Slave Bunny: Can you tell us in your own words what the piece is about?
Ernest: What you’re seeing here is a segment of a new book I’m writing, working title, The Truth About O, that is a collection of both personal experiences with the individuals involved and recollections of those who were members of one of Europe’s actual existing societies of O. My contact there and a number of other people I spoke to subsequently confirmed that there are about 50 such societies of O scattered all over Europe. Many of them, most especially the one in France, have been there for a very long time. So, the actual lead here is that “Story of O” really is more fact than fiction and its practices live on today.
Slave Bunny: So, you’re saying these societies still exist today all over Europe?
Nina: Oh, yes. Very active.
Ernest: Extremely so.
Nina: They hold regular soirees.
Slave Bunny: Can you tell us more about the O’s?
Ernest: Those who identify as O’s don’t consider themselves slaves by our definition and standards.They have their own, what they call “The Philosophy,” as described in the original “Story of O.” The emphasis is on constant sexual availability. The initiation of a new O and the events leading up to it are considered fairly typical for these groups. One of the most startling things about reading this material was how different what they think of as normal is from what we think of as normal when it comes to BDSM.
Ernest : The excerpt that you have is translated virtually untouched from the German original. Sabrina turned out to be an extraordinary writer. Her accounts required very little editing. What you have is first-person testimony from somebody who has great credibility and was actually present at the events she describes.
Nina: She had to go through the ritual herself. Every woman did who became an O. The initiation of Cora stands in for the initiation of every woman who becomes an O. Later on we see how they’re trained for the occasion.
Slave Bunny: Did the O’s live at “The Castle” full time? I know Cora had a husband. Is it specific to whatever is negotiated?
Ernest: As I understand it, there are a few who do more or less live in the luxurious quarters maintained by these groups, but most of them don’t. The majority attends parties and has sessions with men who they regard as their Owners, but lead otherwise conventional lives. Often they are married, as was Cora, to somebody else who has no idea that they have this life. Europe is one of those places where you can still have a secret life.
Ernest: These are all people of a class that are privileged in ways Americans would find hard to imagine. For instance, I’m quite certain the authorities are aware of the existence of these groups and who’s in them, but wouldn’t dream of interfering in any way precisely because of who’s in them. It seems that most of the men are wealthy and well connected. Some of them are politicians. Some of them are financiers.
Nina: Some of them are captains of industry.
Ernest : Big shots of one kind or another. The women are pretty much of the same class.
Nina: What’s also fascinating is that unlike American BDSM, where there’s often a romantic component between the submissive partner and the dominant partner, in these societies, it is discouraged to be in love with your Owner.
Ernest: Or even to get seriously involved with anyone else who’s there.
Nina: And the women are not encouraged to make friendships. The other women’s problems are strictly their own problems.
Ernest: There’s also a competitive aspect to life at court. There are some distinct advantages that women who are willing to sign on for this program enjoy because these wealthy, well-connected men, in part, give something in return for what they get in terms of helping these women with their careers and introducing them to places where they might be able to work things to their advantage. It is a sort of sexual feudalism under which the women agree to obey and endure and service whatever desires these gentlemen may have.
Nina: And enjoy it. They are supposed to enjoy it. An O is a kind of masochistic courtesan or geisha who needs to bring a certain passion and creativity to keep the Masters entertained and interested. Safe to say that, aside from a little play among the girls, it’s a totally hetero-normative dynamic that harks back to an earlier era. Europe has a public BDSM scene not much different from our own, but it’s mainly for young people and doesn’t overlap with the O crowd.
Ernest: Most of the women seem to take pleasure in the game because so many of them have been involved in it for a very long time. In return for what they surrender their men are obligated in that feudal way to see to their welfare, to protect them and to take care of them in any way they can be helpful to them. This arrangement is pretty religiously observed on both sides. It’s a serious matter for either side to fail to perform on the expected feudal arrangement. Guys can get kicked out. Women can get kicked out. Anyone can get kicked out. Also, the O’s have a safeword that they were given when they were initiated. However, they can only use it once. If they do, they’re expelled from the society. But what kind of safeword is that really? Is that consent as we understand it?
