Attitudes Towards Women in Loretta Chase's Don't Tempt Me

I read a romance recently that disappointed me in a particular way — it seemed to uphold views of women that are very negative, even misogynistic.

Before going further I want to preface this with a reflection on my career in philosophy (you’ll see why in a minute). As a new undergraduate I enrolled in a course called “Philosophy of Woman” with a textbook edited by Mary Mahowald of the same name. As a  philosophy major, I was excited to learn what the tradition said about my gender. The textbook took us from the Bible to the twentieth century, and — surprise! –  almost everything in it was derogatory. Then, as now, I was mostly interested in ethical theory, and from Aristotle’s claim that women cannot be virtuous due to their reason’s inability to control their emotions, to Kant’s claim that women know nothing of duty or obligation, to Hegel’s rejection of women’s access to the universal, except through males. Heck, even women in philosophy, like Simone de Beauvoir, seemed to claim that women can only achieve transcendence by essentially becoming men.

Overwhelmingly, the view of women in the western philosophical tradition is that they are lesser versions of men, with diminished mental capacities, and little self-control, who are vain, superficial, and shallow. As Nietzsche put it “One half of mankind is weak, chronically sick, changeable, shifty.”

This was a blow, but I did not give up my philosophy major. I did not give up reading and enjoying Aristotle, Hegel, or Kant. And I did not even give up reading and valuing the very texts from which the passages in Philosophy of Woman were excerpted. 20 years later, I am still studying and learning and teaching philosophy. The tradition is rife with misogyny — almost more so in what it leaves out than when it bothers to mention sex, which is rarely –  but sophisticated (feminist, deconstructing, heck, just careful) readings reveal nuances and tensions within even the most straightforward dismissal of women.

What does this have to do with romance?

Well, I’m going to talk about a recent read, and I want to compare my reaction to my relationship to the philosophical tradition. I have read and enjoyed books by this author, and will continue to do so. And even the book under discussion in this post gave me some moments of genuine enjoyment. In this post, I want to talk about something that really bothered me, but it doesn’t reflect my attitudes toward the book as a whole, other books by this author, or the author herself.

Loretta Chase’s Don’t Tempt Me was my 6th book of Ms. Chase’s after Lord of Scoundrels, the Carsington series, and Your Scandalous Ways. She’s an author I enjoy and will continue to read.

In Don’t Tempt Me, the heroine, Zoe, has just returned to London after being kidnapped and held captive in a harem for 12 years.

Her four sisters, or the “Four Harridans of the Apocalypse” as the hero, Lucien, refers to them, are the portrayed as shallow, narcissistic, stupid, vain, and selfish. Physically, they are ridiculed. They’re compared to dumb animals, a “quartet of crows”, and the two pregnant sisters’ large forms are frequently described in unflattering terms. And they act it, screaming, weeping, gesturing wildly. They don’t care about Zoe, but only their own reputations.

In an early scene, Zoe mentions that she escaped the harem with jewels. Her sisters freeze. Zoe thinks,

“When it came to jewelry, women the world over were the same. If her future and everything for which she’d risked her life had not been at stake, she’d have laughed, because her sisters behaved exactly like the harem women they scorned.”

When Zoe is presented at court, Lucien notes “some of the ladies compressing a little more tightly and edging away from Zoe, as though in fear of contamination”. He thinks of them as “stupid” and again they are described in unflattering animalistic terms — bobbing plumed headdresses — that Lucien fantasizes about knocking off. Zoe notices, too, and compares the women in attendance unflatteringly to the women in the harem. The harem women were “silly”, “like spiteful children”. To compare, Lucien is described by Zoe in animalistic terms as well, but flatteringly, “prowling” like a “tiger”.

Zoe later says, comparing her sisters to women in the harem, “In the harem, we had outbursts all the time, much worse than this. Women screaming, threatening, complaining, hysterical.”

Lucien has a mistress, Lady Tarling. In this scene, Lucien is explaining gently to her that he will need to take Zoe under his wing so she is accepted in the ton. He brings her jewels, and Lady Tarling, of course, “knows exactly what becomes her”.  Again, women are portrayed as superficial gossips, competitive cats, nasty beasts:

“Lord Tarling’s handsome young widow was not on the patronesses’ list. Lady Jersey had taken in her dislike.

‘I preferred you not learn about it from one of the cats who will be there,’ he said. ‘or from the newspapers. They were likely to give you the wrong impression altogether.’

‘It must be a curious impression, indeed, to result in such a gift.’ She gave a little laugh. Her silvery laugh was famous. It was gentler and prettier, many thought than Lady Jersey’s tinkling laughter. This was but one reason Lady Jersey loathed her.”

Lucien explains that he has taken Zoe under his wing, and then this…

“‘My goodness.’ She moved away from him to the nearest chair and sat down hard — but tightly clutching the box, he noted.”

Later, when Lucien calls upon his mistress to break it off with her, he gifts her with jewels again, and we are told, “For what small regret she might feel, the magnificent brooches were more than adequate consolation.”

Again, in these scenes, we are expected to understand that women are competitive, jealous, and more partial to jewelry than anything else.

Later, Zoe and Lucien have an argument, and we get this, in the narrator’s voice:

“Zoe expressed her disgust with him in the time-honored fashion of women everywhere, by shopping exhaustively.”

When Zoe is mad, rather than having a rational disagreement, she flounces off, suggestively, “Zoe stormed out of the vestibule, hips swaying, skirts swishing.”

When Zoe and Lucien become engaged, Harrison, Lucien’s house steward, (who has already noted that Zoe “had her hooks in” his master) explains to his underlings that “Everyone knows there’s little in ladies’ heads but fashion and scandal.”

