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.

41 responses

  1. As a former philosophy student (if I’d gone through with the madness, I would’ve ended up with something like “20th Cen Theology with a concentration in Feminist Existentialism” on my degree and how’s THAT for one of the top 5 most useless degrees ever) — I’ve got to say I really REALLY like the shift in your reviews. I am totally grooving on the crunchy philosophical goodness, here.

    That said, Crow’s book seemed to me — who has read a lot of BDSM and BDSM-flavored books — as somewhat… conflicted. I mean, on some level under the writing, it seemed as though the author herself was somewhat conflicted. It revolves around a lot of the word choices, really, subtle details that maybe folks might miss (or dismiss) but being of analytical type who can’t turn off my brain, I kept twigging.

    I think she wanted to write hardcore but maybe inherently doesn’t really get off on it (or get it) at quite that level — and hence we get words like ‘dithering’. Lots of words could’ve been used there, to shift the tone slightly, but the use of that word, frex, jumps out. It feels like a narrative accusation at the character’s POV, a sign of discomfort with what’s going on. Yeah. So it’s really subtle, but then, the expression of narrative discomfort within the narrative is almost always incredibly subtle. Only way it can manage to slip past editors, usually!

    I’d suggest as comparison that you give Jay Lygon’s ‘Chaos Magic’ a try. Also Torquere and ebook, and comes down hard on the S/m (with touches of D/s but definitely S/m-focused)… yet it’s also incredibly psychologically complex, nuanced, and raises/implies some very hard questions about abuse and ‘bad’ pain versus consensual S/m and ‘good’ pain. It’s the first in a series, and all three remain my favorites, but Chaos Magic has a particular place in my heart. Ah, and it’s heavily influenced by magical realism, as well, which makes it particularly delightful read, and almost wholly unique in the genre.

    Getting back to Crow’s story, I agree it stayed with me for awhile, but mostly because I couldn’t put my finger on what, exactly, was the reason I didn’t want it to stay with me. Not that it made me feel ‘dirty’ or some such nonsense, so much as just… rather tired. I think, in some ways, because there were so few elements of joy in the story, and while pain may be painful, for a masochist, it can also be joyful. Without that crucial aspect, it made the ordeals in Uneven nothing more than that: a series of ordeals.

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  2. 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.)

    This is one of the twists that disturbs me in some of Shannon McKenna’s books. The heroine acting like someone she doesn’t recognize is one of those ideas that treads the line between pleasantly “bewitched, bothered and bewildered” and outright corrupted or unhealthfully thralled.

    This may wander far from your interest in S/M, but I think the corruption and cruelty motif in legend and in romance is also part of why violent urban fantasy has such strong crossover with genre romance. Fairies, elves, and vampires are often described as having a glamor, meaning not only physical attraction but a power of persuasion so strong that the victim leaves behind everything, including his/her old self and sometimes soul. Romance often employs much the same transformation myth, whether it’s wrought by an impersonal power of love/wild magic or a specific lover/Faery Queen. It’s often cruel too, whether a cruel billionaire with sharp teeth or a belle dame sans merci; either way, the victim rarely returns to his/her previous life.

    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

    Always happy to see this train of thought deprecated :)

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  3. This is very interesting. I haven’t read this book, but I think I can hazard a guess as to what bothered you about it.

    You mentioned that in m/f romances, there is a tradition of the female being the submissive. Definitely this is true, especially in old skool romances where they heroine might even be raped by the hero. However, through the course of the story the balance of power between the two characters shifts, so that the hero eventually admits the woman holds power him and that he lurvs her. This is part of the fantasy trope of m/f romances with uber-alpha heroes: the idea of the alpha male eventually submitting to the female, right?

    With Uneven, it sounds like this transformation never happened. It’s like if I read a m/f old skool romance and the hero just kept raping the woman, but she decided she liked it (?). Like I said, I haven’t read Uneven, so I don’t know, but that’s what I’m getting from your summary.

    So in the book there really isn’t any flipping of emotion or power between the two heroes, which leaves the reader unfulfilled. Also, you said Rase goes on an emotional journey and becomes more accepting of his homosexual BDSM self; but to me it seems like the reverse is happening. Whatever the psychological causes for it, Rase obviously feels a very strong desire to be physically punished. Since this only escalates after he meets Gabriel, it seems like his desire for punishment–and, one must assume, his hatred of himself–only becomes more deep-rooted over the course of the book. Therefore the conclusion does not read like a happy ending. If the sex between Rase and Gabriel had become less violent over the course of the story, that would suggest Rase was becoming more accepting of himself within the context of the narrative. An even better resolution would have found Rase taking on the dominant role and Gabriel submitting because of lurv.

    I’m not applying any of this to RL homosexual BDSM cases, of course, just the confines of the romance genre as established by m/f romances.

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  4. Wow. I really have nothing to add to the conversation so my apologies for even commenting – but I wanted to thank you for a fascinating post. Brilliant.

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  5. Okay, I will refrain from apologizing for also adding inanity to the erudite comments above but I did want Jessica to know that I read the whole damn post, found it very interesting and as usual, fairly easy to follow, so thank you.

    Am I getting the central question? Basically, where does BDSM really arise from? Does the desire/need for pain and humiliation (giving or taking) during sex arise from a psychopathology that should somehow be ‘treated?’ or is it simply another way of being put together, another sexual neuronal make-up that maybe needs to be understood better but not necessarily fixed?

    Fascinating.

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  6. I also read the whole post and would like to be quizzed later to prove it! Thanks, Prof. Very interesting.

    I’ve wondered if BDSM participants have measurable brain differences like gay/transgendered people do. But I feel like I’m offending someone by suggesting that? Anyway, I struggled with the same issues in Maya Banks’ Sweet Persuasion. A thought-provoking read that made me squirm in good ways and bad ways. When is it okay to hurt someone, and when is it just…abuse?

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  7. ” When is it okay to hurt someone, and when is it just…abuse?”

    When there’s consent – free, informed consent. I haven’t read ‘Uneven’ (and I’m not sure I want to because BDSM done wrong makes me ill), but the two issues (here, speaking as an outsider who has researched the topic and asked friends who are in the scene) which writers usually screw up are motivation and consent. Sounds like Crow didn’t really get what drives people into consensual pain and domination, either giving or receiving it, or didn’t convey it well. It also sounds like the consent question was blurred too.

    The question is more complex with guys too. With physical equality, the level of violence can be ramped up, and there’s an element of testing limits and the dom. A sub might be more inclined to want his submission taken, than to grant it. There are different levels of what’s desirable and acceptable even within the BDSM community too – the discussion forums are rife with arguments and flame wars over what’s too much, what’s abusive etc. You will find submissives who are revolted by 24/7 agreements, masochists who would not tolerate what Jessica’s described in her post. There is no one size fits all, even before you differentiate between het and gay interactions. What I’m saying therefore is that consent and motivation can be poorly understood even within the community – and Safe, Sane and Consensual is by no means universally applied or agreed on within it either. Does that mean that a consensual but extreme S/m scene is abusive if it leaves scars and long-lasting bruises (which is, in some jurisdiction, the dividing line between assault and grievous bodily harm)? Does someone outside that dynamic even have the right to judge?

    I’ve written a number of iterations of BDSM relationships even going back to when I was producing fanfiction, and in each, I think I get a little closer to understanding the mentality and issues of the people who practice it. I like to think I’m close enough now not to cause active offence to practitioners – but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot I have to learn.

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  8. OK, confession time. I only read most of your post, not quite all and I don’t think I’d pass a test on it… (Can you guess this isn’t going to be an intellectual response?)

