much hyped `reasearch' yields little and, worse still, the bulk of the book is really a rambling discussion of certain popular ideas about the differences between male and female sexuality viewed through a lens of repetitive biological and evolutionary determinism and backed up with breezy anecdotes. In fact, we are soon in the world of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus! Men are insatiable pussy chasers and women are swooning softhearts addicted to romance! The message is that men and women are fundamentally different in how they think due to their universal and eternal `hard wired' biological desires. Perhaps this is best epitomised by the authors' ludicrous use of cultural archetypes to define the basic distinctions between male and female sexualities and psychologies. Men are defined as `Elmer Fudd' (a character from Bugs Bunny cartoons obsessively focused on the single task of hunting rabbits!!). Male sexuality is like a `knee-jerk reaction' and "men's brains are designed to objectify females" for evolutionary purposes. Women in contrast are defined as Miss Marple (the TV sleuth that the authors use as their archetype!). They are constantly analysing for relationship potential and prospects of a mate. Thus, while men respond overwhelmingly to sexual cues, women "are more aroused by psychological cues" such as stability, commitment, social status, competence and kindness (notably via `romance').

Locked into crude evolutionary and biological determinism, the book has no sense of the influences of culture, community, experience or choice. There is no sense of the plastic, interconnected and ever changing nature of the human brain. Where is imagination and contradiction? `Cues' are seen as straightforward and uni-directional: but a moments reflection on actual sexual and emotional lives reveals that they are unruly and run in all directions. Ogas and Gaddam are looking for simple answers to simple questions. But these are complex questions that demand complex answers. If the answers are so simple, obvious and unchanging, why do the research? Perhaps that is why they did not do it.


The Diary of a Submissive: A True Story
The Diary of a Submissive: A True Story
by Sophie Morgan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Author and Publisher Play Fast And Loose With 'Truth', 7 Jan. 2013
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When publishers play fast and loose with fiction and memoir for reasons of commercial opportunism they create an uneasy mix of real and fake that annoys and frustrates. That's what Penguin Books have done here. This book was originally published by Xcite Books in September 2010 under the title Subtext: A Modern Day Tale of Female Submission. It made little impression, lingering at Rank 219,691 in the Amazon charts until August 2012. But in the 'Post Fifty Shades' erotica boom, Penguin picked it up and re-published it as The Diary Of A Submissive by Sophie Morgan. In its new guise it quickly moved to Rank 1,238 in the Amazon chart, entering the Amazon Top 50 in November 2012 .

The changes to the text itself were perfunctory, some passages removed a few pages rewritten. Fair enough. A bit of re-marketing and re-packaging can be a great tonic. But not only the title and author changed. The book also changed its publication category from 'Fiction' to 'Memoir'. On the front cover of Subtext the book was promoted under the strap-line "the modern Story Of O", but Diary of A Submissive (to make sure no-one missed the selling-point) was now promoted as "A real-life Fifty Shades Of Grey". At the same time, rather oddly, in the title on its Amazon page the book acquired the subtitle "A True Story" - though those words nowhere appeared on the cover or in the front matter of the actual book!

Even in the small print in the Penguin edition there was absolutely no mention of the book's previous incarnation. This highly dubious publishing practice - which I think amounts to deliberate deception and concealment- brought howls of protest from Amazon reviewers. "I have paid twice for the same book!"..... "Very annoyed to have been tricked into wasting money in this way".

'Fiction' has become 'truth' and you don't know where you stand. The book trades on its authenticity but it is a an untrustworthy mix of real and fake. It presents itself as the 'real world' of BDSM in contrast to Fifty Shades fairy tales. But is it? Is this a Belle De Jour exercise, prettified and witticised with its feet in reality and its head in the clouds? Or is it a wannabe Fifty Shades clone enhanced by 'added truth?

The re-write has been done very crudely. The saddest element is her account of how she meets and falls for her ultimate BDSM lover (James) (pp. 162-174). This is a laughable near parody of Anastasia's meeting with Christian Grey (Fifty Shades pp. 8-16) complete with journalist interviewing tycoon in luxury glass skyscraper; a super-rich man into 'fluffy ethical finance'; his accidental touch that strikes her 'like an electric shock'. James even sports a killer fragrance (though this one has tones of lemon rather than musk) which makes her weak at the knees. (I'm clearly missing something in life. I always thought the Lynx effect was a silly fantasy. But what do I know?!).

