The Femdom Felony by Thomas Moffatt

The Femdom Felony by Thomas Moffatt, self-published, March 2020, 277 pp., $9.99 (paperback) / $4.25 (ebook). Buy.

By day, Jay Mitchell is a computer technician for the city of Calgary. He keeps his lifestyle as a live-in submissive to a dominant mistress separate from his work life. But when his mistress, the Catwoman, is found murdered, Jay’s lifestyle becomes public knowledge as he turns into the police’s top suspect. Desperate to find the Catwoman’s killer even while being pursued by authorities himself, Jay plays amateur detective as he questions various members of the BDSM community about the last people seen with the Catwoman. But he soon discovers that the crime is bigger than he could have imagined, going far beyond one subculture to involve corporations, nonprofits, and even ecoterrorists.

The Femdom Felony is a fun, richly rendered mystery that is sensitive to the communities it portrays. Perhaps the greatest strength of the novel is its deep understanding of BDSM culture, norms, and safety procedures. Although there is some conflation of kink and sex, Moffatt does a great job of explaining BDSM in a way that’s accessible to vanilla readers who might not understand the philosophy behind power exchange. For readers involved in the community, The Femdom Felony is a refreshing escape: Jay’s deep experience with BDSM community shows through in the way he takes safety and consent seriously, allowing the reader to relax and not have to worry about insensitive portrayals of a community that often faces heavy stigma. Additionally, Moffatt’s decision to add a parallel story about Terry, a trans woman, helping Toni, a young queer man, escape from his abusive situation worked well for the narrative. In showing the horrific abuse Toni endures, Moffatt is clear to distinguish how such abuse is antithetical to the tenets of Safe, Sane, and Consensual BDSM. When those tenets are violated later by the villains, the reader has a full sense of why that violation is egregious.

Moffatt’s characters are richly rendered. I wish I knew more about the Catwoman and was unhappy that she was fridged for the story, but the other characters had well-developed backstories and felt like real people. Jay doesn’t appear to be LGBTQ, but he allies with the community because of the overlapping stigmas they both face. The LGBTQ side characters feel multifaceted, and Moffatt does a wonderful job of providing backstories that involve abuse, homelessness, and other difficult situations without lingering on them as tragedies, or as titillating, voyeuristic looks into people’s lives. Rather, Moffatt’s characters are people who have survived those experiences. They have stories other than “issue stories,” and they all have their own interests, motivations, and personalities outside of the subcultures they’re involved in. Even when they engage in kinks I don’t share, I can appreciate why they gravitate to them, as the characters’ psyches are well-defined. Moffatt not only humanizes people who are often marginalized, but also shows that those facets of a person’s identity are only a small part of their complex lives.

I found myself totally engrossed in the worldbuilding of The Femdom Felony as well. The novel is set in present-day Calgary, Alberta. I use “worldbuilding” here not to mean divergences from our real-life world, as in a secondary world, but rather all the efforts the author has put into establishing a sense of setting. Moffatt’s descriptions of Calgary are vivid and show a deep understanding of the city. I often have difficulty following characters’ geographical and spatial locations when they’re involved in a chase or other action scenes, but Moffatt has no trouble orienting the reader. The details are specific, creating a lived-in sense of place. Even bits of infodump-like exposition were fascinating and showed a love for the city.

The plot itself was easy to follow and well-paced for a thriller. The ending is fairly open, but it suits the narrative. There were only a few things that detracted from the narrative for me. One was that I didn’t appreciate the ableism in the moment when Miss Stacey apologizes for Trixie Torment’s threatening behavior by saying, “She’s bipolar and she doesn’t always stick to her meds.” Moffatt tries so hard to depict the BDSM community as made up of a lot of individuals, including individual bad actors, that it feels jarring to see an entire group of people marginalized with such a dismissive statement. The second issue I had was one that I often run into in real-life BDSM spaces: almost everyone is White. I would have been able to set that aside and ignore it for the sake of the rest of the story, but I was then disappointed to see subtle stereotypes about Asians, first as a group of tourists, then as exploited housekeepers, and finally as servers speaking nonstandard English. Of course, there are indeed Asians who meet all those descriptions, but the overall effect felt like having a few extras in the background of the movie who are thought of as little more than props. Again, a gap that seems incongruent with Moffatt’s otherwise sensitive portrayal of many other groups.

