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Four Ways NOT to Write BDSM Romance

As there are many ways to get romance wrong, there are exponentially more ways to get BDSM romance wrong. BDSM is tricky. If you’re writing it because it’s hot, but you’ve got no experience with it, you’re almost bound to get it wrong. Almost, but not always, I hasten to add. Examples of successful BDSM romances by authors who aren’t BDSM-identified themselves — as far as I know — are Ann Somerville’s Remastering Jerna and Matthew Haldeman-Time’s An Affair in Paradise and Victoria Dahl’s The Wicked West. So the “authenticity” of a writer who is BDSM-identified isn’t necessary, if that author has imagination, empathy, and has done their research. But still, there are many many ways to get BDSM hideously, awfully, horrifically wrong. I’ve written before about how not to write BDSM romance, but I’ve recently had a string of truly scary BDSM romances cross my computer screen, all scary in very different ways, so I thought I’d combine reviews into a discussion of What NOT To Do.

big_Kersten-TDaysThirty Days by Shayla Kersten (Liquid Silver Books)
This book horrified me. So much so that I literally can’t bring myself to read the sequel. Thirty Days got fabulous reviews all over the web and has intrigued me for a while, so I was excited to find the time to read it. But once I did, I was absolutely appalled. If this is really what people think BDSM is, no wonder it’s so reviled and hated — because it should be.

This whole review is italicized, bolded, and written in flashing red and yellow danger signs in my head, so imagine that as you read it. I’ll try to be restrained (harhar — very weak joke).

Cavan has been in held in literal sexual slavery for nine years, probably since he was 13, maybe 11. He has a 6th grade reading level. He has no idea how to interact with anyone normally. He hasn’t seen a woman in a decade. He has no idea if he’s really gay or really into BDSM, because he was given no choice about either. And these issues are NEVER resolved in the book. He’s three months out of this literal slavery — THREE MONTHS!!! — and he’s taken to a BDSM party to be hooked up with Biton, a dom who is three months past his partner’s death from cancer. Biton wants Cavan, takes him, and then when he figures out the depth of Cavan’s issues, including not knowing whether he’s actually gay or submissive, doesn’t immediately stop the relationship and treat Cavan as the little boy he is emotionally and intellectually, but continues with the relationship because he wants to, because he’s hot for Cavan and because ::gag:: Cavan is so sweetly submissive:

Biton set down his coffee cup and stood up. "He doesn’t understand that being a slave is a lifestyle choice. He’s never really known any other life. He thinks being tortured is normal." Biton paced the kitchen, anger at the people who did this to Cavan growing with each step. "He’s a gentle soul. I don’t think he’d be into submission if he hadn’t been forced into it."

"And you want to keep him around." It wasn’t a question and Harry hit the nail on the head.

Biton wanted Cavan, but the idea of giving up the thrill of control, of power over a helpless body, bound and gagged, waiting for his whim…The memory of Cavan strapped in the sling Friday made him shiver. "Yes."

How can someone write those three paragraphs together? Seriously? How can you say you don’t think he’d be into submission if he weren’t tortured into it when he was thirteen and then shiver at the memory of this same man strapped into a sex sling?! It made me nauseous, personally, and although Biton isn’t the man who enslaved Cavan, he’s coming pretty fucking close here, to my mind.

Exposition reveals that Cavan showed up in an ER three months previously “badly beaten. His back was a bloody mess, broken arm, two fractured ribs and rectal lacerations from some kind of foreign object. He refused to press charges against his attacker” and the BDSM “Society” that Biton and his friends belong to “warned Wainwright [Cavan's "master"], threatened to exclude him and issue warnings to potential subs.” You’re shitting me? They fucking WARN him?! They don’t CALL THE COPS?! The ER doesn’t CALL THE COPS?! A whipped back, a broken arm, broken ribs, and anal rape doesn’t qualify for someone getting arrested, whether or not Cavan files the charges?!

Somebody posted on Twitter (it might actually have been Jane) a few days after Roman Polanski was arrested that they’re sick of how the media says Polanski “had sex with a 13 year old girl”, rather than saying he “drugged and raped his 13 year old victim”. Don’t say “had sex with” when it was really “drugged and raped.” In this story, Biton and his friends continue to call Cavan’s abuser his “former master” and a “dom.” No, dammit. No. He’s a pedophile, a rapist, a torturer and, apparently, a murderer. Don’t continue to call him a “dom” when what he did was so hideous. Raping, torturing, and enslaving thirteen year olds is so far from being a BDSM dom that it’s not even funny. So unfunny I was crying with despair when I read this book.

