NOTE: The blog analyzed below, is called “The Power Exchange.” It is prefaced by “Content Warning. The blog that you are about to view may contain content only suitable for adults. In general, Google does not review nor do we endorse the content of this or any blog.” “The Power Exchange” has explicit sexual content, and centers on sexual practices that involve bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism (BDSM). If you do not feel comfortable reading about such practices, please do not go any further. It began May 1, 2009 and continues at this writing.
Neither a Victim nor a Survivor: Blogging an Identity of Transgressive Sexuality
“The tool kit of any culture can be described as a set of prosthetic devices by which human beings can exceed or even redefine the ‘natural limits’ of human functioning” (Bruner, 1990, p. 21).
“I really want to know people’s stories. I want to know about their lives, their relationships, their histories. What made them the way they are today. . . . [T]he most interesting to me is the personal story, which talks about relationships and feeling and how they got there. I like the storied nature of it; the layers of someone that you can come along and understand. It’s like when you find a book that you totally love and it’s really long or there are multiple volumes. It’s wonderful. More often than not, they are kind of interesting, and you can dip into chapters of it, skim some, read others, skip ahead or start at the beginning and read it all. Sometimes you see a change, an evolution, sometimes even a story arc in the blog. Sometimes… you don’t. It’s just a story you like or one that interests you or even one that repels you. It’s like a giant library full of people’s stories” (sin, 2003, n.p.).
Clarissa begins with an attempted seduction, proceeds to a kind of unstated engagement, moves to a rape, and ends with a death. The Power Exchange, narrated by a woman named mouse, begins with a rape, proceeds to a marriage, and moves towards a relation that includes marriage, children, and a sexual power exchange. There are many differences in these stories. The protagonist of one is a fictional character, the other (probably) is not; one lives in the 18th century, the other in the 21st; one believes that sexual behavior should be private and performed only within marriage, the other that sexual behavior is both private and public and can be performed in multiple ways; one writes a series of letters, the other a blog. Despite these differences, both Clarissa and mouse are engaged in what might be called “sexual transgression”: that is, “sexual acts that flout social, moral, and cultural convention” (Donnan & Magowan, 2012, p.1). But how they frame, interpret, and narrate those acts differs sharply. The ability to take similar events—even events that are violent or extreme—and then narrate them in very different ways shows the degree to which narrative is an interpretive process that can contribute to identity construction (Bruner, 1990, 1991; Gergen & Gergen, 1983; Spence, 1984).
Clarissa’s response to her rape is entirely consistent with the coherent self she has narrated throughout the novel. Despite the fact that she was drugged, and despite the fact that her seducer/rapist offers to marry her, Clarissa understands herself as “ruined.” Though her will was never violated, she is no longer chaste, and thus forever disgraced. Chastity, honor, and virtue are absolute values for Clarissa. And her lingering death plays out the way in which, once dishonored, her life and her story are over. Mouse’s response, on the other hand, reflects the inherent incoherence of the life story she tells, and the task she shoulders to construct a meaningful story that will make sense of her past, present, and future.
In mouse’s blog, I believe we see up close and in detail the degree to which “events themselves do not contain inherent valuational properties. Such properties must be attributed, and the attributions are contained within the particular constructions one makes of the events” (Gergen and Gergen, 1983, p. 260). While for Clarissa, the consequences of transgressive sexuality are inexorable, for mouse the actions of transgressive sexuality (e.g., specific actions of BDSM) can be understood as abusive but can nevertheless be repeated with their meaning utterly changed. Thus, mouse narrates an identity in which deeply transgressive sexual events are reconfigured into a new story, one in which what seems destructive can be re-seen, re-valued, as healthy, loving, and natural.
Who is mouse?
“Mouse” is the primary narrator of the blog The Power Exchange. Obviously a pseudonym, mouse offers a version of a self, constructed and narrated within a specific rhetorical situation. While no self-narrator is completely continuous with the person actually writing the text, the connection between the blog writer and the blog narrator is particularly complex because blogs are not only “fictional,” in the sense that any self-narration entails the selection and evaluation of what to include and what to exclude, but also anonymous (Fitzpatrick, 2007; Himmer, 2004). Thus, when I ask “who is mouse?” I am not attempting to identify her in any way except insofar as she presents herself in the blog. The analysis I offer does not center on the person(s) behind the blog; rather it is addressed solely to the persona within the blog. The Power Exchange does suggest a strong connection between mouse as flesh-and-blood author, mouse as implied author, and mouse as narrator, but these are all rhetorical choices. That is to say that The Power Exchange presents itself as a highly realistic text. (Whether all readers agree is another question.) This is particularly interesting given that The Power Exchange deals so explicitly with transgressive sexuality.