Overall, The Femdom Felony is a fun mystery novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring the repercussions for each character’s actions. The world and people are excellently written, and I love that I now have a great example of a work that respects BDSM and is accessible to both vanilla and kinky readers. I hope to see more erotica mysteries from Moffatt soon.

Review originally published on Reedsy Discovery.

Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical by Sikivu Hutchinson

Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical by Sikivu Hutchinson, Pitchstone Publishing, April 2020, 135 pp., $14.95 (paperback) / $6.99 (ebook), ISBN 978-1-6343119-8-4 (paperback) / 978-1-6343119-9-1 (ebook). Buy.

This book made me a humanist.

Back in 2009, I co-founded the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Secular Students Association (SSA) with Mike Deigan, Kris Wold, and Joy Nichols. Although we didn’t use the term at the time, our mission was a humanist one. We consciously chose to have the “A” represent “Association” instead of the national organization’s “Alliance,” as we felt “Alliance” embodied a sense of conflict that didn’t resonate with us. Instead, we wanted to dedicate the organization to interfaith dialogue and service to fill a gap not only on campus, but in the surrounding community. We promoted events on campus that engaged with secularism, such as a student production of The Spinoza Project, which discusses religious freedom and the separation of church and state. We contextualized events with open dialogue, including an “Ask and Atheist” event across from the “Pit Preacher,” aka Gary Birdsong, who is known for fiery fundamentalist speeches and condemnations that even many Christian students found extreme. We were also aware that new atheist movements were doing very little to provide a social safety net for communities, especially when compared to religious groups like churches and faith-based resource centers, which offer a strong alternative to government assistance. We sent out information about anti-oppression volunteer opportunities and charity events to our members so they could participate as representatives of SSA. In doing so, we hoped to improve the reputation of secular people in an area known for its dogmatic religious beliefs, and to provide an alternative to houses of worship and faith-based organizations.

Gradually, though, my studies took on more priority, and my worsening mental health made participation in student organizations more difficult. As I evaluated which groups I still wanted to go to, I made the difficult decision to stop going to SSA meetings, which I had worked so hard along with the others to establish in the first place. There simply came a point when I felt too alienated as a person of color to keep participating in White spaces that often devolved into attacks on religion. Many atheists at Carolina were formerly involved with Southern Baptism and its rigid dogma; however, many of them did not examine how they replicated the very same dogma, even if they switched their terms and targets. The Whiteness of those spaces and the Whiteness of secularist philosophy ended up making me feel drained rather than restored. So I left.

I’ve never stopped identifying as atheist agnostic1, but, while I found the term “humanist” while I was in college, I never used it for myself. Perhaps it felt too frou-frou for me. It was absent of any framework of radical dismantling of oppression. Sure, there were lofty ideals, but I didn’t see much about actual praxis. And what organizations there were felt so overwhelmingly White that I didn’t even feel like going.

It’s been 11 years since the founding of Carolina’s SSA. In that time, only Humanists in the Hood has managed to reach me and convert me to humanism, precisely because Hutchinson’s intersectional analysis made me feel seen for the first time in a secular space. I’ve been active in various anti-oppression circles, including those fighting racism, cis/sexism, ableism, sizeism, and heteropatriarchy, yet this was the first time I felt acknowledged as a secular person in a religious context. My prior frustration wasn’t an individual one-off that happened at one single university, but was a manifestation of a systematic disparity.

Hutchinson outlines a powerful and compelling argument that humanism cannot be divorced from real-world oppressions, such as racism, sexism, and economic inequality. Modern secularism does itself a disservice when it focuses on reactionary politics and only mobilizes to fight religious encroachments on the state. Instead, Hutchinson argues that humanism must be proactive and stand behind its belief in the equality and value of all human life. Instead of paying lip service to representation and diversity, humanists must invest the actual work in dismantling the institutions that keep humans unequal.