Lucien’s friend Adderwood notes, “women change their minds. They’re famous for it.”

Besides Zoe, the only female character who is deemed to have any value is Lucien’s aunt, probably because she is crazy. She says things like, “My ankles, as you know, have inspired odes.”. She’s “colorful” — but not really anyone to take seriously.

Am I saying that there are no women who are vain, stupid, shallow, and selfish? Of course not! Meljean Brook, Sherry Thomas, Nora Roberts, Jo Beverly, and many, many other authors have gifted us with very flawed heroines. But it’s one thing to portray flawed women, and another to use broad stereotypes as a shorthand to character. I object to the latter on both aesthetic and moral grounds.

Compare Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Was there ever a more laughable crew than Elizabeth Bennet’s family, especially her mother and sisters? But I can describe each sister and her unique character in detail to you. Mary Bennet and Kitty Bennet are laughably funny, but in very different ways. They are ridiculous, but never ridiculed. And Mr. Bennet does not come away as merely the male victim of these crazy women. No, his role in the family dynamic — his lassitude, his shirking of responsibility, his blameworthiness for the situation in which the Bennet family finds itself — is carefully developed as well.

The negative attitude towards women that comes across in Don’t Tempt Me is not just a view held by one character. It permeates this book. Nearly every character, including the heroine, and even the narrator (with whom I do not confuse the flesh and blood author) has a low opinion of the mass of womenkind. Of all of the women in the text, Zoe alone is fully fleshed out and portrayed as an individual.

It reminded me of old school romances that never questioned the misogynistic hero’s attitude towards Women, merely it’s applicability to Our Heroine, aka, The Exception that Proves the Rule. Reading those old romances as a teen, of course I identified with the heroine, not those vain, shallow ninnies who were always trying to bring her down. But at what price?

Reflections on Anah Crow's Uneven and s/m in Romance and RL

Here’s the first post in the Amazing Intellectual Journey, although you shouldn’t even bother to pack your lunch, because it’s more like “two steps forward one step back.”  If you doubted I was out to break my blog, doubt no more.

At the Popular Culture Association conference in April, I heard Sarah Frantz, who had given Uneven an “A” review over at Dear Author, deliver an excellent paper on Anah Crow’s Uneven. I blogged a summary of her talk here. As many of you know, Crow’s novel is m/m erotic romance, featuring a relationship characterized by “heavy BDSM”. I became intrigued by the book, and, in an effort to broaden my romance reading horizons, purchased and read it.

In Uneven, the main protagonist is a classic alpha male hero of the “Arrogant Tycoon Billionaire” order, with the important exception that he is a gay man with masochistic and submissive tendencies. After a traumatic attempt to engage in BDSM practice as a young man, he has sublimated his desires, bowed to heteronormativism, married and begat an heir. A chance encounter with an insolent stockboy, Gabriel, whose handcuffs trip him up at the corporation’s security checkpoint, bringing his sexual proclivities to the attention of his very interested employer, signals the end of Rase’s closeted lifestyle and his entree into a love relationship in which he can be, for once, the person he truly is.

This is a short book (it’s an ebook actually, published by Torquere Press) at about 125 pages, and there is not a lot of time to develop these characters beyond their BDSM performances. Rase’s character’s journey is from closeted and self-loathing to open and self-accepting, which allows him to jilt his “trophy wife” (sigh) and forge new bonds with his college age son (uncomfortably close in age to Gabriel, with frequent references to Gabriel’s angelic youthful looks). Since the story is told from Rase’s point of view, Gabriel is harder to read, but Crow does give us some insight into his character. He had been burned in the past by an employer who, I think, coerced him into acting as a dominant, leading him to ditch his chosen profession for menial labor, has a huge chip on his shoulder as a result, and is leery of captains of industry like Rase.

This book read like a bizarro category romance. So many of the Harlequin tropes were there: the alpha hero who can only show his lover (but no one else) his “weaknesses”, the burned lover who tars all future men with the same brush, the utlimate capitalist fantasy to which almost no romance novel is immune: immense, carefree, yet hard-earned and well-deserved wealth, the theme of buying a new home to represent a new life, the stable of scheming ex-lovers and faithful servants, etc. But in the context of BDSM m/m, everything gets inverted. Just typing “alpha hero with submissive tendencies” feels odd.

Reading Uneven made me realize why Joey Hill’s The Vampire Queen’s Servant, a book with a BDSM relationship between a vampire Queen and her male human servant, didn’t work for me. Hill really didn’t create a submissive masochist in Jacob, who was every inch the dominating alpha. It was inexplicable that Jacob agreed to serve Elyssa, and that large question mark kept getting between me and the characters. With Rase, on the other hand, I felt his sexual needs were truly his, a part of his identity.

I thought Uneven was really interesting, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. Certain things will get me to love a book: the writing, my emotional investment in the characters and their journey, my sense that the author is a keen observer of human nature, especially human motivation and emotion. I know others have found those things in this book, but I did not. I also found myself irritated by the repetition of certain words in the text (and I am sorry to get graphic here), especially in the sex scenes, such as “pre-come” (17 times), “whine/whining” (15), variations of “lick” (25+) etc. On the other hand, since I wasn’t turned on at all by the violent nature of Rase and Gabriel’s relationship, I noticed the repetitiveness more than I might have in an erotic romance with couplings more to my personal tatse. YMMV.

