You don’t have to look very closely to see that shame is one of the foremost organizing principles of our society. From the minute we become conscious beings in the world, we’re taught how to use shame to create and navigate our boundaries, desires, and hopes for who we become. We use shame to govern our behavior, dictate our decisions, and help others do the same. In this way, the structure of shame as a guiding force becomes entirely inescapable as the models of those who have been ashamed and who are ready to shame us are everywhere in our lives, from our parents and teachers to our peers and friends to the media swirling all around us. But of course, our experiences with and internalization of the culture of shame has different consequences and complications — especially if we’re not cis, not white, not heterosexual, and not men.
Throughout the course of her debut memoir, Pretty Baby, Chris Belcher explores the ways in which shame infiltrates and influences every corner of our society. Growing up in small town West Virginia, the rules about what people could and couldn’t do were explicit: men had their roles and women theirs, femininity (even in the women who performed it) was seen as weakness, empathy was rarely awarded to those who needed it, and queerness was expressly forbidden save for a select few who people tried their best not to think about. Belcher sought out ways to take her power back from the rigid, patriarchal world around her and thought she’d found it through sex, lying to men on the internet, and, eventually, through her own performances of queerness and masculinity.
Belcher’s pursuits of power led to her transformation from a popular high school cheerleader to an outcasted queer kid who was regularly harassed about her appearance and sexuality. As she grew into herself and the shame of her sexuality and gender performance slowly dissipated, Belcher realized this was the motivating factor for all of the persecution she was experiencing from the people and culture around her: “I had taken something that didn’t belong to me, and they were determined to get it back. If they couldn’t get it back, they wanted to know how I managed to pull off the heist. […] That thing I had taken that didn’t belong to me: it was myself.”
During her first years at a college close to home, Belcher is introduced to sex work through her then-girlfriend, Megan, after inadvertently seeing an email from Megan’s acquaintance Tony. In an attempt to regain some control over the situation and her relationship with Megan, Belcher insists that Megan let her “in on it.” Her and Megan spend an evening with Tony that doesn’t exactly go as planned, but it leaves Belcher reflecting on the financial freedom it could provide: “In my lifetime of minimum wage jobs, I’d only ever worked for seven dollars an hour. Tony lasted far less than that, and I made $250. What we had done with him wasn’t pleasant, but neither was working at the Taco Bell drive-thru.” Belcher’s relationship with Megan implodes soon after, and later, her graduation from college and acceptance to a Ph.D. program in Los Angeles provides an opportunity for Belcher to escape the confines of her small town life.
It’s in Los Angeles where Belcher is re-introduced to sex work when she meets and falls in love with a professional dominatrix named Catherine. With the extra costs of attending graduate school and living in an expensive city weighing down on her, Belcher is encouraged by Catherine to also start working as a professional dominatrix also. As Belcher learns the ins and outs of working as a dominatrix, she’s forced to reconcile with her own femininity and learn to use it as a source of power in the dungeons where she does her work and, in turn, she’s also forced to closely examine the ways power and degradation operate in our society at large: “Domination is one of the only professions in which femininity is worth more than masculinity[…].” The collision of her encounters with her clients in the dungeon, her experiences and conversations with Catherine at work and in their life outside of work, and what she was learning in graduate school help pushstart Belcher’s reckoning with the role shame played in her life and in the lives of the people around her.
In the dungeon, Belcher was in complete control of her clients as “Men paid [her] to make them feel: ugly, dirty, cheap, whorish, and feminine. All the insults that humiliate women at work, on public transportation, in schools and strip clubs, online, and in any other place they might go,” but she realizes quickly that not all of the clients she saw were using BDSM to work through their traumas. It’s at this point in the memoir where Belcher really begins to analyze how shame operates differently for people depending on the amount of power they hold in our society. Since many of the men she saw never experienced the kind of debasement that marginalized people do, it becomes obvious to Belcher (and to us) that they are hiring dominatrixes to help them feel that shame and degradation they’re “missing,” to give them what is often denied to them because of the fact of their power. Similarly, she explains how within the sex work community, there is a hierarchy of which jobs are considered more or less shameful, with dominatrixes coming out on top because they don’t “have sex” with their clients. It becomes more and more obvious that shame is everywhere and in everything, even deep down inside of Belcher where the material comfort of her new life had less of a soothing effect.
While one of her graduate seminars talked about shame “like it was something that happened naturally: always on accident, never on purpose,” Belcher was in a unique position to see how that isn’t true. Shame is a construction, something that was built to create and maintain power over other individuals. At the very beginning of the memoir and towards the end, Belcher invokes queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s claim that “we distinguish shame from guilt because guilt attaches to what one does, whereas shame points to what one is” and takes it a step further by reminding us that “Shame moves us simultaneously in two directions: revulsion and empathy.” In the dungeon, Belcher was manufacturing temporary shame for her clients, something they could easily get out of or choose to forget if they wanted to. In the outside world, she was being shamed by those same kinds of men and from so many others just for simply existing in it: “…when I was in [the dungeon], it did sometimes feel good to say no. But when I stepped back outside, back into the light, back into the world of men, my eyes never quite adjusted.”
From the beginning to the end of the memoir, Belcher’s ability to skillfully invite us to take on this examination on our own is what makes the work here so admirable. Of course, she makes a lot of admissions about her life and her experiences as a domme that people will call “brave” and “courageous,” but for me, the boldest and most daring part of it is the way she holds a mirror up to her readers so we can grapple with our own biases and understandings of what is considered shameful. Her explanations of both the “whore hierarchy” and the complicated feelings she felt about domming — both for her and for Catherine — when she left that world for the academic one help thoroughly reveal the complexities of the way shame operates in our lives, even when (maybe especially when) we try to push it as far from our consciousness as possible. In doing this, she asks a lot of her reader but in the best way possible. We might not have the experiences she does, but because we’re all part of the system that keeps us mired in shame and wanting to shame, it’s easy to connect with the feelings and reflections those experiences bring up for her.
Like many of the other compelling memoirists who precede her, Belcher uses her experiences as a young queer person in rural America and as a lesbian dominatrix in one of the biggest, most economically disparate cities in the country to help expose this much larger truth about the world we all live in. She shows how omnipresent the power of shame is and raises questions about how we can take that power back without attempting to fully answer them or to try to tie everything up in a neat bow at the end. She approaches this ongoing examination with a great deal of nuance and allows us to continue thinking about and having this conversation with ourselves beyond the constraints of the text. On top of everything else that is fascinating and wonderful about Belcher’s work here, her insistence on leaving this conversation unfinished reveals her faith in her readers and in her communities to come up with the answers to these questions that feel most appropriate to how we are living our lives.