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Reba Maybury, Humpty-Dumpty, Maxime Ballesteros
Reba MayburyPhotography Maxime Ballesteros

Talking about sex and dominating Humpty-Dumpty

Reba Maybury publishes ‘Dining with Humpty-Dumpty’ and reveals why she’s dominating the egg that she’s recast here as a Tory with a feeding fetish

Something I’ve been thinking a lot lately is: what happened to hot writers? There was a time when writers were thought of as rogues, philanderers having adventures and ghosting their date to go home and write about them, still wearing the clothes from the night before. The writer and the bar were inextricable in the popular imagination. I know lots of hot writers, living and slutting today. Having just published my first novel, Oola, I am sometimes delusional (read: drunk) enough to think of myself as a hot, or passably hot, writer.

And yet, something’s changed. The dominant conception of the writer has become a soft-spoken nub with an MFA and a scarf – or multiple scarves. The bar has been replaced with a seminar table. I reject the square writer. I want glamour, darling, and cultural critique! I want Eve Babitz! I want Samuel Delaney! I want Eileen Myles! I want, and blessedly got, Reba Maybury in thigh-high boots.

Maybury is a powerful figure in the London art and fashion scene who, among a million things, runs Wet Satin Press and recently wrote Dining with Humpty-Dumpty, a scintillating novella (illustrated by Will Sheldon) that documents her short-lived relationship with a sub named, yes, Humpty-Dumpty. Humpty is a Tory with a feeding fetish who claims to be a female supremacist. Through domination, Mistress Rebecca attempts to turn him into a socialist.

I could NOT wait to read this book, as it is literally my favorite genre: a supermodern sexual memoir with a feminist lens and strong voice. You will never see eggs the same way again. I had the opportunity to talk with Maybury about her book and her thoughts on masculinity, dream bodies, the ethics of autobiography, and more.

“No one wants to be embarrassed if it’s undeserved, but how underrated and unexplored is the female gaze on the male? And as my work is about men, notions of the ethics of writing about them never really faze me. What are we scared of when we are honest about male behavior?” – Reba Maybury

Brittany Newell: I've been thinking a lot about asexuality lately, as explored in my recent Dazed piece on ambient sexuality. The other day, I was on Twitter and a domme I follow tweeted about how she used to think she was asexual because she "wasted her time having vanilla sex with stupid men" (lolz). This struck a chord with me, as I'm coming to see asexuality less as a fully-fledged sexual orientation (i.e. a box to check on a survey) and more aligned with fetishism: a different way of not only having sex but feeling sexual. Like fetishism, asexuality expands the parameters of what we think of as "sex" to include a whole range of seemingly mundane but actually mystical things, like wearing boots, holding hands, sustained eye contact, or, in your book, ordering huge amounts of food for someone and demanding they eat it. Surely as a domme, your definition and basic conception of sex must be different from the norm? What roles do desire, fantasy, and action play in your conception of sex, if they do at all? 

Reba Maybury: Wow, this is a sensitive subject! But what great conversation isn’t fragile? I think there is the perception that as a domme you see sex differently, that you don't enjoy the things other people enjoy, but you just have a different experience. Sit down with anyone for long enough and they probably have had sexual experiences not all that dissimilar to me. I really think my sex life is pretty standard in comparison to the type of sex most of the gay men I know are having… I mean, the more people you have sex with, the more variations in tastes are going to arise. I love sex, but I only really enjoy it when it’s with someone I find completely absorbing. I love the comment from the domme about being asexual because of ‘our shared history of the missionary position’ as femmes! Ha!

I don’t actually have sex very often because I have a very low tolerance for bad quality and I’m a terrible snob when it comes to fancying anyone because people with bad cultural taste makes me dry up... I am awful! I suppose for me, sex is about a friction with someone where you both find each other fascinating – and that fascination is mutually electrifying.

The best sex I have ever had has been the most sensual, the kind of sex where all you really do is touch each other’s skin for hours and you know, really get off on just looking at each other. Total intimacy. Quite the opposite of the denial you play out as a domme. But then again I also love how sex can bring out the most feral corners of humanity in you. It’s the most transcendental meditation when it gets to that pinnacle. Just really feeling inside your body. However, it is rare that a one night stand is going to bring either of those extremes – unless the spontaneity of you meeting is wild. Then again I really believe, like you said, that eye contact can be wild sex too. Subtleties in body language are hugely underrated in their mammoth potential for pleasure. I guess sex is the sublime sensuality created through the most intimate mental and physical friction.