In fact, this book almost made me throw up. This is NOT BDSM, folks. Some things are too big for a romance to cure. A boy — barely 20 — three months out of a decade-long abuse, rape, and torture, a boy with a 6th grade education and an inability to interact with anyone normally, should not be entering into ANY relationship, let alone one with a sexual dominant who has problems understanding the ability to give consent. Because more than anything, Cavan cannot give his consent, the foundation of Safe, Sane, and Consensual. Grade: Epic EPIC FAIL.

1253Pink Buttercream Frosting by Lissa Matthews (Samhain Publishing)
If you’re going to write about BDSM, if you’re going to have one character be a much sought-after dom and the other be a newbie sub, then the sex should be something other than vaguely hot, but otherwise normal, ordinary vanilla sex. You can’t just slap a BDSM label on a romance that in all other respects is a vanilla romance and expect your audience to believe you without actually including anything that looks or feels like BDSM sex. Bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism, masochism. Those are some pretty scary words and some pretty involved practices. But having your hero identify as a dom and your heroine identify as a sub doesn’t mean that their story is a BDSM romance unless you actually have them interact on a BDSM level. Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible to be BDSM-identified and have a vanilla relationship and be happy in it (so I’m told), but then you can’t call the book about that relationship a BDSM romance. To be a BDSM romance, the relationship must be built with, explored through, filtered by BDSM practices in the relationship, not just generic BDSM identification by the characters without any application in the relationship.

Aidn is a much sought-after dom who does not date his submissives. Huh? Why not? “He dated vanilla women, engaged in vanilla sex and kept the dominant side of himself just out of reach. It was simply something he did, something he’d done in the years since…” (ellipse in original). Ah. The old “past submissive ruined me for everyone else” trick. Right. Anyway, so Aidn meets Bailey at the mall, they recognize each other from the BDSM club they both frequent, and they go to her place to have sex, because they’re too hot for each other not to. He’s stripped her, has her sitting on her kitchen counter, orders her around a bit, and then cuts her panties off her. Big whoop-dee-doo. Without the constant internal refrain from both characters about their need to dominate or submit, none of this would be out of place in non-BDSM erotica. They do nothing — NOTHING — that vanilla people wouldn’t do when having sex. And then Bailey thinks:

She was slipping into a place that she’d only dreamed of. Subspace; the sensation of floating on air, a bliss so sweet it could be painful. She’d read about it, talked to others about it, but until Aidn, she hadn’t had an inkling of what it might be like to feel it. She gave herself up to it, gave herself and her pleasure over to him, and he was taking her there, making her fly. She was a different woman than she’d been just hours ago.

Oh good lord, no. Subspace is, usually, an endorphin high from being beaten. It’s a feeling of floating, an in-body/out-of-body experience that is the result of physical overstimulation and PAIN. Sure, good BDSM relationships can have submissives slipping into a submissive mindset with a word or a look from their dominants, but that’s not subspace, dammit. It’s certainly not flying! Good lord.

And, finally, submissive does not equal doormat. When a guy fucks you three ways to Sunday then leaves before you wake up, doesn’t contact you for two weeks, and then walks into your bakery, you do not just kiss him when he tells you to. You give him the cold shoulder, make him explain himself, scream at him for being an asshole. Not Bailey. No, sir, she kisses Aidn and calls him sir. Then when he runs AGAIN, she goes looking for him. Give me a break. Might as well write “WELCOME” from sternum to belly-button and lie down in the doorway.

And! way to go, Aidn, ruining another dominant’s scene on purpose by being a possessive asshole about a woman you’ve been running away from for 50 pages. Fabulous manners there. BDSM does NOT give anyone the permission to act like a complete asshole like Aidn seems to think it does. Irrational jealousy is not an attractive trait and not the innate right of a dominant. In fact, most doms are the opposite of jealous.

Bailey’s a doormat, Aidn’s an asshole, and the only thing BDSM about this story is their constant harping on it being their true identity. Take that away and it’s a mildly hot Harlequin with an alphole (TM SBTB) hero and a ridiculously self-effacing heroine. Grade: F

This book can be purchased from Samhain.

bondagebetrayalBondage Betrayal by Lila DuBois (Liquid Silver Books)
This book makes the strong distinction between nice normal sane people who do a few kinky things now and then in the bedroom and those dirty rotten perverts who fully identify as kinky and try to live it all the time. I’m actually loathe to include this book in this list, because it’s got some really great writing, really hot scenes, and deep emotional issues. Then again, it’s also got a Big Mis that’s solved in three seconds and the characters are suddenly soulmates again.

Savannah is a famous yet anonymous and stunningly sadistic femdom. The first scene of the book is hot until you get to the part about: “He screamed, not merely a cry, but a true scream. Around the room people jumped, some of the Doms moving as if they would interfere, but no one did.” Um, why not? Because they should have.

