31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 14: “Soft Limits” by Jenn Farrell

May 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Devil You Know

In the introduction to Diana: A Diary in the Second Person, Russell Smith addresses the question of why he made his title character a submissive:

Because most of the fantasies I heard from female friends involved some degree of passivity, and many even involved coercion. … I have my theories as to why. It’s easier to lose yourself in a guilt-free sexual fantasy, particularly one which is mildly rough or dangerous, if you picture yourself as not responsible for it: you couldn’t help being savaged by that massive cock, being watched by that strange amazon, being caressed by that anonymous group – you were tied up, it was forced on you!

Being submissive absolves one of guilt for one’s own depravity.

This assessment does not seem to describe Susanna, the office drone and self-professed pathological liar who narrates Jenn Farrell’s story of sexual exploration, “Soft Limits.” When Susanna finds herself becoming embroiled in a BDSM relationship with a short-order cook named Troy, she does not try to make excuses or absolve herself of any doubts or guilt she might feel about her behaviour (or about the fact that Troy has been living with another woman for more than a decade when he takes up with Susanna). On the contrary, she submits her new lifestyle to a rigorous and analytical examination:

Sometimes I am troubled by what I read online. My new acquaintances in the BDSM community are, for the most part, articulate, well rounded, and intelligent. I don’t always agree with them, but I appreciate their candor. But occasionally I read about some woman’s journey into this lifestyle and wonder if what she’s doing is simply being complicit in her own oppression. Sometimes I have felt as though I want to turn my entire life over to Troy, but then I discover that some women have done exactly that. Their partners make all the decisions about their lives, and the woman works and raises the children and is then expected to have her master-created list of chores completed before he returns home, or risk real punishment. Sometimes the power and pain is restricted to the bedroom, while others are collared and shackled, or have to sit on the floor, even for meals. I try not to judge their choices, but I can’t help but contemplate the line between submission and victimization. Is there a difference between being dominated and being abused? And where does all of this leave me?

Farrell’s story implies that there is a distinction between being dominated and being abused, but the line is a razor thin one, and can move depending upon the given circumstances. The title of the story refers to activities that a person would not engage in of their own volition, “but might be willing to do in service to a master.” In Troy’s company, Susanna experiments with increasingly rough and violent sexual congress, from dirty talk during sex to binding Susanna’s breasts with electrical tape and beating them with a hairbrush. For Susanna, the pain is the locus of her union with Troy, the means by which she is able to divest herself of her quotidian cares and anxieties and give herself over to something transcendent:

Pain is unifying. Pain leaves no room for to-do lists or anything else. When my face is in the pillow and my limbs are tightly bound, there’s precious little room for thought. There is only feeling, and a kind of prayer that I will be rescued from this bondage, this prison of my own making, It is then that I am one with Troy, that I give over, literally, my life to him. This is the ecstasy: this is that spectral plane, I am alone still, perhaps, but alive. Aware. Present.

As Susanna allows herself to indulge her previously unacknowledged desires, she falls deeper into an almost single-minded obsessiveness: “My god is sex and pain and all I want to do is pray.” But she is also cognizant of an emotional void, the fact that outside of their sexual relationship, Troy remains a cipher. “If Troy’s not hitting me or fucking me,” Susanna thinks, “then what is he? He becomes formless, ghostly.” In the words of the self-help books Susanna consumes, Troy is “emotionally unavailable.”

But it is on an emotional level that Troy is able to truly hurt Susanna. When he engineers a threesome with another woman, he wounds Susanna by calling the other woman “babe,” a term that Susanna thought was reserved for her. And when he finally takes Susanna to the home he shares with his girlfriend, he plays her a VHS tape of him and an anonymous Asian woman having sex. Troy’s emotional unavailability combined with incontrovertible evidence of her own status in his life are sufficient to induce Susanna to break off her relationship with him. There are soft limits, which can be transgressed in the pursuit of desire (the story’s epigraph is from Shakespeare: “Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires”), but there are other limits, which cannot be transgressed without doing irreparable harm to the transgressor.