I don’t know where to start with how much I appreciated this fantastic, sexy powder keg of a book. The Boss by Abigail Barnette just won my ‘favorite feminist erotica ever’ trophy. This review is going to be long, disorganized, and ecstatic. Get ready, folks.
I talk a big game about the possibilities of feminist erotica, about a literary genre where women are sexually empowered, savvy, satisfied, but still real. It is my belief that feminist erotica can deliver the sex education most teenagers are deprived of due to abstinence-only curricula, can provide sexual role models for readers to respect and learn from, and can still turn them on. But the crux of feminist erotica, for me at least, is realism. Feminist erotica engages with the fucked up parts of sex, the confusing elements, the issues we bump into as we screw around and try to navigate both our politics and our pleasure. And this book, this fucking book, is what I have been waiting for.
A summary of the book will sound familiar: Sophie works at a magazine as the assistant of an Anna Wintour-look alike when Porteras is sold and gorgeous, rich, sexy Neil Elwood takes over. The only problem is that Sophie slept with Neil during a layover at LAX six years ago, and the sexual tension is thick. Oh also he’s super into BDSM. In the abstract this plot seems riddled with cliché, and I’ll admit I pegged it at first as a well-written, fun, but generally unsurprising romance novel.
Yo, I was so wrong. Let me offer a few reasons.
The characters are actual people.
Sophie and Neil are full, genuine characters with a bundle of personal flaws. These are not cardboard cutouts, and they are definitely not Ana Steele and Christian Grey replicas. Neil is sweet, respectful, edgy, and with a serious blind spot when it comes to how he handles his business. He is also irritatingly paternal and struggles to let Sophie make her own choices—difficult when he is supposed to be in his late 40s and she is only twenty-four. Yeah, mildly creepy age difference, except that the age difference is explored throughout the book and not dismissed as being no big deal. Smart erotica doesn’t eradicate problematic shit, it confronts it head on. Let’s just say Sophia meeting Neil’s daughter Emma, who just happens to be Sophia’s age, does not go well.
And Sophie—stubborn, brilliant, openly feminist Sophie… I am in love her. She is a savvy hardass who values her future and herself above all else, to the point where the predictable choosing love vs. career plot line is a remarkable and honest character study and a depiction of the everyday shit young feminists face. It’s refreshing to see a female character with hella commitment issues stemming from both self-preservation and ambition, as opposed to a Katherine Heigl post-feminist career woman stereotype. Sophie has internalized the incorrect message that feminism means always prioritizing oneself, and a central arc for her is the realization that, well, sometimes bloodthirsty ambition isn’t the right path. Feminism is about making the right choice for you, and if you’re presented two shitty options (say, a terrible but important job offer or a relationship commitment you aren’t sure you’re ready to make), maybe you should throw out the deck and get new cards.
Yeah, Sophie’s not about commitment. “Neil wasn’t looking for anything serious, and neither was I,” she declares as she and Neil enter into a casual sexual relationship. “In fact, I’d actively avoided romantic entanglements since my last year of college. There was no orgasm so amazing, no surprise bouquet so sweet that it was worth risking my own dreams and identity.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard one of my friends—hell, myself—say this exact thing, I’d be able to afford rent for a respectable studio in Brooklyn. One of the most important lessons young adults learn when dating is that the right relationship becomes a partnership that can help your career rather than hinder it, even if it requires compromise.
Not that remaining single is cowardly either. Sophie isn’t ashamed of wanting something casual. “It never crossed my mind to be worried about whether or not he’d think it was “slutty” of me to want such an arrangement. It was strange, but I felt like I could trust him to be honest with me and not judge me according to some bullshit misogynistic double standard. Maybe having the kind of sex you have with a person you think you’re never going to see again is the way all relationships should start.” I love me some anti-slut-shaming rhetoric from a female main character.
And even if their arrangement is just physical, at least at the beginning, Sophie and Neil value each other and treat each other with respect. In a swoon-worthy moment, Neil reminds her, “As casual as we may be about it, this is still a relationship. I don’t ever want you to feel used or objectified. I care about you and your feelings, Sophie.” Praise healthy depictions of hookup culture, and hallelujah.
The BDSM doesn’t suck.
