How BDSM Is–and Isn’t–Like Domestic Abuse

A friend of mine recently suffered through a breakup with her boyfriend. He was your typical schmuck–he belittled her, demeaned her in front of his friends, make her feel cheap and unloved. She kicked him to the curb.

Not that unusual, except theirs had been a BDSM relationship. The boyfriend had been her Dom. And that’s where the lines get blurred (any references to Robin Thicke are coincidental). What had been consensual? What had been abuse?

The BequestIn The Bequest, Mac–the Lawyer to the Doms–has to explain BDSM to Cal Raynes, the book’s hero. Cal’s vanilla, raised by a single mother to be respectful and considerate of the women he dates. As far as Cal’s concerned, when kinky sex goes far enough to be called BDSM, it’s just a license for the Dom to abuse the sub.

Mac sees it differently. He explains it to Cal this way:

“Just because millions of wives are the victims of domestic abuse, we don’t outlaw marriage—we outlaw the abusive behavior. Are there dominants who abuse their submissives? Yes. And as a community, we ensure that those crimes come to the attention of the authorities, the subs get help, and the community gets educated.”

“How can someone who’s submissive say that it was abuse? Isn’t it consensual?” Cal asked.

Mac smiled. “You’d be surprised how assertive a submissive can be when he or she knows a dominant has overstepped the terms of the consent.” He took a sip of wine. “Your point is still valid. Some submissives get wrapped up in a relationship, giving away more and more of their power. That’s pretty analogous to domestic abuse. We watch for that, and intercede when needed. It helps that we’re a community.”

Remember, though–this is a work of fiction. In real life, people like my friend find themselves in bad relationships because their dominants are schmucks, assholes, criminals, or just plain bent. Mac’s assurance to Cal is perhaps too optimistic, just as the rest of the story is a bit too vibrant and glittering to be realistic.

holding hands 2At the same time, I agree with Mac. We don’t outlaw marriage–an institution that works well in a lot of cases–just because some marriages are crappy, scary, abusive, or otherwise criminal. We outlaw the abuse. That’s because we, as a society, see the advantages to marriage outweighing the risk of domestic abuse.

For the bad cases–for women like my friend–we all need to step in and protect them from the schmucky boyfriends. Even when they claim it was consensual. We need to remind people that “submissive” doesn’t mean “doormat.” Even in the most extreme power exchange, abuse is a crime. Yes, I know life isn’t that black-and-white. I know my friend struggled to see what she had consented to and what she hadn’t.

That’s just like a lot of domestic abuse–the victims often think they agreed to the abuse.

They didn’t. But sadly, the responsibility for getting out of the relationship still rests with them. They need to be strong even as they believed they could trust their partner.

And that’s like BDSM.

April is the Hottest Month!

Actually, it’s been pretty cold in Philly, so you know I’m not talking about the weather.

No, I’m talking about all the news for this month. Let’s start with the fact that The Locked Heart, the first book in The Aerie Doms series, is on sale until next week at 99 cents! If you haven’t read it yet, or want to give it as a gift, or just like a bargain, pick it up now.

Love Letters Vol. 1 coverNext Monday we release Love Letters, Volume 1: Obeying Desire. That’s the first of a six-volume anthology I’ve been working on with three other fabulous erotica authors: Ginny Glass, Maggie Wells, and Emily Cale.

Love Letters (Ginny’s brilliant idea) takes each letter of the alphabet and bases a story around it. My letters are B, G, I, N, Q (co-written with Ginny), T, and Y. Volume 1: Obeying Desire is our “BDSM Themed Volume,” even though I’m the only BDSM erotica writer in the group. Future volumes feature military personnel, dirty talk or erotolalia, exotic locales, exhibitionism, and cowboys!