One thing I found sort of odd was that the homosexuality of Rase and Gabriel was subordinated in the text to their BDSM orientations. Character and plot turned on BDSM, not homosexuality. Rase’s self-loathing was directed entirely to his s/m tendencies, for example, and once he accepted those, he went from closeted to going public with his young lover, asking Gabriel to hold his hand in Home Depot, for example. We do not yet, sadly, live in a world in which being gay is completely accepted. Was this part of the fantasy? An author tactic to focus on BDSM? A comment on the inseparability for Rase of his homosexuality and s/m tendencies? I wasn’t sure how to read it, but it required me to suspend my disbelief.

I’ve come across s/m elements in other romances I have read, but the need to inflict or experience pain is often portrayed as a symptom of past trauma for the h/h, so by the time of the HEA, s/m is left behind. In other romances, it’s clear that BDSM (usually very “light”) is a kind of kink that the h/h may engage in from time to time, but not perceived by the characters as an essential part of their identities. Finally, in some romances, sadism appears in the form of the eeeeeevil villain, a sign of an irredeemably bad person (As Frantz discusses here). Uneven was different in that the problem presented by Rase’s masochistic and submissive tendencies is his internal struggle to accept them, not his struggle to shuck them for a more “normal” lifestyle. A second source of conflict was Gabriel’s distrust of Rase’s “type.”

In their initial encounter, Gabriel smacks Rase in the face. Later, Rase goes to Gabriel’s apartment, and their long encounter includes hitting, whipping, handcuffing, humiliation, etc. Although they both acknowledge at the end of the book that this first encounter “went too far” (perhaps the result of years of repression on Rase’s part, although it’s not clear what Gabriel’s reasoning is), for Rase and Gabriel, pain-free sex is not likely to occur. In the very last sex scene, for example, Gabriel’s “free hand cracked against Rase’s cheek.”

I thought and thought about it, and while I can understand the role of fantasy in readership of this type of heavy BDSM romance (a person can write or read heavy BDSM without actually endorsing it or practicing it), and while I was glad Gabriel and Rase found each other, I found it very difficult to call what they had an HEA, when it included things like this: “the pain in Rase’s shoulders was so intense he thought he was going to vomit from it, but his hard-on never faded.” While others found Gabriel solicitous care of Rase’s injuries a sign of true love, it seemed reminiscent to me of a domestic abusers mea culpa.

I got to thinking about it. What, if anything, does my own academic tradition say about sadomasochism?

What follows is a brief tour through some typical philosophical takes on sadism and masochism from a family of related specialties (normative ethics, action theory, feminist theory, and aesthetics).

There’s not much in analytic ethical theory about masochism or sadism. The only references to sadism I can think of pertain to utilitarianism, an ethical theory that says what’s good is pleasure (this is the hedonistic aspect of utilitarianism), and what’s right is maximizing pleasure, not just for oneself but in general. Do the thing that will promote the most happiness and you’re good, morally. The “roving band of sadists” is a common tool to teach problems with thsi moral theory, especially it’s hedonistic aspect. Here’s the example: There are ten of sadists in a dark alley, and only one victim. Surely, their gain in pleasure by torturing him outweighs his pain. But then, so the objection to utilitarianism continues, why must we count a sadists’s pleasure in giving pain as of equal moral worth to an innocent person’s interest in remaining pain free?It is an asburd moral theory that is neutral to the source of pleasure. (This discusison re-emerges every few years, with some utilitarians biting the bullet and others dodging it. Geoffrey Scarre and Hugh Upton battle it out in the early 00′s in Utilitas, for example). Obviously, there’s no discusison of consent here.

In action theory, sadism and masochism tend to be discussed within a more general discussion of pain. Pain presents a lot of interesting philosophical problems in the theory of mind and action theory. It’s very hard, philosophically, to say what pain is, as pain from amputated limbs shows. Arthur Danto, in his book Analytical Philosophy of Action, does focus on consenting SM relations, and describes sadism and masochism as “cognitively complex appetites”, noting that a sadist doesn’t just want to inflict pain, but wants to inflict degradation (it’s no fun if the victim bears it stoically, unmovingly, showing no outward signs of discomfort — he has to be made to go beyond even socially acceptable shows of pain, he has to, as Rase does in Uneven, whine, pant, cry, beg, etc.) and the masochist wants to experience not just pain, but pain administered in a degrading fashion. Danto contends both the sadist and masochist are driven by feelings of worthlessness, except that the sadist inflicts it to try to rise above his own sense of worthlessness, while the masochist seeks reaffirmation of his worthlessness. They are “two sides of the same pathological coin”.

Here’s an example from the text: “At one point, ‘something in the back of his head whined and dithered about condoms, but he couldn’t stop.’” Rase doesn’t know Gabriel’s health status, opr indeed anythgin about him. They are about the exchange blood, mucous and semen, and Rase considers it “dithering” to ask Gabriel to put on a condom? As erotica, I guess it;s part fo the fantasy, but as erotic romance, it seems to reveal the kind of careless disgreard fo rhis own worth and life to which Danto refers.

In philosophy of literature, we have Colin McGinn’s Ethics, Evil and Fiction, which comports in large part with Danto’s analysis while going well beyond it. McGinn’s analysis of what is ethically wrong with sadism is really interesting. (He starts, as everyone must, with Sartre, but I don’t need to drag you into Being and Nothingness to explain McGinn’s take on it). He says it’s that the sadist makes the victim renounce his own values. At the extreme, the victim of the sadist comes to prefer death over life. The sadist effects a transformation of the victim’s core values system (interestingly, McGinn says sexual seduction and rhetorical persuasion work the same way, so that, for example, a skillful seduction can cause someone toss out their virtue, their career, their marriage, etc.). The literary example McGinn uses is the “absolutely disgusting” Sade, whose writings evidence a mastery of sadism, skillful rhetorical persuasion, and seduction, making him a sadistic triple threat.

