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"The Marketplace" by Laura Antoniou

Book Cover
The Marketplace
by Laura Antoniou
This essay review of Laura Antoniou's book "The Marketplace", concentrates on two topics: contrasting the Marketplace culture with the BDSM Scene, and with Internal Enslavement. (If you haven't already read the book, you should be aware that this essay contains a few "spoilers" to the events in later chapters.)

"The Marketplace" is the first of Antoniou's series of the same name, which now comprises four books, following the publication of "The Academy" in 2000. Since its inception in 1993, the series has received much critical acclaim from Lesbian-bi-gay and BDSM reviewers, and is interesting in M/s terms since it concentrates on relationships involving forms of service and ownership. Antoniou is now in the process of revising and republishing the books of the original trilogy, through her new publisher, Mystic Rose.

The Marketplace and BDSM

"The Marketplace" contains a strong thread of criticism, even satire, of the BDSM Scene, which makes Antoniou's popularity among some of its worst elements especially ironic. In a 1995 lecture ("Laura, Leather and Life") she expressed some of her feelings about the Scene and its politics:

"I left the so-called community in 1993, quasivoluntarily. Since that time, I've edited five anthologies, written three novels, and about a dozen even short stories. I'm currently working on two more anthologies and a book of my own short stories. It seems that all the energy I've spent to try to build communities, trying to make spaces for leather people, and leather women in specific, were energies I could have used writing books. All the political alliances I made, all of the meetings I attended alone, came to nothing. They don't call me."

The book opens with four candidates for slave training being interviewed by Alexandra Selador and Grendel Elliot, who we learn are a slave-training couple, complete with "Dutch colonial" mansion on Long Island, sixty miles from New York, set in its own grounds and even provided with stables.

However, as the would-be slaves soon discover, this is a house where stereotypes inspired by Scene icons such as the "Story of O" and Anne Rice are mocked and inverted. In the first chapter, one of the trainees arrives expecting to see a house literally crawling with naked servants, but is suprised to be taken to an office filled with books on computers rather than slave training: indeed, the BDSM fiction she has modeled her behaviour on is completely absent from the house's library.

Eventually we discover that Chris, the majordomo and day-to-day trainer, does have a collection of "several classic SM novels and two notorious trilogies", but doubts are raised about his motivation for studying the culture of the Scene: at one point he is discovered in the uniform of a leather-bar clone, but responds to the drooling from the gay trainee with contempt: "This isn't me, it's just a skin I wear ... I do this when I go hunting ... For little lost boys like you, who don't know enough to be in their own beds in the middle of the night." (We shall return later to the Scene as a source of Marketplace recruits.)

Even the resorts available to members of the Marketplace, echoing Anne Rice's "Exit to Eden", are presented as places to "get away from stupid novices." In fact, exile back into the Scene - the "Soft World" - is the greatest punishment the Marketplace system has at its disposal:

"To be shunned by the Marketplace is to be sure that the rest of your life is spent doing the very things you four are all escaping from. Little organisations of dilettantes, shallow displays of crude imitations of the real thing, purveyors of pornography for idiots, and casual players who have no concept that people actually live this life. To be shunned is to be forever barred from our meetings, our conferences, and our social events, from the sales and the trades, the parties and the resorts."

Each of the four trainees represent a Scene stereotype and all of them are successful players by Scene standards. As the plot unfolds, they are transformed into marketable slaves and their character faults removed. It must be said though, that since we meet them as caricatures I found it difficult to empathise with any of them, and was left very much as an observer of their progress, rather than emotionally involved in whether they succeeded or failed.

Of the four trainee slaves, Sharon is the worst example of a shallow scene player, and is the least transformed by the end of the book. Although she has experiences and fantasies of being dominated extending back into her childhood, her route through the Scene has been a series of blind alleys. Like many submissive women, her first BDSM relationship was with a man who enjoyed kinky sex and acting the role of Master at weekends, but had no desire to own her and even suffered temper tantrums. Sharon's attempts to provoke him into keeping her disciplined failed, and so she started exploring public SM clubs.

