In our patriarchal society, women are subconsciously (if not always consciously) perceived as sexual commodities to be consumed by men. The Fortress by S. A. Jones tips this dynamic on its head in spectacular fashion, and the result is shocking and brilliant.
In this novel, there exists - set apart from a world otherwise like our own - a secluded and heavily guarded matriarchy (“the Fortress”) which men can visit as “supplicants” to atone for their wrongdoings. The matriarchs of this society are known to hand out brutal punishments to those that deserve it, and the women who live there have very real, terrifying power.
The plot follows the journey of a supplicant, Johnathon, as he navigates this world so different from the one he is used to, and is taken on an emotional rollercoaster that will leave him a different person by the end of the book.
Once within the confines of the Fortress, men subjugate their will entirely: they must obey all demands from women, and ask no questions. When they aren’t doing hard labour of one kind or another, the men are no more than objects of pleasure for women, who enjoy such pursuits as drug-fuelled sex parties and demanding to watch men fuck each other (with little regard to how the men in question feel about it).
This leads me to one of my issues with the book. You might at least expect, in a society where women’s pleasure is prioritised and sex happens out in the open for all to see, that a little experimentation might go on. Yet every woman we hear about is uncompromisingly straight. I initially thought that maybe, in order to make the flipped sexual dynamics as stark as possible, this was necessary, since if women had sex with other women they would be both commodity and consumer - which would take some of the ‘oomph’ out of the book’s message. But the more I thought about it, the less this explanation made sense.
Firstly, our protagonist is privately curious about the existence of gay men in the Fortress, and what they might get up to - but not once do his thoughts stray to what the women might get up to together. This strikes me as odd given Johnathon’s - by all accounts - extremely seedy personality.
More importantly, nowhere in the book - either in or outside the Fortress - is there any acknowledgement that gay women actually exist. So I guess we just have to accept that in this universe, there is no such thing as a gay woman. Which sucks if you are one, and are trying to figure out how you’d fit in this alternate universe.
Trans issues have slightly more representation, in the form of electii. These are people who fall outside the gender binary, which seems to be a luxury exlusively permitted to the electii - though who gets to be one, and how, is never fully explained. Are they born intersex? Are they born in a body that doesn’t match their gender, and later have the opportunity to transition? There are a lot of unanswered questions, but at least the author realises that genitals are not the same thing as gender.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that girls in the Fortress are brought up knowing that pleasure, like respect, is their birthright. This feels revolutionary, but if you just change the word “girls” to “boys” in that sentence, you are describing exactly the society we have now.
I remember reading somewhere about a couple who, when their first male child was born, asked a doctor whether the baby’s penis was a normal size because they were concerned about his ability to enjoy sex in the future. Can you imagine this happening if the child was female?! “Doctor, my baby’s clitoris is a long way from her vagina…is she going to be able to experience sexual pleasure when she grows up?” (Of course, there’s not a lot of point in asking these sorts of questions in the first place, since they stem from rigid and misguided beliefs about what sex “should” be - but that’s beside the point).
The issue of sexual pleasure as woman’s birthright brings me to what, for many people, will probably be the most shocking revelation in the novel (though for me, it was neither shocking nor unanticipated, for reasons I will explain later). Without giving too much away: in the Fortress, girls of any age have complete sexual agency, and there are elaborate ceremonies and celebrations surrounding a girl’s decision to have sex for the first time. This is the antithesis of the protagonist’s patriarchal culture, where if a young girl has any sexual experience at all it is only ever non-consensual, the result of horrifying violence perpretated by the men who alone wield sexual power.
I know that to many people the idea of a young girl having sexual agency will be terrifying, because (depending on our social role) we fear the violation of vulnerable girls by male sexual power, and/or our own emasculation by a rising female sexual power. In the Fortress, there is no threat of the former, and the latter has already taken place. Where there is true female sexual agency, there can be no danger in women exploring pleasure at any age; and while that is unimaginable in our society, it’s the rock on which the Fortress is built. That is why the “shocking revelation” failed to shock me: it was a foregone conclusion.
The Fortress is a bravely political novel which doesn’t shy aware from the grisly aspects of gender dynamics, and its unflinching analysis is refreshing.