Friday, February 24, 2017

Feminism with a Kink: Teresa Noelle Roberts' DRIVE and Tamsen Parker's DUE SOUTH

Hearing Teresa Noelle Roberts and Tamsen Parker speak at February's meeting of the New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America on how to use kink to develop a romance arc reminded me that I hadn't read either of their recent releases. And so I spent a few evenings this week most pleasantly entertained by two erotic romances that use kink not only to titillate readers, but also to advance feminist ideals.

Roberts' Drive, the first book in her Cougars, Cars and Kink series, spins a romantic suspense story about a forty five-year-old recent widow who finds herself in the midst of car chases, break-ins, and terrorist plots after she discovers her husband's high-tech business focused not just on the industrial and consumer markets, but on defense work for the government. The suspense plot wasn't what grabbed my interest, though; instead, it was the book's parallel story about a middle aged woman who had once enjoyed walking on the kinky side but who had suppressed those desires for the sake of her marriage. And who rediscovers her pleasure in being sexually submissive with a hot guy fifteen years her junior. So many romances, even erotic ones, take it for granted that the natural heterosexual pair is an older man with a younger woman. The gap between the ages of said heterosexual pair has narrowed over the years, but the rarity of older women paired with younger men in romance indicates that the general principle is still alive and well in the genre.

Suzanne Mayhew had initially been attracted to her husband, Frank, because he seemed in control, an adult while she was still floundering, figuring out her life. But Frank's controlling nature did not extend to the bedroom ("If the world ever needed proof that control freak and Dom are two different traits..." [Kindle Loc 53]). Suzanne was on the verge of getting a divorce when Frank wrapped one of the classic cars he seemed to care about far more than his wife around a tree.

Eight months after Frank's death, Suzanne is finally ready to move on with her life. Part of that moving on includes confiding to her old college friend, Janice, a Domme in Boston's kink community, that Suzanne misses "the spanky side of sex" (19). And Janice, good friend that she is, arranges for one of her Dom friends to go and check out the 1965 Mustang, Frank's favorite classic car, that Suzanne is putting up for sale. That neither Suzanne nor Neil, Janice's thirty-year-old friend, has any idea that they've been set up only adds to the excitement of their flirty meeting.

Suzanne has no hangups about a short term fling with younger guy Neil, and for his part, Neil has a decided preference for older women: "Older women were more confident, as a rule, more in touch with their own sexual needs and less likely to use the submissive role as an excuse to avoid responsibility" (97). But when things start to get really intense really fast, Suzanne ends up backing off. Only when Neil experiences his own personal crisis, after Suzanne's have all been resolved, can Suzanne shrug off her worries about their age difference and realize what she wants for herself, and from Neil.

I'm looking forward to reading future installments of this unusual series, which promise more romance and thrills for other members of Janice's Kinky Cougars support group. Younger men, bring 'em on!

Parker's Due South, the fifth book in her Compass series, features two protagonists who aren't nearly as sure about their sexual desires as Suzanne and Neil are. Lucy Miller, assistant to hard-driving boss India Burke (see books 1 & 2 in the series) and Evans, India's second in command, are about as awkward and deferential as two people can be. As Lucy describes them, "A flutter of 'sorrys' follows because both of us could probably get Canadian or British citizenship based solely on the amount of apologizing we do" (56). Evans has been nursing a crush on Lucy for years, but has never acted on it, not only because fraternization between employees is strictly forbidden by the company handbook, but also because "I can barely speak a sentence to women outside of a work context because I don't want to impose, and I feel the urge to apologize just for existing" (115). As for Lucy, she likes Evans, but has never really thought of him in any romantic, never mind sexual, way. As unlikely a pair of lovers as one is likely to find in romance today.

And it takes something completely unexpected to bring them together: accidentally observing their tough-as-nails boss engaging in BDSM sex with her husband at the office. And taking the submissive, rather than the dominant, role. While watching India's husband hit her with a belt kills Lucy's tiny crush on him, watching the two engage in hot sex turns her on—as does the sight of Evans' own arousal. And as soon as India and her husband leave, Evans' mouth comes crashing down on hers, not in any mild, tentative way, as his affect might suggest, but "demanding, passionate...hungry. Like he wants to devour me" (367). And Lucy isn't at all reluctant to be devoured.

But Evans, being Evans, immediately apologizes for his unacceptable behavior and flees. But the evening has even more embarrassing moments in store for them both until they begin to see a way out of their predicament:

    "What if you... weren't you?"
     He starts, but then it seems as though the sun comes up and shines on his face. "You mean like pretend?"
     "Yeah. Pretend. Like we could still be Lucy and Evans, but braver."
     My breath speeds up, and I bite my lip. "Yeah. Sexier." (479)

Even under the guise of pretend, though, Lucy, who grew up in a conservative family, has difficulty bridging the gap between what she wants in her head and actually speaking her desires aloud:

But I can't quite get the words from my brain to my mouth. They keep getting hung up on everything I've been told my whole life. That sex is only appropriate inside the bonds of marriage and I need to set a good example because girls have more self-control than boys." (509).