Here’s an example from the text which seems to bear out McGinn’s point:

“It was like Rase wasn’t even here. He was so much nothing that Gabriel could use him to come, then get rid of him. Maybe if he was a good toy, he could come back. … there was nothing in the world but Gabriel; nothing mattered but this. Rase was nothing, down so low.”

A third example is from psychoanalytic feminist theory.  Jessica Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (1989) focuses on D/s but she draws heavily on The Story of O, which obviously features a lot of s/m.  For Benjamin, a psychoanalyst, domination and submission are not natural, but are perversions that fall far short of the relational ideal of mutual recognition, attunement and separateness, reciprocity and love. D/s  map onto gender. As a psychoanalyist, Benjamin finds the roots of submissive femininity and masculine domination in early childhood development, but not, as many of her colleagues (and romance authors!) do, in individual trauma, but in the the structure of gender in our culture, specifically the ”psychic structure” (This is how psychoanalysists talk. Don’t expect to find this on an MRI.) whereby the male is the active subject, the “I”, the “doer”, and the female, a passive object, the “other”, the “done to”.

To put that point in terms of romance, most submissives and masochists I have come across in romance are heroines. To put this point in terms of popular film and television, think about how common it is for actresses to find themselves resigned to the status “the girlfriend” who merely reacts to events in the hero’s life in action movies (Spiderman, Iron Man, Batman, Transformers). To put this point in terms of the reality of s/m as a sexual practice, the American Psychological Association, in the DSM-IV-TR,  find that the ratio of female masochists to male is 20:1, although this number is contested by others, who, while allowing that clinical presentations of sadism are “overwhelmingly male”, other studies put the ration at 4:1.  Moser, Charles and Kleinplatz, Peggy J.(2006) ‘DSM-IV-TR and the Paraphilias’, Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality,17:3,91 — 109). Still, In Benjamin’s work, sexual domination is not distinguished from a general (masculine) orientation to dominate, and it’s not easy to connect to the issue at hand, consenting BDSM, although her view would likely be that regardless of the biological sex of the participants, they are participating in, and thereby valorizing, a harmful patriarchal  conception of power which is not conducive to mutual recognition and affirmation (similar to what we’ll see in the lesbian BDSM wars below).

Psychology:

I am going to break from philosophy for a moment to say something about the distorting influence of psychoanalytic takes like Benjamin’s on BDSM in the APA. Psychological status and ethical status are different, or should be, but as we know, a lot of practices get pathologized merely for being considered immoral. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM); it specifies diagnostic criteria and defining features of all formally recognized mental disorders. Over time, the DSM has moved from a theoretical (very psychoanalytically influenced), normative model to a more evidence-based, descriptive approach. We can see this in its take on things like addiction (still problematic, but better) and homosexuality (removed altogether). So for example, the term “sexual deviance” was changed to the more neutral “paraphilia”, and paraphilias themselves are only supposed to be problematic when they interfere with normal sexual relations and daily life (and what are these? Laden with implicit but determinate and often subjective moral judgments).

The DSM-IV TR (2000) lists BDSM as a “paraphilia”, along with voyeurism, fetishism, exhibitonism, etc.  The DSM-IV defines sexual sadism as a paraphilia that involves “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving (real) acts…in which the psychological or physical suffering of the victim…is sexually exciting to the person” (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, p. 574). As a diagnostic category, paraphilias have, and always have had, a lot of problems. Many advocate getting rid of them, arguing they represent not mental illness, but rather unusual sexual tastes that are pathologized by a dominant society that is uncomfortable with them. For example, the DSM-IV TR tells us that the paraphilia must cause distress (among other things) to be considered problematic from a mental health perspective, but does not distinguish between distress caused by social disapproval of a paraphilia (you know, like getting arrested or thrown out of your house by people who think you are “sick”.) from distress caused by the paraphilia per se. That seems to make a huge difference. Moser and Kleinplatz raise a lot of similar problems with BDSM as a paraphilia in the DSM-IV TR, and is well worth reading.

I don’t agree with everything Moser and Kleiplatz say, though. For example, this: “Another misleading [DSM-IV TR] statement is, ‘Sadistic or masochistic behaviors may lead to injuries ranging in extent from minor to life threatening’ (APA, 2000, p. 567). Although any sexual activity can lead to injury, there is no data to suggest that the practitioners of ‘sadistic or masochistic behaviors’ frequent emergency departments more often than practitioners of other sexual behaviors.” But, to my mind, ER visits are not a good measure of injury. In Uneven, for example, Rase is bruised, sore, cut and achy for a lot of the book, but none of these injuries require professional medical attention. (Of course, the question of injury may not be relevant at all: athletes like boxers willingly engage in injury causing activities and we don’t say they are mentally unhealthy).

I admit it was hard for me to think of Rase’s need for pain and humiliation during sex as normal, psychologically. I did some research and if I wasn’t persistent and thorough, I would have had my view confirmed by the literature, which suggests that BDSM, regardless of how it is practiced, is connected to a wide array of psychopathologies, including things like rape and murder. Consider, for example, this concluding point from a recent article:

“The emotional lives of psychopaths and sexual sadists are quite different from those of the rest of the population. As such, it is difficult for society to understand the motivations for the particularly violent and often depraved crimes that such individuals have been found to perpetrate.” (Laura G. Kirsch, Judith V. Becker, Emotional deficits in psychopathy and sexual sadism: Implications for violent and sadistic behavior”, Clinical Psychology Review 27 (2007) 904–922).

