Theory

Painful pleasures: Sacrifice, consent, and the resignification of BDSM symbolism in The Story of O and The Story of Obi

Anne Kustritz

Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This paper examines slash fan fiction's contributions to BDSM discourses and symbolism. BDSM is culturally delegitimated as a sexual pathology, and protest against it highlights broad concerns about sexual consent within patriarchy while also misdirecting unease about sexual coercion onto the ritualized and eroticized exchange of power rather than social systems of domination. Contrasting the BDSM classic The Story of O with The Story of Obi, a Star Wars–based slash rewrite, facilitates a conceptual separation between erotic domination and the historical and cultural contexts that give shape to individual enunciations of sexualized power exchange, particularly by shifting from a psychoanalytic paradigm to consideration of chivalric "suffering for love." By calling upon the extensive shared knowledge of fan readers and the symbolism attached to the sexual conjunction of two same-sexed bodies, authors of slash fan fiction produce a constantly proliferating array of BDSM representations that challenge the speciation of erotic domination as an inherently destructive, unidirectional deadlock. They thus create unique narrative and semiotic tools for rethinking erotic uses of power.

[0.2] Keywords—BDSM; Bondage; Chivalry; Erotic domination; Fan fiction; Informed consent; Masochism; Obi-Wan Kenobi; Qui-Gon Jinn; Sadism; Sexual binaries; Sexual coercion; Sexual consent; Sexual difference; Sexual slavery; Slash; Star Wars; The Story of O; Submission

Kustritz, Anne. 2008. Painful pleasures: Sacrifice, consent, and the resignification of BDSM symbolism in The Story of O and The Story of Obi. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2008.0031.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In phrasing reminiscent of her characterization of pornography as "a theatre of types, never of individuals" (1969:51), Susan Sontag reduces sadomasochism to the performance of blank, biologically driven roles, writing, "Sadomasochism has always been the furthest reach of the sexual experience: when sex becomes most purely sexual, that is, severed from personhood, from relationships, from love…the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death" (1974:105). Sontag's comments mirror a widespread cultural delegitimation of ritualized erotic domination, consolidated when psychoanalysts first defined BDSM practices and fantasies as immature and destructive sexual pathologies, not merely things people do but reflective of a separable psychological class or type (note 1). Despite the work of many sex-positive feminists and queer theorists, ethnographic evidence suggesting that BDSM is just one of many relatively banal sexual styles in average couples' erotic repertoires, and the increasing visibility of BDSM-influenced imagery in popular culture, grim pronouncements like Sontag's, linking BDSM to a dangerous loss of self and a compulsive spiral inevitably ending in death, remain common (Beckmann 2001). Although academic accounts have increasingly acknowledged the pleasurable aspects of power, several strands of psychoanalytic and feminist theory remain skeptical of the sanity and authenticity of desires directed toward pain, manipulation, degradation, humiliation, or lack of agency.

[1.2] Yet excesses of protest also symbolically sanitize normalized modes of sexuality by redirecting doubts about the validity and morality of sexual consent within a patriarchal, heteronormative society onto a villainized out-group. Contrasting The Story of O, which maintains a privileged position within BDSM communities and discourses, with The Story of Obi, a radical subcultural homoerotic rewrite, facilitates a conceptual separation between erotic domination and the historical and cultural contingencies of oppression that give shape to individual enunciations of that theme. By calling upon the extensive shared knowledge of fan readers and the symbolism attached to the sexual conjunction of two same-sexed bodies, authors of slash fan fiction produce a constantly proliferating array of BDSM representations that challenge the speciation of erotic domination as an inherently destructive, unidirectional deadlock and create unique narrative and semiotic tools for rethinking erotic uses of power.

2. Painful pleasures in text and context

[2.1] Critics of BDSM repeatedly characterize ritualized sexual power exchange as inherently dehumanizing and thus describe desires and behaviors that make up such exchange as dangerously self-abnegating, particularly for classes of people socialized toward self-sacrifice. However, rather than being a realm of primal sexuality loosed from the relational bonds and rules of society and emotion, BDSM practices, fantasies, and representations extract pleasure from hybrid natural-cultural bodies by manipulating not only corporeal sensations, but also the constructed meanings through which individuals come to understand and know their own and others' bodies and desires. By strategically reversing or magnifying binaries of sex, gender, class, and virtue, BDSM may reflect upon, satirize, or amplify existing social hierarchies. In this vein, Jørgen Johansen (2004) argues that the Marquis de Sade's genre-defining works posed a limited subversive potential. If BDSM may be called a theater of types, those types are explicitly social and interpolate historically specific categories of people (Noyes 1997). Just as dominatrix fantasies depend upon a dominant patriarchal order for their taboo allure, a homeowner sexually disciplining his maid carried vastly different connotations in de Sade's aristocratic era than it does within the present capitalist order.

