A while ago I read Docile by K.M. Szpara, sort of out of curiosity. The book was marketed as a queer 50 Shades of Grey, and having never read 50 Shades (largely because of reviews which cited harmful gender and class dynamics that were poorly explored) but having recently wandered into reading a ton of erotica (thanks, Kit Rocha) I was like, “sure, let’s give it a try.”
Reader, I was not ready.
Docile is erotica, yes. But it is also a searing exploration of class dynamics and American capitalism. To compare it to 50 Shades is almost laughable. One of the main critiques of that more famous book is that the main character, Anastasia, could not ever truly choose to love Christian Grey because he has too much control over every aspect of her life. Docile takes this concept and explores it in a heartbreaking, revolutionary, and ultimately uplifting exploration of the relationship and power dynamics between two gay, white teenage boys in a near-future United States that has lost all resemblance to a land of the free.
Elisha, a poor, debt-ridden resident of Maryland, sells himself into indentured servitude at the start of this book. For those who are unfamiliar with the practice of indentured servitude in the UK in the early 17th century and the resulting founding of the colonies of Australia and the United States of America, this may not seem that terrible. Elisha lives in poverty, yes, but he makes the choice to sell his debt (he rationalizes this choice as a choice). You can feel the echoes of the debtors prisons our white ancestors fought so hard to escape in this decision (and it must be observed, fought so hard to impose on our Black brothers and sisters, first in the form of extended sentences of indenture and then in the form of chattel slavery. Check out The Black List for a condensed version of that history).
So Elisha sells himself. He chooses a lifetime contract. There are some rules to his contract, but not many. There is nothing protecting him from torture, for example. He belongs to Alex, his owner, and that’s that.
There’s more going on to the plot here but I want to move to some spoilers of this book. While Elisha and Alex have a physical relationship, while Elisha eventually believes that he even loves Alex, the book makes it clear that consent is not possible in their relationship given their power dynamics. Alex does in fact torture Elisha, knowingly, to break his will and ensure his obedience. This is normalized within Alex’s society, and to a lesser extent within Elisha’s, but there are nonetheless people fighting against this system. When Alex understands fully what he has done to Elisha, and takes steps to try to make amends, Elisha finds himself amongst this group of folks, who teach him a great deal about healing and consent. These two do find a sort of peace by the end of the book, but it is a long and fraught road full of political intrigue, emotional rebuilding, and occasional kinky sex.
This story exists within the context of many other recent stories about social and economic inequality, including Knives Out and Parasite, which I have reviewed here. This theme of economic inequality in stories comes at a time when our country is more unequal than ever in terms of wealth and when global inequality continues to increase. It’s not an accident that these stories are gaining popularity, and I expect we will continue to see these themes explored in the coming years as we wrestle with these issues. I can only hope the future described by K.M. Szpara is not the one we end up in.