Bound to reality

Bound to You follows Nichi Hodgson's journey to become a professional dominatrix, re-writing 50 Shades of Grey with a dose of reality and gender politics, says Josephine Tsui

, 9 December 2012


50 Shades of Grey has become a household name. It was the first e-book to sell over a million copies on Kindle. A book that includes elements of bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism (which combines together as the acronym BDSM) in an erotic fiction.

Reviews speculated over the book’s popularity: did it reflect women’s deep secret desire to be dominated in the bedroom? The story follows a young virginal college graduate, drawn to a troubled relationship with an older man, Christian Grey, who is unable to form intimate relationships. The whole gendered premise of the story is riddled with feminist bombs.

The the book insinuates a) women can cure men from their detachment issues, b) women may be naturally drawn to being dominated in the bedroom and c) boundaries of consent do not exist. Many of these myths are harmful and do not represent reality.

However, Bound to You works to break these stereotypes while still using the same story. Woman meets man who is unable to form intimate relationships. What the story does bring a big dose of reality, as it is a memoir of F-Word contributor Nichi Hodgson’s real-life experiences and it takes us on a journey exploring her sexuality. It depicts more realistic relationships of BDSM which includes healthy explorations of boundaries, and a deep understanding of dominance and submissive politics (balanced with gendered politics).

While a healthier version of 50 Shades of Grey, the book is not going to educate you about all the finer details of BDSM or about how to explore your sex life within safe boundaries. Hodgson does not presume to use this book as an educational tool, but rather an entertaining story. It also aims to grab some of the market share of erotic fiction with a more honest portrayal of women’s sexuality and the BDSM sex industry.

Despite being a sex worker, she has been able to set up strict boundaries such as never having penis-in-vagina sex with clients

One third of the book describes Hodgson’s journey as a dominatrix and earning money through sex work. This is rather a contentious issue inside and outside of the feminist community. What I appreciate about Hodgson’s approach is she carefully describes her experience with the sex work industry. Hodgson joins as a vanilla dominatrix. Despite being a sex worker, she has been able to set up strict boundaries such as never having penis-in-vagina sex with clients.

Her experience adds to the growing evidence that there are women who feel safe working in the industry. She gives multiple examples of safety protocols including a set of rules before entering a client’s home, the practicalities of whipping and ensuring the safest methods, or describing the safety of medical play. Hodgson is painting a picture that the informal industry has its own rules and guidelines to ensure the safety of everyone participating. All of this is completely unnecessary for the plot but is necessary to depict the best parts of the dominatrix industry in its best light, honestly. At the same time, Hodgson doesn’t trivialise that many women in the sex work industry are less fortunate than her, and she makes multiple references of being grateful of her privilege. On several occasions, she asks her clients to donate to charities for sex workers who are less fortunate than her. Her discussions about her privilege also do not contribute to the plot.

Second, Hodgson describes feeling complete autonomy. If she isn’t attracted to a client, she would send them home without touching them. However, she would feel more daring with more attractive clients. Hodgson’s positive experience is attributed to her educated mentor. In fact, Hodgson notes how she felt safer from sexual harassment in her work environment than in general society. “In most cases, the clients were far more respectful than the men I met when I went out dancing with Gina, for example, because the boundaries were explicit and the terms of the sexual-economic contract we were entering were clear,” she says.

I knew that society thought less of me for it. I knew that there were men who would never date me because I sold sexual services. At the pop-up blood donation centre I was turned away because I couldn’t answer the question ‘have you ever had sex for money?’ with a straight ‘no’

Lastly, Hodgson skillfully walks the reader through the positive and negative aspects of the informality of sex work. Working part-time as a dominatrix allows her to take on unpaid internships in her career of choice: journalism. She mentions in several places she would have been unable to continue working her unpaid internships and living in London if it wasn’t for the financial benefits of sex work. She receives her payment in white envelopes and queues in banks along with other informal workers such as child-minders and tradesmen.

However, while she was being paid in large amounts of cash, Hodgson opens the curtains to the true costs of the industry. Through session planning, tidying, research into new sex toys and new BDSM kinks, investing in new equipment, clothing and advertising, the hourly rate is less lucrative than as it seems. Further, as the industry is informal Hodgson and her mentor could never protect themselves against last minute cancellations. Beyond salary, Hodgson recognised the societal negative associations of sex work and she talks about living with the consequences. She explains: “I knew that society thought less of me for it. I knew that there were men who would never date me because I sold sexual services. At the pop-up blood donation centre I was turned away because I couldn’t answer the question ‘have you ever had sex for money?’ with a straight ‘no’.”

Overall, I very much enjoyed the book. When I’ve had a long day of reading technical papers, I enjoyed relaxing to the book and being transported to another woman’s sexual journey. Bound to You is a nicely written story about a girl trying to figure out the next steps in her life. Aren’t we all doing that? Don’t we all ask questions about the dominance and submissiveness in our lives? Don’t we all have evolving sexualities? It’s a great place to read about a girlfriend’s exploration and then contemplate your own.

Interested in christmas gift ideas? Here’s the link to the book in the F-word’s Amazon shop. All proceeds help to fund this website.

Josephine Tsui is a regular ol’ “Jill of all Trades”.

She’s dabbled in medical research including neuropsychology (dissecting snails, sheeps brains, and rats), and prostate cancer pathology. Currently living in Bristol, she works in food security and women’s rights at theIDLgroup. She is also the co-creator of “Good Girls Marry Doctors“, an organisation dedicated to bringing awareness of women in first generation Asian immigrant families and their struggle to bring feminism in culturally sensitive ways.

Comments From You

PCC // Posted 2 February 2013 at 9:38 am

This review of the book might mean I’d give it a look – whereas the cover would mean I wouldn’t as the cover makes it look like another fifty shades rip off. And as right now many abuse surivors are feeling extremely upset and triggered by Fifty Shades, something I’ve learnt after speaking to one who explained their feelings to me as I’ve never been in an abusive relationship, perhaps it would be an idea to change the cover?

I know authors often have very little say in that element of the book – but having it tagged ‘how does it feel to fall for a real life Christian Grey’ might tarnish the book with possibly trying to cash in on the Fifty Shades infamy – which might somewhat tarnish the more feminist message that this review states it carries?

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