Lucy knows, now, as an adult, that her family and her church's teachings are misogynistic. But still, it's difficult to keep those teachings, those voices, out of her head. It takes real work, feminist work, to allow herself to believe her desires are not bad, that "it's okay to want sex, to like it, to enjoy my body and be proud that men find me attractive. It's okay to be a sexual creature" (523). But with Evans, someone equally as diffident, ready to combine bold and sexy with shy and awkward, Lucy finds the courage to be an active participant in her own sex life.

But conquering your inner slut-shamer isn't a one-time affair; the old familiar feelings of shame and embarrassment don't disappear overnight. With an awkward, but equally eager partner, though, Lucy can get in a lot of practice reciting her sex-positive mantras and laying down new patterns in her brain. Patterns that say "yes" to pleasure—even if said pleasure includes a touch of kinky exhibitionism—and "no" to misogynistic shame.

Photo credits:
Red Mustang:
Office spies: Metro

Cougars, Cars and Kink
Samhain, 2016

Due South
Compass series

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What's Missing from BDSM Romance?

At February's monthly meeting of the New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America, Tamsen Parker and Teresa Noelle Roberts, two talented members of the chapter, gave a fascinating workshop on "How to Throw a Kink into your Romantic Arc." Focusing not on the whips and chains aspects of kinky romance, but instead on its psychological and emotional aspects, Parker and Roberts talked about what an author who wishes to write kinky characters convincingly needs to know about the world of BDSM and kink, explained some of their pet peeves about erotic romances that portray kink less than convincingly, and explored how to write about specific kinks when you yourself don't find said kink sexy. I don't write kinky romance myself, but I do read it, and I found their presentation both informative and thought-provoking.

From a gender standpoint, one comment that Parker made really stood out for me. Masochism, she noted, can come in two different flavors. Some masochists enjoy pain, and experience it as pleasure: a "a pain slut." Others, however, don't like pain in and of itself, but instead "enjoying taking it for their partner." For this latter type of masochist, pain is painful, not pleasurable. But the pain is worth it, for the pleasure it gives the partner to inflict it, and the pleasure it gives the receiver to offer that pleasure to a partner.

In my own BDSM reading, I've often noticed a difference in the depiction of female submissives and male submissives, and Parker's comment clarified for me just what that difference was. Female submissives in BDSM romances are far more often depicted in the first masochism category, people who enjoy pain, people who take pleasure from the pain itself. In contrast, male submissives more typically fall into the second category, people who "take pain" for the pleasure of a partner. Why?

Submission as strength
At the end of the workshop, I asked Parker about the gendered portrayal of masochism in erotic romance, and whether she thought it accurately reflected real-life BDSM practice. Were actual female masochists more often pain sluts, and male masochists who enjoyed pain in and of itself far less common? Or was this a reflection of historically gendered romance tropes, romance tropes that insisted that men and masculinity be depicted as strong and empowered?

I didn't write down her exact response, but I think that our conclusions were similar: both romance tropes and larger social norms about gender make it not as commercially viable to portray masochistic male characters who enjoy being submissive, who enjoy pain, who enjoy being humiliated. Especially if their Dom is a woman. If an erotic writer wants to appeal to a wider market, aka a market that includes non-kinky readers as well as readers involved in the kink scene or lifestyle, that writer cannot stray too far from the gender expectations of that wider audience. The one bright spot: Parker did say that she thought while a writer who crafted stories with masochistic men of the first type might develop a smaller audience, it would likely be a more devoted one.

Many readers envision erotic romance as a space of freedom, a space where anything goes. I know I did when I first started reading it. It seems more than a little ironic, then, to discover that erotic romance may be just as gender-bound in as more traditional romance fare...

Have you read any compelling erotic romances (as opposed to erotica) with a male character who enjoys pain for its own sake, not for the sake of a female partner? Who takes pleasure in being submissive?

Photo credit:
Submission as strength: Pinterest

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


Happy Valentine's Day! How are you planning to celebrate?

My alter ego, Bliss Bennet, is marking the holiday by releasing book #3 in her Regency historical series, The Penningtons.

A short description:

Theo Pennington, newly named Viscount Saybrook, has a long history of failing those he loves. But it's surely not his fault that the funds meant to pay his sister's dowry have gone missing. Can he trust Harriot Atherton, daughter of his steward, to help him find the lost money? Or might she be the one responsible for its disappearance?