The gist of mouse’s story, as she retells it early in her blog, is as follows: She was earlier, for 10 years, the “property” of a man she calls Alpha. She eventually relates how abusive the relationship was: not because of the BDSM elements per se, but because of the emotionally and physically abusive ways in which those elements were played out. Alpha has been dead for 10 years, when the blog opens, and mouse has spent those years unhappy and rootless and was, at one point, raped by a man she met on the internet. At the blog’s start, she is “dating” a friend of Alpha, a man she calls Beta, with whom she also has some history. Eventually, as they become closer, she calls him Omega and eventually Daddy. Omega and mouse become closer, especially as he comes to understand her history. While mouse does go to therapy, she believes Omega is her real path to happiness. They fall in love and eventually marry. As their relationship grows, they enact a “power exchange,” in which mouse becomes increasingly submissive to Omega’s dominance (both sexually and in their day-to-day lives). Although they have periods of difficulty, the relationship continues and deepens. About 2 years ago, mouse became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. Through all that, the power exchange continued.
How does a woman who has been physically and psychologically abused by a sadistic, dominant man re-enter a comparable (though clearly different) relationship and narrate it in such a way that it is viewed as healthy, empowering, and filled with love? It would be easy, one might think, for mouse to define herself a victim or a survivor, but she eschews both roles (March 10, 2012). Instead, in her continual and growing submission to Omega, she claims to become a stronger, healthier: “tethered and grounded but bound to him” (August 26. 2013).
In her quest for self-understanding and agency, mouse has many resources. Her therapist offers her a compelling narrative in her diagnosis of PTSD, a version of her story mouse returns to (although only occasionally) throughout the history of the blog. Another resource is Omega, who teaches mouse to tell him her fears and, in the process, let go of them. He also compels mouse to be mindful, to pay attention, to “be still” and to give herself up to him. And the third major resource is her blog. In her blog, mouse narrates an identity that simultaneously grows in self-control and that surrenders control to another. Her blog thus becomes a powerful site for identity construction: a technology of the self.
Telling the Story of the Past within the Context of the Present
When the blog begins, mouse has serious difficulties constructing a coherent story in which the events of the past are recollected, understood, and put into some meaningful relationship with the events of the present—a condition that that has often been associated with trauma and other psychological problems. In one of her early entries mouse explains that she hates “going [to therapy], and spilling my soul, gathering it up and putting it all back into place, like game of 52 pick-up” (May 4, 2009). The metaphor of “52 pick-up” suggests the jumble of her past that needs to be spread out and examined before it can be reassembled. This understanding of herself as a collections of bits and pieces is echoed several months later in the metaphor of an old drawer stuffed with memories: “Weird stuff, pieces of paper, menus from restaurants, old bills long paid all find their way into a drawer were they remain until the drawer is stuffed and begging to be cleared out” (June 23, 2009). The difficulty of talking about the past recurs through the early parts of the blog: “I hate the process [of therapy]. It hurts a lot dredging up the past and talking about it. I know it’s supposed to help but it’s so hard” (June 9, 2009). And those “secrets” become even harder to tell Omega: “After what seemed a long time hemming and hawing, I spilled the dark secret I alluded to in my blog post about Monday—I had never told him about it either. His response shocked me as he gathered me into his arms and held me so tightly. I started crying. He said many things all of them loving. I thought it would anger him or give him pause about wanting to be with me. He only reminded me that none of that was even close to being my fault. He also understood all too well the time line of the event” (June 9, 2009). Eventually, as mouse recounts memories with Alpha first to her therapist, more compellingly to Omega, and eventually in her blog, these memories begin to assume the status of the past. And this past becomes only part of who mouse is: “not the end of the story. Just the [end of the] chapter” (October 2, 2009).
