Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Making the Submissive Man Sexy: Cara McKenna's UNBOUND

Most of the BDSM erotic romances that I've come across feature females, not males, taking on the submissive role the the sexual relationship. This made me wonder: what would such a romance look like if it were the man, rather than the woman, who got off on being the one under someone else's command? Western culture is so invested in the construction of the masculine as powerful, as strong, as in charge; would it be next to impossible to create a hero who enjoyed being dominated, and still make him appealing to a general reader audience?

This summer, I spent some hours reading femdom erotic romance that posters here had recommended, books that featured women who preferred to take the dominant role in their sexual relationships. Interestingly, few of the books featured the wimpy, take-no-charge men I had assumed would serve as the foils to these dominating heroines. Instead, most of the books I read featured men who were heavily alpha in aspects of their lives other than the sexual. Though each preferred to submit to a woman during sex, such submission has more the feel of of strength, rather than weakness; enduring the challenge of a dominating woman, and the pain of BSDM, proves men such as Joey W. Hill's Mac Nighthorse (in Natural Law) and Stephanie Vaughan's Steve Eriksson (Cruel to be Kind) to be just as strong, just as masculine as their non-kinky male counterparts. As Vaughan's Steve thinks, "He wasn't sure exactly what Megan was asking him. What she expected from him. But he knew he couldn't live with himself as a man if he backed away from her challenge." Charlotte Stein's Benjamin Tate (Power Play) came the closest to what I had expected, with the masochistic pleasure he takes in being reprimanded for his goofy fumbling and bumbling by his female boss Eleanor. But even Ben proves to have a core of competence, teaching the self-hating Eleanor how to come to terms with her own kinky sexuality. Ben doesn't struggle at all to reconcile his own masculinity with his submissive sexual needs. My reading made me wonder again: was the only way to write a erotic romance with a submissive hero to either make his submission hyper-masculine, or to have any conflicts between socially acceptable masculinity and submissive sexual preferences already resolved before the book begins?

Reading Cara McKenna's latest erotic romance, Unbound, shows that in the hands of a talented writer, even the most unconventional characters can come to sympathetic life. Rob Rush has secluded himself away in a solitary cottage in northwest Scotland, attempting to dry out after three years of excessive drinking and abusive behavior drove away all the people he cared for. Rob's been an outsider most of his life, "rubbish at friendships as a child... rubbish with girls" as an adolescent, his unconventional sexual interests only exacerbating his poor social skills. Only after discovering alcohol in college had he been able to calm his anxieties enough to "function as a young man was designed to do," to develop friendships, to marry, to start two successful businesses. But drinking gradually shifted, no longer simply "merely a bit of fuel to get the social flames to catch," but now "the means for becoming insensate." Insensate, in particular, to the most "heinous predilections," the "hateful appetites" (Rob's words) a man can have: a desire to be dominated, to be tied up, to be controlled, treated like an object, during sex.

Only by hiding himself away from all humanity can Rob be sure that he won't return to the bottle, won't cause harm to anyone else, he believes. But the arrival of a ill, injured, but quite chatty American tourist on his secluded doorstep forces him not only to play reluctant, grumpy host, but to begin to attempt the difficult work of reconciling his sense of himself as a man with his unusual sexual desires.

Merry Murray has set off on a hiking trip through Scotland in celebration of the positive changes she's made in her life of late, including losing a lot of excess weight. Seducing a man had not been high on her list of to-dos for the trip, but cagy, taciturn Rob sparks her interest. After spending a few days recovering from her ailments and doing her best to get to know the self-contained man, she decides to see if her attraction to him is mutual, to instigate and explore sex as the active, rather than the passive partner. But when Merry recognizes the signs that Rob enjoys a passive role in sex, and asks him he wishes he were tied up, Rob wilts in shame. "An entire adolescence's worth of fear, fostered up north where there was absolutely nothing worse you could be than queer. Except perhaps whatever Rob was, he'd imagined. Spanking. That was something done to girls, because men were the spankers. The punishers. So what did that make Rob? The question had dogged him for years." Sexual desires run straight into normative constructions of masculinity here; in the contest, Rob views himself as the loser.

Only the morning after their embarrassing tryst, when Rob has had the chance to calm himself after being so awfully exposed, can he admit to Merry that she might have been right. And to see that it might not be his desire that had poisoned him, but his shame. And that's when the pleasure begins...

