Ownership Flag

"Slave Girl of Gor" by John Norman

Posted by Tanos on Mon 25 Oct 10, 12:33 PM

I have a vivid memory of seeing a display of Gor books in a branch of W.H. Smiths in about 1978, when I was 6 or 7 years old. Some of the books were face-out so I could see the tempting pictures of chained, half-naked slave girls. The title of one, "Slave Girl of Gor", jumped out at me, as I was already secretly fascinated with all aspects of slavery - well, at the least the aspects that could be gleaned from television, films, and children's books. Would that woman begging the king's mercy in the Ladybird "King Alfred the Great" make a good slave? Probably not, I thought, but these Gor books looked more promising. The display was near the shop entrance, and we were on holiday, but somehow I instinctively knew that going over to look at one wouldn't be ok.

Years later I did begin exploring them in bookshops, and then buying them. By the time my teenage years finished, I'd read about 20 of them. By this point, in the early 1990s, you could still buy them in mainstream bookshops and newsagents like W.H. Smith's, but first Smith's then the bookshops dropped the titles, as feminist activists objected to the content. They were still available in second hand bookshops for a pound for a few more years, often with half a dozen titles in their stock of science fiction and fantasy. They've dwindled now, although you can buy the reprints online.

I reread "Slave Girl" in the late 1990s, and I've come back to it now, almost at random, after more than a dozen years. I've not exactly been Gor's biggest fan in that intervening time, but I wanted to take another look, knowing what I know now about O&P, and after so much of the online Gorean nonsense has died away.

I should give some background first though. The book is one of four in the original twenty-five that are first-person narratives written by Earth girls taken to the planet Gor as slaves. Judy, the narrator of "Slave Girl", is led on a whistle-stop tour of Gorean civilisation: starting naked and confused, chained to a boulder in the middle of a Gorean prairie, with only vague memories of her abduction and none of her change of planet. She progresses through a camp of guerilla warriors, back breaking work as a slave in a peasant village, a slave auction in which she is sold to a tavern in Ar, the Rome-style metropolis, by slave ship to islands of rival states, and then back to Ar for a Dickensian climax of reunions and not-so-coincidences.

Judy is systematically reduced from arrogant college girl to desperate slave by the attitudes, the desires, and even the business practices of the soldiers, farmers, traders, and inn keepers she is owned by. This starts in earnest with a brutal scene which Norman springs on the reader with some dexterity:

He must learn I am an equal and a person, I resolved. I will show him this.

I broke the position to which he had commanded me. I sat upon the grass before him, my knees drawn up. I smiled. "Sir," said I to him, "I know you cannot understand my language, nor I yours, but, still, perhaps, from my voice, or its tone, you may gather something of my feelings. You saved my life yesterday. You rescued me when I was in great danger. I am very grateful for this."

I thought my head would fly from my neck, with such swift savageness was I struck! The blow was open-handed, taking me on the left side of the face, but it must have been clearly audible for a hundred and fifty yards about; I rolled, stinging, crawling, for more than twenty feet; I threw up in the grass; I couldn't see; blackness, violent, velvet, plunging, deep, lights, stars, seemed to leap and contract and expand and explode in my head; again I shook my head; again I threw up in the grass; then I sank to the side on my stomach.

Until recently I hadn't realised that one of Norman's favourite tools is horror. He places the slaves in horrific situations, and then milks their reactions so we can see their desperation, humiliation and suffering. This is all firmly in the brutalist strand of BDSM, shared with Georges Pichard's graphic novels, and paysites like www.InfernalRestraints.com. It's not so much pure pain, as suffering, humiliation, and desperation created by hardware and rules which grind the slave down.