Brittany Newell: Oooh, nice. Speaking of friction, there is always a dilemma when it comes to writing about people one knows. People simultaneously love and hate to be written about. Of course, writing about your sex life requires writing about other people and acts/feelings/moments perceived as "private." Writing is an incredible medium because it is private (unless orated I suppose); generally, the written word is consumed quietly, in a one-to-one exchange between reader and writer. So it is an inherently intimate medium, seemingly well-suited to the transmission of intimate things. And yet, when someone is written about, especially with regards to sex or love, they often bristle. They feel exposed: it's a new form of nudity. I find it so tricky to write about the people I am intimate with – I am most compelled to write about them, in order to feel closer to them (or closer to the fantasy I'm conjuring) and yet I also feel shy about it, as shy as I would if confronted by their real (naked) body. What is your take on the ethical dilemma of autobiographical writing, sexy or otherwise? 

Reba Maybury: I was with a friend last weekend, a great and respected artist who explores feminist themes in her work. In a very thinly-disguised moment of passive aggression, she asked me if she thought I was ‘exploiting’ the men I write about. The question stunned me. It felt as if she was stating that I have to ask permission from men to discuss my own experiences. Why can’t I own my own experience? Why do women have such a hard time taking charge over how they articulate what happened to them still? Everyone I have ever written about has had their details heavily changed. There is a bit in the book where I say something like ‘The biggest taboo of being a sex worker is seeing how men really want to behave’ and I feel like this relates to the female discussing her experiences of men. No one wants to be embarrassed if it’s undeserved, but how underrated and unexplored is the female gaze on the male? And as my work is about men, notions of the ethics of writing about them never really faze me. What are we scared of when we are honest about male behavior?

I am fascinated by deconstructing power. In my honest opinion, taboo and socially uncomfortable topics can only be tackled through discussion. And how can we have a good conversation about these things if they aren’t based on an honest account of our experiences? In a time of fake news and Trump, what is really so shocking about writing about how Humpty likes Coldplay? Or that his parents bought his flat and he wants to get fat? Or that a punk (I used to sleep with) still lives in his mother’s basement and she still washes his underwear while preaching anarchist self-righteousness? Is that exploiting them, or more simply observing the gendered and classed nuances all around us? And how these nuances actually do eventually add up to a power that is undeniable. Maybe this is a bit off centre from what you originally asked me, but didn’t that old Fascist Evelyn Waugh say something like ‘you can write anything about anyone as long as you say they are good in bed’? Ha!

“When someone is written about, especially with regards to sex or love, they often bristle. They feel exposed: it’s a new form of nudity” – Brittany Newell

Brittany Newell: True! Though honestly, I feel like people get weird even when you write good things about them! There is something uncanny in reading a character based on you. It’s never satisfying. It’s like scrolling on Instagram and seeing a picture of yourself and not recognising your body. We never know how we come across to others, and writing makes this obvious.

On a related note, I thought a lot about body image while reading your book. Obviously, body image is central to Humpty's feeding fetish. He has a clear mental image of what his ideal body would be: a massive beanbag. You mention a different sub, someone named Wormy, who has a radically different "dream body" i.e. that of a worm in your garden. Wormy fascinated me (my wife's name is Silk Worm!!) not only because he sounded so sweet but also because his body image was so playful. Body image, it would seem, is central to sexuality – far more important, I would say, than the "real" physical body itself. So the question at the root of any and all sexual exchanges (even vanilla ones) might be: what is your dream body, i.e. not the body you are using but the body you are conjuring? What shape does it take in your mind's eye? Within this formulation, the question of "good" vs. "bad" body image seems trivial.

As someone with chronic body woes and a frequent desire to have no body at all (because then I would be free from pain!), I was surprised to find myself relating to both Humpty and Wormy's dream bodies. While the prospect of gaining a huge amount of weight doesn't appeal to me, I could relate to the underlying desire to be shapeless, edgeless, amorphous – taking up space while simultaneously disappearing into the background. But then I don't think the sexual desire to "blot out" is unique. What is unique to Humpty is his chosen means to this end, i.e. consumption. I was curious about the specificity of a feeding fetish, which of course is tied to access, privilege, and control. He has the means to make his "dream body" real, which seems rare.