[2.2] Reliance upon preexisting systems of sexual hierarchy can make BDSM play nearly indistinguishable from dominant sexuality as prescribed by ideological and repressive apparatuses. Although role reversals also abound, the declaration that one is free to choose sexual abjection often appears suspect when the declarer is a member of a group socially and legally defined by sexual submission. In her consideration of pop star Madonna's published experimentation with a variety of exotic sexual practices throughout her career, theorist bell hooks connects BDSM with larger social restraints on heterosexual exchange. She writes,

[2.3] Concluding her declaration with the insistence that "the difference between abuse and S/M is the issue of responsibility," Madonna neatly deflects attention away from the real issue of "choice." To focus on choice rather than responsibility she would have had to acknowledge that within patriarchal culture, where male domination of women is promoted and male physical and sexual abuse of women is socially sanctioned, no open cultural climate exists to promote consensual heterosexual power play in any arena, including the sexual. Few women have the freedom to choose an S/M sexual practice in a heterosexual relationship. (1994:18)

[2.4] Until recent decades, the legal impossibility of marital rape (still considered an oxymoron in American military law), the invisibility of domestic abuse, the economic privations and social scorn associated with single life for women, and the numerous difficulties involved in divorce constructed legal marriage as a kind of compulsory male-dominant sadomasochistic lifestyle with no safe words and no end or "outside" to the scene. Thus, for some feminists like hooks, women's masochism and submission result not from rational choice or legitimate desire, but from socialization in a culture that values female passivity and denies the legitimacy of lifestyles other than reproductive patriarchal heteronormativity.

[2.5] Some theorists thus attribute desires and emotions that individuals experience as deeply personal and real to external forces that uniformly determine the lives of everyone interpolated within the category "woman," seeing them as the result of group membership rather than of unique identities and experiences. Yet demanding that the only truly "authentic" and thus believable desires bear absolutely no relation to any external or biological force also posits an impossibly privileged position beyond discourse, culture, and language, instigating a fruitless search for the Real. Skepticism about participants' consent to BDSM scenes and relationships thus mirrors larger debates over all subjects' ability to act in their own interests or effect change when their consciousness remains constantly enveloped, influenced, and determined by ideology, which acts even before birth. What circumstances might uncouple a demand for erotic pain and domination from the biological determinism associated with the female body and the ideological determinism of patriarchal brainwashing?

[2.6] Slash fan fiction's use of same-sex characters from previously published sources in a constantly proliferating array of erotic adventures enables and encourages unique representations of BDSM that prompt radical reevaluation of sexual domination's meaning and effects, especially for a largely female readership. In her article "That Was Then: This Is Now: Ex-changing the Phallus," Lynda Hart (1993) argues that under some circumstances, same-sex bodies complicate and deconstruct naturalized associations between physical openness, femininity, masochism, and submission. Although female/female slash reinforces Hart's conclusion that lesbian sexuality implies a type of power exchange at the root of BDSM that exceeds the phallic and a type of phallic power that exceeds the physical, male/male slash between two same-sexed and same-gendered characters challenges her reliance on the butch-femme dichotomy, disrupting the notion that BDSM must rely on the supposedly irresolvable polarity of either biological or performative sexual difference. Femslash, m/m slash, and het writing each offer different horizons of possibility for the representation of BDSM, and writing from each mode can offer valuable contributions to a project of rethinking and resignifying the sexual body. However, some critiques are more easily performed or only possible within certain modes. Lesbian sexuality can exclude, decenter, and denaturalize the phallic in particular ways that sexual representations featuring anatomical men cannot. Likewise, experimental heterosexual stories, particularly in scenarios of female penetrative access to male bodies, can level their own critiques of heteronormative assumptions about gender and agency. Each of these modes of storytelling offers singular and valuable tools for relearning how to think, speak, and enact sexual identities, fantasies, and behaviors. Thus, whereas stories featuring BDSM in heterosexual or femslash fan fiction may perform their own important work, the erotic conjunction of two same-sexed male bodies in BDSM slash forces a unique reappraisal of those sexual destinies and action potentials associated with one or another set of genitals.

[2.7] In addition, even in its most brief, sexually oriented forms, fan fiction BDSM occurs between characters individuated by richly detailed psychological and interpersonal backstories and who exist within a particular cultural and historical context, not between blank social types in a privileged space outside law and society. Exploring the advantages of writing in relation to a preestablished canon in two self-published fan essays, Jane Mortimer (1997b) suggests that unlike original fiction, which expends considerable time establishing basics of characterization, fan fiction immediately capitalizes upon readers' depth of knowledge and sense of familiarity and intimacy with the minutiae of a particular fictional world and its inhabitants. Specifically with regard to erotic writing, Mortimer explains,

[2.8] What I'm talking about is a seamless, mergeless whole, in which no character can be substituted for another, no sex scene can happen at any place other than where it is, and where not only is the world of the story reflected in the sex scenes, we learn more about that world by watching these people do it—because we learn their reactions to that world in their reactions to each other. (1997a)

[2.9] Thus, a profoundly character-oriented sexuality, premised upon a continuity of meaning between sexual behavior and behavior in other situations, emerges from an interaction between the skillful machinations of fan authors and the background knowledge of fan readers. Even in BDSM, fan fiction characters resist complete reduction to man/woman, femme/butch, top/bottom, and master/slave binaries, not only because many characters' earned masculinity grants entrance into a paradoxical realm of both normalcy and individuality, but also because, even before the story's inception, these particular characters carry meaning for readers, and for other characters, that far exceeds interpolation within the constraints of those categories alone (Warner 2000). Because of a vast surplus of detail, in fan fiction sadomasochistic pleasures entail a much more personal, idiosyncratic purpose and origin than that sustained by the clash of two empty social types. Character choices thereby become attributable to individual particularity rather than group membership alone, inviting readers to enter into complicated webs of emotional and experiential recognition rather than merely assigning equivalence according to corresponding positions within social hierarchies.

