Dear Ms. Dalton:
This is a very well-written book. You have strong, fully realized characters, an unique plot, a romance that is slowly developed and deeply felt, and a solid, believable happy ending. I think you have a lot of writing talent and a good eye for the genre. That said, this book made me feel dirty–not in a fun, sexy way, but in an unclean, depressing, angry way.
Seth’s best friend Kaden drops a bomb on him one day: not only is he dying of pancreatic cancer, but he’s asking Seth to step in for him as his wife’s dominant after he dies. Seth, who had no clue that his best friends were involved in BDSM, let alone in a 24/7 Master/slave relationship, is understandably blown away and completely weirded out. But he agrees, moves in with his friends, learns to be a dominant, slowly falls in love with Leah (or, rather, admits to himself and his friends that he’s always loved her), shares her with Kaden, watches Kaden sicken and die (the whole story takes about 18 months, I’d say, maybe a bit longer), after which he and Leah learn to live without Kaden and live happily married ever after. There are no surprises in this story and that’s as it should be. No miracle cures, no unbelievable emotions, no melodrama. Seth goes through very realistic feelings of grief and despair over his best friend’s illness, horror and outrage over the BDSM aspect of Kaden and Leah’s life that he is expected to learn and take over for, which changes to acceptance and understanding by the end of the story. You obviously feel very strongly about explaining, even normalizing, the BDSM lifestyle to an interested but ignorant audience, when you say in your Author’s Note:
While this is a fictional story, the portrayal of a 24/7 M/s relationship is accurate. There is a rich diversity to "the lifestyle" that most people never know about because their information comes from BSDM fetish sites on the internet. Try to define normal, either in a vanilla or kink relationship, and it’s truly impossible.
You might be more "normal" than you think-
And if your whole plot set-up weren’t, to my mind, inherently offensive and dangerous, you would have done a great job.
But rather than normalizing or explaining BDSM, this book pathologizes it even more than the APA has by including sexual paraphilias in its DSM IV. Because the only reason that Kaden and Leah are in a 24/7 Master/slave relationship is that it’s the only way that Leah has to access her emotions after her hideously abusive childhood:
Some people, for various reasons, need pain. They use it. It’s how they function, how they deal with their emotions. Some use it to help relieve intense emotional pain in an external way, some use it to feel like they’re connected to life again. [ . . . ] She needs things. It helps her cope. She doesn’t feel or express emotional pain like you and me. She needs safety and security. She needs someone who will care for and about her and understand why she needs-things. Someone she can put her full trust in. It’s how she’s made it all these years.
Leah used to self-mutilate to access her emotions, but Kaden put a stop to that by hurting her in a controlled, ritualized BDSM context instead. This is how she processes grief, anger, pain, fear, even sometimes happiness. Leah tells Seth toward the end of the book about the first time that Kaden spanked her when he discovers her self-mutilating after she promised she wouldn’t anymore:
“Then he grabbed me and spanked me. And when I looked up at him, he was just-well, sort of like you looked when you were trying to see how bad I was hurt. Horrified. I knew immediately he didn’t mean to do it. I knew he didn’t enjoy doing it.” She shook her head. “I think maybe that’s why I wanted him to keep doing it. Why I was able to promise him and keep it that time, mostly.”
Her voice dropped to a whisper. “He was the first person in my life who hurt me but he didn’t enjoy it. Do you think he just jumped into this with both feet? You know him. The only reason he did it was for me. Not because he enjoys it. Don’t let him fool you, he was just as scared as you are now. Probably even more.”
“He sure doesn’t look like it.”
“That’s twenty years of experience.”
Kaden isn’t doing this because he enjoys it. Oh no. Even though he admits that the sex is hot:
“It’s not about sex, either. That’s tied into it, but in our case it boils down to giving her what she needs to function. Some people are in it for the sex. Yeah, the sex is hotter for us because of this. I won’t lie, you’ll find it’s the hottest fucking sex you’ve ever imagined. But it’s not about the sex. It’s about fulfilling a need for someone.”
God forbid it be about getting off. No, it has to have a higher purpose than that.
Let’s perform a little thought experiment, shall we. A man, hideously abused during his childhood, feels that the world is spinning out of control. In order to calm himself, to access his emotions, and to act in a way that does not result in pure self-destruction, he needs to impose order on everything around him. In order to feel alive, he needs to make others around him hurt. What do we call this man? Sociopath comes to mind for me. What do we call his lovers? Victims? What about if it’s all consensual though — isn’t that the rallying cry of BDSM? Safe, Sane, Consensual, right? And these characters present as consensual, at least on the surface. But what if he manipulates his lovers into a virtual sexual slavery without them even being aware of what’s happening until they’re so far into it they can’t see a way out because they don’t want to cause him to spiral out of control? They do it because they want to please him, but they don’t actually like it. I think we all would recognize that as abuse. In fact, it’s horrifying to us — or at least, to me. So why is it different in this instance? Why is it NOT abuse when it’s the “submissive” basically forcing her dominant with emotional blackmail into hurting her “for her own good”? Why is the dominant in this situation not seen as abused? Because dominants can’t be abused by submissives? I call bullshit.
