By Chris Belcher
My Rating: 5 Stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.21
Publication Date: July 12th, 2022
Genre: LGBTQ Memoir
Format Read: Ebook
Goodreads Summary: A queer teen rebel escapes small-town Appalachia and becomes Los Angeles’s Renowned Lesbian Dominatrix in this searing and darkly funny memoir that upends our understanding of sexuality, class, and power.
“The dominatrix is the id of American femininity,” writes Chris Belcher. “She says the words that we wish we could say when we find ourselves frozen. No is principal among them.”
From an early age, Belcher appeared destined for a life of conventional femininity. At all of eighteen months old, she took first place in an infant beauty contest, a minor glory that tends to follow you around a working-class town of 1,600 people in rural Appalachia. As a high school freshman, she goes along with what’s expected of her: joining the cheerleaders and winning over the boys. Girls who cater to male desire are admired. But admiration is fleeting, double standards are enraging, and Belcher is restless for a chance to act on her own desires. When she falls in love with another girl and shares the secret of her queerness, the conservative community that had once celebrated its prettiest baby swiftly turns on her.
A decade later and two thousand miles away, living in Los Angeles and trying to stay afloat in the early years of a PhD program, Belcher plunges into the work of a pro-domme. Branding herself as LA’s Renowned Lesbian Dominatrix, she specializes in male clients who want a woman to make them feel worthless, shameful, and weak—all the abuse regularly heaped upon women for free. A queer woman whom men can trust with the unorthodox side of their sexualities, Chris is paid to be the keeper of the fantasies that they can’t enact in their everyday relationships. But moonlighting as a sex worker also carries risks, like the not-so-submissive who tries to turn the tables and the jealous client who seeks revenge through blackmail. Belcher refuses to feel shame about the work she does, but fear that her doctorate program won’t approve—even in the field of gender and sexuality studies—burdens her with a double life. Pretty Baby is her second coming out.
As Lisa Taddeo’s New York Times bestseller Three Women gave us a revelatory look inside female desire, this sharp and discerning memoir dissects male desire—its harm, its greed, and its secrets—and examines how queerness could hold the answers to subverting it.
Disclaimer: I received an eARC of this book from Netgalley and Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review
When I first decided to read this book, I had no idea what it was about. I’d seen that Autostraddle used it as their book club book, and that was enough of a recommendation for me to go and get myself a copy. I was not disappointed by what I read in the slightest. On the contrary, Pretty Baby has quickly become one of my favorite memoirs of all time, and most definitely my favorite memoir written by a queer person.
Belcher became a dominatrix in college in order to help pay for her pHD tuition which, as we all know, is horrendously overpriced. While the memoir used her time as a dominatrix as a sort of grounding point in the story, frequently turning back to it and using individual experiences as a way to delve deeper into Belcher’s psyche, the story also took care to tell us about Belcher’s childhood, her time in college, and her becoming a proud lesbian woman.
Each and every part of her story was told with such care and attention to detail that I found myself resonating with many of the experiences she talked about, despite having an entirely different life from childhood through adulthood. The universal experience of queerness was mixed with much more specific experiences that made Belcher who she is today. Being a professional dominatrix is part of that, yes, but there is also more to who she is than domming alone.
In a story such as this, it can be difficult to avoid the common pitfall of glorifying sex work or condemning it, but Belcher threaded the needle to get to the truth about what sex work was like for her, the way she fit into the community, and the way it both positively and negatively affected her life. I felt that I got a complete picture of the (relatively privileged) way that Belcher engaged in sex work rather than just getting a caricature that she believed we wanted to read.
I found this book immensely powerful and would recommend it to anyone, but especially to people who are coming to terms with their sexuality in a complicated world, and want to see an example of someone discovering their lesbianism and then feeling confident embodying it.