Also coming later this month: The Bequest, the first in my Lawyer to the Doms series. Sara’s master dies and leaves her to his nephew, Cal Raynes, a composer and conductor. He doesn’t need a sex slave but he does need a home to live in for a few months even as he doesn’t want Sara to leave. It’s Mac Steele, aka The Lawyer, who shows Cal what BDSM is all about. Suddenly, Cal’s a lot more enthusiastic about Sara as The Bequest.

There you have it–three ways to get really hot and bothered in April. So don’t blame me for the cold weather…

All the Aerie Doms are Happy!

The Secret Heart comes out this week. The nature of independent book publishing is such that there’s no “release date,” just a series of “Oh, look, it’s up on Amazon!” and “Oh, look, you can buy it for your Nook!” So keep watching this space; all the links should be active by late July 2012. (Anyway, if you’re just finding me, you’ll want to start with The Locked Heart, the first of The Aerie Doms series.)

But for me, the end is here. Xavier Greer is in love! The three Doms I imagined eight months ago are all happily-ever-aftered. I’m working on a short story (Roman and Juliet) that my publishers, Harmony Road Press, can give away free to my existing fans (Thanks, Fans!!) and also to entice new readers.

And I keep thinking I should write up The Aerie Holiday Revels as a Christmas-themed short story. Can’t you picture Darby as an elf? Okay, so maybe I’m not completely done with The Aerie. But I’ve used up all my Doms, and I didn’t add any more. (“Master Ralph” doesn’t count!)

I freely admit that The Aerie is not a realistic BDSM club. There’s virtually no one in here, there aren’t enough Dungeon Monitors, it’s a bit too shadowy and…well, it’s imaginary. What I didn’t do is keep adding more Doms, in the brilliant way Cherise Sinclair does in her Club Shadowlands series. I love that about her books: she might leave to play with some kitty cat Doms in another part of the country, or go camping in a BDSM-themed resort up in the mountains, but faithful readers know there will be some new Doms at Club Shadowlands soon enough.

By contrast, The Aerie looks like a posh country club with some sexy costumes and anemic enrollment!

That’s okay. I can always go back to visit. And in the meantime, I’m moving to Washington, DC, where I’ve imagined Mackenzie Talbot, a very high-powered lawyer who–when he’s not arguing cases before the Supreme Court!–volunteers his expertise to help Doms with their legal affairs. I’m calling this new series, Lawyer to the Doms. Write what you know, right?

Mac’s first challenge: notify a vanilla writer that a deceased uncle 1) was a Dom and 2) left the nephew his live-in slave. When the nephew meets this woman, he’s surprised to find a CFO from a Fortune 500 company. So how did she get to be his uncle’s full-time sub and what’s he supposed to do with this most-unusual bequest? Look for Lawyer to the Doms, Book 1, later this year.

The Order of Solace

I’ve recently read Megan Hart’s Pleasure and Purpose and No Greater Pleasure, both part of her “Order of Solace” series of paranormal erotica. The premise is so intriguing. In an alternate vaguely English history, there’s an order dedicated to providing solace to its patrons.

Here are the Order’s five principles:

  1. There is no greater pleasure than providing absolute solace.
  2. True patience is its own reward.
  3. A flower is made more beautiful by its thorns.
  4. Selfish is the heart that thinks first of itself.
  5. Women we begin and women we shall end.

I think is appropriate that I’m writing this post on Mother’s Day. (Hi, Mom!, except that my mother doesn’t know I write BDSM erotica, so that shout-out is a bit tongue-in-cheek). A lot of women, but mothers in particular, often behave as though Principle #4 is tattooed on their bodies. My mother always takes the least appealing portion of any meal: the toast that got a bit over-done, or the dried-out corner of the casserole. It’s instinct: your guests, family, loved ones, friends all get the better bits.

But that’s selfish, too, in its own way. It’s grabbing for oneself all the generosity in that gesture. That’s not why my mother does it. I know why she does it; she’d feel guilty if someone else was eating something not as nice as what she herself had to eat. But if someone said to my mother, “No, I want the burnt one,” I think there’d be a real paradox at work in her head.