And what about those who are BDSM identified who DO take part in BDSM activities solely because it gets them off, solely because they like to feel or inflict pain? Because despite what you purport to be trying to do, Ms. Dalton, the way you’ve constructed the characters in this book pathologizes real sadists who really do like to hurt truly consenting partners; it pathologizes real masochists who really do get off on being hurt by truly consenting partners. By having one of your characters say:
I told you, she’s not a pain slut. You’ll see people who put dozens of clothespins all over themselves, needles, hot wax, knife play, shit like that. She has no desire to do any of that. All she needs is the occasional grounding. That’s what the spankings are about.
You’re basically saying that it’s all those pain “sluts” out there who do “shit like that” who are really the sick ones. By justifying BDSM as therapy, for god’s sake, you pathologize anyone out there who just likes it withOUT justification, without a higher purpose, who might just be wired that way. After all, Kaden wouldn’t be a dominant if Leah didn’t “need” pain, and Leah wouldn’t need pain if she hadn’t had a fucked-up childhood, and Seth is forever whining about how he needs just to be vanilla now and then, that he’s only doing this for her and doesn’t really enjoy it. None of them are wired to be BDSM-identified and, in the world of the book as you’ve constructed it, THAT’S precisely what makes their practice of BDSM okay. Because they DON’T like it and it’s NOT natural for them, it’s okay. Higher purpose, remember? And anything else — anyone who enjoys it because, yes, dammit, it’s about sex and fun and desire — anything healthy like that, is suspect. And that’s NOT okay, in my book.
So, some tips to other authors who hope to write BDSM:
- BDSM is not and should never be used as therapy. That’s dangerous. If someone needs a therapist, they should see a therapist. If they can’t access their emotions, trust me, pain and submission are not the answer. Although this is obviously impossible to put in practice, only relatively healthy people should engage in serious BDSM play. And although authors like Joey Hill and Anah Crow show their characters using BDSM as a way to find their more authentic selves, they don’t use it as a way to avoid therapy, as explicitly stated in this book.
- Cutting and self-mutilation do not indicate that a character is naturally a submissive. This is why I despise the movie The Secretary, too. Self-mutilation has nothing to do with BDSM. For most submissives, BDSM-inflicted pain is completely different from other types of pain. Self-mutiliation and BDSM play might both release endorphins, but other than that, the experiences have nothing to do with each other. One is about loving connection with and complete trust in one’s partner. The other is about mental illness.
- Submissives do NOT need a dominant to keep them in line in order to function in the world. Most submissives are incredibly strong, competent, completely normal people who just happen to get off on giving up control to their partner, something which does NOT infantilize them. Depicting them as being completely lost without a dominant DOES, however, so knock it the fuck off.
- Dominants are not interchangeable. One dominant is not as good as any other. A BDSM relationship is just like a vanilla relationship: all about attraction and compatibility. If the thought that your husband might try to set you up with his best friend after his untimely death in order to keep you sane horrifies you, then why is it okay in a BDSM context? Hint: it’s not.
- Both sides need to get off on the BDSM. Both sides need to agree to it and want to do it and get something purely *selfish* out of it. Neither side should be manipulating the other side into anything. Having a character observe: “The truth was, most of what Kaden did, Leah had talked him into it even if it didn’t seem like it to others. He might have had the title and obviously the demeanor of her Master, but it was all because he loved her and tried to control and heal her pain the only way he thought he could. Not because he wanted to dominate her,” does not make it all better and more acceptable. It makes the whole situation way way worse.
I’d be interested in reading some non-BDSM books from you, because, like I said, I think you’re a very talented writer. But please, don’t do the BDSM world any more favors like this book. With friends like you, we don’t need the legions of enemies we already have out there.
I have a really hard time grading this book. Purely mechanically, I’d give it a B- I think. Seth needs to get over himself a lot more quicker and Kaden’s OCD beyond-the-grave letters and DVDs are a bit much, but the characterization, relationship growth, and HEA are strong. But as a whole product, the story gets not just an F, but an Epic Fail. I shouldn’t finish a romance feeling furious and degraded.
This book can be purchased in ebook format from etailers carrying Lyrical Press books.