Harriot (Harry) Atherton isn't the most obvious of feminist protagonists. As one reviewer of the book has noted, "Harry is the sort of heroine who is very easy to relate to in that she is a caretaker; she is intent on doing the best for everyone around her and completely ignores her own wishes and desires in the process" (All About Romance). But her character arc focuses on learning how impossible it is to reconcile everyone's differing needs, and that her own desires are worthy of being met, too. A feminist message many women have difficulty hearing.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be stopping at several writers' blogs, writing guest posts about researching illustration sources, attending the "Stuff Ball," and using music lyrics to help develop characters and relationships. A different marketing idea I've been playing around with is creating picture quotes for A Lady without a Lord. Using the online design software Canva, I've put together a bunch of teaser picture quotes (see some samples below) to publish on social media. Are picture quotes for romance novels something you enjoy seeing on your Facebook and/or Twitter feeds? Or do they feel too much like intrusive advertising?

If you're curious, you can find out more information about A Lady without a Lord at any of your favorite online book retailers:

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Having your Kink and Condemning it too... A discussion with Madeline Iva about 50 SHADES OF GREY film & books

A few months ago, Madeline Iva over at the Lady Smut blog asked me if I'd be interested in joining her for a conversation about the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon in February, on the weekend when the film of 50 Shades Darker opened. I had to admit to Madeline that I'd never read the books, or seen the first film, but that I thought it might be time to catch up with the popular romance zeitgeist. So I spent a chunk of this week reading 50 Shades of Grey and 50 Shades Darker the books, viewing the DVD version of 50 Shades of Grey that I borrowed from the library, and sitting in a (surprisingly empty) theater on yesterday afternoon, watching 50 Shades Darker the film.

Hope you'll check out my talk with Madeline over at Lady Smut, and that you'll add your thoughts here or there about the books and the film, and whether they represent a step forward, or a step back, in regards to women's sexual freedom.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Laughing at the Tragic Lesbian Romance Ending: Siera Maley's DATING SARAH COOPER

The romance community tends to agree that a romance is not really a romance if it doesn't end happily, or at least end "happily for now." How, then, can a subgenre of romance have a trope that's all about the unhappy ending?

When that subgenre is lesbian romance films. And perhaps Young Adult lesbian romance novels, too?

As blogger Danielle on The Radical Notion blog argues in "The Curse of the Tragic Lesbian Ending," the majority of lesbian romance films conclude with decidedly un-HEA moments:

Victims of the "Dead Lesbians" TV trope
If you identify as queer, you're lucky if you've got a handful of decent films to choose from, and even luckier if one or two of those films don't end with the protagonist dying, going to jail, or ending up alone. I can't tell you how many lesbian romances I've watched that have ended with one of the female characters meeting some awful fate.

The situation in young adult books with lesbian characters isn't quite so bad, at least in the books I've read. But still, the HEA, or even a HFN ending, is far from the norm.

Something that #ownvoices author Siera Maley takes dead aim at in Dating Sarah Cooper.

The premise behind Maley's novel is both high-concept and potentially cringe-worthy. On her way home from school in small-town Georgia, Katie Hammontree interrupts a football player bullying a fellow classmate, Jake, for being gay. Jake ends up with a split lip as a result of the encounter, and Katie invites Jake into her house to help clean him up. And invites her bestie, Sarah Cooper, over to help, since Sarah intends to go to nursing school after graduation next year. Jake, mistaking Katie and Sarah for girlfriends because of their playful physical closeness, invites them to come to a meeting of an unnamed school club to which he belongs: "if you guys ever wanted more people to hang out with and talk to and stuff... or if you just wanted to hang out with me and talk, you could come. You know, if you felt like spending time with people who can relate to you" (21). The girls, friendly but oblivious, accept. But when they find out from Jake just before stepping into the meeting that the club is a support group for gay students, impulsive Sarah decides to go with it. Dragging a reluctant Katie behind her, Sarah announces to the other students "Katie and I have been dating for about two months now, and we're ready to tell the world" (43).

Sarah's justification for her impetuous declaration is that it's a great way to get the guy she's been crushing on to notice her. "Guys like lesbians, right? And they also like challenges" (46). And because she and Katie are far more popular than the rest of the queer kids at school, "we'll be majorly boosting the confidence of the kids in that LGBT club" (46). Katie, worried about humiliating Jake and about being accused of making fun of the rest of the club, reluctantly decides to go along with Sarah's deception.

After Sarah and Katie out themselves to the wider school community, they learn a lot about what the queer kids in their school have to face every day. Word was that lesbians have it easy, especially compared to queer boys; homosexual boys get physically bullied, but everyone likes a lesbian, right? In fact, the straight boys like a lesbian a little too much: "Hey, Katie. Heard about you and Sarah... so what's that like and where do I buy tickets?"