Like Anastasia with Christian, Sophie thoroughly dislikes James' smugness in the interview but his swoon-making beauty flusters her and at the end of the interview he invites her out to dinner and against her better judgment she accepts because his presence makes her wobbly from lust and unable to string a sentence together. Thereafter, he turns out to be a confident and experienced dominant who flirts her into bed and into submission through nice dinners and text messages and creaking 50-Shades-style 'repartee'. The perfectly calm and well organized Sophie Morgan suddenly becomes an Anastasia-style clumsy blunderer and seems not to realise that James is a Dom even though that is what she has been searching for in life and this guy has a 'Christian Grey' label glued to his forehead (fortunately without the contracts!!! - though for a moment in the texting duel I thought we were going to go there as well!!!).

This clumsy episode serves to undermine the already tenuous credibility of the storyline. Can it be true that, in the space of (as far as I can judge) about three or four years, Sophie (at University, in a cinema queue, and through a work assignment) meets entirely at random three drop-dead gorgeous men who she subsequently turn out to be experienced Doms who help her to bring out her inner submissive. Hey, what are the percentages? If Only!! (In the original 'novel' the James-figure is a much less adorable and romantic guy who she met through a BDSM contacts website! - clearly truth is stranger than fiction.

But don't be put off by the annoying rubbish side of the book. Shake your head and laugh your way through it, because there is also some real food for thought about dominance and submission in relationships that is worth the trouble of a fairly easy read. (You can see my longer review in my blog colorsofpassion.net) I just wish that Sophie had given us the unvarnished story and not allowed the book to be hijacked by the dictates of the 'romantic fiction' market.


Fifty Shades of Grey
Fifty Shades of Grey
by E L James
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Unravelling the Twilight origins of Fifty Shades, 31 July 2012
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This review is from: Fifty Shades of Grey (Paperback)
Why is the plot of Fifty Shades so sloppy and apparently random? As many commentators have observed, the story is a complete mess and characterisations and motivations are full of glaring gaps. Is this because E.L. James is a rotten writer? Maybe in part. But the real explanation lies in the origins and evolution of the trilogy. To understand the quirks and vagaries of Fifty Shades, you have to go back to its origins in Twilight fanfiction.

Fanfiction does not create characters but inhabits characters and plots that already exist. James has used Twilight Twilight (Twilight Saga)for a bit of literary 'painting by numbers. Her fanfiction 're-imagining' of Twilight in her internet serial Master of the Universe was a fairly leaden-footed transposition of Twilight from poor small town Forks and vampires to super-rich big city Seattle and sadomasochistic Dom/Sub themes. Then it was (minimally) reworked and the character names changed (Edward and Bella became Christian and Ana) and re-marketed to provide a kinky twist for the lucrative Romance market. Her publishers (Random House) have spent enormous effort battling search engines like the Wayback Machine to try to conceal Fifty Shades origin and block access to the old internet versions.

In a full length review ('Unravelling the Mystery' on my blog colorsofpassion.net) I have tracked down and compared the texts of Twilight, the internet fanfiction, and Fifty Shades. This shows that not just the 'macro-story' but the details of the story themselves are slavishly tied to the Twilight template with often bizarre results. Because it was conceived as fanfiction, the shadow beneath the skin of the ur text had to be apparent to fans. The legacy of familiar character and incident had to be carried over. Familiarity had to be preserved. Plot and narrative NEEDED to echo and recall incident and action from the original in ways that fans of the original would recognise. This made fans happy but produced a puzzling and awkward plot when the fanfiction was rebranded and marketed as a fully autonomous work.