[2.10] Further, a slash story's position as one among thousands of equally plausible relational patterns creates a clearer sense of choice than any singular story, whose narrative closure suggests that the characters' ends are inevitable and irrevocable. Although trends and tropes certainly exist, forms of innovation and stylistic vogue change rapidly in Internet-facilitated exchanges, while few if any structures of representation span the entire fractured landscape of slash microcultures. Serving alternately as ideal, provocation, and horror, BDSM carries no fixed meaning within fan circles and contributes to larger fan discourses on the limits and meaning of equality, happiness, and power (note 2). As readers follow the rapidly expanding erotic adventures of any given pair of characters, they may read the same power struggles repeatedly resolved in a variety of genres, and although BDSM narratives may present the most vividly sexual negotiation of power, they are unlikely to always contain the most dystopian version of that negotiation that readers encounter. BDSM roles thus fail to define characters whose lives readers experience as multiple.

3. Suffering for love in The Story of O(bi)

[3.1] Fan author Lilith Sedai's slash fan fiction adaptation of a paradigmatic BDSM classic highlights some of the unique contributions produced and promoted by the use of previously published same-sex characters within the context of a fan writing community. L'histoire d'O (The Story of O), published under the pseudonym "Pauline Réage," may claim a place among the most well-known and influential BDSM stories, such as the literary works of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. It is perhaps the most important erotic novel of the 20th century. First written as an erotic letter intended to regain her lover's waning interest, it was published in an expanded, novel-length version in June 1954, and it won the Prix des Deux Magots a year later (Bedell 2004). Sedai's highly acclaimed Star Wars–based rewrite, L'histoire d'Obi (The Story of Obi), also reaches novel length, coming in a bit longer than Réage's book, and when published (first on the Master_Apprentice mailing list, then on September 30, 2001, in the Master_Apprentice Web archive), it carried an NC-17 rating and warnings for BDSM content. Both stories chronicle a naive young person's initiation into sadomasochistic ritual. However, although sexualized violence and degradation lead Réage's O through an inevitable decline toward total negation and death, Sedai's use of a same-sex pairing and her characters' canon background from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace as well as the Jedi Apprentice books (Lucas 1999; Watson 1999; Wolverton 1999) facilitates her renegotiation of BDSM's fatalistic reputation.

[3.2] The Story of O and The Story of Obi consistently question their protagonists' ability to actively choose to participate in BDSM practice, as ideological and repressive external forces undermine the credibility of their agency, although O and Obi repeatedly give their consent. The two protagonists' struggles to provide or withdraw consent, and thereby to exert control over the narrative and their own bodily reality, mark a site of key symbolic importance for considering the moral and legal implications of BDSM and slash's contributions to that discourse. Both tales begin with an initial request for consent. When brought to the Roissy mansion by her lover for her initiation, O consents to accompany him inside and meekly agrees to each of his conditions for entrance. However, although O repeatedly offers her consent throughout the novel, she most often does so in complete ignorance of the acts she has sanctioned. Upon learning the full extent of her masters' plans, she often protests or attempts to escape, only to have her previously granted "blanket consent" and inability to physically resist flaunted before her by her captors. Her lover René explains his play with her consent in these lines:

[3.3] It's because it's easy for you to consent that I want from you what it will be impossible for you to consent to, even if you agree ahead of time, even if you say yes now and imagine yourself capable of submitting. You won't be able not to revolt. Your submission will be obtained in spite of you, not only for the inimitable pleasure that I and others will derive from it, but also that you will be made aware of what has been done to you. (Réage 1965:32)

[3.4] O's situation is extreme, because for organizational, ethical, and legal reasons, many BDSM communities advocate that practitioners follow a code known as "safe, sane, and consensual," which requires that all participants provide consent while of sound mind and after fully understanding the scope and risks of each activity to be undertaken (stein 2002). Although some practitioners favor edgier behaviors that other community members judge unsafe, including a kind of binding consent, most also require that participants have a safe word. Calling out the safe word decreases the intensity of activities or even immediately ends a scene, in effect permitting participants to withdraw their consent at any time. However, even in its most binding form, consent within BDSM practice must remain informed to meet legal and community limits. The concept of informed consent was codified in the Nuremberg Code (http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/references/nurcode.htm) as a response to Holocaust atrocities and a prerequisite for doctors and researchers who use human subjects. It requires the absence of coercion and full disclosure of all pertinent information. Debates regarding the ethical place of deceit in research with human subjects consistently invoke the logical paradox of consent to a set of circumstances that participants do not or cannot fully understand. Throughout The Story of O, knowledge deliberately withheld by dominant characters renders O's uninformed consent virtually meaningless.

[3.5] Instead of affirming O's willing participation, her ritual pronouncement and withdrawal of consent serves as one of several narrative strategies that progressively dehumanize her. O's agreement to participate rests upon the assumption that she has a self with desires and a will that makes a difference and can impose its dictates on the outside word through her words; as a performative statement, the act of giving consent assumes that voicing or withholding consent creates two different realities. By repeatedly requesting, receiving, and undermining her consent, O's masters demonstrate her complete lack of agency, flaunting her inability to either prevent or demand abuse. O never fully understands this paradox, although by the novel's close she begins to appreciate the extent of her masters' coercive force. When René and her new master, Sir Stephen, require O to help bring a new girl to Roissy, O begins to appreciate that she had exerted only illusory control over her life. "'You'll never get her to agree to go to Roissy,' O said. 'I won't? In that case,' René retorted, 'we'll force her to'" (Réage 1965:144). René's utterly nonchalant belief that he can force any woman into sexual slavery profoundly undermines O's consent to willingly enter that position. O begins to recognize her total lack of agency as she observes that it is impossible for the women inducted into Roissy to say "no," that their "no" only provides erotic delectation for their "owners."

[3.6] "After we've come back from the Midi," O said. "I'll take you, or René will."

[3.7] "To see what it's like, I wouldn't mind that," Jacqueline went on, "but only to see what it's like."