Slave Bunny: No.
Ernest: Contrary to what Americans may believe, Sabrina states in her description (and all other women whom we corresponded with agreed) that they were there by consent, that they could leave any time, and that they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t want to be. So, it’s a sort of blanket consent until withdrawn. Once withdrawn, it’s withdrawn permanently.
Nina: One hundred percent. Instantly. Your clothes are put on. You’re put in the car. You leave and that’s it.
Ernest: And you can never come back nor will you be welcome in any of the other O societies.
Nina: It’s their version of consent, which differs greatly with how Americans conceive of consent.
Ernest: These are very exclusive groups. You can only join by invitation and they only take in members of their own class. Alexander, in the book, describes what’s required for either a man or a woman to become a member of any of these groups. It’s a fairly rigorous process. They have multiple meetings with prospects and then there’s a board that votes, like a country club, whether or not you and/or your partner will be welcomed.
Ernest: And if so, you can look forward to spending a lot of money. One way in which potential members are admitted is on the basis of whether they can afford it. The last figures that were quoted to us from Alexander were something along the lines of 15,000 Euro to get in and another 5,000 Euro a year to stay in plus any expenses accumulated if you want to say, throw a party for yourself or have some kind of an event or a session. That’s all ala carte. It’s not unusual for men who are eager participants in these things to spend 100,000 Euro a year on their “hobby.”
Slave Bunny: It’s like a BDSM fraternity or sorority almost.
Nina: Yes, exactly.
Slave Bunny: Was this society supposed to be kept very secret and under the radar?
Ernest: Absolutely. Again, I’m quite certain that the local authorities in all of these locations were and are very much aware of the existence of these groups and their activities. They’ve also always been aware that these groups are managed by and for a class still more or less untouchable in that part of the world.
Ernest: These guys seem to have some understanding of where the edge is that you don’t go over. They go right to that edge, but don’t go where you really would get in trouble. But they do some things that are pretty daring.
Slave Bunny: Like what?
Ernest: Paradoxically, they seem to love doing things in public places. When they take their O’s out in public, they’re basically dressed in almost nothing.
Nina: They’re barely legal. No underwear.
Ernest: Everything transparent. And when they go to a restaurant for dinner, they play games requiring the women to unbutton their blouses and lean over when the waiter comes and other stuff of that kind. In The League they liked to send one of the O’s into the men’s restroom in a nice restaurant with orders to strip naked and give a blowjob to the first man who knocks on the door of the stall, no matter who he is. This became a great favorite.
Ernest: They all got a kick out of it. The men would choose someone from the restaurant. Generally someone they either knew personally or was a friend of a friend they were having dinner with and say, “By the way, when you go to the restroom, check out the last stall. You’ll get a big surprise.”
Nina: When I visited Alexander in London I intended to try that out. I dressed for the occasion just as he’d instructed by email, which is to say in as little as possible. But after dinner we ended up in his hotel room having fun of our own. I don’t know if that makes me a good O or a bad one, but we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Alexander is quite charming and we both had a great time, but it’s a lot different being an O for a day and living “The Philosophy”.
Ernest: And not all their games were so benign and playful. There also is a reference in the excerpt about organized hunts. There were women in these groups who had done three or four hunts and lost them all. They had to assume after the second or third loss that they were never going to win.
Slave Bunny: But they liked it so they kept up with it.
Ernest: These people’s idea of fun is a little rougher than ours.
Slave Bunny: Could you further explain these hunts that are mentioned in the excerpt?
Ernest: Sure. A society holds a hunt in the woods of Romania where one of the O’s is turned loose naked in the forest. This is not a thing that can be required. The O has to volunteer for it.
Nina: And whomever has volunteered for the hunt gets a map and a head start and nothing else.
Ernest: If she makes it to a safe zone where there’s a vehicle waiting for her, she gets 10,000 Euro, which actually isn’t a whole lot of money for most of these women. I don’t think that was really the main motivation. That’s just the prize if she manages to elude the entire male compliment of that organization hunting her in the forest.