It is at one of the more "serious" clubs (that is, where all the "Masters" were dressed in "proper" leather boots etc) that she meets a much more organised and experienced dominant called Frank. Frank is rather adeptly working the Scene to get partners: he gives seminars on Masters and slaves to the "Equivocal Coalition" society; has a dedicated playroom in his apartment with all the equipment; and uses his ability to publically display Sharon and to loan her out to feed both their egos. Frank forces Sharon to adhere to a pattern of "slavelike" behaviour until she refuses to allow him to take on more slaves. It seems that being confronted with his ultimate powerlessness causes Frank to lose interest, and at a party Sharon accidently discovers the Marketplace and pursues it.

But the behaviour pattern she has learned almost costs her the chance to be accepted for training: she expects to be the centre of attention, to have her faults forgiven and to lie her way out of awkward situations. She believes she has already been "Formally Trained" but in Marketplace terms this is little more than a collection of bad habits. During her training with Grendel and Alex, she achieves no more than superficial improvements in her behaviour. Although she learns to hide her feelings when her wishes are ignored, genuine acceptance of being a slave eludes her.

Just as Sharon is the stereotypical manipulative straight female sub, Robert represents the "doormat" variety of male submissive. His first "mistress" is no more than a frightened little girl hiding behind the mask of expensive BDSM prostitute and female "dominant". With power but no sense of responsibility, she uses Robert to work off her own insecurities and fear of male domiance, but betrays her own self digust and fear of female submissiveness by making Robert serve as a maid to "humiliate" him - as if being a female submissive is something to be ashamed of. She even succeeds in pushing Robert towards having a sex change, and it is during the counselling process before this that he is identified by a genuinely dominant woman and directed towards the Marketplace.

Robert probably gains more than any of the four from his Marketplace training. He emerges as a strong but dutiful submissive, sure of his own role and capable of serving as a body guard, companion or chauffeur. However, it must be said that his internal qualities of submissiveness and dedication are there right from the start, and Alex and Grendel only need to improve his confidence and fine tune his external behaviour.

On the other hand, Claudia begins the book already the model of a maidservant, but Madeleine, her female owner, is becoming bored with the narrowness of that role. All her attempts to broaden Claudia's ability have been met with enough lack of enthusiasm and sadness to make Madeleine give up. However, Chris's uncompromising regime overcomes her resistance and inhibitions, and she is transformed into an accomplished housekeeper and capable sexual servant.

The last of the four, Brian, is a gay male submissive. His experiences have mirrored Sharon's in many ways, and after a series of relationships with "Masters" who are inadaquate in one way or another, and of dishonestly run leather contests, he is found by a Marketplace spotter, Paul. Brian's major problem is his demanding attitude, founded in his awareness that he can have his pick of partners in the Soft World leather scene. Indeed, Paul excuses presenting Brian for training with Grendel by confessing that he has been pestered into it. Consequently, most of Brian's subsequent experiences in the house are to break him of his selfishness by denying him contact with the trainers.

Brian and Sharon's journey to the Marketplace also illuminate the interface between it and the Soft World of BDSM and Leather scenes. (This becomes a major theme in the fourth in the series, "The Academy".) Slaves are recruited into the Marketplace by spotters who receive a fee derived from the slave's ultimate sale, and this acts as a buffer between the Soft World and the trainers and owners who comprise the core of the system. In the introduction to the book, this is spelt out by Alex and Grendel, and it's secrecy is explained: "The creators always intended it to be that way. If it were easy to find, we would be overwhelmed by applicants. ... They hear of us, they instantly believe in us, and then spend months, sometimes years, trying to find their way to us. They haunt the clubs and the organizations, their need so real and desperate that they exude sensual tension when they glide through the crowds. Some of them are so ripe that they intimidate the poseurs, the weekend sadists and the furtive dilettantes that are so endemic to that world. And they never stop asking where we may be found."