    But, I did read Uneven after Dr. Sarah gave it a huge rave over at Dear Author. At the time I posted that I just didn’t get it. At it’s heart, I couldn’t understand why someone would get off in a healthy way from being humiliated and in pain and I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to cause such pain and humiliation out of “love”.

    I can go along with some light stuff in books and sort of understand it’s attraction but the sort of behaviour in Uneven? I just didn’t get it.

    In the end, I guess that’s what disappointed me about this book. I thought I’d get an understanding of “why” but I just didn’t…

    I did however appreciate that the BDSM didn’t stem from horrendous abuse of the h/h for once but other than that, I couldn’t buy into what was making them “happy”.

    Also, there seemed to me to be a disconnect between the submissive/masochistic role of Rase when he was having sex with Gabriel and the more alpha role he took on when they were out and about.

    And, like you, I got stuck on the “whining”. I don’t like whining at all from anyone and I did notice it a lot in this book. It may have been that any word the author chose would have got to me though – because it was repeated over and over again.

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  9. 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.).

    Clearly his murderer did something illegal, but many people think that assisted suicide should be legal, so apart from the methods employed by the murderer, which are separate from the effects of his actions (assisting someone else to die and then eating the body (which is/has been an acceptable practice in some cultures), what’s the difference between this case and a case of assisted suicide?

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  10. Great post! I haven’t read Uneven but I have read an m/m BDSM story years ago. The category/ genre was an alien territory for me, so I was left with a lot of questions. Uhm, not a lot of information on BDSM from where I came from (no internet then :) ). :/

    I am still very unsettled about it, clearly, and I know I still don’t understand a lot.

    I too, still have a lot to understand but your take has been enlightening and fascinating. :)

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  11. Clearly his murderer did something illegal, but many people think that assisted suicide should be legal, so apart from the methods employed by the murderer, which are separate from the effects of his actions (assisting someone else to die and then eating the body (which is/has been an acceptable practice in some cultures), what’s the difference between this case and a case of assisted suicide?

    The immediate thing that comes to mind is that the person assisting the suicide shouldn’t have an interest in that person’s death.

    Assuming the German had a really strong need to do this (in that he’s prepared to flout social convention to that extent) he couldn’t be sure that he could make a properly objective judgement as to whether the other person’s had made a properly rational and valid decision to die.
    It’d be like a doctor deciding whether to turn off the life support of someone whose estate they were due to inherit. Be a clear conflict of interest, and they would have to let some other doctor make the decision.

    (I don’t know the details of the case, but in general, I’d have difficulty anyway with the idea of assisted suicide being moral where the person to die is capable of unassisted suicide.)

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  12. The immediate thing that comes to mind is that the person assisting the suicide shouldn’t have an interest in that person’s death.

    But can anyone ever be entirely disinterested? Depending on how health care is provided in a particular country, there may be a more or less direct link between the care provided and the financial remuneration received by the doctor. One might also be justified in thinking that doctors get some emotional satisfaction from their jobs, including when that job involves, say, giving pain relief which results in the death of a mortally ill patient.

    When doctors inflict pain, they tend to do it in the belief that it benefits their patients more than the pain itself harms the patients. Could it be argued that the sadist, in inflicting pain on a consenting masochist, believes she/he is providing a benefit (sexual satisfaction) which outweighs the harm (bruises etc) caused?

    What I’d be really interested in knowing is not whether pain can sometimes be inflicted for good (since that’s what happens when people are given many surgical treatments), or whether people should be allowed to do things for enjoyment that are dangerous and might cause pain and even death (since we’ve seen that boxers, mountain climbers, most athletes etc do experience pain in the pursuit of their sport, and some of them even die in accidents).

    It’s Saxe’s statement that “sadomasochism is part of, and also creates, a world view in which the world is imbued with domination and violence” that most interests me because while I can imagine that enjoying physical pain could be directly related to someone’s biology (different people do have different pain thresholds, for example, and some sensations of pain and pleasure do seem to be quite closely related in how they’re experienced or produced by the body), things like bondage, domination, submission and aspects of role playing which include humiliation would seem to be learned behaviours, affected by culture and perhaps in turn helping to “create [...] a world view”, or at least to shape/reinforce an existing world view.

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  13. Just to add my two cents:

    The two most interesting aspects to me were that 1. consent is not the only indicator of the moral or ethical merits of something 2. the naturalization argument.

    I fully admit that I do not understand BDSM. However, I would say I think understand the pain part more than the submissive part. Is the fact that the masochist is almost always also a submissive that tweaks people out? Is there such a thing as a domninant masochistic? Would we be less offended and twitchy about a relationship between a submissive sadist and a domninant masochist than by the more traditional dominant sadist and submissive masochist?

    Moreover, why is pain bad? What is unethical about pain? There is emotional pain, physical pain, spiritual pain but the are not the same thing and the causes are varied and sometimes inevitable. Why do we think pain is something we should avoid? To be human is to suffer, to experience all kinds of pain, to lose things, to lose people. Loss and pain are death in miniature. Is that why we avoid pain? Because it is to much like death? We live in a culture that does not deal well (or at all) with death. We are profoundly uncomfortable with pain, negation of self, suicide, and suffering, all metaphorical deaths. Is it pain itself we have a problem with or what it represents? Why is avoidance of pain “good” and the embrace or desire for “pain” bad?

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  14. “Is there such a thing as a domninant masochistic?”

    The hero in Lydia Joyce’s Shadows of the Night discovers that he likes pain and finds it exciting during sex. The way it’s presented, though, it seemed he was neither a dominant nor a submissive. Here’s the description from Joyce’s website:

    Fern and Colin Radcliffe had a conventional courtship and expected a conventional marriage. But Fern’s wedding night leaves her shaken — and reborn. Driven by a desire to control her own destiny, she strikes out at her new husband in a passionate assertion of independence. In doing so, she awakens a secret craving in the recently bound couple — an exquisite erotic delight that ignites their love and creates an insatiable hunger for more.

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  15. But can anyone ever be entirely disinterested?

    Possibly not. But I’m prepared to be arbitrary – to disallow people from making crucial decisions for other people when they themselves have – or could be supposed to have – a strong interest in seeing a particular outcome. Which leaves lots of room for discussion about what ‘crucial’ and ‘strong’ mean – but it’s late, and I’m not thinking that clearly…

    Moreover, why is pain bad? What is unethical about pain? There is emotional pain, physical pain, spiritual pain but the are not the same thing and the causes are varied and sometimes inevitable. Why do we think pain is something we should avoid?

    I think we’re hardwired that way. Pain lets me know that my body is being/ has been damaged, and also trains me not to repeat the damaging activity. Pain is therefore useful, and in that sense ‘good’ – I don’t think avoiding pain necessarily means you think it bad or unethical.
    You read about children who can’t feel pain, and who can’t be left alone in the room because they will continually hurt themselves. If we didn’t instinctively avoid physical pain, if our brains processed the feeling as a neutral or enjoyable experience – wouldn’t that just be dangerous?

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  16. @ kaigou:
    Thank you for making those interesting points about language, and thank you for comparing this book to others you have read in the subgenre. I lack that comparative basis totally, so I will read your suggestion!

    Oh, and I am a very big fan of the useless degree.

    @ RfP:

    Your points about urban fantasy and glamor are on the money, I think. It’s a very interesting question, at what point the transformative power of love (made literal in so much paranormal romance) becomes disfiguring.

    heidenkind wrote:

    So in the book there really isn’t any flipping of emotion or power between the two heroes, which leaves the reader unfulfilled. Also, you said Rase goes on an emotional journey and becomes more accepting of his homosexual BDSM self; but to me it seems like the reverse is happening. Whatever the psychological causes for it, Rase obviously feels a very strong desire to be physically punished. Since this only escalates after he meets Gabriel, it seems like his desire for punishment–and, one must assume, his hatred of himself–only becomes more deep-rooted over the course of the book. Therefore the conclusion does not read like a happy ending. If the sex between Rase and Gabriel had become less violent over the course of the story, that would suggest Rase was becoming more accepting of himself within the context of the narrative. An even better resolution would have found Rase taking on the dominant role and Gabriel submitting because of lurv.

