Dining with Reba Maybury
Keywords: ada o'higgins, dining with humpty dumpty, dis magazine, dominatrix, feeding, feminism, fetish, humpty, Interview, reba maybury, sexuality, social justiced, wet satin press
Deconstructing power through fetish
Dining with Reba Maybury
Deconstructing power through the lens of a political dominatrix
In a time when many of us have unwittingly become brand ambassadors whereby our livelihoods directly or indirectly depend on the buying and selling of products, what does it mean to really want something? More specifically, to want something shameful, that you can’t purchase in a store. And to want it so much that you’re willing to pay a stranger to perform it.
Perhaps, since neoliberalism has restricted the ways in which we may feel loved, to be ‘hated’ has gained a new significance in our liking economy. To feel despised, to be called out for what we really are or feel to be, that is grotesque consuming beasts plowing through an endless flow of questionable content and objects.
To be force fed to the point of obese immobility, that’s all one average man nicknamed Humpty really wanted in Dining with Humpty Dumpty by Reba Maybury, founder of Wet Satin Press.
It could be said that Humpty is brave. Or at least he committed one brave act by jumping off the wall and daring to fulfill his fetishistic fantasy by seeking a domme, Mistress Rebecca, online. But it soon becomes clear that Humpty’s bravery is more so a bumbling ignorance and an infuriating lack of self-consciousness as to the motives and implications of his extreme feeding fetish, which he asserts can only be fulfilled by a woman. Meanwhile he doesn’t believe in Mistress Rebecca’s feminism or question the privilege and entitlement he was born into.
Our domme-narrator becomes frustrated by the disconnect between Humpty’s female supremacy fetish and his backwards conception of gender and social justice in daily life. Over the course of several meetings, she makes the unprecedented attempt to dom Humpty into reconsidering his conservative Tory values, but the plan fails. Often, the more one’s fantasies oppose one’s personal core values or those of your society, the more one is turned on. But if this is Humpty’s conundrum, he doesn’t let on.
The life of a fetishist can be a sad one. For the embarrassing and shameful nature of many fetishes, which often contributes to the erotic satisfaction they can bring, can alienate one not only from one’s peers, but from oneself. And so it is that while Humpty provides an example of the sort of willful ignorance of those in positions of power in society and the complacent fear that stops many from thinking beyond the narrow borders of their own subjectivity, he also embodies the tragic loneliness of those whose most deep-seated sexual fantasies can rarely come true, and for whom the internet has proven an illusory tool. In this, Humpty can be seen as beautiful, even as he is being pelted with eggs by an angry leftist female mob by the end of Mistress Rebecca’s tale. As Mistress Rebecca asserts, ‘vulnerability is beautiful in it’s …ungendered beauty.’
Below is an exchange between Reba Maybury and Ada O’Higgins, discussing the major themes and questions that arise from Dining with Humpty Dumpty.
Ada O’Higgins: I heard the person who you were loosely inspired by for Dining with Humpty Dumpty was angry at your depiction of him and was threatening to sue, and sent you a death threat while you were here in NY for your reading at Bridget Donahue.
Reba Maybury: All fiction is usually based on the author’s experience, and every experience is skewed by each person’s lens, so there’s this very fundamental argument of literature and writing which I suppose I’m currently having to deal with. I have fictionalized every discerning element of the various personalities that I’ve based this character on so there isn’t much that they can do.
AO: There’s nothing unethical or wrong about what you did; especially given the nature of your Sub/Dom relationship, you’d think they would have more of a sense of humor about your depiction of them.
RM: Absolutely, and I think one of the reasons I wrote about one of these people in particular is because they actually showed themselves to be a terrible person. The person he first presented himself as ended up being an illusion. He said he was a female supremacist, but it turns out he was more of a men’s rights activist. He’s a character that, for me, exemplifies a lot of stereotypes about white, cis, straight, corporate masculinity. I fictionalized his character and used it to explore issues that I see in our society. The character has a humiliation fetish and what could be more humiliating than having your fetish written about by your domme?
AO: Speaking of the discrepancy between his daily views and his fetish, I was thinking about how common that is: fetishes that go against one’s own views. Like women with a rape fetish, or people who want to be racially abused for their ethnicity, for example.