Hutchinson outlines how religion, particularly Christianity, has worked its way into American politics. Through a lens that examines a Black and African American experience of religion and secularism, Hutchinson breaks down how Christianity has allied with the state to perpetuate violence, such as by normalizing violence against women of color. Hutchinson highlights how religion offers a safety net for communities of color that have been neglected by the government. But too often, that safety net often comes at the price of accepting the abuse of powerful figures, particularly men, in the church.

Furthermore, because religion often fills the gap of providing mental healthcare to communities of color, secular people of color are often forced to choose between an ideology at odds with their very identity or getting the help they need. Especially for Black and African Americans, religion has historically and continues to be a way to cope with trauma, including intergenerational trauma. Humanists in the Hood is a difficult read at times, if only because Hutchinson doesn’t whitewash the reality of what people of color, particularly Black people, face in the United States: depressing rates of sexual violence, criminalization, pathologization, poverty, and the psychic toll of navigating interlocking oppressions on a day-to-day basis. Even as she highlights religion’s role in perpetuating injustice, Hutchinson is careful not to attack religion or faith itself, instead focusing her arguments on the praxis, or concrete action that is taken. In fact, Hutchinson includes suggested steps at the end of each chapter to help the reader see and challenge the failings of White secularism.

On top of being an excellent manifesto for a radical vision of humanism, Humanists in the Hood is also one of the best, up-to-date references on Black feminism that I’ve come across. As a millennial who came to a lot of consciousness about oppression through the internet, I’ve often been frustrated by how the history behind ideology gets erased online, most visibly in the lack of citations for the originators of terms and concepts. Those ideas then go on to be co-opted by White feminism, such as what has happened with the #MeToo movement, which Hutchinson uses to illustrate this very dynamic. Humanism in the Hood provides the citations, links, and references to the original sources where concepts like “intersectionality” and “respectability politics” came from (Kimberlé Crenshaw and Elizabeth Higginbotham, respectively). In a society where Black women’s labor is so often devalued and co-opted, Hutchinson’s thorough timelines and meticulous citations offer an invaluable record of history and a roadmap away from that erasure.

Even though Humanists in the Hood is a mere 135 pages long and written in non-academic, accessible language, I still found myself taking a while to read it, simply because Hutchinson expresses so much in such a compact space—it’s truly a marvel; I’ve read books over 400 pages as long that weren’t even half as informative. Rather than try to sum up every one of Hutchinson’s arguments, I’d like to expand on her analysis by providing decolonial and Chinese-American additions.

Hutchinson touches on how Enlightenment-era philosophy shaped contemporary humanism and how ideologies of racial difference are used to justify inhumane acts on people of color; she also notes how the mind–body division found in Christianity undermines the mission of improving the human condition on Earth while one is alive. Hutchinson dedicates an entire chapter to discussing the economic injustice of capitalism and income inequality. Yet, while Hutchinson does mention imperialism in a few places, there is a notable absence of critiques about coloniality. Many of the myths people in the United States have about progress and modernity, including beliefs about the infallibility of science and the vision of the “American Dream,” are rooted in colonialism’s spread over the globe. Capitalism was not always the status quo; racial difference was not always codified into institutional power differences. The United States is not unique in its oppressive beliefs, as the United States is deeply shaped by the same coloniality that took over the world. A thorough understanding of coloniality and decolonization would only advance the cause of an intersectional humanism.

I would also like to expand on Hutchinson’s comments about mental health and religious organizations’ exploitation of worshippers. Mental health is a critical issue in Asian-American communities, where language barriers, cultural barriers, poverty, faith, pseudoscience, and distrust of Western medicine combine to create low rates of people seeking help for psychiatric issues. Financial exploitation of worshippers is not unique to Christianity, either. No more than 20 minutes away from South LA, where Hutchinson’s work is centered, is Rowland Heights, an Asian-American hub. The city is host to one branch of a religious group called Bodhi Meditation.