[3.8] "I'm sure that can be arranged," said O, though she was convinced of the contrary…once she was in, there would be enough valets, chains, and whips to teach Jacqueline to obey. (Réage 1965:175)

[3.9] Thus it becomes apparent that although O eagerly consents to all manner of punishment and degradation, she was never truly in a position to refuse any portion of these tortures.

[3.10] Like The Story of O, The Story of Obi presents a series of narrative complications surrounding the issue of consent. Lilith Sedai's retelling develops aspects of the canon relationship between the frequently slashed pair Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn, characters from the Star Wars films and books. By setting The Story of Obi within the period of Obi-Wan's apprenticeship to the Jedi master Qui-Gon, Sedai immediately establishes an inherently unequal power distribution, one within which present legal opinion would consider sexual consent tenuous at best. Evidence from published Star Wars canon indicates that Jedi apprenticeship entails both a teaching relationship and a vow of absolute obedience by the apprentice, an institutionalized imbalance that delegitimates sexual exchange between masters and apprentices even more than do most relationships between a minor and an adult "in a position of trust." Stories that pair the two vary between ignoring the problem completely, disregarding Qui-Gon's canonical death and allowing Obi-Wan to age and attain the fully adult title of Jedi knight, and dealing explicitly with the meaning of consent in such circumstances and the potential social, cultural, and legal ramifications such a couple might face even a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (note 3). Obi-Wan's ability to consent to a BDSM relationship with Qui-Gon therefore reflects and magnifies issues inherent in Obi-Wan's consent to any relationship with his master.

[3.11] The Story of Obi begins with an unusual deferral of consent to Obi-Wan. Although Sedai extrapolates from Star Wars canon to posit that only masters and knights may generally accept a mission from the Jedi Council, leaving apprentices bound to follow wherever their master leads, in this case the right to refuse a mission falls to Obi-Wan because of the assignment's special circumstances. As a hybrid diplomatic, spiritual, and warrior order, the Jedi in Star Wars canon perform a variety of tasks for the government of the interplanetary Republic, including peacekeeping, political negotiation, and covert operations. As the mission outlined by the Council in The Story of Obi requires Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon to go undercover as a slave and slaveholder in order to investigate whether a newly discovered planet is suitable for admittance into the Republic, the Council allows Obi-Wan to decline the necessary trials involved in assuming the slave role. Sedai explains the subterfuge as the result of two conflicting Republic laws, the right to religious freedom and a ban on slavery. The Riadans claim that their religious practices require a "humane" form of sexual slavery. After consenting to assume the role of Qui-Gon's personal slave for the duration of their mission to the planet Ria, Obi-Wan departs with Qui-Gon to investigate and weigh this claim (note 4).

[3.12] Although it takes a good portion of the book for a reader to discover all those forces that, from the very outset of her journey, undermined O's ability to consent, Sedai explicitly and clearly erases Obi-Wan's consent at its very pronouncement and even earlier, in the author's notes preceding the story itself, which state, "Obi-Wan neglects to pay careful attention to a briefing, agrees to accept an unusual mission assignment, and lets himself and Qui-Gon in for more trouble than either of them bargained for." Like O, Obi-Wan commits himself to a set of circumstances he does not fully grasp, although unlike O, he, having been inattentive, is solely responsible for his uninformed consent, and throughout the remainder of the story he retains the ability to meaningfully say "no." The paradox of Obi-Wan's story lies in his repeated expression of control over the narrative and over other characters, including his master, through his informed consent to greater and greater acts of sexual submission.

[3.13] Thereafter, as Obi-Wan adopts behaviors and attitudes required for a successful subterfuge, his long-repressed erotic love for Qui-Gon comes to the fore. Although he is acting as Qui-Gon's sexual slave for the purpose of inconspicuously gathering evidence, Obi-Wan's genuine emotional attachment colors the extent to which he adapts to his role. When circumstances require his public flogging for the infraction of looking a free man in the face, an act also forbidden to O, Qui-Gon falters at the brutality required by his role as a slave master. Obi-Wan uses his consent to transform the face-saving violence into an expression of his trust in Qui-Gon to do him as little harm as possible, and thus also into a mark of his devotion. When another faux pas by Obi-Wan requires his branding, Qui-Gon flatly refuses, ready to forsake their mission and expose their deceit. Obi-Wan persists, again maintaining their duty to the Republic by giving his consent to wear the violent mark as a symbol of submission to his role as a Jedi and his love for Qui-Gon. Qui-Gon rightly concludes that Obi-Wan's consent constitutes a demand, hardly a passive bending to external demands.

[3.14] Obi-Wan squirmed his way free, just enough to turn his head to Qui-Gon, catching his Master's anguished eye. "Brand me. I beg your favor, my Master!"

[3.15] […] "Would you, Master? Would you deny me the chance to wear your mark…in love?" Obi-Wan's eyes were bright with unshed tears.

[3.16] "Slaves have no rights." Qui-Gon felt the rage dissipating and his control along with it. He seized at the crumbling walls in desperation. "And you have no right to demand this of me." (Sedai 2001)

[3.17] In the face of Obi-Wan's demanding willingness to subsume himself both in the mission and in his adoration of Qui-Gon himself, the Jedi master relents. Unlike O, whose false consent merely serves to confirm her absolute powerlessness, Obi-Wan's consent masters his master and shapes reality for both of them.