The passages I have recounted in the preceding paragraph all come from the first year of mouse’s blog. However, the process does not end there. Throughout the almost 5 years in which mouse has narrated her story, she has returned repeatedly to the past, re-telling in various ways what happened, what it meant then, and what it means now.
Mouse’s reconstruction of her past is not the retrieval of “what really happened.” It remains an interpretation or construction of what is remembered and recognized as salient (Schafer, 1981; Spence, 1984). This is illustrated early in the entry of July 2, 2009:
I found a photo in a box, taken years ago at a party. I don’t recall when or even what the event was but I could clearly tell it was toward the end of my time with Alpha. Before his diagnosis, but after things were really bad; just a moment in time saved on kodak paper. Alpha was beside me with an arm around me, and just off the center of the shot, but clearly in the picture was Omega. And my eyes were on him. My expression was empty but my eyes weren’t. They were locked on Omega and his eyes were on me. The tension between the three of us was very evident. Alpha was watching both of us, his head tilted upward slightly at Omega. I don’t think any of us were aware we were being photographed. I could see it, the flash of anger on Alpha’s face, the angry way his eyes would narrow, it was a look I remember too well. I saw that look often enough when I had done something wrong and even when I hadn’t.
I stared at that picture, trying to remember any bits of that evening but nothing came to me, I guess there is a lot of that time I don’t want to remember. I showed the picture that evening to Omega but he didn’t recall it either, just looked at us and commented that he had no clue. All he noticed was us. Maybe that’s the way it should be?
The precise memory is gone, but it can be slotted into the narrative identity mouse is now constructing. Re-seen from the perspective of the present, the event is re-interpreted as a revelation or foreshadowing of the new story mouse is telling.
Mouse defines herself as a “submissive.” But part of the difficulty she has relating her past to her present arises from the specifics of her relationship with Omega. Married to Omega, she has not abandoned the BDSM practices she found so damaging with Alpha. Rather, she has re-made them into a narrative not of submission as abuse, but instead submission as love. To accomplish this act of self-making, mouse reinterprets the meaning of a set of practices not only within the context of the past, but also the present. She does this by employing at least three narratives of the self: submission is in her nature; submission can be empowering in the context of love; and submission can be performed in multiple ways, both privately and publicly.
Submission is in her nature. Early in her blog, in a post entitled “Why I Submit,” mouse describes how Alpha awakened her to sexual submission, and although she was initially “embarrassed . . . the door was opened.” What ensued was 20 years of abuse and loneliness. Nevertheless, mouse says, “I have spent a long time getting over, and beyond those years with Alpha and subsequent years, but I never once considered abandoning this lifestyle, even with all the crap that’s happened.” This commitment to the “lifestyle” is, both mouse and Omega agree, within mouse’s nature. “When he tells mouse to do something—it touches something primal deep inside her that she can’t easily explain” (January 1, 2003).
At one point (July 7, 2010), mouse compares her sexual orientation to being gay:
Today I went out to lunch with a gay friend and he and I got to talking about what it means to be different. Not our normal conversation, but it was interesting to hear his views on how hard it was for him to come out. He explained that he always knew he was different (meaning attracted to guys) but he didn’t know it was “normal” at least for him, until he was much, much older. He’s never really come out to his parents either, his mom, he believes, must have a clue but his dad remains ever clueless about his sexual orientation. Yes, he’s tried to come out to both of them several times.
As I listened to him talk I was realizing that I could easily be having a similar talk with him about being a deeply submissive masochist. Because that too goes out of the range of what most think of as normal. That I strongly crave control, to be contained. Micromanaged even, to the point to where the “I” really doesn’t exist, but it’s more like a, “we” or “he” as in, “we don’t do that,” or “He would never approve of that.”
Whether mouse is “a deeply submissive masochist” because it is hard-wired into her identity (in the same way that being gay is), or because she has suffered past psychological trauma, or because it is a socially constructed category that works in terms of the life she lives are unanswerable questions for a reader of this blog. (Indeed whether sadomasochism is an innate sexual orientation in the same way as homosexuality is, to say the least, a fraught question, e.g. Davidson, 2004.) Whatever the truth of mouse’s observation, she believes it. It is the base narrative upon which she builds an agentive self.