RM: The most common, extreme desire that I’ve encountered on fetish sites is South-Asian men looking to meet white women who will dominate them. When I talk to them, they want me to be their ‘white supremacist goddess’. When I refuse and tell them my mother’s actually Pakistani, they get completely thrown off and embarrassed, but then weirdly turned on by me being mixed. The world of fetishes is endless… Sex is ultimately the closest we can come to true escapism isn’t it?
AO: Yes, erotica is one of the few places where it’s possible to safely explore otherwise social taboos and consensually perform otherwise unethical or illegal behavior.
RM: That’s where the often very real stereotype of the submissive feminist comes from, some of us are sick of fighting every day for our rights, so in bed we want to let go of control and be dominated. It makes sense. That’s also why a lot of these men want to be submissive, because they’re taught not to be in daily life. But the problem with the character of Humpty is that his fetish is a lifestyle fetish. He wants it to take over his life, he wants it to completely control him. He doesn’t ever want to switch off.
AO: Within the realm of sexuality there is arguably nothing wrong with these fetishes. It’s a way for people to release these feelings. Why is it different with Humpty, what is unacceptable about his lifestyle fetish?
RM: I don’t think his fetish is unacceptable, but more simply that it possesses uncomfortable social juxtapositions. He proved himself to be very judgmental and right wing, but he was trying to metamorphose himself into an obese person, a characteristic that’s unfortunately most often associated with poverty. It’s also entangled with sloth, laziness, and greed. The feeding fetish was complicated because in his case, he needs a woman to do it, he can’t feed himself. So he’s reducing these very visceral stereotypes into a fetish: he’s greedy, he’s lazy, he needs feeding, he wants his stomach stroked–he needs a woman to do that for him. It’s a fetish of absolute pure indulgence that only he can get pleasure out of. And obviously his problem is that he cannot find a woman who he can enjoy this lifestyle with. When we think of the feeding fetish, we think of men feeding women, which in a way is overtly sexist, because it’s about making a woman lose her self-esteem and literally not be able to move, so that she’s completely dependent on a man who controls her. But there are less women who would want to make a man fat, because women more often seek independent men. There is also the issue over how overweight women and men are treated with intrinsic difference over their physicalities, which is something that doesn’t bother or affect Humpty. Considering that Humpty declares that he is a ‘female supremacist’ against his out and proud political values as a Tory, it would be grotesque for Mistress Rebecca to take him seriously.
AO: There are so many examples of impossible or extremely difficult fetishes to fulfill, like cuckolding. In some cases, could it be that people seek complex scenarios that are difficult to achieve because they like longing for something unattainable? People become obsessed with an unattainable scenario, and, as in your book, you begin to wonder if they really do want it after all. What if they were just using this obsession to fill a void?
RM: Obsession cures boredom, and there is a lot to be bored about if you accept our neoliberal reality. I feel like Humpty’s fixation to get fat is just an unconscious rebellion from the utter banality of his faux creative, corporate and ultra comfortable life. Some men feel like they can have whatever they want. They can just pay for it. He thought ‘oh I can pay a dominatrix and get whatever I want’. Whereas how many women have the confidence to fulfill their fetish in this fashion?
AO: And he did get what he wanted, in a way, didn’t he?
RM: Well, he couldn’t put the weight on… [laughs]
AO: That’s so funny. You mentioned that in his fetish scenario the pleasure was all for him, and I was wondering, do you think a dominatrix in a paid Sub/Dom relationship should have pleasure?
RM: Being a domme, or any kind of sexual interaction, is pleasurable when it’s engaging, and you respect each other, and there’s a thirst. And that can occur, intellectually as well as physically, with or without payment. Mistress Rebecca does get pleasure from Humpty, but it’s a purely anthropological one; ultimately she feels like she’s being put on a maternal pedestal, which isn’t sexy to her personally.
AO: The narrator talks about her disgust and repulsion for Humpty a lot, and it becomes clear that her performance of repugnance to fulfill Humpty’s humiliation fetish coincides with actual real revulsion on the part of Mistress Rebecca. So the role of the submissive can be humiliating not only within the parameters of the performed erotic scene, but outside of it in that the sub’s desires are shameful. But the position of the dom can be equally humiliating: the dom is getting off on performing power over someone else. So both parties are revealing their weaknesses, their insecurities.
RM: The sub has all of the power and that is the conflating irony of the whole scenario.
AO: True! In the book the situation is ambiguous because the narrator describes their power over Humpty, but Humpty is the one paying the narrator, and the story revolves around enacting his particular fetish.