[3.18] Not only does The Story of Obi demonstrate a wider range of potential BDSM subjectivities than is offered by The Story of O, but Sedai's interpretation also challenges the speciation of eroticized power exchange as the practice of a pathologized out-group. Obi-Wan's determination to transform his physical punishments into a proof of his devotion situates The Story of Obi within genre conventions that predate von Sacher-Masoch and the psychoanalytic construction of masochism. Arguing that before the late 19th century, literature portrayed a man's submission to his beloved's dictates as a normal stage of courtship, Carol Siegel suggests in Male Masochism (1995) that Victorian psychoanalysts pathologized male chivalric submission in the form of "suffering for love" as a way of consolidating masculinity against the threat of first-wave feminism. Rather than pathology, Siegel argues that the term masochism reflects a cultural stigma on male submission, suggesting that

[3.19] within the context provided by an overview of past representations of love, it would seem that the articulation of desires to fall down in worship at the feet of the beloved, to be teased, or even struck by her must be considered just idiosyncratic variations of the role of lover, of no more diagnostic significance than desires to see her in a silk dress or to kiss her fingers. (1995:10)

[3.20] O likewise claims to accept her suffering as a proof of her love, reflecting after her first foray into Roissy, "She did not wish to die, but if torture was the price she had to pay to keep her lover's love, then she only hoped he was pleased that she had endured it" (Réage 1965:26). However, she has not made a conscious choice among alternatives; O's assertion that she endures trials to demonstrate the depths of her love functions as a rationalization by which she may delude herself that she has some control. That this is a delusion becomes increasingly clear as the man O supposedly loves so very powerfully takes a new lover and transfers O's ownership to a man she neither knows nor loves. Obi-Wan's sufferings may more readily align with the traditions outlined by Siegel; they constitute a deliberate sacrifice intended to demonstrate his worthiness to his beloved. Not only is Obi-Wan able to escape punishment by force or stealth (options available to him because of his status as a Jedi, not his status as a man), but unlike O, who repeatedly withdraws her consent when faced with the true nature of her condition, he never falters in his resolve; even while in pain Obi-Wan chooses to accept the price of proving his devotion.

[3.21] Furthermore, as Obi-Wan becomes more fully aware of and submissive to his love and desire for Qui-Gon, he also gains greater power through oneness with the Force, a mystical power in Star Wars mythology that is produced by every living thing and binds the universe together, and whose manipulation gives the Jedi their supernatural abilities. (The Force is described in ways reminiscent of some practices in Eastern spirituality.) By fully accepting himself, Obi-Wan masters the doubts and fears that lead to failure and evil in the films' canon, and therefore each act of submission, degradation, and humiliation suffered by Obi-Wan leads him deeper into the source of his power. Like Zen Buddhism (on which many martial arts films have been based), Jedi philosophy considers the self within the context of collective needs, and on a metaphorical level the supernatural abilities of the Jedi serve as a manifestation of what any individual with an enlightened purity of purpose may accomplish. Unlike O, who releases her "self" into the keeping of individual human masters, Obi-Wan releases his "self" into the will of the cosmos, a will that consists primarily of balance and compassion (note 5). Because Obi-Wan's individual love for Qui-Gon emanates from a larger cosmic compassion and awareness of the unity of all things, Obi-Wan overcomes physical torments by submitting himself to the will of the universe, personalized in the figure of his master.

[3.22] "You will not need the vise, Master," Obi-Wan spoke softly, walking demurely to take his accustomed place at Qui-Gon's left side, one pace back.

[3.23] "I know." Qui-Gon's voice was hollow, broken. He reached, taking a set of tongs in unsteady hands. […]

[3.24] "You will have to lock him into the vise, immobilize him—"

[3.25] "No." Qui-Gon dropped the priest to the earthen floor with unceremonious contempt. […]

[3.26] The slave—the padawan Kenobi [note 6]—lay perfectly still, unbound, as the first iron touched his skin, darting in with the grace and speed of an adder, to kiss the smooth white flesh and flick away. Obi-Wan merely inhaled slightly, a faint hiss of pain, unmoving. His Master threw the tongs and iron down, face shuttered, as he lifted the second iron. Corm could not help himself, creeping closer, watching Obi-Wan's still, peaceful face and serene eyes. Again the viper struck and recoiled. (Sedai 2001)

[3.27] Unlike O, who unknowingly consents to a piercing and branding and then later must be held down to receive them, Obi-Wan transcends pain through the strength of his personality, will, and resolve. Later, as the story progresses, Obi-Wan gives ever more potent evidence of his personal power: during an attempted rape, he defends himself from 30 armed men, and when he is anonymously sold in a slave auction, the story's ultimate scene of dehumanization and humiliation, Obi-Wan performs a Jedi kata reserved for seasoned masters of the art, a feat that requires transcendence not only of pain but of the physical plane of existence itself. His journey through sexual submission leads Obi-Wan nearer to the full actualization of his own desires and abilities, allowing him to complete his apprenticeship and realize his spiritual potential.

[3.28] In stark contrast, The Story of O's title character finds herself increasingly empty of identity, desire, and purpose, which leads to her ultimate suicide; whereas Obi-Wan finds unity with everything in submission, O's submission unifies her with the alienated nothingness of oblivion. Although mentioned in passing, O's profession as a fashion photographer seems to provide less and less structure to her life, until she prioritizes René over her career by guiltily hiding her photos when he comes to visit (note 7). Unlike Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, who share a professional duty and goal, O's lovers bind her to them only by their sadistic pleasure in her debasement, a pleasure that proves fickle as each deserts her in turn. Without any external goal or identity, O is progressively reduced to her role as a sexually open body, initially implied by the synergy between her name and the words open and orgasm (ouvrez and orgasme in French), as well as the shape of the female genitals. Unlike Obi-Wan, who ascends to superhuman status, O loses agency, and this loss reaches its pinnacle when, dressed as an owl and seated at a party, she is mistaken for a statue by the guests. Thus quite literally dehumanized, completely lacking in any ability or desire to act in her own interest or preservation, and on the brink of abandonment by Sir Stephen, O asks to be allowed to kill herself. This is quite possibly the only time her consent brings about a change in reality. O's desire to completely negate her own existence rather than face life without the sadistic attentions of men ultimately not in love with her brings The Story of O to an abrupt end.

