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

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