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


5 comments:

  1. Anna Zabo's "Just Business" has a male character who enjoys pain; it's also, I think, a very touching romance and a well-written book. Her whole "Takeover" series (#4 out today - yay!) is good stuff.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Georgie, for the rec. I'll check it out!

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    2. Tit for tat - thanks for the many recs I get from you. Just finished and enjoyed Tough Luck Hero.

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  2. Bren in Kit Rocha's Beyond Pain definitely falls into the "needs pain" category:

    “He tried not to tense. Not that it mattered—it wasn’t like his predilections were a big secret. 'It’s hot, but the only thing I’d call a need of mine is the pain.'”

    I love that whole series. It's feminist and sex-positive and *very* conscientious about consent.

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