I actually finished reading Playing With Dolls over the weekend, but it had such a profound emotional impact on me that I needed to take some time to regroup, to distance myself from the text, and attempt an intelligent review. I.G. Frederick has accomplished something remarkable here, crafting a story that works on all levels - educating, arousing, inspiring, empowering, and (most importantly) emotionally connecting with the reader.
This is as much a story about gender as it is about sexuality. Jesse (never just Jess, if you please) is an effeminate young man who can best be described as genderqueer. He likes to do his own makeup, style his hair, wear skirts and blouses, and sport some very cute high heels. It's not because he feels he should have been born a woman, or because he dreams of the hormones and surgery that would change his gender, but because that is the gender expression with which he is most comfortable. There's no conflict here between his emotional/physical self, no regrets regarding his birth gender, and no burning desire to correct or alter something about himself. I so loved that he just prefers to express himself in a feminine manner, without attaching any emotional baggage to that expression.
Where there is a conflict, however, is in his sexuality. His parents have always assumed that such an effeminate boy must be gay, and the counsellor they see every week agrees. In fact, so do his friends, his classmates, and society in general. Since everybody assumes it, and continually assures him it must be the case, Jesse assumes that he must be gay. He dates cute boys, holds their hands, snuggles, kisses, and (when absolutely necessary) performs a little oral sex in the back seat to keep their minds off anything further. The problem is, he doesn't enjoy it. Figuring there must be something wrong with him, he finally agrees to give up his virginity on his eighteenth birthday, but suffering through the ordeal provides him no more pleasure than the obligatory oral sex.
Meanwhile, lesbian porn, along with the very public sexual escapades of his best friends, Ashleigh and Rachel, gives him the erection no man has ever managed to coax to life. The problem is, he's been so conditioned to accept that he's gay, he doesn't recognize what all this suggests about his own sexuality. Things begin to change when the girls press him into joining them with the local BDSM scene, but it's a slow process of discovery. He finds that the endorphin high of being whipped and flogged provides the comfort, the pleasure, and the emotional escape that sex has never achieved, but he can only achieve that bliss (and become hard) at the hands of a woman.
While being pushed into the BDSM scene is just another example of other people making assumptions and pressing him to do what they feel is best, it does provide Jesse with the opportunity to explore his gender and to discover his sexuality. It's not an easy process, and it introduces him to the confusion most of us struggle with during our adolescent years, but Frederick does a masterful job of slowly and carefully taking us through it. There's no single WOW moment that changes everything, just a few encounters that raise some questions, and some discussions that begin to erase the assumptions he's been saddled with. As Snakeman tells him at one point, "Allowing other people to identify and label you just disempowers you. You’re the only one who can determine your orientation, sexual or top/dominant/bottom/submissive.” That begins the process, but it's a long drive home with Lady Nell that finally opens his eyes once and for all, with the revelation, "What you wear, how you act, your speech -- none of that determines your sexuality."
There's so much going on beneath the surface of the story, that I'm reluctant to spoil more that I already have. Suffice to say, I see a lot of myself in Jesse, and a lot of my parents in his - particularly the way his mother rejects the expression of his gender at every turn, and the way his father bravely struggles to love and understand him no matter what. It's their final conversation that struck me so hard, with Dad coming to grips with the fact that his son isn't an effeminate gay man, but a straight submissive sissy with masochistic tendencies. As apologies go, I'm not sure there are any so sweet as, "I’m so sorry I made assumptions instead of letting you grow up and figure things out for yourself."
[Reviewed by Sally]