For example, Judy's branding is described in loving detail:

It begins swiftly, almost before you can feel it. I felt the iron touch me and almost instantaneously, crackling, flash through my outer skin and then, firmly, to my horror, enter and lodge itself fixedly in my thigh. It was literally in my body, inflexibly, burning. The pain then began to register on my consciousness. I began screaming. I could not believe what was being done to me, or how much it hurt. Not only could I feel the iron, but I could hear it, hissing and searing in the precise, beautiful wound it was relentlessly burning in my thigh. There was an odor of burning flesh, mine. I smelled burning, as of a kind of meat. It was my own body being marked. I could not move my thigh. I threw back my head and screamed. I felt the iron tight in my body, then, to my horror, pressing in even, more deeply. The marking surface of the iron, then, lay hissing, literally submerged, in my flesh. I could not move my thigh in the least. I threw my head from side to side, screaming. The marking surface of the iron is some quarter of an inch in depth. It was within my flesh. It was lodged there, submerged, hissing and burning. Taking its time, not hurrying, it marked me, cleanly and deeply. Then, swiftly, cleanly, it withdrew.

Later in Judy's journey, she is placed in an all-girl slave ship, infested with rats and lice. The girls lay stretched out on benches in the pitch-black hold, six high, with a cage of wire mesh separating each from her neighbours. Each girl is held in place, full length, with chains at her ankles and wrists. But neither of these precautions are to prevent escape. The mesh is prevent her being attacked by the rats. The chains are to prevent her scarring herself by scratching at the lice.

In a few pages the horror is played out, with Judy screaming and being coldly told that it is not yet the part of the day when screaming is permitted. The threat of the mesh being opened to allow the rats to eat her in the blackness is enough to silence her. The reader is left to imagine hundreds of helpless slaves all desperately trying to hold their nerve in silence, long enough to reach the screaming period and then releasing their terror all at once.

Later Judy and her neighbours beg to be used by the guards, just to get a little time out of the cages, and finally she is made to clean the filth that builds up on the floor, before going up on deck for a few precious minutes chained on her knees.

Some of the Gorean books include elements of the competing aesthetic strand, with pampered pleasure slaves sitting on velvet cushions in their silks, but there's little of that in "Slave Girl".

Norman even inserts some recognition of Goreans' love of bondage. Their society is not just one in which vanilla pleasures are conveniently obtained from the bodies of slaves, but one in which what we now call BDSM is within the range of sexual prefences one expects to encounter. Whilst owned by a tavern, Judy mentions a customer she serves sexually who requests the "hook bracelets" from the "special equipment" and "harnesses" which the tavern stocks as a matter of course:

I rose to my feet and went to the slave room to fetch the hook bracelets, leather cuffs with locks on them, and snaps; they are soft and the snaps, as opposed to the cuffs, require no key; some men enjoy them on their slaves; by means of the snaps the girl may be variously secured by the locked cuffs, her hands being fastened behind her or before her, or perhaps to her collar.

Slavery doesn't just provide the Goreans with personal pleasures. There are two set-piece scenes of slave auctions in the great Rome-like city of Ar, which go far beyond our historical markets where slaves were sold in a matter-of-fact way, perhaps with some tactical choices of clothing or body oils to improve their appearance. The Gorean auction houses put on theatrical displays in front of a tiered auditorium more like an opera-house than a cattle market. Records of 19th century slave markets in the Americas and Middle East do suggest that the whole practice of selling women to men had some entertainment value, with some men attending just to see the women (and doormen sometimes being employed to control the level of that.) But the Goreans turn the grandest auctions into Burlesque shows: a place to socialise for a few hours and buy a burger whilst watching a procession of women dressed in provocative costumes: a humble cleaning tunic that is removed to reveal a pleasure slave; a girl prodded on to the block just wearing a blindfold; a girl wrapped in strips of cloth which are removed one by one. The auctioneer doesn't just call the prices and cajole the buyers. Armed with a whip, he puts the girl through her paces, extracting instinctive animal responses to pain and pleasure to tempt the buyers, as he strips away any clothing and any psychological defences.