Submission is an empowering act of love. Mouse and Omega share a relation that encompasses children, friends, aging parents, illnesses—all of the normal events of a shared life. What is different is that mouse and Omega respond to those events within a power dynamic in which Omega controls mouse. He tells her what to wear each day; he lays out her daily schedule; he tells her to perform rituals each night (including pain and meditation), and he controls their sexual practices. (And this is only a small example of the ways in which mouse’s life is shaped by Omega.)
The difference between abuse and loving submission came to the front in a recent incident, in which mouse and Omega went out to dinner, and Omega ordered the food, then fed mouse off his plate. Later in the restroom, mouse encountered a woman who told her that “she felt mouse’s dinner companion was a classic abuser. The way he controlled her food, what she drank—he didn’t let her order for herself! Oh the inhumanity of it all!” Mouse didn’t reply to the woman but announced her anger in the blog. Responding to Omega, who asks her why she is so angry, she explains “When mouse just blurted out what her issue was with the past (yet again) she feels like she’s failed again. Where were all those caring people when she went to work with a black eye and covered in bruises? But now…when she’s in the best most healthiest relationship she’s ever had—now people think she’s being abused? That’s really what’s so fucked up” (September 6, 2013). How does one distinguish between an abuser and a loving husband, when the actions can seem similar? The answer to this question is a large part of the rationale of this blog.
Omega’s and mouse’s relationship has deepened and the power exchange intensified over the almost 5 years of the blog. And as it has intensified, it has for some readers gone in directions that are difficult to understand, intellectually or emotionally. Even mouse, describing a particularly unusual kind of submission, said “Certainly this is the road less traveled and not for everyone” (November 23, 2011). However, it is very clear that this is mouse’s blog and reflects what she believes. Readers are allowed to question or express reservations, but comments that go further are simply not allowed. The blog is a space where mouse describes, dramatizes, and narrates sexual acts that are presented as consensual, loving, and healthy.
Submission can be performed in multiple ways. There are many things mouse and Omega do sexually that are in the “lifestyle” and out of the “mainstream.” Nonetheless, they live in the world and enact their power dynamic in ways that are both revealing but “normal” (or even hyper-normal). For instance, mouse dresses, as she says, like someone in the late 1950s or early 1960s (December 8, 2011). They have a traditional household, where mouse stays home, keeps house, raises the children. Outside the house they sometimes enact public submission, as in the restaurant scene described above. But while mouse describes herself as a feminist, she lives an external life that mirrors a time when women enacted more traditionally “feminine” roles. She labels herself, only partly ironically, as a Stepford wife. The external mouse, therefore, is a submissive but (generally) conventional woman, embodying cultural stereotypes such as “caring mother,” “careful housekeeper,” and “dutiful wife.” These conventional attributes of the identity, coming from popular culture, provide a “major source of narrativization in the everyday world, ready-made narratives and formats which may influence us considerably” (Kerby, 2001, p. 134). For mouse, they seem to provide a way to publicly (if covertly) express her submission to Omega, while at the same time they hide another version of the self: what mouse calls her “inner slut,” a self that is narrated on the blog, but not explicitly performed in public (e.g., August 31, 2012).
A Dialogic Self
The most public way in which mouse performs her submission to Omega is in her blog. The blog is completely anonymous in a way many other such blogs are not (no hints or telling details). Yet the narrator of The Power Exchange is a unique person. Her voice, the style of her comments, the kinds of details she provides: all of these suggest a particular person telling a particular story.
Perhaps the most revealing stylistic detail of mouse’s blog is her decision “to limit the use of “I” in her everyday speech regardless of who is around, to talk in fact as though she were speaking privately with Omega” (November 10, 2010). Thus, mouse refers to herself in the third person, as in “at the time mouse read the post [by someone who also limited her use of “I”], she didn’t think too much about it because Omega has required this for sometime now in our own private time. It occurred to mouse that although it’s never ever been a hard rule, mouse incorporated that into her blog” (November 10, 2010). Paradoxically, perhaps, mouse’s decision to avoid using the first person makes her blog even more individualized. It also marks her as someone who has constructed her “self” and her “self presentation” within the dialogic context of the internet.