Megan Hart’s heroines in the trilogy of novellas, Pleasure and Purpose, all struggle with this paradox, particularly as they fall in love with the men they’ve been sent to serve. They believe, as handmaidens, they are serving a deity named Sinder, helping him repair a mythical wrong and reinstate his family. So their actions are not those of a slave or indentured servant. In a sense, they’re using their patrons’ misery or troubles as a way to further Sinder’s end.

It’s as if a religious order in our world had taken as its sacred duty the provision of services–some sexual–to troubled men. Because while there are references to prior placements where the handmaidens served older women who are dying, for example, in these novellas, the recipients of the handmaidens’ efforts are three handsome but troubled men who end up very sexually attracted to their handmaidens.

The sex is hot, but the philosophy is even hotter. All that delicious doubling back on what we think of as “duty” and “honor” and, yes, “solace.” I devoured the stories, all the while paying Megan Hart the ultimate compliment: I wish I’d thought of it!

I will say, I think Pleasure and Purpose was more successful than No Greater Pleasure, which is a full-length novel. The shorter length seems to suit the set-up: A man needs solace, a woman arrives as his handmaiden to provide that solace whether he wants her to or not, they duke it out (spoiler alert: the handmaiden always wins), and then sift through the trickiness for their happy ending.

Oh, yeah, and they have some super-hot sex in the process.

The Frozen Heart

One of my big lessons from releasing The Locked Heart is that everyone has an opinion, and they’re entitled. (Another thing I learned is that it’s better to have people disagreeing with you than ignoring you, but that’s a different post.)

The Frozen HeartI’ve kept that in mind as I’ve geared up for the release of The Frozen Heart. Because, if a reader is expecting another book just like The Locked Heart, I can think of things that might disappoint them. For example, Master Kai and Jenna end up having a very different sort of BDSM relationship than Damien and Darby had. Some might say it’s not BDSM at all.

I don’t have a problem with that. Sex, by its very nature, is personal and messy and slippery. Both Master Kai and Jenna are a lot more adept at BDSM protocol when the book starts than, say, Darby was. What interested me as an author was how they’d change their styles of BDSM as they got more involved with each other. So whether it’s disappointing or delightful to a reader, the ending is what it is: Jenna and Kai settle on the “kinder, gentler” end of the BDSM spectrum.

Another point of possible contention is going to be Jenna’s masochism. I’d happily march with a banner that read, “BDSM: We’re Not Freaks” to protest misguided assumptions about a perfectly valid sexual preference. And I understand the insistence that there’s hardly a monolithic reality for Doms or subs. But it’s undeniable that there are people in the clubs whose masochism is connected in some way to childhood trauma. Who cares what percentage that might be; I’m only writing about one masochist.

The point I wanted to make with Jenna is that sexual masochism can actually be an improvement over other, more destructive ways of coping with trauma. And that it was hardly the responsibility of The Aerie to deal with Jenna’s reasons for engaging in masochism. She signals when she’s ready to try a different path.

But the book isn’t about degrees of BDSM or childhood trauma. It’s about the importance of communication. Characters can surprise their author. In this case, Jenna and Kai surprised me by being really bad at talking. I know it’s a reviled plot point when a conversation could clear up the Big Misunderstanding and allow the lovers to be together. But in Kai and Jenna’s case, they have conversations…they’re just lame conversations that leave things unclear, unspoken, or misunderstood.

And people say there’s no realism in romance…

50 Shades of Grey – A Virtual Luge Ride (& More)

At the very end of Part Three of E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, there’s bonus material, including a couple key scenes from the very beginning of 50 Shades of Grey (aka Part One), retold in the hero’s point of view. My reaction reading these bonus scenes? She gets it.

E.L. James has explained that the 50 Shades of Grey books arose from two things. Her passion for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books, and a question: What if you fell in love with a man only to discover that he’s into BDSM? The parallel is immediately obvious, as Twilight could be summed up with the same sort of question: What if you fell in love with a man only to discover he’s a vampire.