On the face of it, the Gor books should be the emblematic books of BDSM, at least for those not following the aesthetic strand of "Story of O". They probably played a large part in establishing the collar as the near-universal symbol of ownership, with the terminology of "collaring".

Some of Norman's sentences are ham-fisted ("at the mercy of men, and who, because they wished it, had been put muchly to their pleasure") but some of the scenes are done very well though. Why don't they sit on the shelf next to "Story of O" and the Marketplace series without howls of protest and the inevitable descent into personal arguments? What went wrong?

I think the answer is in two parts. First, the Gor books have an ideology - that male dominance over women as slaves is natural and right, probably for all women if they can only be found by the right master.

Other books aren't as blatant about their agenda. The introduction to "The Story of O", by Pauline Reage's lover, said that women are suited to masochism and you should take a whip when you visit them. But who reads the introduction or takes it seriously? O is just one woman in the text itself, and some, like Anne-Marie, are anything but slaves. The Marketplace series has a subtle agenda that everyone is really a bisexual switch (even if they're in denial of course) and that to be a True Trainer, one must have started as a slave. But it's subtle, and you can skip over the parts when they systematically tick off all the Fm, Mf, Mm, Fm, Fmm, MFm, ... combinations, scene by scene.

Being so blatant and consistent about what Goreans think leads to the suspicion that John Norman agrees, and subsequent letters and interviews seem to confirm that. This tends to paint them as irreducibly male dominant / female submissive fiction. Some of the titles do have male heroes naked in the chains of other men for pages on end; and even begging for their lives and serving female owners. However, these situations are always temporary: male slaves rebel, honour is restored, and women are finally subjugated. If you can't just think of them as fiction, I imagine that's pretty unpalatable.

Secondly, I think the Gor books were hijacked by the roleplay chatrooms that emerged in the late 1990s. Gor provided an off-the-shelf template for roleplay. This is not only a set of exotic names for everything from rats ("urts") to warrior-carrying birds ("tarns"), but also customs and rules which appear to tell you how to train and keep slaves. If you're unsure of yourself as a dominant or submissive, then that can be quite attractive.

The problem with online roleplay, both chatrooms and in virtual worlds, is precisely that: it's virtual rather than real. It pretends to be something, and so often it gets it wrong. For example, one group of Goreans marched off into the wilderness with the idea that slaves never disobey, and that any disobedience must mean freeing the slave as she has failed. Norman's habit of mentioning that slaves might be slain for even contemplating <insert some mild form of disobedience here> is probably the origin of that idea, but it's entirely unhelpful. When slaves are genuinely controlled, some amount reactance in response is natural and is often expressed as petty acts of rebellion. Identifying and removing those remaining freedoms is the way to establish ownership, not just giving up at the first sign of resistance. Nevertheless, in "Slave Girl of Gor" itself, there are some thoughful passages applicable to what we do in real-life O&P relationships. For instance,

There are diverse philosophies of discipline. Some masters believe a girl should be whipped only privately. Others believe she should be whipped whenever and wherever she deserves it, immediately, while her offense, such as it is, is fresh in her mind. Clitus Vitellius, perhaps wisely, believed it depended upon the girl and the context. Sometimes punishment is much more effective when a girl must wait for it. Generally a girl is not whipped before another girl who is owned by the same master. They only know, when the door is closed, that their sister in bondage is to be whipped. That is enough for them. I had little doubt, however, that Clitus Vitellius, in the present context, would hesitate to whip in the Belled Collar itself. He knew I would not care to be exposed and publicly put under the leather here where I had worked, and certainly not before the girls I knew. To be whipped with Helen watching, for example, would be almost unspeakable agony. I was very quiet.

"It depended upon the girl and the context" is good advice in most situations: decide what is going to work in the real situation at hand. But it's not the kind of answer you would have gone from a Gorean roleplay chatroom a decade ago.

(There are links to currently available editions of "Slave Girl of Gor" on my books page.)

Edited Sun 8 Dec 13, 12:50 PM

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