    I like your point about the balance of power shifting in a romance — I agree this doesn’t seem to happen here, and I would not have noticed that without your comment. But while your claim that being less violent would show Rase’s personal growth is one I tend to want to agree with, I fear that doing so unfairly pathologizes masochism.

    @ Kate:
    I am glad you enjoyed it!

    jillsorenson wrote:

    I’ve wondered if BDSM participants have measurable brain differences like gay/transgendered people do. But I feel like I’m offending someone by suggesting that?

    This opens a can of worms. But what I always want to ask is “who cares? Why are we interested in this?” at any rate, our brains are not who we are. The mind is a complex interaction of brain, body, environment.

    Ann Somerville wrote:

    When there’s consent – free, informed consent. I haven’t read ‘Uneven’ (and I’m not sure I want to because BDSM done wrong makes me ill), but the two issues (here, speaking as an outsider who has researched the topic and asked friends who are in the scene) which writers usually screw up are motivation and consent. Sounds like Crow didn’t really get what drives people into consensual pain and domination, either giving or receiving it, or didn’t convey it well. It also sounds like the consent question was blurred too.

    I honestly don’t know if this was BDSM done well or badly. I suppose that just as there are many different types of het romance, there would be many different types of BDSM m/m relationships to portray.

    I like your point that even consent is not one size fits all — modes of giving and receiving consent, and what different people can reasonably consent to, differ. But I think we disagree on the point that consent alone validates a relationship, or, rather, what I think it would take for true consent to a violent relationship is unlikely to ever occur.

    Kaetrin wrote:

    Also, there seemed to me to be a disconnect between the submissive/masochistic role of Rase when he was having sex with Gabriel and the more alpha role he took on when they were out and about.

    this is a good point! In general, character development, to me, was not as storng as it might have been..

    I think we had the same motivation for reading the book and came away similarly disappointed. Maybe going into it thinking, “I’m going to learn about BDSM” rather than “I’m in for a hot romance!” unfairly doomed it from the start.

    @ corina:
    Thanks for reading!

    Laura Vivanco wrote:

    It’s Saxe’s statement that “sadomasochism is part of, and also creates, a world view in which the world is imbued with domination and violence” that most interests me because while I can imagine that enjoying physical pain could be directly related to someone’s biology (different people do have different pain thresholds, for example, and some sensations of pain and pleasure do seem to be quite closely related in how they’re experienced or produced by the body), things like bondage, domination, submission and aspects of role playing which include humiliation would seem to be learned behaviours, affected by culture and perhaps in turn helping to “create [...] a world view”, or at least to shape/reinforce an existing world view.

    Yeah, this makes this sort of objection similar to objection to titillating rape in romance. I admit I tend to lap them up like a kitten with milk, but the other side is that throughout history minority sexual practices and orientations have been deemed pathological, immoral, etc., and in casting some forms of BDSM, even when consensual, as morally problematic, folks like me are contributing to a tradition of oppression and persecution, the very opposite of what feminist left liberals are supposed to be all about.

    Good question about PAS. I like Marianne’s reply — the murderer wanted to kill the victim in that case, unlike PAS, where, in Oregon at least, a doctor is not usually even present, and if s/he is, while “interested” is not actively seeking, for his or her own pleasure, the death of the patient. The “victim” in the German case, had he wanted to die, could have just killed himself.

    Angela wrote:

    Moreover, why is pain bad? What is unethical about pain? There is emotional pain, physical pain, spiritual pain but the are not the same thing and the causes are varied and sometimes inevitable. Why do we think pain is something we should avoid? To be human is to suffer, to experience all kinds of pain, to lose things, to lose people. Loss and pain are death in miniature. Is that why we avoid pain? Because it is to much like death? We live in a culture that does not deal well (or at all) with death. We are profoundly uncomfortable with pain, negation of self, suicide, and suffering, all metaphorical deaths. Is it pain itself we have a problem with or what it represents? Why is avoidance of pain “good” and the embrace or desire for “pain” bad?

    This is a wonderful comment, thank you. I know that I have learned a lot about the value of suffering from religious people (lay and clergy) in real life. However, it is one thing to find meaning in suffering, another to actively seek it out. look at the UN charter on human rights — it is just considered one of the basic elements of any recognizably decent human life that pain is minimized.

    On the other hand, we voluntarily endure pain to gain other goods all the time — ear piercings, childbirth, marathon running, vaccinations, relationships, etc. Why not view masochism this way? Yeah, you’ve given me a lot to think about!

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  17. @ Jessica:
    “I think we disagree on the point that consent alone validates a relationship”

    No, no – I only said that was the dividing line between abuse /not abuse. I don’t think you can ‘validate’ a relationship anyway. There are plenty of non-abusive relationships which aren’t healthy or happy, and plenty of ones where one partner smacks the other around (with consent) which are.

    Even determining if someone is in their right mind to give consent is a minefield as you point out. Looking from the outside, you can only go by how you would judge any relationship – are the people happy? Do they exist as whole people outside the bedroom and without each other? Do they exercise a proper balance and perspective or are they so lost in their kinks and each other that they can’t deal with the real world? If you get positive answers to those question, then the rest of it isn’t anyone else’s business.

    On pain – endorphins! That’s why painful activities give us pleasure. It’s not weird, it’s chemistry.

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  18. Okay, I’m going to try to tackle this tonight, but I might come back to it. Your comment box is so little, though, it might give me a complex. :)

    I wouldn’t have given Uneven an A if I didn’t think it got BDSM right. What blew me away about it was that it was an SM romance–the first one I’ve ever read. And while there were slightly unrealistic parts, I think it *gets* BDSM, and particularly SM, in ways that other books do not/have not/can not.

    I also loved the sparseness of the text. It made me search for motivation, search for feeling, in ways that I think Rase was going through, so in a way, it made me feel what Rase was feeling, the same confusion and tentativeness, as both Rase and reader work their way through the story.

    I think this book explains BDSM more and better than any other book I’ve read. (The only other one that comes close is Dahl’s short “The Wicked West,” which hits the emotions, but not the level of violence that Uneven reaches.) But I think part of what it explains is that being BDSM-identified is unexplainable. And I think that wanting BDSM to be “explained” is part of the “problem” with this reading, if there can be said to be a problem.

    Take it back to the hetero/homo argument: Can you explain when you first decided you were attracted to men/women? Can you explain why you like men/women better than women/men? Those questions are unanswerable. I like men because they are attractive to me. That’s a circular argument. But it’s the only one to give. Because people who like women, just like women. I can explain that I like the aesthetic form of men, and the way their voices sound and their faces look and their muscles, etc., but the same thing holds and are as unexplainable for people who like women. Or people who like both.

    It’s the same for being BDSM-identified. Why do you get sexually excited by pain (given/receiving)? Who the hell knows. People who are BDSM-IDed just DO. Things that would make a normal person (whatever that is) run away screaming (humiliation play, severe CBT, piercings and cuttings) are part of what makes sex exciting for BDSM-IDed folk. If you take as the foundation of sexual identity that it’s innate (big if, I know), then BDSM is the same. Rase and Gabriel are not men who tie each other and spank each other as a spice to their love-life, as most people do, no matter their other orientations. Rather, it’s what they need to make sex worth having. For people who are BDSM-identified, sex isn’t fun/exciting/enjoyable without the variation of BDSM that they need. It’s like being gay and being forced to have sex with someone of the opposite sex (or vice versa, of course). Sex w/o pain/domination/submission/masochism/whatever just isn’t all that exciting, if you’re kink-identified.