Colton was the first of many, many guys that day who felt the need to gawk at us, tell us we were hot, announce their approval, or all three. We got questions about threesomes, questions about what we did in bed—all of which were completely invasive and inappropriate and absolutely qualified as "rude"—and questions about which one of us was the man in our relationship. We were whistled at, catcalled at, stared at, and shouted after, and I got called a "dyke" twice in casual conversation.  (57)

And that doesn't even mention the sexually harassing text and email messages that start arriving on both girls' phones. And the difficult conversation Katie has to have with her ex-boyfriend, with whom she broke up a few months earlier, appeasing his fears that he "turned her" gay. And the need to prove to a doubting fellow LAMBDA member that she and Sarah really are dating by kissing Sarah in the middle of a meeting.

That latter one is really the kicker for Katie, because "kissing Sarah just once had felt better than all of the hundreds of times I'd kissed Austin combined" (98). Might she really be gay? "What if my perfect boyfriend was actually a girlfriend? And how on earth was I supposed to know if that was the case?" (137)

Even worse, if Katie is gay, is she destined to be like one of the heroines of the lesbian romances that Sarah has been reading and watching for "research," a loser who falls in love with her straight best friend only to be doomed to rejection? As Sarah describes the pattern,

"Book number 1: one of the girls realizes she's straight. Book number 2: one of the girls realizes she's bi and loves a guy, and the other girl ends up alone. Book number 3: they both get murdered by vampires.... No matter what I picked up, there was always someone who got screwed over. I didn't want to end up like that. (242)

Neither does Katie. But one of these best friends is going to have to start being honest with the other if this book is going to have the happy, rather than tragic, ending promised by its comic tone.

In  "From Problem to Pride," Blogger Daisy Porter suggests that there are three types of YA books with queer characters:

• The gay problem novel, in which a queer character comes to terms with their own sexuality, the sexuality of a relative, or deals with coming out of the closet
• The "gaytopia" novel, in which being queer is not a problem
• The "Big Gay Book," in which queerness is the focus, but in a celebratory, rather than problematic way

Porter's first category includes many lesbian protagonists. But the "gay" in the "gaytopia" and "Big Gay Book" categories is telling; girls who love girls still rarely feature in novels in which being a lesbian is not a problem, or in which lesbianism is celebrated.

While I can't say that I love the idea of holding up characters who, in Katie's words "manipulate and use a minority group for their own gain" (76) as heroines (Katie and Sarah get off pretty lightly when they finally admit their ruse), I can definitely get behind more lesbian YA romances with HEAs. Or even HFNs.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Dead Lesbians on TV: Autostraddle
"Hand Holding": Chaos Life

Dating Sarah Cooper
indie published, 2014

Friday, February 3, 2017

Bestseller Lists and Gender

Have you heard about the changes the New York Times is making to its bestseller lists? As reported in Publishers Weekly on January 26, the newspaper will eliminate several of its bestseller lists—primarily online-only bestseller lists. Or in other words, e-book only bestsellers. A category in which romances make up the biggest part.

Which means that many romance authors, especially self-published ones, will no longer "make" the New York Times bestseller list, because their e-book sales will no longer "count." Which in turn means fewer romance authors will be able to use "New York Times bestseller" or "New York Times bestselling author" tags when they promote their books.

With all of the political madness ripping through our country right now, why should you care about whether or not romance novels appear on the New York Times bestseller lists?

Because the connections between genre and gender matter.

On Tuesday, January 30, Romance Writers of America issued the following statement:

As a trade association representing more than 10,000 writers of romance fiction worldwide, Romance Writers of America (RWA) is deeply disappointed by the decision of the New York Times to change its bestseller criteria.

Romance authors, most of them women, have dominated the best-seller lists in mass market and e-books for years. To dismiss these authors and the millions of readers who buy their books is to ignore what "bestseller" truly means. Each year, consumers buy more than $1.3 billion worth of romance fiction. If the New York Times eliminates the mass market and e-book lists, they are proving that they are out of touch with what consumers actually buy. Further, the dismissal of two formats dominated by women can't help but feel sexist.

RWA strongly urges the Times to reconsider its decision.

I don't know for certain, but I'm guessing that the word "sexist" hasn't appeared very often, if at all, in official statements from RWA in the past. Though some RWA members have expressed discomfort with this language, feeling that the Times' decision was not intentionally sexist, most members who have commented on listservs that I subscribe to applaud RWA's highlighting of the implicit sexism of the change. I join them in thanking RWA for taking such a strong, vocal stance.

RWA is also working with other organizations to draft a joint statement that points out the detrimental effect the Times' decision is likely to have not only on many women writers, but also on writers from historically underrepresented groups.

What are your thoughts about bestseller lists? How do they effect your romance purchasing choices?