Book Review: Docile by April Would
K.M. Szpara's debtors' dystopia
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K. M. Szpara’s debut novel, Docile, begins with a warning. On the front cover, we are told, “There is No Consent Under Capitalism.”
Set in a not-too-distant future, members of an impoverished underclass sell their bodies to the super wealthy as Dociles, in exchange for relief from inherited debt. The duties of a Docile include anything from manual labor to sexual services, aided by the drug, Dociline, which reduces its user to an obedient, robotic state. Dociline is meant to make the experience bearable for Dociles, and for their Patrons, who are spared from having to consider ethical repercussions.
When 21-year-old Elisha Wilder decides to become a Docile, he makes a choice. His mother served as a Docile years before, and the effects of Dociline irrevocably fractured her personality, turning her into a drone. Elisha decides that he will refuse the drug. What follows is a complex, painful story of his relationship with Dr. Alex Bishop III, the trillionaire who buys his debt, and whose family invented and profits from the manufacture of Dociline.
Dociles supposedly consent to be Dociles, even though the use of Dociline turns their consent into a technicality. Without the drug’s numbing effects, Alex must contend with Elisha as a human being. He controls every aspect of Elisha’s life, from how he dresses to what he says. Any expression of individuality is met with harsh, often physical punishment. Alex uses Elisha for sex as a matter of course. Because the narration alternates between the two characters and unfolds in first person present-tense, the reader experiences the erosion of Elisha’s personhood and Alex’s growing attachment as they happen, not as a remembrance of things past.
Alex is his first sexual partner, and during their first interaction, he displays an unnerving lack of respect for Elisha. Like many Dociles, Elisha expects to engage in sex with his Patron, and though he experiences pleasure, he feels raped. As the book and their relationship progress, the sex scenes are made more disturbing by their visceral erotic intensity.
The result is a twisted kind of love story, which turns on the question of whether love can truly exist with such an unequal power dynamic. Soon, Elisha, as we knew him, is gone. Does Alex fall in love with Elisha, or does he fall in love with his own creation, because the creation had no choice? And what, exactly, does Elisha feel for Alex?
Though Szpara’s novel is set in a dystopia, its power lies in how plausible this world feels, and how in some respects, it already exists.
An argument leveled by those who oppose decriminalizing sex work is that it’s inherently dehumanizing. Sex work should be illegal, because no one would do it unless they were desperate. Performing sexual services “for the money” negates any consent. When sex workers argue that this is case with all labor, that they can consent, and their work is, in fact, work, the concern disappears. They become simply whores.
As a phone sex operator, I don’t face the same risks as in-person providers. My job isn’t criminalized. I can work in relative anonymity. I am not putting my physical body on the line. All I’m doing is talking on the phone, and I can always hang up.
I’m often asked to roleplay sexual scenarios which I would not choose to engage in off the clock. As our culture increasingly, and correctly, stresses that enthusiastic consent is necessary for all sexual exchange, is this a consent violation? If I feign that enthusiasm, am I being taken advantage of? When I’m not feeling sexual, or even social, I still have to work. I can always hang up, but I rarely do.
The same would be true for virtually any job.
I do not lack agency. I had reasons for choosing this. I am lucky to have had the choice.
Sex work invites a kind of intimacy between client and provider that can be intense and difficult to navigate. Most of my clients respect my humanity and my boundaries. Docile presents a nightmare opposite: a client with unlimited entitlement, and a provider forced to perform under the veneer of choice. How many assume this is the dynamic at play in all areas of sex work? And what if shades of this dynamic still creep up, despite the best of intentions?
There are times when it isn’t worth the money, but if I end the call or block the client, I’m always left wondering: was it really that bad? Why couldn’t I just deal with it? What counts as agency in a society where we all need to work to survive?
Shortly after his term begins, Elisha is approached by Empower Maryland, an organization that wants to dismantle the system and help Dociles break free. Through Szpara’s nuanced portrayal, they are shown to have good intentions, but their repeated attempts to reach out to Elisha put him and his family in real danger. Knowing there are self-proclaimed saviors who endanger sex workers under the pretense of helping them undeniably colored my interpretation.
Remove harm and create resources. Otherwise, it’s hard to argue with poverty.
Docile is a complex story that left me with more questions than answers. If there can be no consent under capitalism, this is not unique to sex work, despite sex work’s unique challenges. It’s the side effect of a system that turns labor into product and reduces everyone’s worth to what they earn.
Elisha becomes a Docile because he has no other options. Alex is his first relationship because before he became a Docile, he was too busy working to have one. There is a striking scene late in the book after Elisha has begun to rebuild his sense of self in which he has to pick out his own clothes. For the first time in his life, his choices are not dictated by Alex’s demands or the constraints of poverty. He can truly decide for himself.