Ernest: If the hunters get to her before she reaches her safe zone they have her for 24 hours to do anything they want with her. We’ve seen photographs of some of the losing contestants that would be pretty shocking even to those familiar with edge play and CNC.
Nina: Everything is permitted short of permanent damage.
Ernest: I would consider O’s in general more on the masochistic scale than submissive. Though their sexual services can be commanded at any time and there are elaborate rules concerning dress and deportment, their attitudes and responses are expected to be spontaneous and authentic.
Nina: They can talk back. They can be cheeky. They have to comply with most physical demands, but they tend to have strong personalities and their own opinions on things. They risk punishment for insubordination, but from all the punishment that goes on I infer that insubordination is pretty common.
Slave Bunny: So, the Owners didn’t try to train them into somebody else or strip them of who they were as long as they were performing their services?
Slave Bunny: What do you feel, I know you touched on it a little bit earlier when you were talking about sexual feudalism, is the main allure for women wanting to join these societies?
Nina: For some of the women it was boredom.
Ernest: There was a measure of adventurism in this also.
Nina: And there’s that masochism thing. In the novel, the whole idea of physical pleasure from extreme sensations was dismissed. But every one of the women we came to know got wet at the thought of a whipping. And I definitely related to the protected exhibitionism thing. That’s another aspect of class privilege. Alexander put me on display in that London restaurant that would have gotten me arrested here. This definitely put me in the mood for what happened upstairs after dinner.
Ernest: O’s overall seem pretty ambitious and daring. The word they use most frequently for the ordeals they’re put through is “challenges.” And connections of the men certainly further the ambitions of the women both in the groups and in the outside world.
Ernest: To be fair, there are also genuinely committed Master/slave couples admitted as well. For some of them it’s a combination of role-play and a kinky form of swinging. Others take “The Philosophy” very seriously.
Nina: They have piercings, tattoos and fresh marks to show off at any time or place. I found it very unusual that women who were mostly conventionally attractive didn’t mind having a few lasting scars as trophies of their wild good times.
Ernest: There were couples in these groups and then there were others who were genuinely emotionally attached and others who were couples of convenience.
Slave Bunny: What do you find most fascinating about all of this?
Ernest: It’s really an extraordinary story for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is that it establishes a lineage for the O narrative that precedes the actual book. It’s also a visit to an alternate universe familiar in many ways but crucially different in others.
Slave Bunny: Around what year did the events in the book take place?
Nina: Well past 2000, certainly.
Ernest: All events in our book happened in the last 15 years. However, returning to the key things here, what we see now quite clearly is that Pauline Reage’s book was based on something real. The societies existed long before her writing. My best guess is at least a century, based on the fact that Sir Franklin, who was the head of the group and in his sixties at the time of the events in The Truth About O, was the son of a Master and an O. So, going back even one generation puts the existence of The League in the late 19th century. My best guess is that various “libertinage societies” such as The Hellfire Club go back to the 18th Century. The fact that Story of O describes something that actually exists and has for so long, despite the author’s insistence that she wrote pure fiction, is the most startling revelation in the book.
Slave Bunny: One final question, what do you feel is the biggest benefit of people knowing about all this and how do you feel it could/will change the way we think about power exchange? In short, what can we learn from this?
Ernest: Well, for a start, it turns the romanticized notions about Reage’s novel, which has been a template for many M/s relationships, pretty much on their heads. And it’s a useful reminder that the world of online BDSM is not the only venue in which BDSM exists. Lately, I have observed the community here to become increasingly ideological and doctrinaire, and there seems to have been a loss of connection with its fundamental roots in human desire. It’s become a kind of a social activity. One thing we might learn from them is an acceptance of why we do what we do. There’s a lot of talk in the community about “non-sexual BDSM” I find somewhat suspect. The O societies recognize the central importance of sex, particularly group sex, as the motivating force behind everything they do. There isn’t much emphasis on sophisticated BDSM technique or sensation play. It’s pretty much all about whipping and sexual servitude. I don’t propose this as a universal dynamic, but when people use words like “primal” to describe their dynamics I think it would be useful for them to see what “primal” looks like from a more ancient point of view.
Slave Bunny: Do you have anything to add, Nina?