[3.29] The Story of O thereby culminates in the triumph of difference as the roles of master and slave exacerbate, magnify, and wholly polarize the relative positions of O and her master. Early on, O's first visit to Roissy unifies the meanings of the terms slave, woman, and submissive when she is told,

[3.30] You must never look any of us in the face. If the costume we wear in the evening—the one I am now wearing—leaves our sex exposed, it is not for the sake of convenience, for it would be just as convenient the other way, but for the sake of insolence, so that your eyes will be directed there upon it and nowhere else, so that you may learn that there resides your master. (Réage 1965:16)

[3.31] Paradoxically, O's meeting with a female "master" most profoundly reinforces women's anatomical and biological destiny as empty vessels within the narrative. Not of equal status with male masters in The Story of O, the female master trains female slaves for male pleasure and thus gains some limited personal autonomy. When O arrives in her keeping for branding and piercing according to Sir Stephen's wishes, the female master explains the work she performs:

[3.32] There was still a third reason for what she had done, which she explained to O. She was bent on proving to every girl who came into her house, and who was fated to live in a totally feminine universe, that her condition as a woman should not be minimized or denigrated by the fact that she was in contact only with other women, but that, on the contrary, it should be heightened and intensified. […] Apart from the rings and the letters she would wear when she left, she would be returned to Sir Stephen more open, and more profoundly enslaved, than she had ever before thought possible. (Réage 1965:152–53)

[3.33] O's submission creates Sir Stephen's dominance, O's sexually open female body confirms Sir Stephen's masculine impenetrable wholeness, and finally O's descent into absolute nothingness validates her master's being. Sir Stephen may feel more alive through his ability to take women like O and make them want to die.

[3.34] Because The Story of O expresses conglomerated sex-gender-power polarities as absolutes and natural or essential parts of a person, imagining their reversal in the last pages of The Story of O may seem impossible. Examining The Story of O from a psychoanalytic perspective, theorist Jessica Benjamin (1988) attributes all sexual domination, including normative patriarchy and formal BDSM ritual, to Oedipal forces. Therefore, her conclusions, stated in gender absolutes, require significant translation to accommodate the possibility and reality of nonheteronormative relationships and identities, but cast considerable light upon those polarities that govern the biologically determined world inhabited by O.

[3.35] Finally, the symbolization of male mastery through the penis emphasizes the difference between them and her. It signifies the male pronouncement of difference over sameness. Each act the master takes against the slave, O, is one that establishes his separateness, his difference from her—through his power to negate her. In the tension between the recognition of like humanity and negation of Otherness, the male represents the one-sided extreme. He is continually placing himself outside her by saying "I am not you." He is using her to establish his objective reality by imposing it on her. […] The penis symbolizes the fact that, however interdependent the master and slave become, the master will always maintain the boundary—the rigidity, antagonism, and polarization of their respective parts. (Benjamin 1988:288)

[3.36] Benjamin thus explains BDSM in The Story of O as an irresolvable, unidirectional deadlock that must ultimately lead to total destruction of the submissive, either through abandonment or death, and frustration of the sadist, because broken and dehumanized partners cannot provide the recognition of mastery and presence that he craves. Benjamin summarizes and points toward some ultimate hope when she notes, "What finally leads the partners back to frustration is that each continues to deny one side of the self" (1988:293). Were reversal possible, were it possible for O to assert herself and her master to yield, Benjamin suggests that their relationship might not lead toward such a wholly dystopian end.

[3.37] Sedai's The Story of Obi presents evidence of far greater potential for wholeness. While Obi-Wan clearly exhibits paradoxical agency even at moments of extreme submission, thus preparing him to form a completely integrated self as Benjamin proposes, the greatest obstacle to the story's satisfactory conclusion lies in his master's spectacular disintegration under the pressure of performing his sadistic role. Although masters in The Story of O are never point-of-view characters and appear to have absolutely no moral, legal, or spiritual compunction regarding their treatment of the women they enslave, The Story of Obi shifts point of view between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and several peripheral characters, thereby tracing the psychological journey of dominant characters as well. Although Obi-Wan glories in the freedom to both express his long-hidden love for Qui-Gon and perform his sworn duties as a Jedi (permitted by his role as a sexual slave), Qui-Gon finds irresolvable contradictions between his duty to investigate Ria's slavery-based religion and his responsibility to protect his student from harm, especially the harm threatened by his own desires, made inappropriate by the difference in their legal statuses, Qui-Gon's position of authority over Obi-Wan, and Obi-Wan's trust in him. Thus as his role demands he take greater and greater liberties with Obi-Wan's body, Qui-Gon's growing attraction to his student and enjoyment of the situation disgust him as a Jedi and a teacher.

[3.38] Each degradation suffered by Obi-Wan, especially those perpetrated directly by Qui-Gon, batters Qui-Gon's sense of himself as a moral, self-contained, and largely asexual Jedi master and teacher. Qui-Gon interprets even Obi-Wan's own expressions of love and desire for his master's approval as proof of Qui-Gon's inability to provide proper psychological support and physical protection to his ward. Thus, after they have taken on the roles of slave and master, Qui-Gon construes Obi-Wan's moments of psychological and spiritual mastery as symptoms of his own failure. The branding in particular pushes Qui-Gon past his ability to cope.