RM: What I wanted to get at is that being a dominatrix is performance. This idea of power as a domme is rehearsed, you know what these men want to hear, and when you first meet them you work out how they treat you, what the language is, and you figure out what they are turned on by, and you have some phrases in the back of your head to begin the initial conversations and see what they are into. But ultimately that performance has to end. Often the dominatrix doesn’t talk about their own experience besides being this totem of mystery and steely perfection. You expect a dominatrix to have this inflated ego because she is so adored, but the submissive adores the performance of a woman and not the tangible nuances of her personality. I believe in the absolute honesty of the female experience and that includes the unveiling of the different emotional layers of the sex worker. Stereotypes exist to be destroyed.
AO: I really enjoyed how Mistress Rebecca reveal her own vulnerability and disillusionment with men, separately from her experience with Humpty.
RM: That was really important, to counter the image of the dominatrix as always strong and powerful. Women are always needed to perform different characters. We think of dominatrixes as these flamboyant, empowered women, almost creations of a gay male gaze. The experiences I had while writing this book had me confused about my own romantic experiences and how I felt as a woman who enjoys intimacy with men. And also how men have viewed me, being a dominatrix, lecturer and model. How being a ‘strong, successful woman’ can be isolating, and how as the feminine – you can’t really win. Just because someone is a dominatrix doesn’t mean she doesn’t get heartbroken and humiliated. Being a dominatrix is a performance, but what we have when the performance ends is what truly matters.
AO: How do you navigate your own feminist values and your work as a domme? Do you question whether it can be an entirely feminist act, given that the men in these relationships are the ones with financial power who dictate the parameters of your encounters?
RM: Men have all the money in anything you do. That’s my conclusion. The likelihood that anyone who is reading this has a male boss, or even if they don’t have a male boss, that their boss’s boss is a man, is very high. Money and power is still controlled by men, whether you’re a waitress and a man is not tipping you properly or a professor being patronized by a male student, there are so many examples of the gendered aspect of economics. And it’s all coming from the same thing.
AO: Women’s bodies are constantly dissected and women are ridiculed for their looks, and men aren’t, or it doesn’t matter if they are. Look at any man in power. It gets them more respect to be unattractive, because it puts the focus on their abilities rather than their appearance.
RM: I teach politics in fashion programs at a London University, and I spend a lot of time fixated on the nuances of the dressed body. I’m hyper-aware of how women are constantly being watched and that’s a theme of the book, who’s watching and who’s being seen. While I was writing I would try to internalize how men in public would react to me or my friends, on the tube, in a bar, walking down the street and so on. Interactions that, as women, we often block out because if we acknowledged every stare we get on a daily basis, we would feel crazy. Very Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. With Humpty I wanted to explain how women feel when they’re being watched. So I did this by describing the mundane nuances of how long his sideburns are, or how thin his lips are or how horrible his leather jacket is. There are parts of the book where I describe him looking at Mistress Rebecca, but the point is to turn the whole thing on it’s head. When women look in their closet and think ‘Oh god I have nothing to wear’, they’re not saying they have nothing to wear, they’re asking themselves ‘what type of woman am I going to be today, what type of woman am I going to be treated as today?’ Men don’t have to worry about that, they can wear the same jeans and shirt every day, but a woman has to ask herself ‘Am I going to look strict, sexy, or girly today?’ and ‘When I go to work today, is this person going to judge me if my skirt is above my knee?’ In the book I want to analyze the intricacies and the aesthetics of how men dress themselves-not all men-I’m talking about this universal man who wears jeans with a fade on the thighs and an ugly leather jacket or blazer. There are so many articles in magazines about what type of eyebrows women should have. But why is no one talking about the length of a man’s sideburns? How often do men think about their sideburns, and how often do women think about their eyebrows? Time is gendered.
AO: I would never judge a woman for having a humiliation fetish, or a gay person who gets off on being treated in a homophobic way. But I do think twice when a man has a fetish that’s misogynistic at its core. How should we navigate this question, is it rig htto have this double standard? Are all fetishes created equally?
RM: All sexuality is acceptable if it’s consensual and respectful, and that’s what it comes down to. The reason Humpty’s fetish is deconstructed is because it’s actually really harmful. It operates under the facade of loving women and wanting to empower them, but actually he reveals that he thinks it’s ‘so difficult to be a white man right now’. And because of that he’s a terrible human being. He initially insulted me, then all people of color and all women with that statement. That leads me to wonder if there’s anything more repugnant than using a political view as a fantasy and not abiding by that view in one’s life. Like you say, we all have mad fantasies. But there’s a need for responsibility and maturity. I feel like I’m at school talking to kids about sex now. [laughs] If sex is ruthlessly selfish like Humpty’s was, then it’s obviously dangerous.
