Sorry if you're expecting a clever punchline to that - I don't have one, but that was certainly one question that kept swimming around my head as I read The Mistress Contract by 'She and He'. Released as a book in 2011 and now adapted by Abi Morgan into a play at The Royal Court, it's been touted as both "the new Fifty Shades of Grey" and "an extraordinary true story."
So, I had high hopes of The Mistress Contract being an illuminating and entertaining read - not least because I'd been a mistress myself. For sixteen years I'd had a rollercoaster affair with a married man who encouraged me to transform from a dowdy housewife to a sexy professional Dominatrix with my own dungeon in London.
Instead, I struggled to understand the fascination this unnamed couple had with their so-called 'unique' arrangement. It made me focus increasingly on what made the position of this mistress any different from a man simply buying sex from a prostitute. I'd certainly never felt like She did when I was a mistress.
Perhaps I should elaborate on what I will generously call the plot: a meandering narrative more pre-occupied with existentialism and feminism rather than the 'sensationalism' it promised. Based on 'intimate' conversations recorded during the early years of 'She and He's' affair, the book is the true story of a contract signed four decades ago between an anonymous couple. The contract that She - a well educated but divorced woman with a successful career - asked her lover to sign proposed that He would provide her with a home and an income, while She would provide 'mistress services' in return, including 'all sexual acts as requested, with suspension of historical, emotional, psychological disclaimers'.
He happily agreed to her terms and they began to tape their conversations. Now 88 and 93 years old respectively, She and He are still 'together' over four decades later: She cherishing her independence in a home provided by He, He still married and living elsewhere, albeit in the same city. But is this really what being a mistress is about? Submitting to a man's desires purely for an affluent and easy lifestyle? I really struggled to come up with what the difference was between their contract and a man hiring a prostitute, with the dictionary reinforcing my concern:
1. A woman who has a continuing sexual relationship with a usually married man who is not her husband and from whom she generally receives material support.
pros•ti•tute (prŏs′tĭ-to̅o̅t′, -tyo̅o̅t′)
1. One who solicits and accepts payment for sex acts.
Curiously She claims that "...prostitution is degrading for everyone," yet in her case I simply failed to see any difference between her role and that of a prostitute. As I said, I'd been a mistress myself, and those sixteen years were amongst the best of my life. My own 'he' had encouraged me to find my wild side, to explore my sexuality and to enjoy passionate sex in a way I never had before. Our encounters were vivid, exciting and sometimes even perversely erotic.
Over time, that confidence enabled me to transform from mistress with a small 'm' to Mistress with a capital 'M', to entertain every kind of client available and eventually write my autobiography Instant Whips and Dream Toppings: A true-life dom rom com. At no stage throughout my own affair did 'he' support me financially or give me expensive gifts. The greatest gift he gave me was my discovering myself whilst I basked in his admiration and adoration. Some might argue that I was a fool whereas She has it just right. I would have to disagree - my lover's unique gift to me was something no amount of money could ever buy.
I was also surprised to discover in She's case that She often doesn't even enjoy the sexual acts He requests from her: "I wonder why there is anything more useless to me and at the same time more pleasurable to you," She queries when talking about giving him oral sex. That never crossed my mind when I was in passionate throes with my lover, but She wanted to be able to say: "Look - my throat is too small, my taste is for celery and peanut butter, not semen, and I'm a nervous vomiter." For me undoubtedly the best quote in the book - if a little sad.
Although a prostitute surely shows more enthusiasm for giving oral sex when being paid an hourly rate, She of The Mistress Contract has been granted a luxurious place to live and all her creature comforts, yet openly despises much of the sexual contact that He enjoys.
And that leads me on to the second question that the book raised as I read it: She herself openly states in the introduction that She "is no stranger to feminism." So then, why does She go on to - in my mind - betray sisterhood by allowing herself to be bought - particularly when She apparently often doesn't even enjoy the sex to which She has committed herself to in the contract? Some may say that She was choosing to be looked after and thus exercising her choice -albeit at the expense of actual pleasure. Others may argue that She was willingly putting herself in a subservient position rather than remaining an equal. I think the latter.
Throughout my time first as a small and then later as a capital 'M' mistress, I was always an equal. With my lover and certainly with my clients. With my lover we gave and received equally. He never bought me. With my clients, the powerplay of the dominatrix and submissive relationship is such that the sub is really the dom and the dom the sub, so, to my mind it cancels out - the relationship and contract is equal, even though to an outsider the power relationship may appear to be one of imbalance.
But in the case of She in The Mistress Contract I came away with a sense of despair: A mistress who differed little from a prostitute, an arrangement that left her financially but not necessarily sexually satisfied, a 'feminist' who yielded to a man merely to enjoy the owning of a chandelier, rather than the pleasure of swinging from one. Perhaps it was the existential conversations that turned her on - eroticism derived from Camus rather than coming, yet even those left me feeling a little... unsatisfied. Just like a couple of stoners who think they're unwrapping the mysteries of the universe when really they're discussing the removal of foil from a chocolate bar, I feel the conversations between She and He did not warrant the exposure or deserve to be recorded in a book, much less a ninety minute play. Some so-called dirty talk should remain hidden behind the bedroom door.... unless any director out there wants to turn my own 'dom rom com' into a production of course!
Jacky Donovan's autobiography Instant Whips and Dream Toppings. A true-life dom rom com is available in paperback and kindle from Amazon.