    But why? Who the hell knows. Seriously. Why do you like (wo)men? Why do you like kissing? Why do you like penetration? Because it makes you feel good, right? Same for BDSM. Because it makes BDSM-IDed people feel good. Endorphins for masochists is probably a good reason, but tops/doms don’t get same endorphin rush. And it’s not because of a bad childhood or an inability to connect with emotions or a any other reason, any more than it is for people who are gay. You’re gay b/c you were born that way. You’re full-on kinky for the same reason. It’s not excitement of breaking taboos or sticking it to the establishment or a need to act out any underlying childhood trauma. It’s because it feels good, it gives you that rush, it melts you, and makes the world disappear, like any good sex.

    Now, if one is a pedophile, then exciting sex is illegal, immoral, and unethical, and you shouldn’t do it because your partner cannot give informed consent, no matter what. If you’re kinky, exciting sex is usually illegal, but if there’s full consent on both sides, then exciting sex is neither immoral nor unethical.

    Yes, some sociopaths and/or psychopaths (don’t know the difference) are sadistic. But I’d love for their to be an acknowledged difference between a sadistic sociopath/psychopath and a sexual sadist who has full consent of partner(s). Because there is a big difference. And CONSENT is that difference.

    If you marry naturalism (it’s the way I am) with informed consent, then, to my mind, everything’s okay. And that might include the cannibal situation–it’s debatable, and NO, I’m not comfortable with that. And at what age does consent become informed? Not comfortable with that, either. But those are the two necessary elements to my mind, to making something moral and ethical. And I’m sure there are exceptions and issues that I’m not thinking of now.

    But to get back to Uneven: it’s not there to explain BDSM. It’s there to depict it.

    Those are my quick reponses to some issues. I’m going to start another comment to come back to Jessica’s original post, point by point, and then a third for the comments, if I haven’t covered everything by this point.

    And of course, I hasten to add, even if at the end, I don’t speak for everyone/anyone in the BDSM. These are my observations and mine alone, extensive as they might be.

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  19. 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.

    This. Yes. This is why I love this book so much. Because it subverts all expectations, both genre and sexual identity. I love that the first sex scene is Rase penetrating Gabriel–that is, Rase topping Gabriel, but in a totally submissive way. It’s beautiful and perfect and makes you THINK dammit, which is why–more than anything else–I love this book.

    And I love your point about Jacob. Hill’s Natural Law does a much better job of showing an alpha male submissive. Because trust me, they exist. In fact, most submissive men are incredibly successful, driven, alpha men IRL. In fact, most submissive women are, too. :) And in NL, Mac says he just is submissive and he always has been and there’s no explanation. It just is. I have a friend whose known that they were dominant since they were four. Or at least, can trace back dominant feelings to when they were four. Just as a six year old girl was flirting with my nine year old son at a July 4th party this month. It just is.

    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 had this 110% (as you mention). But we’re obviously coming at this from different perspectives. :)

    As to the writing, Crow has said that she wrote this in three weeks and unfortunately did not get the peer reviewing and/or editing that she normally does. It’s coming out in hard copy soon (very soon, I think), and I think a lot of these hitches have been fixed. One might say that the original is the more pure document, the writing as it should be, but I know she’s upset at the stuff like this she didn’t catch. FWIW. (I mentioned the whining in my review.)

    One thing I found sort of odd was that the homosexuality of Rase and Gabriel was subordinated in the text to their BDSM orientations.

    Yes, this too. This is very true-to-life of the people I know who are BDSM-IDed. The fiddly bits of the person you’re dominating/hurting/submitting to/being hurt by don’t matter as much as the BDSM aspect of the relationship/interaction. YMMV, again. :) And I think it’s interesting that Rase came out to Takis as gay and thought something like he’d never said that before, but also definitely thought that Takis didn’t need to know the rest of it. So gay is mapped over kinky in fascinating ways.

    I think gay also works in this book so well, b/c you don’t have gender playing with expectations and power dynamics. Two men figuring it out, especially with their age differences, is problematic enough. This wouldn’t have worked, with its shocking violence, if gender were involved.

    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.

    Yes, well, I’ve ranted about that before too, haven’t I?

    although it’s not clear what Gabriel’s reasoning is

    He’s furious at Rase’s supposed “type” and taking it out on Rase. He apologizes later.

    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.

    There’s not much I can say to/about this except to say that it’s not like that. If you’re not part of the community, if you’re not BDSM-IDed, anything I say is going to sound like excuses and part of an abuse culture that just isn’t there. Here’s the thing about marks: in BDSM, if that’s your thing and it’s pre-negotiated, marks are a coveted sign of caring and a loving relationship. Marks are sought after and enjoyed and admired. I know people who do any number of things that leave marks, precisely BECAUSE they leave marks: caning, cuttings, needles, blood play of many types, single-tail whips, biting, finger nails, branding. But then I also know many people, both BDSM and not, who have permanent tattoos and piercings. I have five tattoos and mumble piercings. Why is that not unacceptable? There’s full consent on both sides after all. Does the exchange of money for the permanent mark make it okay? Is the fact that no one’s getting off on it what makes it okay? What about the person I know who orgasmed during her tramp stamp, but is not BDSM IDed? Why do Rase’s marks make the whole relationship that much more difficult to handle?

    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”.

    No. Just no. Rase’s idiocy over condom usage is because of the fact that this is the scene in which he is overcoming all his heteronormative, vanilla socialization. He doesn’t use condoms for the same reason that evangelical teenagers don’t use condoms: because to stop for them would break the moment and they’d have to admit to what they’re doing. If Rase stopped, he’d have to stop stop and never go back. Remember, he’s ready to commit suicide when he goes to Gabriel the first time. It’s either go to Gabriel to see what happens or open his gun safe. But he’s still overcoming everything that got him to the point in life where he’s in so much psychic pain that he’s contemplating suicide. Rase’s “careless disgreard fo rhis own worth and life” has already happened. It’s getting through this situation, admitting WHO he is, that makes him able to continue living.

    Okay, I gotta stop there and go to bed. Be back in the morning.

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  20. Yeah, this makes this sort of objection similar to objection to titillating rape in romance. I admit I tend to lap them up like a kitten with milk, but the other side is that throughout history minority sexual practices and orientations have been deemed pathological, immoral, etc., and in casting some forms of BDSM, even when consensual, as morally problematic, folks like me are contributing to a tradition of oppression and persecution, the very opposite of what feminist left liberals are supposed to be all about.

    Were you saying that you lap up the objections, or were you saying that rape in romance is titillating and you lap it up? If it’s the latter, then in real life it wouldn’t be legal (at least, not in the US, UK, and most/all of the other countries your commenters come from, so I’m not sure that makes it a good comparison with BDSM, since BDSM might well be legal (depending on the form and the jurisdiction) outside fiction whereas rape isn’t.

    Maybe, though, you were saying that you lap up the objections to rape in romances, but then have doubts about doing so in relation to BDSM in romances because it’s a “minority sexual practice.” Just out of interest, could rape be classified as a “minority sexual practice”? Or is it sadly so common that it’s not? But if fewer than 50% of all humans rape, doesn’t that statistically make it a “minority sexual practice”?