AO: Why so? How would you explain this to Humpty, who seems baffled by the possibility that his fetish is problematic.
RM: Of course fetish is private but within the book’s context Humpty’s aim was to be constantly catered by the emotional labour of a woman for his pleasure. It shows a deep lack of respect or care for other people. I based Humpty’s character on this universal male stereotype. I met one of the people who inspired Humpty’s character, in January 2016 (pre-Brexit and pre-Trump) and began writing this shortly afterwards. When Trump won I realized that I had been writing a portrait of the type of man who did actually vote for Trump without realizing it. On the outside he might look a bit liberal, he might wear Converse, he might listen to Radiohead or Talking Heads, but actually he is harboring this deep-seated, silent resentment against women and racial diversity. I was spending time with this man, and writing this book loosely based on his character. It’s about this person who on the outside looks liberal enough, and may behave in modest ways in public. but inside has deeply terrifying views. That’s why we had Brexit and you have Trump. It’s shocking to liberals, but those feelings are shockingly real and exist within the most unchallenged of the Western population. Mundanity is political and Mistress Rebecca is desperate for Humpty to really feel something real.
AO: There’s a frustration in the book about how to face this person who is so different from her, in terms of values and thought-processes. It’s courageous, but also idealistic, that she tries to change his views. How do you think people should confront peers or public figures with values based in prejudice and disrespect? It’s quite a sensitive thing to do, that can veer into it’s own form of condescension.
RM: It’s a very difficult thing to do, and I think you have to be as positive as you can, and not jump to conclusions when you meet people. If you go around thinking every white man you meet is going to degrade women, for example, you’re going to have a nervous breakdown. And that’s not even the case, and I’ve tried to convey with the book as well. Mistress Rebecca loves men, but, like everyone she has also had some shit experiences. And the book is about her frustration, feeling isolated by this patriarchal system. She wants to have beautiful experiences with men, but unfortunately she’s not having them. In terms of confronting people, I see my American friends all fighting with one another over the smallest bigoted nuances rather than looking at the bigger picture. I understand how emotional the rise of the contemporary far right is, it’s a time of high stress and we all want someone to blame – but accusing your art school educated friend of minute appropriation isn’t going to alter the minds of fascists into compassion. For me, this is a book about power more than men. Trying to understand how we deconstruct power. When I say men I mostly mean men in power. We have to work out what those are, as well. I don’t want to be judgemental, I want to be open and strike up conversation with people. I think conversation is the most important thing, physical conversation. As the narrator says in the book, the only way you can create a decent political opinion is to talk to as many people as you can, from as many different backgrounds, and then figure out what matters. And that’s why one should try and converse with rich cis white men, not just point fingers at them.
AO: There’s so much liberal hate and anger, especially here in the U.S, towards conervatives who elected President Trump. Anger is an important vehicle for change, but it’s hard to gage how far anger will get you.
RM: With Humpty, you could think ‘Oh God it’s ridiculous he feels victimized for being a white man.’ But obviously he does feel like that. And it’s infuriating, because he’s so blind, but if someone’s been born into never having to really prove themselves, because of their race, the gender they identify with, and their social class, if they start to feel that things are not being given to them as easily, they are going to react. And this is one of the reasons why Trump won and Brexit happened. People thought they had this birthright to privilege and saw it changing and got scared, and it’s happened in this very insidious way. No one knew this was happening because we live in a society where we accept men not expressing themselves and so many men seem so normalized in their identical behaviors and aesthetics, but these feelings of victimization have been bubbling under the surface over the last decade. Anyone can go into the voting booth without actually having to have any discussions about how they were going to vote. The anonymous but ever present white man’s power should never be taken for granted. This is expressed with Humpty: he works in a superficially creative corporate job, he likes Patti Smith and Blondie, but he also secretly thinks Black people are stealing his jobs.
AO: I don’t know if Humpty was very humanized in the book [both laugh] but it was interesting to spend any time with him at all.