That aside, then, Savannah in her normal life is an artist with a dark past, a deep betrayal in her background. She accepts a commission for a sculpture for a building only to see her dark past, the man who betrayed her, as she leaves the building. They meet again at a BDSM club that evening and most of the book is spent in flashback in alternating points of view that tells about the dark betrayal. Roman and Savannah were very much in love and exploring shaking things up in the bedroom a bit. They go to the house of a “Master” and go through a pretty intense but positive scene as Roman is coached by “Master Wilcox” and another guest. Wilcox then convinces Roman to let him “train” Savannah because she’s a “born submissive” and “needs” submission all the time and Roman can’t provide it because he’s too weak. Proving him right, Roman says yes rather than listening to his instincts. With smoke and mirrors and digital recorders, Wilcox then convinces both Savannah and Roman that they have abandoned each other, all the while raping and torturing Savannah. Savannah feels abandoned and betrayed (duh) and runs away, Roman feels abandoned and betrayed and runs away, everyone runs away until they come back together in the end with 20 seconds of “I’m sorry”, “no, I’m sorry”.

On the surface, it looks like the conflict between the characters is a deep betrayal, but underneath, the conflict is actually a Big Misunderstanding that pits The Plucky Hero and Heroine against The Evil BDSM World. BDSM is the enemy. Anyone who does it as more than spice in a relationship is evil and a torturer. And anyone who feels the need to do it more than occasionally should be willing to give it up to please their partner. And yes, technically, sometimes people who do BDSM are evil, but really, statistically, many more vanilla people are evil than kinky people. Grade: D

This book can be purchased from Liquid Silver.

Look, I know that authors are convinced that their books are unique and spring from their own fears and desires, so they’re just trying to tell this one story and aren’t writing a treatise about all BDSM everywhere (this was Tymber Dalton’s defense about her hot mess of a story). And they’re right, of course. But those fears and desires are themselves shaped by culture and society and the people we’re with and the shows we watch and the books we read. And if all books, shows, people, society, culture represent BDSM as sick, twisted, perverted, ridiculous, then that’s going to be reflected in your writing sometimes, however much you might not want it to, unless you’re a very strong-willed writer OR unless you have a healthy understanding of and respect for BDSM-identified people that comes from lots of experience in and with BDSM. Yes, DuBois’ book shows some scenes in which BDSM is used to enhance sexual interaction, but the fundamental, underlying message of the story is that anyone who wants it full-time, anyone who actually identifies as full-on kinky, is evil and sociopathic, abusive, manipulative, and murderous. Is that really what she was trying to say? On the other hand, Matthews has it in her head that BDSM is Hott! and Exciting! and makes a relationship better and bigger and more meaningful. But that doesn’t mean that any sex scene labeled BDSM is kinky — it just doesn’t.

1615810234.01.LZZZZZZZImpacted! by Mickie B. Ashling (Dreamspinner Press)
Finally, a book that gets BDSM very right, in my opinion (Yay!), but is terribly, horribly, awfully written (Boo!). It’s just as possible to get the BDSM right and be a truly bad writer, as it is to be a great writer and get the BDSM wrong. Everything Ashling writes about the BDSM sounds fine. She seems to get the emotions, understand the way it feels, understand the whys and wherefores. It’s not abusive, it’s not the enemy, it’s not there just to make the story hot. But she’s just a truly bad writer: info-dumping; terrible flat, bland voice; ridiculously flat, stereotyped characters; characters and storylines that come out of nowhere; cringe-worthy motivation — you name it, this book has it.

Scott is an oral surgeon (no, really — there’s a whole plot point about making sure his partner doesn’t do some delicate oral surgery because he doesn’t have the training. Sexay!) and a sexual submissive and masochist. He comes to work one day and finds that his new dental hygienist is the dominant he hooked up with for a one night stand a few weeks ago. Hijinks ensue, mostly having to do with their homophobic mutual boss. It’s one of those stories that thinks it’s a romance because there are apparent external barriers keeping the couple apart, but not really, and the characters fall in love and express that love so early that there’s no emotional tension or uncertainty at all. It’s boring. Seriously boring. Even with the ridiculous plot twist at the end of the book. The BDSM’s good, but the story as a whole is a cure for insomnia. Even though I struggled through in order to write the review, I’d have to say that this book was truly unreadable. Grade: F

Oh, and P.S.? No dom is going to pierce his sub’s left nipple. Left side flags dominant. Right side flags submissive. Do your research.

This book can be purchased at Amazon or in ebook format.

Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

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