    In any case, I don’t see why “feminist left liberals” should be uncritically accepting of everything that minority groups want to do, whether in fiction or in real life. There are, for example, right-wing, racist groups who argue that they’re oppressed, and there are paedophile groups who think they’re oppressed, but I don’t see why the size of the group and its feelings of oppression should automatically make “feminist left liberals” feel sympathetic. I think “feminist left liberals” would be better off making judgements about the morality of issues on the basis of rational considerations of the morality etc, rather than on the basis of a feeling that all minorities must be supported just because they’re minorities.

    Again, I’m not sure exactly what you were trying to say, so I’m really just providing a counter-argument to what you might have meant, not necessarily to what you really meant.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve tended to find rape in romances a lot more problematic than the very little BDSM I’ve read in romance because within the context of the novels there isn’t consent (the “forced seduction” scenario gets more complicated). It isn’t explicitly set up as role-playing, for example.

    I also think that a lot of romances which aren’t BDSM nonetheless present women as sexually submissive, and submissive in other areas of life too. In many ways, it seems that power imbalances are seen as normal in relationships between men and women, and fights for power in the relationship are generally felt to be sexy within the genre (can she tame him? can he teach her about her sexuality? does she need/gain the protection of a man?). Truly “vanilla” romances in which there is equality in all aspects of the relationship and no power-plays at any time seem to be extremely rare.

    Perhaps the rape romances, and the romances-in-which-the-hero-is-dominant-and-the-heroine-is-submissive-but-not-in-a-BDSM-way, are more morally questionable for “feminist left liberals” because they could be read as presenting certain ideals of masculine and feminine behaviour as natural and normative, whereas in a BDSM romance there’s likely to be a sense that individuals explicitly consent, and that they negotiate these issues on a person-by-person basis.

    In real life, things get more complicated, because elements of BDSM can be used (e.g. in advertising) to reinforce pre-existing ideas about gender e.g. if women are presented either as “bad girl” dominatrixes or sex-object submissives it could be read as giving all sexual women a choice between being naughty (because slightly transgressive) objects of the male gaze and being passive objects of the male gaze and masculine desire.

    In addition, since we at times seem to be moving backwards and forwards between discussing real and fictional BDSM, I just wanted to note that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to completely disentangle fiction from reality, but I think we’re all aware that there are differences between them, and I think there are also differences between what happens in the privacy of someone’s home between consenting adults and what happens in public and affects other people and social attitudes, though again there can be cross-overs between the two (e.g. the state is involved in registering births, which, despite IVF etc, are still mostly the result of private sexual activity).

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  21. Okay, once more unto the breech…

    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

    This is fascinating to me, because isn’t this what romance fiction is all about? This is why I think D/s romances do so much better than SM romances, or at least resonate with so many more readers. Joey Hill can draw readers in to her D/s worlds because romance is always already about D/s, about seduction and changing/contravening/coming up with new value systems through the relationship with the beloved. Of course, McGinn gets into this with the seduction thing, but I think, yes, he’s right, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, done right. Because all romance, fictional and real, is about losing a part of yourself to gain another good.

    Oh, and using Sade is the same as using Story of O=obviously unrealistic. Pure fantasy in fiction is very different from what people do IRL. IMO.

    As for your quote…well, yes. But when you’re a service submissive and/or a masochist (and Rase is both), then that’s what you think. But you’re made more by being made less. Because the dom/top can’t get what s/he needs without you, anymore than you can without them. It’s all about the relationship, as it is in vanilla romance.

    the ratio of female masochists to male is 20:1

    ORLY now? I don’t think any femdom I know would agree with that. :) I think it’s all about who is more outspoken about what it is that they do.

    And I’m really not interested in Benjamin. She’s just wrong. As is most (all) of psychoanalysis, IMO. But that’s me. In fact, I love most of what you say about the mental health community, DSM IV, etc. Although the question of whether Rase’s needs are mentally healthy–what about Gabriel’s needs (because they’re just as much needs as Rase’s are, and I think Crow does a good job of showing that, IMO) and what about Rase’s suicidal tendencies because his needs aren’t getting met? Is that more or less unhealthy? And I think we all know the answer to that question.

    At any rate, consent is an important part of the picture, but it cannot be the whole story.

    I think this is where we part ways. I think consent is the be-all and end-all. Yes, it gets sticky (harhar) at times (age? mental health? extremity of act?) but it all comes down to consent of both parties. Because what else does it come down to, for me. And I can’t imagine what ELSE it would come down to.

    And I’m not 100% behind you on the naturalistic thing, either. Because why else would homosexuality/BDSM identity be acceptable? I get what you’re saying, but I think naturalism has to come into it somewhere. It wouldn’t be an issue if people didn’t feel that way naturally, right? And yes, pedophilia, but that’s the informed consent part of the equation. Sigh. It’s so much easier when things are black and white! :)

    you could argue that people engaged in BDSM are in fact direct and present, not playing, but revealing their real selves.

    Um, yes. Exactly.

    And now the crux of the issue:

    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 that’s not what fully BDSM-IDed folk are about. It’s not a thrill, not and edge, not temporary. It is necessary. It is required. If you’re not actually doing it IRL, you’re doing it in your head while having sex b/c sex isn’t fun without it. It’s not titillation or an occasional spice. It is an identity, a being, a subjectivity that is unexplainable in its origins. It just is.

    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.

    But why not? If both consent, what’s wrong with it?

    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.

    Rase is already self-negated. You get to this later, but if it weren’t for the BDSM he does with Gabriel, he would kill himself, because he can’t take the lies and the psychic pain anymore. Most people who self-identify as BDSM-IDed could not imagine being in a vanilla relationship, just as most heterosexuals could not imagine being in a homosexual relationship. Because you’re just not attracted that way, not wired like that.

    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.

    Well, yes. Exactly. Rase is his true self–and Gabriel his true self, let’s not forget about him–when engaged in a BDSM relationship, and NOT when not. Rase has been a tool of heteronormativity and vanilla-normativity his whole life and it’s killing him. Gabriel is much more a fully-realized human being than Rase, despite their respective social positions, because he accepts that he needs violent sex with a consenting partner. And really, what’s wrong with that–consent being paramount, of course.

    The only unrealistic thing about this book is the lack of previous conversation/communication/negotiation about what it is they’re going to do. Because the BDSM-IDed people I know, they will negotiate a scene to death, because they know that this is what makes their practice ethical and moral. But Rase can’t do that, because to talk about it would be to make it real. Once he verbalizes it, though, he and Gabriel do talk, do negotiate, although in a coded way. Everything else–the feelings, emotions, drive, need–everything else, Crow gets absolutely spot on.

    I’d be fascinated to see what you have to say about Dahl’s short story. It’s cute and fun and hott! and does a better job, perhaps of getting at the why of BDSM-IDed people by showing that there isn’t a why, without the distraction of the extreme violence.

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  22. I’ve been watching the thread and I’ve not seen something mentioned except as framed in this way:

    On the other hand, we voluntarily endure pain to gain other goods all the time — ear piercings, childbirth, marathon running, vaccinations, relationships, etc. Why not view masochism this way?

    Except that masochism isn’t a pain endured to gain other goods, I’d argue — well, not entirely. Sometimes the pain itself is one of the ‘good’ to be gained.

    When I was in a competitive sport, it was one so viciously hard on the body that I met women who said natural childbirth (!!!) was easier than an eight-minute race. You’re asking so much of your body that by 1000 meters in, the physical effects are that you’re basically starving your body of oxygen, because you just can’t pull in enough for what your body needs. By the sprint, most bodies, even in top shape, have begun eating their own muscles just to have the energy to keep going. Layman’s version of the result: you finish and you’re 98% lactic acid, or whatever it is in your muscles that’s left when you’ve ripped through everything. It’s pain, lots and lots and lots of pain, but for many rowers, the pain itself is part of the pleasure, though most wouldn’t quite put it that way. (Mostly they ignore the pain, or pretend to.)