RM: Humpty is a caricature, a symbol. In the book, Mistress Rebecca asks why there isn’t a fetish for a kind person who is just themselves. The problem is, when men want to be babied and wear diapers, for example, that’s also a fetish for a woman being put into the stereotype of the mother. So we can either be cold, hard bitches––the strict, disciplinarian mother–– or doting, babying mothers. So we’re rarely just a person.
AO: But men have that as well, sadly, the pressure to be a Dad for example.
RM: Look after the family, pay for dinner – paying for everything! There are terrible complexities for a lot of men, men who don’t want to fit into male stereotypes. There’s a line in the book that says ‘vulnerability is beautiful in it’s ungendered beauty’, and that’s something I really believe in. We should all enjoy being vulnerable, and if men started being more vulnerable we would have many less problems.
AO: As bell hooks discusses in her book on Men and Love, and how men need to be allowed to be more emotional in order to free themselves from the constraints of patriarchy.
RM: It’s absolutely true, and I’ve written about that quite a bit, when I discuss Mistress Rebecca being emotional with men, and being rejected, and how she’s been attracted to these subversive characters and it’s because she’s been sold this idea of the rock star or noise musician who exerts themselves on stage and therefore must be this emotional, tactile and sensitive person with a passion for progression. But actually a lot of these men are not that way, they are actually quite politically stagnant. It’s this false sense of security that one can have when dealing with creative men, where they have this explosion of emotion but the rest of the time are cut off, self interested and cold.
AO: Did you enjoy putting the book together?
RM: I loved it maybe even more so because I never thought I would write a book. It took me about a year, but I felt like now was the right time for it to come out. The book has morphed into this character that is partly to blame for the current political situation we are in. Regardless of the fetish or feminist aspects of the book, I feel that this book has unconsciously explored a person who exemplifies the mess we’re in now.
AO: What do you think the future is for this man, and for these men? What is their place? As a white person I question the place of my voice in cultural discourse. Similarly what is the place for men?
RM: I have this conversation with a lot of Americans. Britain is horrifically colonial in it’s violent history, but everything in America is even more extreme but more open to progressive conversation because it’s apartheid means you don’t have a choice but to talk. I hate the idea, when I speak with my white female friends, that they think they shouldn’t do anything. I think anything that you do is valid, as long as it brings in accepting and compassionate ideas to other people. Your voice is important as long as you think it’s going to empower other people (without patronising them), because there are a lot of people out there who have huge platforms and are only thinking of themselves – more than ever now with social media.
AO: Did you feel like Humpty actually learned something or changed following your exchange? He said he did, but do you think he really did?
RM: No, not at all. I think it made him angry and made him feel like he had the right to be more prone to his views.
AO: In the book the narrator wonders why fetishes so often center around abusing people and unequal power dynamics. Since you practice being a dom, why do subs seek someone who is emotionally detached do you think?
RM: People want to be able to project all their shit onto someone else – that is animalistic. Being a sex worker is like being a caregiver. It’s emotional support, like therapy. Some people get a massage, some people want to be cuddled. Some people get tied up and some people want good head.
AO: Did you encounter the fact that people who work with sexuality are less respected than others? Especially women.
RM: People think sex is just pulp fiction, sensational, and that you’re just trying to grab attention and expand your ego and claim that you’re sexy. Whereas for me my interest in sex comes from knowing how deeply rooted it is in gender dynamics. Male sexuality is such a huge drive behind the patriarchy, that if I can explore those issues, maybe we can deconstruct a lot of other things too. I also realized lots of women have terrible sex, and we can only change that when we understand the sexual content men are consuming, how they see women. Sex is a political issue. And I’m not a hippy. I am very British. I don’t believe in star signs. I’m a very sensual person but not spiritual. I’m trying to approach sex from a sociological perspective. It’s bullshit when people don’t take sex seriously. It clearly still comes from this draconian obsession with sex being shameful.Queen Victoria died over a century ago but puritanism is still so embedded into us and we’ve got to learn how to throw it off.
AO: Men, because they have less shame and allowed to explore their sexuality, within the narrow path of patriarchal masculinity that is set out for them, can asses what their desires and fetishes and sexual triggers are, and then they can seek them. But women, not as much.
RM: Womens sex drives are just as high as men’s. We’ve just been repressed into not being able to explore them. We’ve had to suppress our ability to feel sexual pleasure because we associate sex with danger and shame, and seeking sex is dangerous for a woman, where it only is fractionally for a man.
Intro Ada O’Higgins
All drawings Will Sheldon
Copy editing Aran Atsuo Shanmugaratnam