If you read only that, you would think sadism is connected pretty strongly to violent sexual crime, but even the authors admit they can’t say if the incidence of, for example, rape, is higher among sadists than among the nonsadist population, due to a myriad of factors I won’t rehearse here. I found it amazing that consensual BDSM was often not differentiated from nonconsensual (criminal) sadism in this literature. Further, much like gay women and men who sought therapy in the past for mental illness unrelated to homosexuality found their being gay the subject of medical intervention, BDSM practitioners who seek therapy for things like anxiety and depression often find they are “diagnosed” with BSDM instead, even when their BDSM practice has nothing to do with the symptoms they are hoping to get addressed (Anne A. Lawrence, Jennifer Crowell, “Psychotherapists’ Experience with Clients Who Engage in Consensual Sadomasochism: A Qualitative Study”, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 34:67–85, 2008.) Yet, ss Pamela Connelly’s research suggests, BDSMs practitioners do not have higher levels depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsion, or PTSD (Connolly, Pamela H.(2006) ‘Psychological Functioning of Bondage/Domination/Sado-Masochism (BDSM) Practitioners’, Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality,18:1,79 — 120). [Interestingly, she did find a higher prevalence of narcissism.]

I’m getting into this because, as an educated lay reader, it looks to me like the APA and the mental health community in general have a lot of work to do in straightening out their approach to BDSM practice. Their convoluted approach does the same kind of dangerous disservice to the BDSM community today as it did to the gay community years ago. Nothing I say here about ethical issues is meant to imply that there is a mental health issue at stake. Ethics and mental health are distinct.

Returning to philosophy:

A fourth example is from lesbian philosophy. In 1992, lesbian feminist philosopher Claudia Card edited a special issue of Hypatia, which was later published as Adventures in Lesbian Philosophy (Indiana University Press, 1994). In it, Lorena Leigh Saxe explores the debates within the lesbian community of the emerging lesbian BDSM subculture. Saxe makes reference to the two most common lesbian feminist objections to sadomasochism: (1) that our desires are not sui generis, but formed by social ideologies, making the issue of “consent” irrelevant, and (2) that sadomasochism, as an outlaw culture, is addictive, and requires more and more intense humiliation and pain, much like increasing physical dependence on a narcotic, and thus what was originally consented to becomes a gateway to more and more severe forms of abuse. This is not how Rase and Gabriel’s relationship progresses.

Saxe thinks the question of consent is a red herring. She prefers a different argument, one much like McGinn’s above: that, regardless of consent, sadism is the wrong way to treat a Lesbian (Saxe uses upper case L). Saxe says we must separate the question of what it is acceptable for a masochist to consent to from the question of what a sadist may do, just like we can be morally neutral towards smokers, but we can still blame cigarette companies for the manufacture and sale of cigarettes. For Saxe, sadism is inherently disrespectful of the Lesbian, because it is based on the humiliation and degradation of the masochist. The masochist’s consent to the degradation does not make what the sadist does ok. Interestingly, Saxe rejects the idea that s/m is a private sexual practice. She notes that is it is very visible practice, both in the gear worn and in the bruises sported, and that it is often a group practice as well. She says s/m would be bad enough if it were confined to the bedroom, but it is not. Interestingly, Saxe accepts the view that s/m is an identity, a worldview, rather than a superficial kink, but that is exactly why she rejects it: “sadomasochism is part of, and also creates, a world view in which the world is imbued with domination and violence.”

I think the concerns Lesbians like Saxe have with BDSM have special resonance for women with a history of living in patriarchal society, and therefore cannot be transposed onto a relationship with two men. However, the responses to critique’s like Saxe’s from the lesbian community in the 1980s, responses which have to do with sexual agency and freedom, are very similar to defenses of BDSM practice I have come across online.

I do agree with Saxe on the consent point. I think there are things no one may do to another, even if asked (recall the man who consented to be killed and eaten a few years ago in Germany. I think everyone agrees his murderer did something ethically wrong.). And things one must not ask others to do to them. S/m may be one of those things. I don’t know. At any rate, consent is an important part of the picture, but it cannot be the whole story.

I also think the claim BDSM practice is ethically ok because “this is just the way some people naturally are”, or because “some people cannot orgasm any other way”, is unpersuasive. I never liked those arguments when they were used to defend homosexuality, because to me it was ethically irrelevant where the sexual desire came from, and patronizing to boot, as if to say “He can’t help it. He was born that way.” I also dislike that argument because it would license a lot of other behavior on the same grounds, behavior that I think most people would find very ethically questionable, such as pedophilia. As a philosopher, I don’t like this kind of argument because it commits the naturalistic fallacy, the idea that we can read values off of facts. We just can’t get from “it is natural” to “it is morally good” without a lot of extra premises, or, more commonly, subterfuge.

As I wrote above, I have come across other examples of s/m in romance (and certainly much of romance is all about b/d), but they often didn’t bother me at all. When I think about what is different about Uneven, there are three things, (1) both partners are male, (2) the violence, pain, and humiliation is much more extreme in Uneven, and (3) pain and humiliation are required for Rase to orgasm, even alone (I don’t know if they are required for Gabriel).

As to (1) I’ve enjoyed other m/m quite a bit, so this isn’t it (although perhaps Rase’s whining and begging made him too distant from his alpha male hero cousins to whom I am so used? Perhaps my vision of masculinity is not so elastic as I would like it to be?) As to (3), I’m not sure I stand on any firmer ground. After all, people who engage in “vanilla sex” require “vanilia sex” to orgasm. Is it problematic that the sight of handcuffs shrivels their sexual desire? (Actually this third point is likely part of the fantasy aspect of Uneven. According to what I read, individuals with paraphilias have a wide range of interests, including normative sexual interests (see Langevin, Lang, & Curnoe, 1998, for example)). On the other hand, there is a fantasy aspect to all BDSM, it’s “play” in the sense that one isn’t “really” chained, or “really” enslaved, “really” a bad girl, etc., no matter how extreme or how often it is practiced by a couple, and there is a part of me that thinks sexual activity between two people in love should at least sometimes be direct and present (I guess you could argue we’re always fantasizing and playing when we have sex. I’m not sure how, though. On the other hand, you could argue that people engaged in BDSM are in fact direct and present, not playing, but revealing their real selves.)