I love the 50 Shades books. No surprise, I guess, given that I’ve written a novella that’s also the story of a young woman who falls for a man she learns is a sexual dominant. But it wasn’t just the sex that thrilled me. It was the virtual luge run of falling in love so hard and fast that you’re gravity’s plaything before you even catch your breath. It’s exhilarating—in real life and in the books. The way your throat catches when you think of him, the rush of anticipation when you see an email from him or his name on your caller ID, the heart-pumping zing of being with him, touching him, smelling him, seeing him.

And just like in real life, you can’t get enough. There is no enough, and certainly no “too much,” at least at first. That’s where real life and reading diverge. In real life, you still have to pay your bills, do the laundry, promote your career, and resolve your differences. In fiction, the barriers to true love are smaller. You have to forgive the author her little quirks and foibles, and even her flaws and mistakes. You have to like the characters enough to stick with them for thousands and thousands of words. And you have to believe these two people would do what the author is telling you they do.

So in the war over 50 Shades of Grey, I’m a Grey Coat. I saw the same pickable nits that others did but I ignored them because the story was so good. Great characterization (quick example: Ana, the heroine, actually grows up a little by the end—but not so much that it was absurd for a woman in her twenties), wonderful pacing, and a lot of surprises along the way.

And, at the end, there was MORE. A lengthy epilogue, a couple new passages, and the scenes retold from Christian’s point of view. Because E.L. James is a reader and a fan, so she gets it: if you love a book, you want more.

Feminism and BDSM

I’ve been getting some grief from the approximately three people who know about my BDSM novella The Locked Heart. To their credit, they read it (in one case, while wearing vinyl gloves) before they started in on me.

Their argument goes like this:

I don’t understand how you can write about a liberated woman and make her sexually submissive. Darby’s bright, educated [she has an MBA], and independent. But as soon as she meets some tall, dark & handsome sexual dominant, she swoons like a veritable Victorian miss. That’s repugnant in today’s culture. Women have fought hard for the right to be the equal of men in the workplace and in the bedroom. How can you write about someone who is induced to relinquish that equality just so that she can “sleep” with a sexy guy?

I must be awfully fond of paradoxes, because I love the idea that feminism has given women the power in the bedroom to such an extent that they feel free and comfortable handing that power over to a man they trust. Fifty years ago, I think the same sexual dynamic would have been more morally questionable. In the mid-20th century, a woman opting to be sexually submissive might well have been “induced” to such behavior.

But today–well, today I think it’s another story. Darby’s financially secure, with a good job and the ability to support herself comfortably. (As a lawyer, I suspect a man doing Darby’s job might make more money but that’s because I’m convinced some industries still have a mindset that believes a single woman doesn’t need to “make as much” as a married man, or a married man with kids. That it’s not okay but the possible difference in wages doesn’t change the fact that Darby makes more than enough money to meet her needs.) Because she’s not dependent on a man, a precarious financial position can’t be used to pressure her into engaging in power-exchange sex.

If you believe, as my cross-examiners do, that women can be subtly influenced to their detriment, you believe either that women are ninnies–none of us does that, right?–or you believe that smart women, taking all the factors into consideration, still believe they need to play along to get along. Only where would a 28-year-old woman like Darby get that idea? Young women today may be concerned about sexual politics in the abstract but they don’t reflect that fear in their own lives.

I made Darby just a bit younger than myself; there are associates at my law firm who are Darby’s age. From talking to them, I got a picture more of personal and financial entitlement than of deprivation. (Law school loans coupled with an iffy legal market have blunted that feeling of utter financial assurance, but ours is a solid firm and these are top-notch law school grads, so their insecurity is more theoretical than actual.)

I asked several women colleagues about sexual power dynamics. They provided a range of answers–everything from “Yuck!” to a sly acknowledgement from one woman that she’d tried it both ways but rather preferred having her boyfriend on his back, handcuffed to the headboard–but no one objected on feminist grounds.