The Boss offers up a nuanced, smart, and self-aware BDSM relationship for its readers. I’ll be forthright and admit I don’t enjoy most BDSM erotica, not from any sort of political outrage but because it just doesn’t do it for me. I read a lot of it while I was interning at Cleis Press this summer and the novelty wore off due to over-exposure. But while Sophie and Neil have a BDSM relationship, it isn’t the focal point of the book. The goal of The Boss isn’t to wave a feminist flag around and proclaim that BDSM is okay.
That being said, by virtue of depicting a couple who not only chooses safe words but regularly uses them, reads education materials about dominance and submission, always has bondage scissors on hand, encounters and heals from sub drop, and constantly discusses birth control, this book is the best depiction of a BDSM relationship I have read. Neil always checks in with Sophie about her comfort level and offers her numerous opportunities to leave the dynamic, as any good dominant will, especially when playing with a less experienced sub. The Boss includes everything missing from the travesty of Fifty Shades and takes itself seriously as a sex-positive, informed representation of a healthy relationship. Erotica shouldn’t be a guide to sex, but authors who take the responsibility of representation seriously are something I look for in fiction.
And watching Sophie realize that consensual submission has very little to do with abuse was a fucking delight. When Neil asks her if being turned on by their sexual activities bothers her, Sophie asks herself, “Should it? I was a strong, independent young woman, right? I wasn’t supposed to enjoy having a man boss me around. But every time Neil had given me a command in his low, serious voice, I’d fallen apart.” Eventually Neil unravels what exactly has Sophie so hung up on her sexual proclivities and gives her (and the reader) the best description I’ve seen of BDSM in ages. “You’re thinking of submission as an act of humiliation… And it can be, if that’s what the sub needs. But you’ve been given the mistaken impression that Dominance and submission are all about taking. You take the orders, the pain, the restrictions, while I take control away from you. The reality is far different. When you submit, you give yourself to me wholly. Your desire, your attention, your mind, and you give these things to me because you want to.”
Sophie has friends and interacts with other women.
Abigail Barnette is world building, which is less common than I’d like in erotica, even long-form erotica. Sophie and Neil have friends. My favorite is Sophie’s roommate Holli, a dorky and loyal model who does not exist as a “best friend” prop in Sophie’s life. I would love to read a companion series about Holli, she of the constantly cocked finger-guns and cookie dough snarfing. Sophie and Holli have a genuine, long-term friendship, and they do not have some sort of contrived falling out, and they never judge each other.
Holli does not exist to serve Sophie’s story; she lives her own life along side her best friend’s the way best friends do. Plus Holli is, well, even Sophie doesn’t know how to categorize her. “Holli is totally open about her sexuality—which I’m not sure fits into any easy classification. She’s been with both guys and girls, and for a while in college, she’d had this three-way relationship going with a married couple. For about six months in 2010, she was in an unrequited love affair with the George Washington Bridge. She’s pretty delightful that way. I know that any time I talk to her about sex stuff, she’s going to either have tried it, or at least have an opinion on it.” A+ for representing queer sexuality in an otherwise hetero romance.
And Sophie is honest about her own internalized misogyny, which pops up when she meets Holli’s love interest—and Neil’s new assistant—Deja. “I haven’t quite gotten over the cultural conditioning that makes us view other women as competition. It’s an ugly truth, but there it is.” That, my friends, is how you weave feminism into a romance novel. Also Deja is a woman of color! There are multiple people of color in this book! Hurrah!
Just download this book, for fuck sake. It is free.
I’ve only read the first installment in this series, which has four parts and counting. There is a lot more I would love to talk about (pro-choice politics!!!!) but won’t to avoid spoiling it for anyone who will actually take my advice and download this FREE EBOOK. Yeah, this book is free. It’s a full-length novel and it’s free. The sequels aren’t, which is probably Barnette’s brilliant marketing strategy as I finished The Boss and immediately threw my money at The Girlfriend on the Kindle store.
You can download The Boss on the Kindle store or order the paperback here, and as an added bonus read Barnette’s amazing chapter-by-chapter takedown of Fifty Shades of Grey here. Seriously, just do it. I have never endorsed a title this heavily before.