Friday, May 26, 2017

Monogamy +One: Cara McKenna's SINS IN THE CITY series

Cara McKenna has been one of the go-to authors for this blog, guaranteeing with almost every book not only a sheet-burning romance, but also a decidedly feminist erotic sensibility. I had my doubts, though, when I heard that McKenna had signed a deal with Penguin Random House to write a "sexy, edgy trilogy that plays with the boundaries of desire"—said boundaries being those of the monogamous heterosexual couple. In moving from Penguin's e-book only Intermix line to their paperback first line, would McKenna's "edge" be blunted? Either in regards to her typically direct, honest, and messy depiction of sex, or to her story's undergirding by feminist ideals?

So glad that my worries turned out to be unfounded. Each of McKenna's SINS erotic romances is as edgy, and as feminist, as any of her previous work. Each features a male/female couple, either already romantically established (the married Asian Indian-American Samira and white Mike of book one Crosstown Crush), on the cusp of dating (biracial Clare and Mica of book two, Downtown Devil), or, in the most unconventional pairing, former lovers/now friends who continue to have sex together (Korean-American Suzy and Jewish-American Meyer of the final book, Midtown Masters). But each pairing proves not entirely satisfying to one or more of its partner. Mike has a cuckolding kink that can only be satisfied by "catching" his wife cheating on him with another man. Mica, who is bisexual, has long been drawn to his best friend Vaughn, and maneuvers Clare into tempting Vaughn into their bed. Suzy, who has totally enjoyed sex-camming in all its kinky variations with Meyer to earn some extra funds, begins to dream about the kind of vanilla lovemaking that one of their clients, shy "Miss Lindsay" prefers. Each story shows how a monogamous couple opens their lives, and sometimes, their hearts, to allow a third person into the intimacy of their sexual play.

The sex that follows proves not only incendiary, but also grounded in equality. Consent is central, particularly when there are not just two, but three adults participating. Some of those adults are eager, while others are curious but cautious, but no one is shamed, manipulated, or coerced into doing anything that he or she does not first agree to. And as they all grow more comfortable with the nuances of both their partners and their unconventional relationships, both women and men ask for what they want from their partners, and give their partners instructions for how to satisfy their desires. Some even discover desires they hadn't even known they'd had:

     "There's something I've been missing," Sam said, looking at each of them in turn. "And maybe it's time has passed, or maybe it'd have to be worked up to gradually, but I miss when you two . . . touch each other. In any way, really," she added quickly. "It doesn't have to be hard-core, like it was, but just a little something." She'd not have come out and asked for this back in the spring and summer, even though she herself had been happy to exit her comfort zone for both their desires—her shyness about being filmed, for Bern, and the entire experiment to begin with, for her husband. But she had distinct wants of her own now, and the balls to name them. (Crosstown Crush, 313).

Not all of the heterosexual pairings which begin each book survive to story's end (some interesting, although not entirely unexpected, partner swapping takes place). Other couples seem in danger of imploding, but manage to negotiate the unexpected emotions opening a relationship to another can cause. But each story concludes with a heterosexual pairing, with the occasional plus one of a third, always male, partner. McKenna, speaking through Suzy, offers an interesting, possibly gendered explanation for why this third party is always male:

     "Meyer has two modes, when it comes to sex—hook ups and . . . everything else. Anything that last longer than a night, basically. If you're attractive, he'll fuck you and probably not ask your name. But if, during the course of the sex—or if you meet him with your clothes on—you manage to make him think, let him argue, intrigue him in some way . . . then it's on. It's different. If he wants to impress you, you'll feel it. If it's just sex with a good-looking, willing stranger, it's more disposable."
     "I can't imagine doing that. Having sex with someone within an hour of meeting them." [says John]
     She smiled and rolled her eyes, nodded. "Try ten minutes, and yeah, I'm kind of with you. I mean, I'm no stranger to hook ups, but it's different when you're a girl, I think. It is for me, anyway. I want to make sure a guy deserves it, first. He has to make me laugh, or have something interesting to say. There's got to be that spark of something, even if it's something pretty shallow. With Meyer, it's just got to be chemical.
     "I'm not sure if I'm horrified by that or envious."
     She shrugged and sipped her wine. "Depends on what you want out of sex, I suppose. I have a suspicion that you're after more than an orgasm."
     He nodded. "That's the thing. Anonymous hook ups . . .  Why not just stay home and . . . you know."
     "Rub one out?"
     "Yes, if you're only going to treat someone like your right hand. Not to be crass."
     "Not at all. I think it's a difference in wiring. I think for someone like Meyer, he needs there to be an actual, other person. That excites him way more than porn or some horny daydream might. Me, I'm more in your camp than his. Again, possibly because I'm a woman, so the stakes are just higher, when it comes to anonymous sex. If I was thinking I wanted to hook up one night, I'd have to weigh the chance it's a bull's-eye and I meet some person I'm attracted to, respected by, who's good in bed, and cares that I get off, and doesn't secretly record the whole thing. Versus the guaranteed good time I could have at home, alone." (Kindle Loc 4884, boldface added)

Do you agree with Suzy/McKenna's reasoning here? Have you read any realistic monogamous +one romances in which the +one is a woman, rather than a man?


  1. What came to my mind was this quote from here: "...a common (abusive) pattern in poly circles called Unicorn Hunting – essentially when a (usually straight) couple goes shopping for a (ideally bi) woman to act as junior wife/sex toy/maid. The ‘unicorn’ is supposed to love both members of the couple equally, so that they never feel left out or jealous, and to accept that she will always be subordinate to the needs of the ‘real’ (i.e. straight, married) couple." (She is called a unicorn because there's actually no such thing as someone with no needs of her own.) Anyhow, Delphine Dryden has a novella titled The Unicorn; the woman in question refers to herself that way. I can't recall, but she may have been suffering from some self-esteem issues. The story is about a married couple who have fun with a woman at a kink club and decide they want to see more of her in other settings. The idea of a unicorn is deconstructed, I think, because the single woman has an equal part in the narrative point-of-view and because the couple discuss making her a real part of their lives, and recognize that it's more than fun, and could be difficult. But the novella suffers from being very short. It ends just when the couple decide they want this woman to be part of their lives. We don't see how that dynamic actually works out.

    1. Thanks, Vasha, for the references to "unicorn hunting"—interesting that while in McKenna's world, the male third partner is seen as somewhat flawed, but not weak, for not wanting to participate in a monogamous committed relationship. But a woman in that position is portrayed as a victim...

      I'll check out the Dryden novella; sounds fascinating (although I'm sure I'll be frustrated that it's not longer...)

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