For me, it’s (2) that is the issue. I “get” lighter BDSM, the thrill of role play, the thrill of seeming to walk on the sexual edge, the temporary existential release of being in total control or total uncontrol.  But I just don’t see how wanting to punch someone in the face, or to be punched in the face, can be ok, regardless of consent. I go back to McGinn’s point that sadists make their victims renounce their values. In Rase, we have a masochist in active consensual complicity, of course. But the renunciation of some basic human values is still there. Namely, the basic value of avoiding pain. Of avoiding humiliation, self-negation.  The sexual values of s/m seem to be at odds with several of the most basic components of human flourishing. On the other hand, how much pain and humiliation is “too much”? For McGinn and Danto, the desire to cause pain itself is the problem, not the amount of pain caused, and it seems absurd to say that, for example, light spanking, violates core human values. I guess from the point of view of a BDSM practitioner, even “heavy BDSM”  can be turned around, to say that pain is pleasure to Rase, for example, that self-abnegation makes Rase a self. I have a hard time with it, though. I hit the limits of my ethical horizon.

I am still very unsettled about it, clearly, and I know I still don’t understand a lot. Looking at my own academic tradition has revealed a very one sided take. While I didn’t love Uneven, it has stayed with me longer than any other book in recent memory, and I’m grateful to have read such an interesting and compelling book.

Alert: Immediate Change in This Blog's Focus and Pace

I’ve just looked at my calendar and had a small heart attack. My blog, and your blogs, and Twitter, have become my favorite procrastination tools. But now I need to get something done.

The good news is that much of what I need to do, I can share with you all. In the fall, I’m teaching ethical theory, ethics and fiction, and a grad level feminist theory, and I’m also working on a couple of writing projects that have relevance to romance.

I thought about changing the name of this blog, or starting a new blog, but instead I’ll just expand the “About” widget or make this a sticky post to warn anyone looking for fun to escape while they still can. I’m not going to worry about how long or tedious these posts are. Sorry. But just think, my students pay to suffer through this stuff!!

Here are the likely topics, not in order:

  • Sadism in ethics and erotic fiction
  • Professionalism and practice in reviewing
  • The difference between judgment and taste
  • Objectivity in aesthetic values
  • Objectivity in ethics
  • Ethical criticism of literature (probably more than one post)
  • The paradox of fiction
  • The ethics of reading
  • Free will — what it is and why it matters to ethics
  • Biomedical themes in the Sookie Stackhouse series
  • The ethical status of pseudonyms in fiction
  • Gendering the morality of fiction
  • What is an emotion?
  • Ethics in memoir writing

Posts on these topics will take a lot longer to write, so instead of my average of 4 posts a week, I may well be down to 1 or 2

I will still do other posts when I can. Tumperkin and I plan to do a joint review of Meredith Duran’s latest when she gets back from holiday.

Finally, anyone who sticks it out until the end gets a blog banner that reads “I Survived the Amazing Intellectual Journey of Summer 2009!” (kidding!)

.

A Brief Reflection on the Nora Roberts article in the New Yorker

On Sunday I was sitting in the movie theater watching the wonderful Star Trek for the second time, and I was thinking about the science in sci fi movies. McCoy says something like, “if we crash, our blood will boil in 12 seconds.” This is wrong, and a lot of the “science” in Star Trek is wrong. Not just over simplified, but dead wrong. The same is true of many “historical” movies, regardless of the time period, from 300 to Braveheart.

I was thinking about the purpose of these pop cultural products, which is not to convey scientific or historical truths, but to entertain, often by hitting certain emotional buzzers. I’m not a die hard Trekkie by any means, nor am I generally bloodthirsty, but I let out a whoop with everyone in the audience when Kirk said to the Romulan who is holding him over a cliff by his neck, “I’ve got your gun” and blows him to smithereens.

Romance gets criticized for its fantasy elements, and for its reliance on emotional triggers to entertain (that there is a perfect person in the world for each of us who will love us unconditionally, that love is everlasting, that the HEA solves all problems, the sexual fantasies), while we overlook or indeed praise the very same elements in other pop genres, like historical or sci fi films. I’m not the first person to say that it must be the content, especially the feminine content, which seems to invite derision. When women produce cultural content that is not gender coded feminine, even if the majority of their readers are women, they do get more respect. I’m thinking of authors like JK Rowling and Charlaine Harris.

I subscribe to The New Yorker (you get a lifetime subscription when you get your PhD in the humanities. It’s a secret bonus few know about.) and I cannot recall once in the ten years I’ve been getting it, a review of a Nora Roberts novel — or indeed any romance. I checked The New Yorker online database and again found no critical notice of any of Roberts’ books (I could be wrong here. Correct me if so.). Yet, they did a very long Profiles article on Roberts in June (you need a subscription to read it). It’s odd that a magazine which has never seen fit to review any of Roberts’ hundreds of books wanted to devote so much space to her career as an author.  Then I read the article, and, like most articles about romance in literary venues, it engages more with her lifestyle and number of books sold — the “La Nora Phenomenon” — than her craft.

But Collins does point to strengths in Roberts’ writing, which is what made it truly shocking to this long time New Yorker reader.