    Yet we had a coach who used to say, “if it hurts, you’re doing it right.” Hear that enough and the message eventually becomes innate: the pain is a good thing. Add in the coxswain who’s talking you through it all, and you have a classic dominant-submissive kind of setup: the cox/Dom is running things, and the rower/sub puts in everything they can and at the end the pain/pleasure is capped by hearing the cox praise you for everything you’ve done. And, too, the cox’s pleasure (often measured by ‘winning’ or at least ‘doing better than before’) is not solely the cox’s alone; it’s the cox working together with the rowers. Totally a healthy S/m set up, in that no one person gains everything while someone else is just sacrificing. It’s just what they put in — physical versus mental — and what they get out, may be a little different and experienced differently, but the result (joy at doing well) is equally shared.

    I was never much of a runner, but I did cycle as well, and I saw the same patterns there: people running not for a marathon or to get in shape, but simply for the pure pleasure. Or cycling a hundred miles in a day not as training, but just to do it. The difference here is that the masochistic-pain-pleasure combination is self-enforced, maybe akin to a masochist who can get off by striking himself, I suppose… as compared to runners training with a coach biking alongside, talking them through the hard parts — and we’re back to S/m setup of Dom/sub parallels.

    We can accept that there are athletes who, upon injury or whatever, cannot practice their sport, and who feel the lack as acutely as any missing limb. They crave that experience, and grieve for no longer having it. Similar happens at the first discovery, upon realizing they ‘click’ in some way with this physical activity: it becomes almost like an addiction, or like falling in love. Gotta have it, can’t miss a day, gotta have more, sometimes to the point of a private obsession, a new love, something as real and fascinating and necessary as the protag of Uneven feels upon finally admitting/discovering what he wants and then thinking he’s lost all chances to have that ever again.

    That’s all a very long-winded way to say that in that respect, I can totally relate to much of BDSM, because I get the mindset and the longing and the need. It’s also why I know that a reader who looks for the power dynamic to flip as a step in the denouement is a reader who, no offense, does not get this dynamic. Being a rower didn’t mean I saw becoming a coxswain as the culmination of a good team-relationship. When a rower, I didn’t want to be in charge; the ultimate was to be the best rower I could, for my coxswain, not to usurp my cox’s position. IOW, the goal isn’t a power-flip, it’s to perfect the dynamic that already exists.

    Curiously, there are styles in rowing in which a boat has no coxswain — usually ‘coxless pairs’ and ‘coxless fours’. That means the stroke (seat closest to stern) must also be the coxswain for the rest of the boat: someone who is both cox/dom and rower/sub. Talk about being a switch, to do both at once! …Me, I could and did do both, but never at the same time. My brain just didn’t work that way. Heh.

    But, if it helps anyone to frame the conversation in terms of a non-sexual but still near-to-classic S/m relationship, then there you go. (I’ve found it’s the introduction of the sexual that can cause a lot of trip-ups, even if we don’t realize it, when discussing BDSM.)

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  23. Sarah Frantz wrote:

    And I’m not 100% behind you on the naturalistic thing, either. Because why else would homosexuality/BDSM identity be acceptable? I get what you’re saying, but I think naturalism has to come into it somewhere. It wouldn’t be an issue if people didn’t feel that way naturally, right? And yes, pedophilia, but that’s the informed consent part of the equation. Sigh. It’s so much easier when things are black and white!

    But what isn’t natural? The entire naturalistic argument is predicated upon the fact that the opposite exists, that there exists un-nature from which the unnaturals stems. What is that supposed to be? Culture?

    I have never understood this argument on either side because quite frankly the line between what is natural and what is unnatural or cultural is indiscernible at worst and sketchy and vague at best. The acceptabiltiy of an identity or a culture cannot be based upon whether or not it is natural because practically anything can be argued as a “natural” or innate biological based identity. But what does that have to do with anything? Most of human experience is a Gordion knot of variables that cannot be parsed out.

    Like with the difference between male and female homosexuality. Gay men are more likely to say something about how their homosexuality was innate, that they always knew it, that it was natural and there was nothing they could do about it. Whereas Lesbians are more likely to come to realization of same-sex attraction as adults, to consider it a choice rather than as natural, unchangeable trait, like eye color, 9an excellent book came out in the past year by Lisa Diamond called Sexual Fluidity on a ten year study she did of self-identified lesbians) but this difference has caused a lot of issues.

    My point is that if you are a lesbian and you consider your lesbianism a choice more than an unchangeable part of your nature, why shouldn’t that choice be acceptable? There has to be some other reason besides nature that makes sexual identity, whatever it is, acceptable or not acceptable. I think it comes down to trying to understand what the basic principle behind labelling certain sexualities as sicknesses or intolerable practices is. Pedophilia cannot just be wrong because it is unnatural. The immorality of it has to be based in some sort of reasonable argument that can be translated into laws and social dictates.

    I’m not saying that innate identity doesn’t exist or that some things are just inexplicable but the question of what is natural or innate is not the same question as what is moral or acceptable. Because of this, I do think that the acceptability of a practice, sexual or otherwise is determined more by ethicial questions about basic human rights and the individual vs. the community.

    I guess what concerns me is this: if I choose, rather than am, is my choice to engage in something like BDSM or homosexuality less meaningful because I do not identify myself naturally as such? And if it is not a natural inclination does that then mean that my behavior or actions are unacceptable? To put it another way: is my sexuality only acceptable if is innate and not a choice?

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  24. Oh, nice points, Angela. Very well said.

    I guess I’m coming at it from the “BDSM needs explanation” end of the spectrum. Jessica and another commenter both read Uneven hoping to be enlightened as to WHY someone might be into BDSM this extreme, but the answer to that is, well, because that’s who Rase and Gabriel are, it’s innate and unexplainable. It’s not a childhood trauma or an unloving mother or a bad previous relationship. It just is and they just are. Naturally. Innately.

    But that absolutely doesn’t mean that they’re more or less acceptable or real than someone (like Jacob in Hill’s Vampire Queen series) who does it, not because they’re drawn to it themselves, but because their partners are. Or who do it just to see what it’s like. Their relationship is not more or less meaningful than if they choose to do it. So the answer to your last question is “No, of course not,” IMO, but the “choice” issue is a big one for gay men, after all: it’s not a lifestyle “choice,” it’s an identity.

    Identity politics vs. moral and ethical considerations. Which one “wins”? :)

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  25. Laura Vivanco wrote:

    Were you saying that you lap up the objections, or were you saying that rape in romance is titillating and you lap it up?

    The former!

    Maybe, though, you were saying that you lap up the objections to rape in romances, but then have doubts about doing so in relation to BDSM in romances because it’s a “minority sexual practice.”

    Exactly. Although I am only opposed to rape in romance when it is used to titillate the reader.

    Just out of interest, could rape be classified as a “minority sexual practice”? Or is it sadly so common that it’s not? But if fewer than 50% of all humans rape, doesn’t that statistically make it a “minority sexual practice”?

    Not if by “practice” we mean “legitimate”. Because there is no consent. But by “minority” we don’t always mean numbers, but rather power differentials.

    In any case, I don’t see why “feminist left liberals” should be uncritically accepting of everything that minority groups want to do, whether in fiction or in real life.

    This is my view, also.

    I also think that a lot of romances which aren’t BDSM nonetheless present women as sexually submissive, and submissive in other areas of life too. In many ways, it seems that power imbalances are seen as normal in relationships between men and women, and fights for power in the relationship are generally felt to be sexy within the genre (can she tame him? can he teach her about her sexuality? does she need/gain the protection of a man?).

    Yes, and this would make BDSM in which female are s.m problematic in unique ways. Not every exchange of power is politically significant for every culture.