[3.39] Qui-Gon nodded once, grimly, setting his teeth, and reached for the tongs. "What mark do you wish, Obi-Wan?" The words slurred between his closed teeth; Qui-Gon did not know if he could ever force his jaw to open again.

[3.40] "As you like, Master." Obi-Wan's soft, calm voice would have soothed him if anything could.

[3.41] Qui-Gon ran his fingers through the cold metal pieces in their wooden box on the anvil, extracting two inch-tall shapes, very similar ones. Set close together, they would form a stylized J. Very well. If Obi-Wan must be branded, then let it be a reinforcement of his identity. Let him be branded a Jedi. […]

[3.42] Qui-Gon flung the second pair of tongs from him and lunged to kick the brazier, spraying coals in a wide arc across the earthen floor. He would not look at the burns he had placed on his padawan.

[3.43] Obi-Wan raised himself, examining the mark his Master had chosen to put on him. "Jinn," he whispered so softly that Qui-Gon was not sure Obi-Wan even knew he had spoken aloud. The low sound was filled with wonder and pleasure [note 8].

[3.44] Qui-Gon wept. (Sedai 2001)

[3.45] Unable to accept possessiveness or sexual enjoyment of vulnerability as part of his personality and unable to forgive himself for the pain inflicted upon Obi-Wan in the service of their mission, Qui-Gon immediately confesses his conduct in the most unflattering terms possible to the Jedi Council upon their return, a spectacular act of self-destruction swiftly followed by Qui-Gon's formal relinquishment of his Jedi identity, the most central part of his sense of self. He does so symbolically by fleeing the Jedi temple, leaving behind his light saber, a potent symbol of adulthood and the completion of training according to Star Wars canon. Unlike the world inhabited by O, which lacks law, family, or any other social institutions that could constrain the power of the Roissy masters, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon answer to the Republic government and the Jedi Council for their actions.

[3.46] In "Master and Slave," Benjamin further theorizes her largely Hegelian argument that master and slave roles become self-defeating because only circularity and mutual recognition, not polarity, lead to satisfaction of either participant's needs. She writes,

[3.47] On the surface, the sadist wants the other's submission. But in addition, less obviously, the sadist may be hoping for a response he never got, the response of an intact person who assures him that his assertion of self is in fact not so destructive. If the relationship remains limited to the level of play, if the masochist gets up and walks away a free person, this deeper satisfaction is partly achieved. We might speculate that the expression of violence is a replay of the original thwarted impulse to discover the other person as an intact being who could respond and set limits at the same time. (1988:292)

[3.48] Because difference arises in The Story of Obi as a result of age and guild status rather than biology, to fulfill Benjamin's conditions The Story of Obi must then culminate in Obi-Wan's symbolic assumption of his free status as a Jedi adult, thereby asserting his ability to survive Qui-Gon's punishments, ferociousness, and abandonment. On this point The Story of Obi echoes other abandonments in Star Wars canon. As a child, Obi-Wan refused to accept Qui-Gon's initial rejection of his apprenticeship, and after finally accepting him, Qui-Gon later attempted to set Obi-Wan aside in favor of a new apprentice (Lucas 1999; Watson 1999; Wolverton 1999). In each instance, by remaining whole himself, Obi-Wan healed his fractured master.

[3.49] Obi-Wan assumes a responsibility associated with adult autonomy by accepting a mission to find and bring back Qui-Gon. In so doing Obi-Wan takes on Qui-Gon's dominant role, usurping his place by capturing and thus outwitting his former master. The reversal facilitates true satisfaction of the needs whose frustration left both men to suffer alone after their mission on Ria. Only by sexually submitting to his padawan can Qui-Gon become vulnerable enough to accept Obi-Wan's love, and only by accepting Qui-Gon's submission is Obi-Wan able to completely comprehend Qui-Gon's love for him. His earlier inability to do so had driven him to crave dramatic proofs like the flogging and brand. The couple's union manifests itself as a telepathic link, a common plot device across slash fandoms originating in Star Trek's canonical mind meld. Finally, through perfect telepathic communication, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan surpass those unidirectional polarities imposed by their assumption of master and slave roles, entering the very sort of undifferentiated intermingling familiar from analyses of slash featuring radical equality (Jenkins 1992; Kustritz 2003; Lamb and Veith 1986; Woledge 2006) (note 9).

[3.50] A low scream was wrung from Qui-Gon's chest, and Obi-Wan hesitated, reaching along their bond for pain, but there was none, only a cascade of need and lust and love. It drowned him, overwhelming him—he was the giver, the needed, the beloved. His hips pumped frantically as he responded to that need, the giving and taking simultaneous and beautiful between them. […]

[3.51] Yours. The joined voice was rich with the soft timbre of his Master, bright with his own ecstasy and optimism. No longer a question of mastery or ownership, only perfect sharing…and at last, peace. Obi-Wan sighed with contentment, nestling closer on Qui-Gon's chest, feeling his Master's strong fingers stroke his hair as together, they bid farewell to the cave of fear. [note 10] (Sedai 2001)

[3.52] In Sedai's slash rewrite of the unflinchingly brutal and nihilistic Story of O, same-sex bodies and a fully articulated world with continuity of characterization beyond the sexual replace grim representations of BDSM with images of circularity and hope.

