Permission: the book bringing romance into the 21st century

Permission: the book bringing romance into the 21st century

Love, consent and BDSM — Saskia Vogel’s debut – which explores the relationship between a young actress, a dominatrix and her live-in houseboy – is one of this year’s most exciting. We speak to the author about how she used compassion to subvert the genre.

At first glance, Saskia Vogel’s new novel Permission could appear as if it’s all about sex. But dig a little deeper, and the story contains a number of complex themes belying such simple categorisation.

The book follows Echo, a young actress in LA struggling to cope after the sudden death of her father. But when she meets Orly, a dominatrix, and Piggy, her submissive, she starts to find a new way to deal with her grief; a new way to communicate, and a space in which to explore her own desire. The book isn’t just about the act of sex – in fact, it’s not much about that at all. Instead, it delicately explores all the things that are part and parcel of our sexual lives: intimacy, community, desire, alienation, consent and power.

The idea from the novel came from Vogel’s own life. Having moved back to California in 2004 following an undergraduate degree in London, Vogel found herself among a community of people in the BDSM nightlife scene. “My best friend at the time was living in a houseshare with them,” she remembers.

“What struck me, far more than the elaborate costuming or the parties, was how beautifully they managed their relationships. The type of communication they had, how these people seemed to have created a very articulate, emotional-drama free, loving space for friendship, committed relationships and lusty dalliances to flourish.”

“Of course, hurting people is sort of inevitable. But in general it was such a well functioning group. I was so struck by that in my early twenties.”

While a subsequent journalistic project on the group never came to fruition – Vogel says that the book she tried to write was “terrible” – the story never left her. Years later, she still found herself thinking about a dominatrix she knew from that time. That rumination turned into Orly and Piggy, whereas Echo, Vogel says, represented her – an “outsider” entering a new environment. 

“When you bring those three people together, it raises questions about how intensely patriarchal LA is. The parallels started to emerge between general society versus a subculture where those roles, the power dynamics, are very carefully negotiated.”

Consent, in fact, is one of the key themes of Permission – and, coincidentally, it was put on submission just as the #MeToo movement began to find its feet online. Vogel’s experience with the BDSM community gave her an insight into a different way of talking about consent.

“It was about the quality of the communications,” she says. “If you enter a situation – a club, a fetish night, a party – where the invitation makes it clear it’s a free space to explore sexually or erotically, you enter that space with a different kind of conversation than exists elsewhere.”

If consent is not part of someone’s vocabulary, then it can feel scary to talk about – and this has downsides. If you’re not used to asking for consent, Vogel explains, you also haven’t accepted the fact that somebody might say no. To illustrate her point, she cites Stoya, the pornstar and writer.

“I listened to a podcast with her – she was talking about how she approaches establishing consent. She’ll ask initially if it’s okay for her to kiss someone, if it’s okay to take it further. Then, once you’ve established your boundaries, the communication can be a lot more open. The groundwork has been done to make people feel comfortable.”

And what of the disingenuous right-wing talking points that claim the ‘rules’ of sex are now unintelligible? “The rules have always been the same,” Vogel replies, laughing. “Just people in power have enjoyed abusing that power sometimes. Right now, there’s a bunch of dudes saying, ‘I can’t even compliment on her hair, because that would constitute some kind of breach!’ We’re in an awkward transition phase, we’re going to go towards extremes.”

“But ultimately, it’s a really good sign that these conversations are on the table, and I think we should have a bit of patience to see how they unfold. I’m an eternal optimist. But I feel like the conversation is moving in the right direction.”

The power of the erotic is clear throughout the novel – unsurprising, considering it’s about a dominatrix. On this, Vogel cites several influences, essays that she feels “really informed” the work. A Camille Pagila epigraph was particularly significant.

“She talks about how she’s always been alive and aware of the carnal energies of the world. But schools, authorities, religion, parental figures, all basically insisted that she pretends those things are not there,” Vogel says. 

“I was really attracted to that notion of what she posits as the ‘pornographic perspective’. One that says, ‘I’m not going to pretend that the erotic is not also part of our public life.’ It doesn’t mean exhibitionism, it just means being plain about the course of the erotic in our everyday life – inside and outside of the bedroom”.

Audre Lorde’s The Uses of the Erotic was also an influence. “She writes about how women have for so long been asked to disconnect from their erotic self, but that the erotic is actually a source of power, knowledge and insight. That was revolutionary for me.”

When it comes to what she hopes readers take away from Permission, Vogel hopes people pick up on the compassion and intimacy that runs through it. “It’s a book about opening up new spaces of intimacy and community, but also a sanctioned place for pleasure – pleasure that is engaged with as seriously as we’d engage in a new hobby or developing our literary tastes,” she says.

“I just really want people to slip inside a different kind of desire.”

Permission is out now on Little Brown

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