This operates at all levels of the book. At the most trivial level, familiar Twilight incidents are simply transposed into the new context. Bella's beat-up truck becomes Ana's Beetle. The first embrace comes when Bella nearly gets knocked down by a truck and when Ana nearly gets knocked down by a bicycle. The flight through the forest in Twilight becomes the magical helicopter and private jet flights in Fifty Shades. More significantly, in Twilight, Edward's extra-sensory capabilities enable him to sense where Bella is at all times and appear just at the right moment to save her from danger. But the very mortal Christian has to effectively 'stalk' Ana through hacking her e-mails, using GPS and getting people to follow her so that he can turn up on the scene just in time to protect or rescue Ana from danger or predatory rivals. Not quite the same glamour to it, I think.

And similarly, many of the other elements of the 'vampire' plot become puzzling and obtuse when transposed to mortaldom. It is not surprising that a vampire might be a loner with a near total absence of other human relationships to inhibit his transforming love affair. But a mortal (29 years old and a handsome billionaire) with no previous girlfriends seems (to say the least) a bit of a Johnny-No-Friends. More generally, the transposition of 'the secret' descends from mysteriously romantic fantasy to, well, sad! "I am a vampire" becomes "I am a sadist". "I never sleep" (because I am a vampire) becomes "I don't sleep with women" (because they make me feel uncomfortable). The prohibition to touch his body (because he is a vampire and his body is cold) becomes "I can't bear people touching me" (because of his abusive past). At the broadest level, the key role of the 'external threat' that makes absolute sense in Twilight becomes a gratuitous and barely credible adventure in Fifty Shades. In Twilight, Edward and Bella are threatened by a rampant homicidal vampire from a predatory rival tribe, a kindred spirit gone bad. But in Fifty Shades, Ana is pursued by her mad rapist boss who appears at first to be a random psycho until it turns out that through a chain of coincidences he has some shadowy link of kinship to Christian which forms the basis of some sort of 'blood grudge'. In consequence, the whole kidnap/blackmail/ransom/self-sacrifice denouement that is a logical and effective part of the Twilight plot comes out as implausible, random or egregious in Fifty Shades.


Whip Smart: A Memoir
Whip Smart: A Memoir
by Melissa Febos
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A Dominatrix in New York, 30 Jun. 2012
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This review is from: Whip Smart: A Memoir (Hardcover)
The New York real estate market stamps its imprint on the city's BDSM dungeons. It is a rare individual dominatrix who can afford to set up her own independent dungeon in Manhattan. Yet there are plenty of clients on the doorstep, men with money seeking a quick high or instant release. And so a small industry of high-class multi-mistress dungeons has sprung up downtown in high-rise blocks alongside offices and commercial premises. These are the famous New York names of BDSM: Pandora's Box (as featured in Nick Broomfield's film Fetishes); Mistress Elizabeth's; Ball and Chain; Den of Iniquity; Rapture; Arena; and the anonymous dungeon that is at the heart of the memoirs of one-time pro-domme Melissa Febos.

Melissa's book is a sort of coming of age story. A young woman with a soul in turmoil, wrestling with the engulfing desires of drugs and sex, and drawn into the business of sexual domination for reasons that even she struggles to understand. It is a world that fascinates and repels her at the same time. She works for three years in a palatial dungeon that caters to the well-heeled men of Manhattan, a world where the Dominatrix is employed as labour power, controlled by the dungeon management and controlled by the clients. Dommes like Melissa are hired through small ads in the Village Voice or other New York papers and magazines and work for an absentee boss and her sleazy officious agent under a regime of strict rules, fines, surprise visits, and non-stop surveillance by ubiquitous CCTV cameras. Unpaid hours sitting around waiting for appointments to come in are punctuated by periodic 'meat markets', competitive line-ups 'like pageant contests' where the girls compete with each other to be picked by clients ten times or more a day.

This is the world Melissa stepped into at the turn of the millennium as a 21-year old college senior with standout grades, looking for money to finance her studies and her drug habit, and captivated by the dark allure of sexual taboos. She told herself it was 'curiosity and 'social tourism', and she knew almost nothing about what she was getting into. But the job made her thrill to her own wildness. She was the possessor of a magic secret that put her above others around her. And she was holding down the best paid acting job in town! Heroin killed the daily stream of fear and cocaine brought a rush that raised her above the grim predictability of the sessions. She became an edgy celebrity in her social circles turning heads with the merest mention of her occupation. And she had cash burning holes in her pockets. It was a lifestyle of cabs to everywhere, fashion, restaurants, beauticians, and a drug habit that could eat up more in a night than she earned from her sessions in a day.