4. Tools for sexual signification

[4.1] In the end, neither The Story of O nor The Story of Obi creates a truly consensual BDSM relationship for its title character, as even though Obi actively demands to participate in his punishments and branding, neither character professes enjoyment of pain or submission either in itself or as a means to achieve greater personal sexual satisfaction, as the term masochist implies. Rather, O and Obi suffer for love within the constraints of circumstance. The Story of O and Réage's autobiographical essay "A Girl in Love," according to Geraldine Bedell, argue that love itself has no other form than a destructive mania leading to death, because one partner in every couple experiences the emotion more acutely than the other and thus easily falls prey to a perilous desperation (Bedell 2004; Réage 1965). Yet characters in The Story of Obi struggle to reconcile sadomasochistic urges, appear to transcend BDSM binaries at the story's close, and lack familiarity with the roles they assume, suggesting that their previous relationships contained no hint of BDSM-tinged power exchange. A third point-of-view character in The Story of Obi thus observes, "Obi-Wan Kenobi…was a dangerous warrior. As such, he would bend his back willingly before one man only: his love-Master, his teacher. Before any other, he would probably die rather than submit" (Sedai 2001). O does die rather than submit to a third master. In both cases, masochism emerges as a response to particular situational and interpersonal pressures, not as an enduring sexual pathology that the characters would feel compelled to fulfill in any relationship.

[4.2] However, as fantasy, The Story of O and The Story of Obi present readers with a "scene" they consent to participate in by choosing to read a scenario marked as containing BDSM. Both stories provide multiple points of entrance for imaginative or physical reenactment, transforming the narratives' coerced suffering into fodder for readers' "safe, sane, and consensual" play. Rather than because of any singular speciation or pathology, readers may gravitate toward O's or Obi's journey to experience taboo titillation, increased sexual intensity, novelty, intrapsychic or interpersonal extremes, or any number of roles or fetishes they find attractive either conceptually or in practice. By borrowing and recombining sexual and social elements, readers build their own hybrid scenes of sexual domination. The unique conjunction of same-sex erotics and the richly contextual lives of previously published characters combine in BDSM slash fan fiction to produce a new language for thinking about erotic power exchange. Placing fan-authored alternatives like The Story of Obi in public (cyber)space offers a broad potential readership access to valuable symbolic tools for thinking and enacting sex, relationships, and masochistic pleasure.

5. Acknowledgments

[5.1] I would like to thank the women (and the few men) of Master_Apprentice who create a rich fictional playground and enduring community in the face of adversity. I am indebted to my mentor and friend Robin Brown, who sustained this project for a decade, as well as to my committee, Jay Cook, Bambi Haggins, Tom Fricke, and June Howard, who challenged my thinking and pushed me toward a new framework.

6. Notes

1. The acronym or term BDSM is most often explained as standing for either "bondage, dominance, submission, and masochism" or "bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism." Because it is a shifting signifier subject to hidden, subcultural rules of usage, other meanings remain possible; for example, the "SM" of BDSM may also stand for "slave [and] master" in some situations.

2. In other work I deal at length with the question of narrative heterogeneity within slash writing, theorizing that slash is defined by multiplicity and ever-expanding variety, rather than by the ideology of any one story or trope. Thus, my interest here in same-sexed and same-gendered BDSM as enacted by Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon in a revision of The Story of O requires contextualization within a larger concern that no single case study represents slash writ large. Elsewhere I analyze slash representations of same-sexed but opposite-gendered BDSM, nonconsensual violence, and reciprocal egalitarianism while arguing that understanding slash at the level of content requires the presence of numerous narrative and relational forms (Kustritz 2007).

3. Despite being in his early 20s, an age that American constituencies would recognize as adult, for most intents and purposes as an apprentice in the Jedi guild system Obi-Wan remains a legal minor.

4. Although characters may have been assuming alternate identities that allow them to contact hidden parts of the self or interact with a desired love object since the very inception of storytelling, many slash communities share a particular enunciation of that theme, whereby in the course of an undercover assignment or trade mission characters choose to have sex with each other to maintain their cover or fulfill foreign ritual obligations. After consenting to sex for the sake of some external goal, the characters often unearth hidden feelings that can range from debilitating shame and disgust to a joy leading to a mutually fulfilling and enduring relationship.

5. Plenty of material presents itself for a much more detailed reading specifically contrasting The Story of O's Catholic imagery with The Story of Obi's quasi-Buddhism, but that discussion far exceeds the purview of this inquiry.

6. Padawan refers to the rank of Jedi apprentice in Star Wars canon.

7. "The next day she took home with her the proofs of the shots she had made the day before, not really knowing whether she wanted, or did not want, to show them to her love, with whom she had a dinner date. She looked at them as she was putting on her make-up at the dressing table in her room, pausing to trace on the photographs with her finger the curve of an eyebrow, the suggestion of a smile. But when she heard the sound of the key in the front door, she slipped them into the drawer" (Réage 1965:63–64).

8. Jinn is Qui-Gon's last name; thus, Obi-Wan misinterprets Qui-Gon's mark as a personal rather than professional claim.

9. The literal mirroring of sexual acts also functions as an important symbol in male/male slash. In this case, Obi-Wan's sexual penetration of Qui-Gon completes their role reversal. A more fully articulated analysis of sexual symbolism in male/male slash may be found in Kustritz (2007).

10. Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back portrays the cave of fear as a place with a unique conjunction of mystical energies where a Jedi must face the fears and weaknesses that could lead to his or her own defection to the dark side of the Force. Emerging from the cave of fear represents one of many stages of spiritual mastery for a Jedi (Lucas et al. 1980).

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