    Perhaps the rape romances, and the romances-in-which-the-hero-is-dominant-and-the-heroine-is-submissive-but-not-in-a-BDSM-way, are more morally questionable for “feminist left liberals” because they could be read as presenting certain ideals of masculine and feminine behaviour as natural and normative, whereas in a BDSM romance there’s likely to be a sense that individuals explicitly consent, and that they negotiate these issues on a person-by-person basis.

    This is true, for me anyway.

    In addition, since we at times seem to be moving backwards and forwards between discussing real and fictional BDSM, I just wanted to note that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to completely disentangle fiction from reality, but I think we’re all aware that there are differences between them, and I think there are also differences between what happens in the privacy of someone’s home between consenting adults and what happens in public and affects other people and social attitudes, though again there can be cross-overs between the two (e.g. the state is involved in registering births, which, despite IVF etc, are still mostly the result of private sexual activity).

    Right, but BDSM culture is public, the clothes, the marks, the often public parties and groups activities. It may be a subcutlure hidden to some others, but it is very public, and traces of BDSM are everywhere in mainstream media.

    As for the line between fiction and reality, I know it is there and I keep crossing it in the post. While I do think there are morally bad fantasies — fantasies one can be blamed for just for having, such as mutilating another person or raping a child — it’s clear that a lot more is acceptable in fiction than in reality. I can root for Mad Max ot avenge his wife and child’s murders in the most gruesome way possible, and get off, emotionally, when he does so, but in real life I would find his vengeance morally and legally out of bounds.

    Sarah Frantz wrote:

    in BDSM, if that’s your thing and it’s pre-negotiated, marks are a coveted sign of caring and a loving relationship. Marks are sought after and enjoyed and admired. I know people who do any number of things that leave marks, precisely BECAUSE they leave marks: caning, cuttings, needles, blood play of many types, single-tail whips, biting, finger nails, branding. But then I also know many people, both BDSM and not, who have permanent tattoos and piercings. I have five tattoos and mumble piercings. Why is that not unacceptable? There’s full consent on both sides after all. Does the exchange of money for the permanent mark make it okay? Is the fact that no one’s getting off on it what makes it okay? What about the person I know who orgasmed during her tramp stamp, but is not BDSM IDed? Why do Rase’s marks make the whole relationship that much more difficult to handle?

    Thanks so much Sarah for your helpful and illuminating comments.

    Obviously, any kind of vigorous sex can leave physical manifestations, hickeys, bruises, genital soreness, etc. But they aren’t deliberately left in non-BDSM sexual practice. The tattoo example doesn’t bother me because there isn’t the intent to inflict pain bound up with love for the receiver. The money is not what makes it ok. It;s that the relationship is different.

    I want to say the issues with Rase is extent and frequency of injuries, but then I have a hard time with the boxer or professional fighter of any kind. Presumably consent is enough to make boxing morally ok, so why not BDSM? The central difference between boxing and Uneven is that the injuries occur in the context of a sexual relationship, and also that the boxer doesn’t want to get hurt the way a masochist does. Which makes me … a prude? Probably.

    .

    Sarah Frantz wrote:

    The only unrealistic thing about this book is the lack of previous conversation/communication/negotiation about what it is they’re going to do.

    This is a good example of the difference between fantasy and reality. Totally acceptable as part of this fantasy narrative. Would never be acceptable, unless between two telepaths, in RL!

    kaigou wrote:

    But, if it helps anyone to frame the conversation in terms of a non-sexual but still near-to-classic S/m relationship, then there you go. (I’ve found it’s the introduction of the sexual that can cause a lot of trip-ups, even if we don’t realize it, when discussing BDSM.)

    Yes, exactly. Great analogy to sport!

    Angela wrote:

    I’m not saying that innate identity doesn’t exist or that some things are just inexplicable but the question of what is natural or innate is not the same question as what is moral or acceptable. Because of this, I do think that the acceptability of a practice, sexual or otherwise is determined more by ethicial questions about basic human rights and the individual vs. the community.

    I agree with this. I get very suspicious at where the research dollars go: i.e. is there a “gay brain”? Sex difference research in neurology. A lot of political and problematic.

    Wow, great comments. I am so grateful for all of them!

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  26. For like the 50th time I am going to recommend Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, which doesn’t cover BDSM, but is a very interesting study on how physical pain exceeds representation and language (can you hear Deconstruction calling?). And it seems to me that the whole notion of sex as something that ideally engages the experience of pleasure beyond language may help some understand that the experience of pain can manifest a similar effect.

    What strikes me from all the comments, however, is that I still see significant differences between, for example, rape in Romance, sports, and BDSM. For example, in the rape example, there are different uses of rape in the genre. There is the classic rape as sexual fantasy use, the villain rape, the hero rape that is not a sexual fantasy set up, etc. Whereas in BDSM, I don’t get the impression that such a range of its use in Romance exists. Although I can certainly see similar arguments from readers who believe that either or both are being used in particular circumstances “irresponsibly” — that is, for the purposes of sensation and not thoughtfully or knowledgeably.

    As for the sports analogy, the way the athlete is often conditioned to embrace the pain by someone who is pushing from the outside does not seem to conform to the BDSM experience of “pain for its own sake,” for me, either. In fact, I find that whole “no pain, no gain” thing kind of disturbing, and there are many physical therapists and trainers who argue very vigorously against its effectiveness, let alone its wisdom. But even if I were to embrace that idea, there still seems to be a conditioning element there that problematizes rather than clarifies the logic of the BDSM identification, at least for me.

    I’d also be interested in knowing from those who have a lot of knowledge about the BDSM community whether there are any concerns about “going too far” or questions around whether the enjoyment of pain is always a natural urge or a healthy choice for people, or whether there is ever a differentiation made between the idea of “healthy” or “unhealthy” BDSM. And I realize that it’s difficult to articulate that question without sounding like there’s an implicit judgment there, but really I’m not interested i that. I’m more wondering whether, in the same way there are women, for example, who may express a low sense of self-worth through, say, engaging in unprotected, indiscriminate sex, there are practitioners of BDSM who are not making a positive/healthy choice for themselves.

    In other words, are there ethical or psychological questions addressed within the BDSM community about the identification or practice or not. And I know that there are often analogies made to being gay in answer, but gay sex is not really analogous because its practice is not based in pain anymore than heterosexual sex is (i.e. there may be pain involved in certain circumstances, but it’s not an end in itself). Which probably means that I am trying at some level to distinguish between being BDSM-identified and the practice of BDSM sex, if that’s possible.

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  27. “whether there are any concerns about “going too far” or questions around whether the enjoyment of pain is always a natural urge or a healthy choice for people, or whether there is ever a differentiation made between the idea of “healthy” or “unhealthy” BDSM.”

    God yes! The BDSM forums and communities are rife with arguments and people exercising value judgements, and being slapped down for not being accepting enough. As I mentioned in a comment above, 24/7 D/s relationships pose a problem for many (with many questioning how healthy it is) Plenty of practitioners are squicked out by things they’ve seen, and more than happy to criticise.

    “there are practitioners of BDSM who are not making a positive/healthy choice for themselves. ”

    Exploiting, abusive doms and exploited, abuse subs are sadly not uncommon – just as exploiting and exploitive vanilla partners are not. There are victims of physical and sexual abuse who turn to BDSM for answers and end up fucked up even worse – a problem the community discusses a lot. There are also victims of abuse who find BDSM makes them stronger and gives them a way of coping with their mental agonies, so you can’t say victims of abuse shoudl not engage in BDSM any more than you can say that they are the only people who are into BDSM.