Nina: We can learn that we know less than we think we do by exploring the differences between the American style of play and the European style, partly due to the different ages of our cultures. European culture is 2000 years old and American culture is barely 400 years old. We’re very new and young. We haven’t worked through our Puritanism yet and we haven’t worked through our conflict over desire and power. In Europe, I think they’ve made their peace with it and it has a place. We haven’t made our peace with it, and there is no place.
Ernest: My final comment would be to ask people to try and read this without judgment. It’s not only the O’s who are tested by the rigors of their commitments. Without giving away any spoilers I can say that something unexpected and quite dire befalls and these men rise to the occasion like Knights of the Round Table. They prove beyond a doubt that perverts can be heroes. I would say if there’s one thing that this book proves at the very end, it’s that good guys too wear black.
About Ernest and Nina:
Ernest Greene is the author of the well-renowned novel for Daedalus Publishing, Master of O, reinventing the BDSM classic Story of O set in modern Los Angeles and told from the master’s point of view. His previous work includes co-authoring Coming Attractions, the Making of an X-Rated Video with Dr. Robert Stoller (Yale University Press, 1989) and shared credit with his spouse, Nina Hartley on Nina Hartley’s Guide to Total Sex (2006), from Avery Press, a division of USA Penguin Group.
Greene is a longtime member of the Los Angeles BDSM community, joining Threshold when it was still an affiliate of The Society of Janus. He served six terms as Threshold coordinator between 1989 and 1995. He continued to do orientations for new members thereafter and participated in numerous outreaches to academic groups.
Since 1985, Greene has concentrated his efforts mainly in adult entertainment and adult sex education, serving as Executive Editor of the best-selling fetish magazine Hustler’s Taboo since 1999 and most recently as Chief Associate Editor for Hustler’s All-Sex issues.
Ernest Greene, has participated in the production of adult video for three decades as a performer, writer, director and producer. His body of work comprises over five hundred titles, including AVN award winners Strictly for Pleasure, Mask of Innocence, Tristan Taormino’s Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women and Jenna Loves Pain. With his wife, Nina Hartley, he has served as producer and director of the Nina Hartley’s Guide series of adult sex education programs for video market leader Adam&Eve Pictures. The series has sold over three quarters of a million videos to date and now comprises forty titles. His own erotic features for Adam&Eve, O – The Power of Submission, Surrender of O and The Truth About O have thus far seen sales nearing 100,000 units, making them among the biggest selling X-rated feature titles in recent years.
Greene is particularly well known for his groundbreaking approach to the presentation of unconventional sexuality related to consensual domination and submission. He has been active in the BDSM community for nearly thirty years, conducting workshops and seminars and serving as an officer of community groups. He is a retired six-term coordinator of Threshold, Southern California’s oldest active pansexual BDSM organization. His activism also extends to the world of adult video production, where he held the position of chairman of the board of directors of The Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation (AIM) for seven years and to his commentaries on the adult industry Blog for Pro-Porn Activism.
Nina Hartley is a pioneering feminist sex worker, using her body in the service of promoting a sexually sane and literate society. She is thrilled to see a new generation of sex-positive performer/activists take its space and spread the good news about sex. Active as a performer since 1982, her rock-solid commitment to the importance of sexual autonomy has fueled Ms. Hartley’s career in adult entertainment. As a performer, director, writer, educator, public speaker, and feminist thinker for all, no matter their orientation, she’s traveled the world to deliver her message. She believes that sexual freedom is a fundamental human right and welcomes the new social media opportunities for spreading her message of knowledge and empowerment to the widest number of people. She’s the author of, “Nina Hartley’s Guide to Total Sex,” from Avery Press. Putting to use her B.S. degree in nursing, she and her husband, Ernest Greene, have produced the million-selling sex-ed video series collectively known as “The Nina Hartley Guides,” from Adam & Eve, currently in its 38th episode. Still active in front of the camera, she and her husband live in Los Angeles.
Ernest’s Website: masterofo.com
Be sure to check out an excerpt from their Erotic Non-Fiction novel titled The Initiation of Cora.
Click here to read Part 1.