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“Absolutely not to be missed.” —Vogue “A muscular, canny memoir about labor and power and gender…I couldn’t put it down. What a fucking gorgeous book.” —Carmen Maria Machado, author of In the Dream House
A queer teen rebel escapes small-town Appalachia and becomes Los Angeles’s Renowned Lesbian Dominatrix in this searing and darkly funny memoir that upends our ideas about desire, class, and power.
The dominatrix is the id of American femininity. She says the words that we all wish we could say when we find ourselves frozen in the presence of men. No is principal among them.
So writes Chris Belcher, who appeared destined for a life of conventional femininity after she took first place in an infant beauty contest—a minor glory that followed her around a working-class town of 1,600 people in rural West Virginia. But when she came out as queer, the conservative community that had once celebrated its prettiest baby turned on her.
A decade later, living in Los Angeles and trying to stay afloat in the early years of a PhD program, Belcher plunges into the work of a pro domme. Branding herself as Los Angeles’s Renowned Lesbian Dominatrix, she specializes in male clients who want a domme to make them feel worthless, shameful, and weak—all the abuse regularly heaped upon women for free. A queer woman whom men can trust with the unorthodox sides of their sexualities, Belcher is paid to be the keeper of the fantasies that they can’t enact in their everyday relationships. But moonlighting as a sex worker also carries risks, like the not-so-submissive who tries to turn the tables and the jealous client out for revenge.
As Belcher moves between the embodied world of the pro domme and the abstract realm of academia, she discovers how lessons from the classroom apply to the dungeon, and vice versa. Still, fear that her doctoral program won’t approve burdens her with a double life. Pretty Baby is her second coming out.
In this sharp and discerning memoir, we see through Belcher’s eyes how power and desire can be renegotiated—or reinforced.
About the Author
Chris Belcher is a writer, professor, and former sex worker. She completed a PhD in English at the University of Southern California, where she is now assistant professor of writing and gender studies. Under her working name, Natalie West, she edited the acclaimed anthology We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival. Born and raised in West Virginia, she now lives in Los Angeles.
“Chris Belcher’s entertaining debut recounts how a West Virginia adolescent who read Foucault and Derrida went on to become ‘L.A.’s renowned lesbian dominatrix.’ Her work is as much about money and financial precarity as it is about sex and sexuality. . . Juggling her careers in sex work and academia, the author lays bare the soul-crushing difference in pay.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Pretty Baby is a muscular, canny memoir about labor and power and gender; it shimmers with rage and insight and I couldn’t put it down. What a fucking gorgeous book.” —Carmen Maria Machado, author of In the Dream House
“Chris Belcher's Pretty Baby reminds me why I fell in love with memoirs in the first place. Sentence by knife-sharpened sentence, the personal history she examines makes space for both the ferocity of her past selves and the resonance of who she is now. With wit, seductive candor and a willingness to question the very answers she used to swear by, Belcher doesn’t just hand us her story; she demands that we interrogate ourselves in the process.” —Saeed Jones, author of How We Fight for Our Lives
“Count me among Chris Belcher's forever fans. Pretty Baby is a taut and intelligent story of defining one’s selfhood and relationship ideals while toggling between the seemingly disparate worlds of sex work and academia, which are (of course) more similar than many would think. It is also an engrossing queer bildungsroman whose nervy, sympathetic protagonist had my heart from page one.” —Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart and Body Work
“Compelling, thought-provoking, and wonderfully written, Chris Belcher’s Pretty Baby is a revelatory examination of queerness and sex work. I couldn’t put it down; I read it in one sitting without even intending to. Every page is gorgeous, every page a reckoning.” —Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of a Body
“Pretty Baby is an unflinching, layered exploration of sexuality, queerness, and power that isn’t afraid of gray areas or contradictions, honest in its blurred lines as it moves between realms: between a rural blue-collar upbringing and academia, between academia and sex work, between sex work and sex.” —Lilly Dancyger, author of Negative Space
“Belcher’s account of labor, sexuality, identity, queerness, and femininity is absolutely not to be missed.” —Vogue
“In a lucid examination of power, sexuality, and class, Belcher tells a gripping story about the performance of identity, inside and outside of the dungeon. . . . A discerning memoir.” —Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire’s 20 Best Books of Summer 2022
“Captivating . . . Belcher’s pen is at once graceful and scathing as it prods the complexities of desire—the ever-present dangers of straight maleness, the sometimes complicated haven of female queerness.” —Michelle Hart, Electric Literature's Most Anticipated LGBTQ+ Books for Summer 2022
“Pretty Baby is a book packed with all the analysis of class, power, sexuality, and embodiment we might want from a gender studies professor, but spun together by a pro domme into a story that holds you tight and lovingly cuts you open.” —BOMB Magazine
“Belcher is able to infuse a book regarding sexuality, gender, class with a humor that is rare and, thus, something to treasure. . . . The glory of the book, beyond Belcher’s sharp mind and tight lines, is the ways in which Belcher finds egress from social and financial constriction through her sexuality and sex work. The ways in which the two worlds that, on paper, seem disparate—academia and the sex dungeon—are defined by notions of power is something Belcher explores with acumen.” —LitHub
“Fascinating and wonderful . . . Belcher uses her experiences as a young queer person in rural America and as a lesbian dominatrix in one of the biggest, most economically disparate cities in the country to explore the ways in which shame infiltrates and influences every corner of our society. . . . She shows how omnipresent the power of shame is and raises questions about how we can take that power back.” —Autostraddle
“[Chris Belcher] balances the raw and shocking . . . with incisive takes on the economics of sex work . . . and the freedom she found in it. The result is an illuminating personal look at the power and politics of sex.” —Publishers Weekly
“A must read for anyone interested in seeing the cultural conversation about gender and sexuality pushed further. . . . Pretty Baby asks more of the reader than many memoirs.” —Electric Literature
“Riveting . . . Belcher’s inquisitiveness and vulnerability persist, or rather insist, even as her protagonist matures. Her tale is thus a cascade of openings. . . . In Pretty Baby, theory is indissociable from practice and the abstract cleaves to the concrete. This beautiful first book is as real as they come.” —Public Books
“Intriguing connections . . . bound together expertly by a sharp-eyed exploration of gender dynamics, labor politics, and capitalism that weaves itself through everything.” —Xtra
“Pretty Baby is a collage of moments pieced together, seamlessly building the narrative of Belcher’s life. . . . These images are woven together so that one memory shares space with the next until the entirety of Belcher’s journey becomes clear. There is little filter offered to readers in this memoir; this is a brutally honest collection of images focusing on a life spent redefining what it means to be feminine.” —Southern Review of Books