EDITED TO ADD: Like here,

“Smark-alecks [like NR] make bad pupils but excellent students of human nature. Roberts is good at what she does not only because she is prolific but also because she can write zingy dialogue and portray scrappy but sincere characters”

“She is known for particularly believable heroes…”

“Her female characters frequently possess an entrepreneurial streak, and they are more independent than many of their peers, and certainly of their predecessors, even if some among them still have a propensity for crumpling like tissues at the sight of bodily fluids.”

“Roberts’ colloquial style can be inelegant, but it deflates the more vaporous of her scenes.”

“A self-taught writer, and an irreverent one…”

“Reading a Roberts novel is like watching a game of tennis between two very good players: it is not so much the outcome of the match but the back-and-forth between commensurate opponents that elicits the spectator’s pleasure.”

“When Roberts writes a book, she assembles a community piece by piece, a train-set village of her own invention.”

“Roberts would have made a keen satirist, were she not without condescension, or cruelty.”

“Hers are not Carrie Bradshaw fantasies.”

“Like campfire stories, Roberts’ books rely on verve and familiarity rather than on any particular polish or originality.”

“Roberts may be the most intuitive writer since Noel (Hot Lead) Loomis, who wrote several dozen Westerns straight onto a Linotype machine he kept in his house.”

“Roberts’s influences are myriad, and mostly popular.”

“Roberts’ writing, by her own estimation, had improved markedly since her early novels, which feature a lot of passive constructions and thesaurus words.”

“Compared with Nora Roberts, J. D. Robb is slightly more staccato and noirish, but Roberts says the voices are essentially the same. In both incarnations, she is spare, catchy and impressionistic. Her sentences are often clipped and she has a habit of turning nouns into verbs (‘two canine forms bulletted out’ the door). Her figurative language can be clever (‘Dobby’s face reminded Cilla of a piece of thin brown paper that had been balled tight, then carelessly smoothed out’) or it can be clumsy (‘They meshed like butter on popcorn, both lively and entertaining.’).

“Almost everyone I spoke with praised Roberts’ storytelling, her incantatory ability to engage the reader. ‘Storytelling’ also suggests a quasi-extemporaneous quality, the privileging of the thrust of the narrative over its details, and while Roberts’s narratives have momentum, they are not always painstakingly crafted”

“Another pitfall, when you’ve written almost 200 books, is repetitiveness.”

“The spunky-heroine voice that Roberts favors is winning, but it can seem like a fallback. … At other times, her characters … seem to hail from the Nixon era.”

“There is a kitchen-table quality to sex in romance novels which distinguishes them from pornography. … Fine, strapping fellows as the men are, they might not always be recognized by their human counterparts.”

“In Roberts’ early books, the sex could be rough and spastic.”

“The hallmark of Roberts’ sex scenes is narrative continuity — the hero and the heroine sleep together, and they don’t suddenly turn into wildly different people.”

The New Yorker reviews lots of popular films (and anyone who thinks snark in romance reviews makes them different from “professional” reviews has clearly never read Anthony Lane) and popular music (Sasha Frere-Jones regularly reviews such popular musicians as Kelly Clarkson and Lady Gaga). Heck, in this week’s issue there’s a story about a “dry cleaner to the stars”. It hit me as I was sitting in the theater watching Star Trek, a movie The New Yorker reviewed, glowingly, that this isn’t a divide between different publications. It’s a divide within the very same magazine. If the magazine can review the gamut of films, from Bergman retrospectives to the latest Judd Apatow and Ben Stiller, and the gamut of music, from Wagner to Madonna, and if it can recognize, in its Profiles section, that a romance novelist has real writing talent, then why isn’t there space to review a wider range of fiction?

Review: Ain’t She Sweet, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

My Take in Brief: I loved this book. But I can’t believe it’s an SEP.

Setting: Contemporary small town Parrish, Mississippi

Heroine and Hero: Sugar Beth Carey, blonde knockout, former wealthy queen of the mean girls, returning home divorced, widowed, and poor, but much wiser and more humble. Colin Byrne, aristocratic (i.e. silk pj wearing, tall and big nosed) British born writer, has made a successful career writing a nonfiction chronicle of Parish life. Both in their 30s.

Plot: There’s a lot going on in this book, so much it veers towards women’s fiction. Sugar Beth, in dire need of funds, has returned to Parrish to retrieve a valuable painting from the cottage her aunt has left to her. Colin, who now resides in the manor home Sugar Beth grew up in (on the same property as the cottage), plans to take revenge on the woman who once ruined his teaching career by falsely accusing him of sexual harassment. At the same time, Sugar Beth’s return exposes fault lines in the marriage of Winnie, Sugar Beth’s estranged half sister, and Ryan, the high school boyfriend Sugar Beth jilted, and creates drama and excitement for the rest of Sugar Beth’s old gang, still known as the Sea Willows.

Conflict: In the first part of the book, the conflict between Colin and Sugar Beth is that he hates her. Later, the conflict is that Sugar Beth, thrice married, has no wish to fall in love again. The two other significant conflicts involve decades old resentment and anger between Sugar Beth and Winnie, the latter of whom is the product of Sugar Beth’s father’s long time affair with Winnie’s mother, and a deep festering undiscussed “open” secret in Winnie and Ryan’s marriage.

