Bonds of Love: psychoanalysis, feminism and the problem of domination by Jessica Benjamin, (Pantheon Books, 1988).
With a sense of morbid panic, the recent Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon encouraged me to take up this feminist classic text. I wanted to know the cultural consequences of absorbing and celebrating a publishing sensation that seems to be so politically regressive.
Benjamin attempts to explain the persistence of domination and submission in erotic life; asking why it still appears to be so difficult for men and women to meet each other as equals. The work differs from other feminist works in its lack of a utopian hope for change. Benjamin does not assertively break with academic traditions to forge a new, female-orientated, utopian path. Rather, she subtly weaves through the psychology tradition; challenging the inherent misogyny and drawing out what she considers to be the true and dangerously engrained psychological processes that keep women from asserting their sexual equality. She argues that culture mirrors the psyche, and that to change culture means to challenge the psyche too; a daunting task.
This study feels like a reassuring affront to the tradition of psychology, where the female has faced either a depiction as a passive receptacle for the infant subject, or has been ruthlessly judged as a ‘good enough mother’, or not good enough, as the case may be. And yet Benjamin’s work also feels entirely necessary reading for the current moment. Often, Fifty Shades of Grey is described as harmless, romantic escapism that exists in a realm beyond gender politics. However, the Channel 4 documentary Sex Story: Fifty Shades of Grey draws the conclusion that the book is so popular because it addresses ‘a lot of women’s need to be involved in non-consensual sex’. Declaratory and unexamined statements like this are a painful reminder that the work is far from promoting a post-feminist agenda; as Benjamin states in a slightly different context, ‘thus we are often confused by the way gender difference floats in social reality, inconstant but never truly eliminated’ (Benjamin, 217). It may be the case that books like Bonds of Love will be very necessary in both understanding the current fascination with this erotic novel, and for answering some of the insidious attacks to hard won feminist battles which may follow in the wake of this publishing phenomenon.
Reviewed by Katherine Parker-Hay, Library volunteer.