I can’t claim to know all their inner workings, as I only went to one of their sessions. I found myself disturbed by the focus on the (male) leader Grandmaster Jinbodhi. His words seemed to be sacred in themselves as a video played of worshippers who claimed that various physical ailments had been cast out of their body via meditation, almost like a Christian exorcism: one person claimed that, as she meditated, a ball of energy burst from her body, ridding her of her chronic pain. There was an extensive gift shop attached to the meditation center. Buddhist institutions are no stranger to hosting lavish displays of wealth as religious offerings, and can exploit religious ties to economic injustice just as readily as Christians. Furthermore, while I recognize that the full benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are not yet fully understood, the fact remains that many of the tinctures and remedies are not as efficacious as Western drugs. Still, many immigrant communities, including Asian ones, are suspicious of Western medicine because of its reported side effects. Furthermore, mental health intervention, whether or not it includes medication, is often stigmatized and considered something only White people seek. This web of pressures is yet another manifestation of how religion and faith can be used to control and deprive, and another manifestation of where secular humanism can provide immense value to a community.

Humanists in the Hood is a stellar piece of nonfiction, one that I’d hold up as a prime example of how to make something purportedly high-concept accessible to the masses. For White people wishing to work together toward a humanist vision of the future, Reverse Integration: Helping White America Join the Village by Jay Klusky, Ph.D.2 is an excellent companion to expand this dialogue. In the introduction, Hutchinson notes, “With Humanists in the Hood, I’m writing not only the book that I’ve wanted to read but also the book that I (to quote [Alice] Walker) should have been able to read.” (24, emphasis in original) This is also the book I should have been able to read while organizing in college, the book that would have provided the tools I needed to critique and resist the discomfort I felt in White secular spaces. But Hutchinson notes in the conclusion that it will be Millennials and Gen Zers of color who will change the discourse around humanism in the United States. I’m proud to say that, as a Millennial of color, Humanists in the Hood has resonated with me. I will be sure to pass it on to others so they, too, can be seen and work toward a better future for all humankind.

1 Which is not a contradiction. For me, “atheism” means a lack of belief in a god or gods, while “agnosticism” represents the belief that human beings are inherently limited and cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of a god or gods, thus a- and gnosis, for “knowledge.”

2 Interestingly enough, Dr. Jay Klusky credits Dr. Joy DeGruy as one of his closest friends and as an invaluable cultural consultant. Sikivu Hutchinson cites Dr. Joy DeGruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing in her analysis. Small humanist world.

Review originally published on Reedsy Discovery.

First Instance by David Gowey

First Instance by David Gowey, self-published, July 2016, 118 pp., $0.99, Kindle edition. Buy.

Tony Vasquez is a junior lawyer eager to prove himself to his terrifying boss. When an electrician on the Moon punches someone and sets off an unprecedented legal case, Tony gets the chance of a lifetime. Along with his coworker Kavita, Tony visits the Moon to take on the case. With growing anti-UN sentiment characterizing the political turmoil of Earth in the 2100s, Tony and Kavita have to navigate the touchy subjects of national sovereignty and jurisdiction while fighting for their client’s fundamental human rights.

I loved the concept of First Instance, as I have a soft spot for science fiction that is actually a deep dive into a mundane Earth profession. The legal and political intrigue piqued my interest, and Tony’s voice was fun to follow along throughout. I particularly liked the focus on the consequences of the ruling—what kind of precedent will this trial set for humanity’s budding expansion into space?

Much as I enjoyed the concept and characters, my main issue with the story was on a worldbuilding level. I got tantalizing hints of what kind of future setting the story is in and what kind of changes have happened, but I didn’t get a solid grounding of that when the story opens. There’s decent description of the physical territory on the moon, but little about temporal setting or atmosphere. The talking heads floating in white space problem, essentially. The character voices also tend to blend together when discussing legalese, but I suppose that’s to be expected to some degree.

A sequel to First Instance is in the works. I’m curious to see how the open ending will be resolved.

Reverse Integration: Helping White America Join the Village by Jay Klusky, Ph.D.

Reverse Integration: Helping White America Join the Village by Jay Klusky, Ph.D., Uptone Press, December 2017, 310 pp., $19.95, ISBN 978-0-9634011-4-4. Buy.

I am a writer. I am also a person of color. All of my work, whether fiction or nonfiction, touches upon race in some way. I explore race in my fiction because the concept holds so much power and is fascinating to reimagine, subvert, and deconstruct, particularly through science fiction, fantasy, and horror. At the same time, in my very mundane day-to-day life, race is something I can’t escape. As I’m writing this review, COVID-19 has spread around the world, and distrust of Asians, particularly Chinese people, is at a peak that I’ve never experienced before in my life.