When I asked about the feminist perspective, the same women agreed that in general, they’d be concerned about a friend who was sexually submissive. Not because Germaine Greer would come personally to berate them for supporting female castration in the form of BDSM. Rather, the women all said they’d need to know that their friend was going into a sexually unequal relationship with all her safeguards in place.

In other words, it’s not objectionable on philosophical grounds, at least not for my twentysomething colleagues. It’s only objectionable if a specific woman wasn’t being safe.

That’s my defense: Women have earned the right to make an empowered decision that they’d like to be submissive in the bedroom. There’s a wide range of ways that decision can be implemented, everything from giggly sessions with pink fuzzy novelty restraints to a total power exchange where even a safe word is eschewed. (That last situation is the one that earns a “Yuck!” from me. But I believe a woman could make that choice and still be uncastrated when she did it.)

In fact, I worry that radical feminists sound odd when they insist that BDSM is antithetical to feminism. It’s as if there can be no power exchange, however well-negotiated or however short in duration, that isn’t a slap in the face of women like Germaine Greer, who fought hard to get us the autonomy a sexual submissive is handing away. Radical feminists seem to want us to adhere to a code of empowerment, to ignore our potential desire to submit because it has to have been induced by a man.

In that scenario, a woman in the bedroom has to give her power over to the feminists, allowing them to make her choice for her. Should we all be aware that 60 years ago we wouldn’t have had that power in the bedroom? Of course. Should we be grateful to the women (and some men) who pushed all of us to a place where we are closer to equal? Of course.But I don’t think we owe much more allegiance than that. Yes, even when some submissive women will be taken advantage of.

It’s a bit like the proud parents who give their daughter a bicycle. Teach her to wear a helmet and obey all the rules, but then let her ride the bike.

The Locked Heart Release Week

Release week! My 30,000-word BDSM romance, The Locked Heart, is out this week.

I wrote The Locked Heart to answer a question I had about most stories that start when a woman first experiences BDSM. Sometimes the heroine is curious about the lifestyle, sometimes–as in Cherise Sinclair’s Club Shadowlands–the heroine stumbles into a BDSM club with no previous awareness of her submissive nature.

In these books, there seems to be an obligatory scene where the Dom orders the heroine to do something–strip off her clothes or kneel, say–to establish his mastery over her. Inevitably, the heroine balks even after admitting to herself how sexy the Dom’s control feels.

My question was this: Wouldn’t at least one potential sub not balk? I understand about the nature of ambivalence. I understand that our brains can send out contradictory messages, such as “Yes, stripping naked sounds just right,” and “What? Are you crazy? Keep your clothes on!” The normal response in that situation is to freeze and do nothing.

But what if the ambivalence had been resolved in advance? That’s what happens to Darby when she meets Damien. She learns enough about him to decide that yes, she wants to sleep with him. When he starts to dominate her, she has no trouble following orders. It’s what she wants to do…because it’s Damien giving the orders! With any other guy, Darby would have told him to get stuffed.

Neither approach is “right.” Some heroines will balk, and some, like Darby, might not. But even as I wrote those scenes, I kept in mind that in real life, hesitating can save your life. Romance novels glide over some of the unpleasant realities of our world. In The Locked Heart, Damien is rich, successful, and considerate. In real life, a woman in Darby’s situation might do well to take some extra safeguards before going with a guy up to his hotel room. Ask a lot of questions, phone a friend to say where you are and who you’re with, even negotiate the limits of the sexual encounter before you leave the public place.

But that’s the difference between fiction and real life. In fiction, I can compress into a handful of questions the cross-examination that Darby should have subjected Damien to. That’s because, in a romance novel, the author and reader have a little understanding. You understand that I’m not suggesting this is how real life works, and I understand that you’re smart enough to behave differently the next time a very sexy businessman hits on you in a hotel bar.

I hope you enjoy Darby & Damien’s story–and look for Master K to get a surprise in The Frozen Heart, coming in 2012.