Training Methods

We now turn to the training methods of Alex, Grendel and Chris, and a comparison with the real life techniques of Internal Enslavement. The most striking aspect of Marketplace slavery is that it is founded in service rather than on ownership itself: "To be thrilled at the opportunity to provide useful service, aroused by a pleased nod, and satisfied by the proverbial job well done, is the mark of a slave."

For Sharon and Brian, the focus of training is on changing attitudes and internal states, but this is done in a very external way by enforcing patterns of behaviour. There doesn't seem to be any attempt to access their attitudes directly by discussion sessions and analysis.

Sharon's pickiness about what she will do for an owner, and even what kind of owner she will tolerate, is worn down by forcing her to be sexually available to the other slaves and dependent on them in other ways. This does have the effect of making her resigned to losing those choices, but its success is limited since even at the point of her eventual sale, she is still showing reluctance to be owned by certain buyers.

Brian's treatment is aimed to wear down his greediness and selfishness by denying him attention until he is desperate to be noticed. This isn't explained, and Brian is left guessing most of the time: it appears he is expected to work this out for himself. In his own words, "the worst thing about being a slave ... is the enforced ignorance," and his treatment does succeed in strengthening his ability to cope with that. However, it seems likely that the limited time available would have been more profitably spent internalising the vital need that he must put his owners first, rather than trying to guess what he is doing wrong. In fact, Brian has to be kept back to finish his training when the others are sold.

Nevertheless, flexbility in approach is shown to Claudia and Robert, the least confident pair of the four. Even though most of their training concentrates on tuning their behaviour and teaching practical skills, their attitudes about themselves and their abilities are also tackled. Both are forced into confidence building activities, with coaxing rather than iron discipline where appropriate. This adaptability of the training scheme is definitely one of its best points, but it relies on the ability of the trainers to identify who needs this from the outside, with no attempt to monitor the slave's internal progress directly. It must be asked, how many slaves are unnecessarily broken and discouraged by this kind of approach - failing due to unidentified lack of self confidence rather than unsuitability.

More fundamentally, the nature of Marketplace slavery is essentially different from the internal enslavement of real life submissives. A system like the Marketplace is almost necessarily based on service, since the roles of trainer and owner are separated. This means that however much a trainer moulds a submissive to be marketable as a slave, they cannot themselves create the eventual owner-slave bond which makes an Internal Enslavement (or "Total Power Exchange") relationship inescapable.

Chris does make a point of stressing the one aspect of the system which could constitute enslavement, and that is its status as a monopoly from which contract breakers can be excluded (his comments about being shunned were quoted above.) As such, some Marketplace slaves might almost be said to be internally enslaved to the system by their need to serve. How many owners succeed in enslaving the rest remains an open question.

However, there is one character who is clearly internally enslaved in the conventional sense, and that is Chris himself. It is ironic, but also rather telling, that he isn't formally a slave in the Marketplace system, and yet his desire to serve seems to be effectively holding him in Alex and Grendel's service, to be treated and commanded as a slave rather than an employee.

Conclusions

For me, Antoniou's Marketplace books are undoubtably the most interesting "erotica" that I am aware of. This is largely because of the concentration on erotically charged situations rather than founding the book on descriptions of the "humps and bumps." (Of course, my idea of an erotically charged situation has always been something like a slave auction, so Antoniou's subject matter has a head start as far as I'm concerned.)

Her characterisations manage to be both believable and slightly predictable at the same time. It's no suprise that with four submissives we are shown "one of each" combination of male/female straight/gay, and their scene experiences are so common as to be stereotypical. Nevertheless, their characters do develop during the book and their "hidden depths" are revealed in a credible way.

Finally, the methods used by the trainers are plausible, but questions remain over their reliability and effectiveness. At the end of the book I still had nagging doubts that Alex and Grendel's reputation from turning out marketable slaves has been won by unnecessarily discarding submissives who don't thrive under their particular style.

Tanos, 29 January 2001

(For more M/s book notes and for ordering information, see Informed Consent's bookshop.)

Last updated 29 January 2001.

 
 
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