    I know people into BDSM who are as crazy and mentally unhealthy as you can possibly imagine, and people into it (like a certain Saraf :) ) who are completely sane and balanced. The kink is part of who they are, and if the who they are is unhealthy, then the kink will play into that.

    On the ‘no pain, no gain’ thing – any form of hard physical exercise involves a certain amount of unpleasantness (exhaustion, sweat, etc). Yet the pay off is the endorphin release afterwards (and the satisfaction of winning against an opponent or your own limits). In that respect BDSM is not so different. The ‘pain’ in BDSM does not have to be extreme – in fact, it’s usually *not*. It’s very much more about the mental space and place, the liberation of surrendering control, and testing one’s own limits. Suspense, surprise, restraint are all effective and often all that’s involved. Someone can be flogged with a flogger which can deliver a thud or a sting – but it doesn’t leave a mark or bruises. The mindfuck aspect is something not really discussed above, and while it’s not unusual for outsiders to focus on the ‘euuuw’ aspect of it, that part of it is not actually the largest part of what BDSM involves.

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    • The mindfuck aspect is something not really discussed above, and while it’s not unusual for outsiders to focus on the ‘euuuw’ aspect of it, that part of it is not actually the largest part of what BDSM involves.

      Ann — I deliberately did not, because, Sarah had said in her DA review that what made this book so significant was its foregrounding of s/m rather than D/s. Also, it’s easier for me to understand the D/s aspect, for the reasons you mention (actually, because of my prolonged exposure to existentialism and phenomenology) than the s/m aspect, so I’m not as inclined to raise questions about it.

      Robin –I will read Scarry!

      I agree the “pain for pain’s sake” makes BDSM different from sports, for example, where pain is a consequence participants would rather avoid. Also, s/m is not about “mere pain” (your deconstruction point). I mean, accidentally falling off the bed and jarring your elbow during an s/m encounter would seem to me to be different from being handcuffed and having your elbows hurt that way. It;s the latter that “counts” although both may hurt the same. It’s really not pain for pain’s sake, but pain as part of the play.

      I am glad you asked the question about “going too far” and I’m glad Ann answered it. I would be very suspicious if there were no possible way to violate ethical norms in a community, although sometimes I feel that the romance community itself is like that: that there is nothing in erotic romance or romance per se, with the one interesting and glaring exception of pedophilia, that can be written, published, or read that could possibly do anything besides liberate everyone and make the world a better place. But that’s a subject for another post!

      I also tend to want to distinguish BDSM identified with mere practitioners in a kink. I would think there is a spectrum, although it may not be relevant to ethical questions I have raised about the limits of consent and whether there are things one must not ask and must not do.

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  28. @ Robin:

    I’d also be interested in knowing from those who have a lot of knowledge about the BDSM community whether there are any concerns about “going too far” or questions around whether the enjoyment of pain is always a natural urge or a healthy choice for people, or whether there is ever a differentiation made between the idea of “healthy” or “unhealthy” BDSM.

    As Ann says, absolutely! All the time. In fact, there’s an acronym: YKINMK=Your Kink Is Not My Kink. Both an expression of, “OMG, *why* does that turn you on?!” and “I guess I have to accept that it does and that you know what you’re doing.” But with a healthy dose of “Are you sure that’s healthy?” tempered by, again, “I guess you know what you’re doing.”

    But yes, there’s a lot of checking and rechecking, and I have to say that that parties I’ve gone to are some of the safest places in the world. You ask permission (of someone) to touch, even on the level of a hug or a handshake. You are very aware of personal space and individual choice. You don’t make judgements but are always there to check on people and their health and safety. There’s dungeon masters who don’t play at all, but just supervise. No one drinks. No drugs.

    Which probably means that I am trying at some level to distinguish between being BDSM-identified and the practice of BDSM sex, if that’s possible.

    Yes, again. Totally possible to be BDSM-IDed and not practice BDSM sex, as it is possible to be the other way around. However, there’s not so much discussion in the community yet of actual sexual identification, rather than sexual activity. Almost all books out there are How To books, rather than What Does It Mean books. But most websites, dom or sub, are explorations of what it means to be BDSM IDed. That just hasn’t transferred yet to print books (huh–hadn’t really noticed that before).

    Anyway….cool discussion!

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  29. Pingback: Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary » Blog Archive » REVIEW: White Flag by Thom Lane

  30. Thanks Dr. Sarah for explaining the “they just are” thing. I get it much better now.

    It’s just not my cup of tea.

    Nevertheless, if I hadn’t read Uneven and participated in discussions such as the one above I probably wouldn’t know that.

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  31. @ Kaetrin:
    You’re more than welcome, Kaetrin. I’m glad I could do my little bit in attempting to explain. Open-minded knowledge-seeking is always a good thing, which is why I love this post of Jessica’s. The foundation of “Your kink is not my kink” is open acceptance. What turns you on doesn’t turn me on, but that’s okay and I will not condemn you for what it is that does turn you on, even if I don’t *get* it (informed consent implied in all of that, of course). If we had more of that in this world, it would be a much better place.

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  32. Wow, excellent discussion! I haven’t readUneven, but I am glad to know it exists. I remember SarahF saying that Dahl’s novella got the emotions right, and I had to agree b/c I found it very moving, even though I’m not into BDSM practice at all. Clearly the protagonists were, and once you accepted that, the connection they made and the joy that brought were involving and powerful.

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  33. Great post/ great discussion. Rather than travel over ground already very well covered here re the points you directly posted about I’ll offer some brief thoughts on BDSM and romance reading generally.

    Y’see what I find fascinating is the echoes of BDSM that you find in regular romance. I’ve referred to this in the past as BDSM-lite in reviews I’ve done of Nalini Singh and Sarah McCarthy books, but actually it’s an observation that is much much wider and can be found right across the genre. The sex might be vanilla but it’s often peppered with very deliberate references to begging and submissiveness; heroes who demand verbal capitulations (say my name, tell me you want me etc). I think there could well be quite a lot of readers who wouldn’t dream of buying a BDSM book but who are living out those fantasies through romance.

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  34. The sex might be vanilla but it’s often peppered with very deliberate references to begging and submissiveness; heroes who demand verbal capitulations (say my name, tell me you want me etc). I think there could well be quite a lot of readers who wouldn’t dream of buying a BDSM book but who are living out those fantasies through romance.

    I’ve just come across a post I think might interest you, on just this topic. It was written by Charlotte Lamb’s daughter, about some of her mother’s novels:

    Someone once left a comment on this blog criticising some of Charlotte Lamb’s early books as sadistic and unpleasant. I thought at the time that this critique was unfair. I am no longer quite so sure. However, that is not to say that I disapprove of these darker Lamb stories, or feel they ought not to have been written. They were immensely popular at the time of publication, and still make dynamic reading. Which suggests that they answered some kind of need in the mind of the reader

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  35. This was a fantastic blog post, and one of the most academically interesting (and readable) pieces of writing I’ve seen in a very long time. There’s quite a lot here and I’ll admit to being more than a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of academic language that I’m unsure I’ve understood everything or that I can respond in a meaningful way. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed the read and will be chewing on this for a while. Thank you.

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  36. @ Tumperkin:
    Yes, I agree, absolutely. something Sarah F said over at the DA post was that shades of D/s are very prevalent in mainstream het romance, but s/m less so.

    @ SonomaLass:
    I may just have ot pick that Dahl up, although the other contemp I read of hers was just ok for me. I plan to read a historical by her.

    Tumperkin wrote:

    Jessica – the book that Laura’s link refers to is one of the ones I sent you….

    Yes, I got two Lamb’s. already on the first page of one I am ready to explode. You are trying to kill me!

    @ maymay:
    I am glad. I am trying to figure things out, and getting a lot of patient help!

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