But can a bona fide hermit and a woman just bursting out of her shell, ready to take on the world, have anything more than a quick fling, no matter how sexually compatible they find themselves? How McKenna turns what could have been simply an erotic episode into a full-blown romance once again proves that she is one of the most honest, and most gifted, contemporary romance authors writing today.


Photo credits:
Scotland loch: The Markers Club







Cara McKenna, Unbound
Penguin/Intermix, 2013












Next time on RNFF:
Guest Post by Cara McKenna,
on why she writes realistic sex in an escapist genre

17 comments:

  1. This topic hits very close to home for me. I will definitely read 'Unbound' and probably enjoy it, but I am unsure how realistic it will be. I think of men who want to be dominated as very insistent on having things their way and the most in control of the fantasy. They determine the parameters of the game. That is fine as long as it is an occasional scenario or the woman really enjoys being a dominatrix--something I never did. The problem comes when real life intervenes. I struggle with a long term relationship that has at its core an unequal partnership. My poor husband loved the sexual fantasy of me dominating, but now that he is blind, on oxygen 24/7 and has a horrific essential tremor losing control to me is just plain humiliating. Sorry if this was too much information..

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, enrage-femme, for sharing your thoughts, and your own experiences. You bring up a lot of really important issues: can a relationship that is unequal in the sexual realm ever be truly equal in other areas? Can the person taking the submissive role during sex really be the dominant one at heart? Does the pleasure in losing control only work because one knows that one will get control back at some point? When one loses control of one's body through no choice of one's own, does the desire for being dominated dissipate? You give us so much to think about...

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  2. I'd never read a fem-domme story until I read Pick Your Pleasure 2 by Jayne Rylon -- the main character is a fem-domme, but only one path leads to seeing her in action. That action, however, was the hottest thing I have ever read, and has me looking for more! I'll definitely take a look at Unbound but I actually like the alpha-type as a sub, similar to where a strong woman surrenders completely. It's so freeing to see someone trust completely, and someone else be worthy of that trust. I'm trying to think of titles where that's really hit home but unfortunately I can't recall any at the moment, I'm sorry!

    My husband has no interest in BDSM and I'm fine with that, it's not a sub-genre I read very often but I certainly don't turn away from it either. However, I'm very picky on it, and won't read something that misrepresents it or is just using it as shorthand for "dominant or aggressive in bed".

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  3. I have been reading romance books for years and ive just started to notice that. Submissive ladies I thought it would be the opposite if a lady wrote that. I hope these books aren't bdsm but if they are I would mind. I have a question: are these books that have submissive ladies as the hero written by men?

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  4. I mean I wouldn't mind if it is bdsm. Im trying new genres. Still do you think the authors of those submissive books are men

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    1. Hi, Deja, and thanks for stopping by.

      No, I don't think most of these books with submissive women are written by men. Many of them have women authors. It seems to be the new trend, in the wake of 50 SHADES OF GREY, to write books about women who enjoy being submissive. I'd be fine with that, IF there were other options out there. But the sheer proportion of women who prefer being submissive in romance novels & romance erotica seems way out of proportion to their existence in reality. Which suggests to those women who are NOT into being submissive that they are the ones who are not "normal" -- an unwelcome message.

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    2. I hope one of these novels listed becomes a movie and beats out 50 Shades.

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  5. If you go to France or Germany, for example, men enjoy being dominated by their women. Dominating and ravaging men is fun in those cultures while here in America, it's unacceptable for women to do that and American men hate being taken advantage of by women since they tend to be hyper-masculine.

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    Replies
    1. Hey, anonymous, are you writing from your own experiences of the three countries? If so, what made the European experiences so different?

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  6. Too much time naval - gazing ladies. Time to go out and just let yourselves be free from your thoughts and let what happens happen. Later you can dump or jump :)

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  7. Is the term 'alpha' really all that feminist? Do we really need to create a non-existent hierarchy of masculinity for men to fight? Even the scientist who originally coined the term in regards to wolves has gone back on it now. Why can't we finally put these dumb terms in the garbage where they belong?

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    Replies
    1. Hey, Anonymous:

      Thanks for stopping by, and adding your comments. I agree that the term "alpha" is not a feminist one. It's a concept, though, that has taken strong root in the romance genre, so ignoring it isn't something a critic of the genre can ignore.

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