Word on the Web:

The Romance Reader: 4 hearts

Musings of a Bilbiophile (Brie), B

Flight Into Fantasy, Shannon C., “highly recommended”

Racy Romance Review:

I have a very complicated reader relationship with SEP. I know this is romance reader sacrilege, but I truly hate her caveman jock heroes — Dan Calebow of It Had to Be You,  Bobby Tom of Heaven, Texas, and Cal of Nobody’s Baby But Mine, although I enjoyed parts of all of those books.  I strongly prefer her other types of heroes — Gabe of Dream a Little Dream, Ren of Breathing Room, even Heath of Match Me If You Can (a book which featured one of the only less-than-spectacular-to-them first sex scene b/t the h/h that I can recall reading) This despite the fact that the latter male characters and the books themselves were not necessarily as memorable and strong. It’s a case of my political and aesthetic tastes at war, I guess.

In Ain’t She Sweet?, we are introduced to an SEP classic — a  bedraggled, down on her luck, but still beautiful heroine, who uses her sexuality like a shield and a weapon, returning to her home town, tail between her legs. But I couldn’t believe it when I opened Ain’t She Sweet? to find a writer hero with an exquisite design sense who “had the face of a dandy, vaguely effete”,  wearing a purple velvet smoking jacket over black silk i pajamas. WTF? Not to worry — SEP later signals his masculinity by giving him big workman hands and a bricklaying past and the world tilted back on its axis again. Still, I was thrilled with Colin, even if he wasn’t as fully developed as I would have liked (a subplot involving his writer’s block was more of a chance for Sugar Beth to demonstrate her empathy and womanly nurturing than providing true insight into his character). It felt so good to be reading an SEP without having to gargle frequently with my limited edition Votes for Women Mouthwash that I let that slide.

Anyone who has read an SEP knows she can write dialogue, especially witty banter, with the best of them. Colin is an unusually urbane and verbal hero, so we get a lot of it in this book. In order to make her pay for the lies she told as a teen which sent Colin back to England in disgrace, he gets Sugar Beth — once the richest girl in town –  to work as his housekeeper, in the very home where she was raised. But she is single mindedly fixed on the goal of finding the missing painting and refuses to let a little degradation distract her. Here’s an example. Sugar Beth is preparing for a dinner party Colin has planned (little does she know he intends to make her squirm by inviting half the town. Lighter shades To Have and To Hold):

Sugar Beth: “…make sure you take the cost of that pitcher out of his check when you pay him tonight.”

Colin: “I’ll do that.” The caterer had probably broken the pitcher because he was staring down her blouse.

“No, you won’t. Except for me, you’re Mr. Big Spender. Even with that incompetent West Coast weasel of a caterer.”

“Such prejudice from someone who once lived in California herself.”

“Well, sure, but I was drunk most of the time.”

He caught his smile just in time. He wouldn’t give in to that seductive charm. Her self-deprecating sense of humor was anothr manipulation, her way of making sure no one else threw the first punch.

“Is that all?”

She eyed his dark trousers and long sleeved grape colored shirt. “If only I hadn’t sent your dueling pistols to the cleaners.”

He’d promised himself he’s stop sparring with her, but the words came out anyway. “At least I still have my riding crop. Just the thing, I’ve heard for disciplining an unruly servant.”

I also loved Sugar Beth. She was smart, funny, and strong. SEP doesn’t minimize her awfulness as a teen, but helps us to understand how it arose. I confess I had to work extra hard to work hard to suspend my disbelief at the idea that a town leader in the conservative rural South would have a second, private, family a few miles down the road from his public one, and that everyone, including his lawful wife, would look the other way, but SEP made it work. Most of her character journey took place prior to the events in the novel, when she had two unsuccessful marriages (which involved abuse, infidelity and alcoholism) finally finding the kind of paternal love she had always been denied in her brief third marriage to a wealthy man decades her senior, who died penniless. The work Sugar Beth has to do is less on her own character in isolation than on the relationships she left behind — with individuals, like her half sister Winnie, but also with Frenchman’s Bride itself, and indeed with the town of Parrish. In some ways, Colin, who owns Frenchman’s Bride and has close relationships with many of the people Sugar Beth hurt and left behind, and who himself was hurt by her, represents this work of restoration and forgiving. I thought it was ingenious.

Some reviewers felt that after 15 years, the old high school chums (nauseatingly, still traveling in a pack called “the Sea Willows”) should have put Sugar Beth’s sins behind them, which were, after all, many of their own sins. I can see that point. On the other hand, high school is a very vulnerable time, when everything emotional is magnified 100 times. If you are still living in your old home town and dealing with the same people, it can be easy to hold on to the past.

Winnie in particular comes up for a lot of reader criticism, and I agree that she was stunted and also given a free pass by the author for what I consider a sin worse than most of Sugar Beth’s. Winnie got her husband on the rebound from the larger than life Sugar Beth, and has never quite gotten over being second to her glamorous half sister. I liked the way SEP shows us a marriage which is functioning despite a rather large elephant in the room. She didn’t have the space to fully develop Winnie and Ryan’s overcoming their problems, but I was glad to see a long time married couple get some air time, something SEP does in other books (In Nobody’s Baby But Mine and Breathing Room, for example).

The small town southern setting was really well done, and this is not something I usually associate with SEP. Seeing the town through Sugar Beth’s eyes, past and present, was one of the most compelling parts of the novel.

Despite his lack of character development, the romance between Colin and Sugar Beth was mature, and sexy, and fun, and quite satisfying (especially effective was the party scene when he realizes he has gone too far and begins to sympathize with her), but I read this one for Sugar Beth. She is by far my favorite SEP heroine. She’s downtrodden without being totally abject (like Rachel in Dream a Little Dream or the pathetic heroine in Heaven, Texas), she has a knowing sexuality and no fear of using her looks, without sending the message that a woman’s allure to men is her only ticket to success and happiness (like the “bimbo empowerment” heroine in It Had to Be You). I’ll have to reread Dream a Little Dream to be sure, but I think it’s my favorite book by this author.

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