For me, the book was a vivid picture of a corner of a unique corner of the BDSM world and a fascinating unravelling of Melissa's illusions and disillusions. (There is no space here to go into these things but you can read more in the longer review on my blog colorsofpassion.net). Melissa does not dodge her confusions and failings. She is not the person that she thought she was and the dungeon and the drugs finally bring this home to her. In the end there is a rather too neat redemption: she gets off drugs, meets Mr. Right, leaves the dungeon and starts a writing career. But on the way a lot of the pain and muddle is conveyed, and although her self-analysis is perhaps too simplistic, her descriptions of the ups and downs along the way is telling and often gruelling.


Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality
Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality
by Margot Weiss
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Silicon Sadomasochism, 20 Jun. 2012
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BDSM can be nasty and abusive or it can be beautiful and loving - just like any other type of sexual relationship. Is it more prone to be abusive? Do more vulnerable and damaged people gravitate towards it? Or is it a space of transgression and free desire that more and more people are discovering as traditional moral taboos break down? Frankly, no-one knows. Recent research by sociologists and ethnographers (Newmahr Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy, Beckmann The Social Construction of Sexuality and Perversion: Deconstructing Sadomasochism, and now Weiss) is beginning to put together pieces of a more complex picture that questions both old assumptions of sleaze and abuse and new assertions of liberation and emancipation.

Weiss shows how BDSM in the San Francisco Bay area has been totally transformed since the 1980s. The 'old guard' underground scene of Folsom leathermen has gone, wiped out by AIDS and urban redevelopment. Instead BDSM in the Bay Area is now dominated by prosperous middle-class heterosexuals living in the suburbs as much as the city and more organised, more regulated, more sexually diverse, and more 'normalized'.

Weiss critiques the ideas of figures like Foucault, MacKendrick or Carrette, that BDSM has something inherently transgressive and oppositional about it. She insists (and at times labours the point) that BDSM cannot be separated from the real social world it inhabits. The resulting irony is that the new BDSM 'communities' have embraced the emancipatory rhetoric that speaks of how BDSM escapes the clutches of conventional morality and gender and social inequalities, while their actual practices are far more ambiguous than they care to admit, sometimes disrupting old models and freeing desire, sometimes just miming and reproducing old oppressions in new guises.

Weiss studie the Society of Janus, the largest and longest established BDSM 'community' in the Bay Area. She argues that they represent the 'rich' side of the polarised rich/poor society of the Valley and the Bay Area suburbs. They inhabit a casual and non-hierarchical world of work with a strong culture of consumerism, leisure and play. They have no personal experience of the old closeted world of word-of-mouth groups and underground cultures. Instead, the new culture fits comfortably into certain middle class values such as privacy, free choice and autonomy. These middle classes are not risk averse and are ready to escape from their safe lives into high-risk leisures (BDSM for some, but rock-climbing or surfing for others). As she summarises it: "BDSM may be the perfect consumerist sexuality.......[involving] the commodification of sexuality, the marketing of sexual identities and the promotion of sexuality as a consumption-based practice". It appeals to "agile and flexible bodies, coding in the South Bay by day and practising elaborate suspension bondage by night"....... if you have sufficient leisure and money! One result is that BDSM may lose its intimacy and authenticity. It becomes less edgy, less intense: "kumbaya kink and Barney BDSM" or "less like a secret passion, more like a hobby".

By putting BDSM practices firmly in their social and economic contexts, Weiss raises fascinating issues about the meaning of BDSM and how it varies from one social space to another and over time.