But I believe that we can dismantle racism through a concerted group effort. Part of that effort includes compassionate education. Reverse Integration stood out to me as I was browsing Reedsy Discovery because it promises fill a notable gap within the conversation: how White people can do their part to undo racism. I’ve spoken on convention panels about how to write with diversity, how to sensitively represent a culture that isn’t your own, and why we need consultants to vet our work, among other topics. While I enjoy educating, I no longer have the time to revisit introduction-level topics when I want to explore more advanced questions in my own work. Over and over again, I’ve wished that I had a single book I could hand to well-intentioned White people who simply have no idea where to start in their journey to confront and end racism.

I was delighted to find that Reverse Integration is indeed that manual that I’ve been waiting for all these years. The book consists of eleven chapters arranged into three parts: Laying the Foundation, Understanding: The Psychological and Sociological Forces Behind Disconnection, and Connection: Reverse Integration and Joining the Village. The clarity of Klusky’s writing is a gift. From a pedagogical point of view, the scaffolding is excellent. Klusky presents a solid foundation onto which he introduces more and more complexity until, in the end, the reader feels equipped to think critically in response to their own experiences around racism. However, Reverse Integration is not a textbook, nor does it present racism in detached terms: Klusky never glosses over the ugliness of racism and its history. At the same time, he also brings in humorous examples of dealing with the topic of race drawing from his own experience as a White man working closely with African-American communities, showing that conversations about race don’t all have to be doom and gloom.

Reverse Integration is a combination of well-cited research, psychological self-help manual, and memoir. Klusky’s background in education and psychology, as well as his understanding of sociology, synthesize well into a guide that is approachable, interdisciplinary, and personable, all while teaching the difficult skill of thinking critically. Our public school curricula purport to teach “critical thinking,” but the truth is that, in the age of fake news, science illiteracy, and social media, it can be all too easy for us in the United States to stop thinking for ourselves and fall prey to propaganda.

Klusky’s psychology background is absolutely critical to why his approach works. Instead of chastising White people for their ignorance or privilege, Klusky is careful to acknowledge the very real psychological struggles that all people face when we confront and change our paradigms about the world. We may joke about “White women’s tears” or “White fragility”—terms that are important within the conversation—but when we bleach those terms of their specific meaning, we’re left not only losing powerful words to describe unique experiences, but also reifying disconnect by glossing over the real psychological toll of decolonizing. The defensiveness that White people display is a manifestation of privilege, but it is also a manifestation of cognitive dissonance and various psychological mechanisms at work. If we deny the psychological journey involved in decolonizing, we only end up turning people off the path when they ask themselves why they can’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps—one of the very fallacies we want to dismantle in the first place.

Of course, as with any primer, there are places where Reverse Integration falls a bit short. The language is very binary, with use of phrases like “brothers and sisters,” “s/he,” and “men and women” throughout. While I understand that Reverse Integration isn’t a work on gender, it still feels as if gender-neutral language would’ve streamlined the prose (“siblings,” “they,” “people”) and taken out the possibility of alienating people from the book simply over a stylistic preference. Additionally, while Klusky mentions other races and accounts for the genocide of Native Americans in his timeline of racism in the US, ultimately, the racial framework presented is a strongly Black/White one. As Klusky developed this book based on interactions and work with African-American communities, and given the history of the United States, I understand why the framework is presented as it is. I do feel that it’s appropriate for a 101-level approach. I simply present the binary as a caveat.

Overall, I was very satisfied with Reverse Integration as a primer for how White people can begin to question, challenge, and change their assumptions about race. Klusky’s scaffolding naturally leads the reader to the understanding that they are complicit in racism as an institution, but doesn’t linger on whether that’s something to feel guilty about—instead, Klusky focuses on how people can reconcile that knowledge and move on to more productive action. As Toni Morrison once said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” I will no longer have to sink my time into explaining the same basic concepts over and over; instead, I will be recommending this book in the future as my go-to “Racism 101 for White People” primer. In writing this excellent guide, Jay Klusky has given people of color the greatest gift of all: time. And for that, Dr. Klusky, I thank you.

Review originally published on Reedsy Discovery.