Mouse’s “dialogic self” emerges in her evolving relation to her blog. At first, she blogs only because Omega tells her to. He challenges her to “open discussions because I don’t like to talk about how I feel. I don’t like talking about my broken feelings or frustrations to be specific. I don’t understand why I can write about them, sometimes I don’t even plan on it. I’ll plan to write about how great everything is and then it will change into something dark” (August 1, 2009). A month later, considering “why I blog” mouse decides it’s an outlet: “My blog is fluid. If I’m happy the blog post is, and if I’m sad or distressed for whatever the reason, the post that day will be. If I’m feeling introspective, the post will be soul searching for answers. I’m human, and this is only venue I can just be who I am” (September 16, 2009). But eventually, mouse begins to consider an audience wider than herself and Omega: “I opened this blog a year ago today. I thought no one would read it. I mean really, who would care? I didn’t anticipate having over 100 followers. . . . I never expected to get emails from people I didn’t know thanking me, sometimes directly and sometimes through Omega for something I wrote. . . . I didn’t write to get comments, though they are always welcomed, I wrote to put the past to bed. It started really as an experiment, could this help me understand myself better? The answer was YES. I did have a much better understanding of myself. Sometimes I go back and read some of what I’ve written. There are few posts I really enjoyed writing. I’m grateful today to Omega for suggesting that I do this” (April 26, 2010).
Through her blog, mouse reaches a large readership, most of whom do not comment regularly. But there is a smaller group of readers, a kind of blogging community, who read and post regularly on each other’s blog. In this way, mouse’s blog resembles Clarissa’s letters, addressed to Anna but often recirculated through a circle of friends. The difference between the dialogic letter writer and the dialogic blogger is that the audience is potentially larger and has more possibilities for interaction. Often mouse receives comments she or Omega finds offensive (many of these are never published). Often mouse receives comments that are supportive in a kind “hurray for you” manner. But at other times, a reader will offer some clarification or another perspective, such that mouse will say something along the lines of “A very big thanks to selkie for helping me realize this” (September 9, 2009).
On January 16, 2012, mouse announced (in what was a complete surprise to her readers) “we have a baby.” If this were a novel, the birth of the baby might be signal of the end of the book. And indeed, after the baby’s birth, the blog reflected the challenges of taking care of a newborn much more than it did sexual acts. However, the blog continued until September 9, 2012, when mouse explained that the blog was ending. Invoking a domestic and conversational image, mouse wrote that “For several years now, mouse has thought of this place as our kitchen table. You are our guests, and mouse imagines that we chat often over coffee where she shares some of her deep successes and failures. The highs and lows of life as a consensual slave are freely expressed. There have been posts that mouse has giggled while writing and has shed more than a few tears while writing others.” But because of the new demands of the baby, the better communication she and Omega had achieved, they were “drawing the curtain on our lives.” The blog, the narrative it constructed, the novel it resembled, had ended. But it didn’t. In October 2012, mouse blogged 3 more times, once to wish friends on the east coast safety during Hurricane Sandy. In November, she blogged 10 times. And by February 2013, she was blogging at about the same pace she was before she “closed the curtains.” Mouse’s blog continues of this writing.
A novel, such as Clarissa, has “a sense of an ending” (Kermode, 2000). And in Clarissa, the ending is as extended and complete as one can imagine, encompassing not only Clarissa’s lingering death, but also the responses of her friends and family, her will, the death of Lovelace, and a brief description of what happened to each character after the novel is over.
Blogs (typically) do not end in this way. They move on, in the way that real life does; or they stop. For Fitzpatrick (2007), this lack of a teleological ending is the major distinction between blogs and other forms of self-narration. But though they do not end, blogs, such as mouse’s, can achieve, at least momentarily, a kind of narrative closure, or what Gergen and Gergen (1983) called a “micronarrative” (p. 263). Blogs, like life, can go in stages; major life events can signal important turning points; the unexpected present can be explained in terms of the past and the projected future. All these narrative moves signal that the blogger is making sense of her life, in all its quotidian detail. Mouse’s blog illustrates how powerful narrative and writing can be in crafting a self. Jerome Bruner (1991) wrote that “the object of narrative. . . is to demystify deviations” (p. 72). Though for many, the self mouse constructs might seem illicit or deviating from what is expected, for its writer it is coherent, directional, satisfying, and human.