Venus in Furs (Penguin Classics)
Venus in Furs (Penguin Classics)
by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The archetype of masochism: defining or misleading?, 11 Jun. 2012
For generations of readers and thinkers, Sacher-Masoch's novel (1870) has defined the archetype of masochism. Countless psychologists and philosophers have turned to this text in search of the quintessence of the 'perversion' that has taken his name. But is this equation helpful? In a way it may be profoundly misleading. Yes, the book contains a potent iconography of masochism: whips, furs, cruel dominant women, slavery. Sacher-Masoch certainly pressed the buttons that made the senses zing. But it is all embedded in very 19th century notions and assumptions about masculinity, marriage, contracts, and the way that power works in bourgeois society. This is not an exposition of universal erotic types. In fact we may need to free masochism from the turgid hand of Sacher-Masoch to understand masochism better. (More on this in a full review in my blog: colorsofpassion.net) Having said that, the book contains wonderful insights into certain profound yearnings and paradoxes of masochism. You have to dig hard and read carefully to grasp them because the book is stylistically tortuous and at times almost unreadable. The sexual episodes are rare and cloaked in euphemisms. As one critic put it: "No one has ever gone so far with so little offense to decency". It is more about the mind than the erotic body. Just one example. The novel illustrates a fundamental paradox of masochism. Sacher-Masoch desires to be the utterly powerless and abject slave of his mistress surrendering all rights and choice. But he ALSO wants to determine the outcome! He wants her to love him, be cruel to him, and spend time deliciously abusing him. ("Be a tyrant, be a despot, but be mine forever"...... "Do as you will with me, only never send me away!") He does NOT want her to say, "Thanks very much. Now go and live on bread and water in my coal shed and don't talk to me, you pathetic wretch!", which is effectively what Wanda does once Severin signs the contract that delivers him to her absolute control. Why would she want to spend her time with a servile toe-rag? She wants a REAL man! It is remarkable that Sacher-Masoch can look these things so directly in the eye, especially when he fell into all the traps he depicts in his own life! [See the autobiography of his wife, Wanda!Confessions of Wanda]

The Penguin translation is too 'modern' for my taste. I prefer the more traditional (more accurate) earlier translation of 1971 reprinted in Gilles Deleuze book Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty & Venus in Furs which has more of a feel of the period and also contains a fascinating philosophical and psychological analysis by Deleuze.


Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy
Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy
by Staci Newmahr
Edition: Paperback
Price: £18.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Behind the scenes of a BDSM comunity, 8 Jun. 2012
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BDSM 'communities' (long-confine to SF, LA and NY) are now becoming common in big US cities. Who are the participants? What do they do? What are their views about sex, ethics, politics etc? Staci Newmahr is an academic sociologist who became a 'participant observer' in one of these groups (probably in Buffalo or Albany?) for three years to find out: that's one tough sociologist! Was it worth it? Well, yes and no. She is very good on clearing up conceptual and moral dross about violence, consent and pain. And her picture of the community (some 200-250 members) is fascinating. Frankly it does not sound very attractive (even to someone who is into these things)! She portrays this immersive all-encompassing lifestlye that attracts marginal people and misfits. Overweight, badly dressed, socially awkward, living in 'catastrophically messy living environments'. Quite off-putting to outsiders and utterly different from the slick lifestyle middle class communities in Cailfornia, for example (see Margot Weiss, Techniques of PleasureTechniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality). The group hangs together around regular semi-public play parties which seem to be rather highly regulated and limited affairs. Not a lot of wild sex and intense erotic passion here. In fact Newmahr questions whether these groups are about 'sex' at all, rather than the creation of 'community', status and fellowship for people who feel themselves to be deviants and outsiders. The moral and political world of the players also seems surprisingly non-transgressive: quite a lot of sexism and patriarchy, not much disruption of traditional sex roles. Above all Newmahr sees the key dynamics as being 'playing with power' , using dominance and submission to find catharsis, psychological intensity, healing, and flow. The portrayal of the group is rather bland: she does not bring out the ebb and flow of personalities, the jealousies, the power struggles, the crash and burn. And her own experience is hidden away in deep shadow. Was she really such a naive academic researcher? What impact did this have on her, or her sexuality? We are not told. More disturbingly it does not provide context or meaning for the glimpses she gives of her own experiences in a number of short vignettes. At first sight it looks like a cycle of her getting roughed up by rather unpleasant men! What's going on? Is she a naive in the hands of borderline psychotics? Or an adventurer and provocateur finding partners who can push her into the dark and choppy waters of non-consensual play? I just can't tell. But it is a very interesting book (there is a full length review on my blog). Newmahr digs deep and is brave and fascinating. I just wish she had been able to speak more frankly about the sex and violence.


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