Anyway, what is your take on body image, both the common meaning – clichés like "strong women should promote good body image!" come to mind – and moreover how it relates, in more fantastical ways, to the desiring process?

Reba Maybury: Both Wormy’s desire to become anthropomorphised and Humpty’s obsession to become a beanbag is very central to them being cis men. As women, our bodies are in constant upheaval, our periods (if we have them) rule us: we lose and put on weight every month, we release hormones, our skin gets bad, we get tired, angry, clumsy, depressed, horny. Cis men’s bodies and hormones are relatively stagnant in comparison to this, and as men who incorporate a very corporate norm they don’t or won’t allow themselves to experiment with their public image, they are the reverse of the queer or femme body! So their only escape is projected through me. They want to feel their bodies change because the patriarchy thrives on structure and rules of acceptable and very boring visual physical signifiers. Have you heard about that weather man who wore the same suit for a year and no one realised?

I feel unbelievably privileged in the fact that I have always adored being female and I love my body. I started puberty when I was very young and felt proud of my changing body. I remember wearing minimiser bra for a long time because I was freaked out that men started looking at my chest when I was ten. I suppose I learnt early on that it was going to be a fight to feel like my body, and how I wanted to express my sexuality, was really mine. However, I was brought up in a household where women were celebrated and any physical insecurity was banished through an early education in feminist thought. I’m not sure if I’ve ever thought about my dream body because I’ve been lucky to have always been physically healthy. Being womanly is gorgeous.

I think the idea of making a ‘dream body’ is dangerous on many levels: once an insecurity is fixed, the mind will wander to another blemish, fear, contortion or bulge. It is human nature to want to fix things. Recently I’ve become fixated on becoming physically strong. I’ve been going to weightlifting classes, not because I want to look any different, but because the feeling of being strong makes me feel sexy. Exercise is insanely good for your mental health and people who can look after themselves are seriously attractive to me. But the most attractive part of someone is their mind, and the brain doesn't look like anything.

“I learnt early on that it was going to be a fight to feel like my body, and how I wanted to express my sexuality, was really mine” – Reba Maybury

Brittany Newell: That's rad about wanting to get stronger. Exercise is a wonderfully direct way to feel "in control" of one's non-dream body. Control is obviously at the heart of the S/M contract (or is it?) and also a major concern for both the writer and the femme body. As a femme I often feel out of control, like my body is foreign. So many forces are operating on it at all times! When I write, I regain control. I feel in charge of my experiences. But then there are the moments (usually in the wee hours) when I crave a loss of control, when submission – to a good feeling, to a disco track – is magic. What are your thoughts on control as it relates to the writerly process and/or sexual experience? Do you seek control when you write, or are you after something else?

Reba Maybury: Control is everything. It’s tricky: being a dominatrix is all about directing a coldness and dedication to denial which I think has made me more sensual. The desire to just touch skin and cuddle sometimes feels overbearing because it lets your body take control, and not through a calculation of intricate power games in your mind. This desire to feel more and more in my body rather than in my mind is certainly something I hadn’t articulated until we had this discussion…

Writing is a lot of things to me, but it is definitely a way for me to understand my experiences and the world we live in. You are right, that is about control. I know that my own and probably your mind too can sometimes terrify you with anxiety and depression, which at times I haven’t felt I had control over… but by writing down my observations, a harmony can be balanced which is calming. Writing gives me a perspective that you don’t always get from talking to a friend because you do have this power where your words are potentially inflicting an emotional reaction on your company. I also love to associate my experiences and interactions with the culture that surrounds them and how these tensions emerge which you don’t always focus on when you’re in the moment.

Brittany Newell: I could talk forever, but I think we have to wrap this up now. It’s been a true pleasure. Do you have any last words or questions?  

Reba Maybury: Well yes, firstly I would like to thank you for this gorgeous conversation and your dedication to attempting to dismantle the popular, seemingly middle-class, straight smugness of the current literary world through Oola. Your novel is an uncompromising account of a queer relationship, something which capitalism is desperate to commodify and white-wash. You have created a piece of work which disallows this because it is humanly messy – a true achievement.

Brittany Newell: I’m blushing! Thank you again. I’ll be thinking about this conversation for days.

Dining with Humpty-Dumpty will be officially launched at Paris’s The Community on 9 July 2017 and is available to purchase in Europe and the United States now – keep an eye on Wet Satin Press for information. Brittany Newell’s book Oola is also available to purchase now