Redefining BDSM Romance

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Romance sub-genres, and the BDSM sub-genre in particular. I’ve read several fantastic novels in the last few months that are categorized by publishers and booksellers as BDSM, but I’m starting to realize that the term is not one-size-fits-all when it comes to romance novels.

So I’m going to ramble on for a bit about how I define BDSM romances. Possibly this is something that no one else will care about. Possibly many people will tell me that I’m wrong. Maybe someone else will agree with me. But this is a topic that matters to me, and affects how I read and process romance novels, so I really want to get my thoughts out.

I actually think there are two different types of BDSM Romance, and that simply calling a novel “BDSM” is like calling a Regency romance “Historical”; it’s accurate, but not precise. When I read a BDSM novel, I mentally sort it into what I call either “romanticized” or “realistic”. I want to say right off the bat that by using those terms, I’m not implying that one is more authentic than the other, simply that there’s a different method of portrayal and that is how I, personally, classify them.

[Quick note: BDSM for me covers several areas… bondage, discipline, dominance/submission, sadomasochism, and more, all with an inherent power dynamic and emotional component. This is separate from kink, and novels with kinky sex, which I’m not going to cover here. If you’re interested in understanding the difference between kink and BDSM, you should check out this article on Heroes and Heartbreakers.]

roses-and-leatherRomanticized BDSM is by far the most popular from what I’ve seen. I use this term because it’s basically a romantic idealization of BDSM. People are beautiful, all of the men have six packs and the women are innocent and naive. (Or the women are sultry and wearing leather boots, wielding a whip!) For the most part, sex involves leather cuffs and light floggings, kinks that fit into socially acceptable levels of deviance. The emotions are clean, easily resolved, or just angsty enough to provide more sexual tension without deviating too far from the romance.

And like I said, this is what most readers want. It offers a glimpse into the world of BDSM, and a hint of the emotional power dynamic involved, but without having to delve too deeply. It’s also a great way to bring more awareness to BDSM, and to erase any negative connotations.

For me, this is BDSM 101. It includes all or some of the fundamental aspects of what BDSM is, including power dynamics, bondage, discipline, and sado-masochism, but none of the realism. I like the term “Romanticized BDSM”, though, because it is for the BDSM world what romance novels are to actual relationships; no one really expects to encounter a relationship like this, but many dream about it, fantasize, and enjoy the escape these novels provide.

But on the other hand, it can also be damaging, both to the reader and to the BDSM community. My friend Daniela at Books To Get Lost In said it best:

Everything always happens exactly the way it’s supposed to be, everyone likes everything and both partners can read minds. Who needs to plan anything or check limits? A lot of authors tend to forget that humans don’t work like this. Just because you know how your characters think doesn’t mean that they are able to know exactly what’s going on in their partner’s mind.
This doesn’t mean that I think those shouldn’t be written or read, but a little bit of research maybe? I can’t enjoy a scene if I start analyzing everything… and I’m always thinking of naive readers who think that that’s the way it’s supposed to be and try it and the outcome isn’t that enjoyable if anything goes wrong.

winters-purely-professional(I’ll admit that I don’t read many books that fall into this category, but people recommend them to me all the time. I’ve spent more than seven years in and out of the BDSM community, so I tend to struggle with “romanticized” BDSM, because I’m constantly comparing it to my own experiences.)

Purely Professional by Elia Winters (M/F) is one of the first books in this category that comes to my mind, because of the attention it received over the last year. It was RITA award finalist, and the author took the time in her novel to explain what BDSM actually means, discussing the tenants of safe, sane, and consensual (SSC) and showing Bridget’s struggle with being dominant in the outside world and submissive in the bedroom. But despite that, it’s a very sanitized version of BDSM. It’s romantic, and sexy, and seductive.

gray-say-yesOne that I’ve read recently and really loved is J.R. Gray’s Say Yes (M/M). It’s a shorter novella, but incredibly hot, and the focus is really on consent and between Charles, an older businessman, and James, a college student who knows exactly what he wants, but isn’t quite ready to give in to that desire. There are discussions of power exchange, but the focus is more on the characters and the sexual attraction, and less on the psychological reason behind James’ need to submit and Charles’ desire to dominate.

On the opposite end of the genre is what I call “Realistic” BDSM. To continue the previous metaphor, this would be BDSM 401, Senior Level Seminar. It’s often dirty (and I don’t necessarily mean that in a sexual way), the characters resemble real people, and there’s a clear, demonstrated exchange of wants and needs between the characters; a deep level of the psychological. There’s also generally a lot more RACK play (risk-aware consensual kink, or play that is accepted as having greater potential for negative consequences.)

Side-note: This post almost devolved into a discussion of SSC vs. RACK, which are often at odds in the BDSM community. The former implies, for many people, that the only play that should be engaged in is safe and sane. The latter states an understanding that play can be dangerous, and there is an acceptable risk to be aware of. Both center around consent. I think my categorizations of “romanticized” and “realistic” could be read as “SSC” and “RACK”, respectively, although that’s not intended… instead, I think they overlap, but are still two distinctive sides to BDSM.

Rock-The-Subs-ClubI recently finished J.A. Rock’s The Sub’s Club (M/M), which is about four friends reeling from the loss of their fifth after a BDSM scene goes wrong. David, the narrator, shows an unflinching portrayal of the trust and respect that make up a BDSM relationship. J.A. even touches on the way subs/bottoms are treated in online fetish communities, which is a first for me in this genre! There are other kinks that may not appeal to all readers– enema fetishes and humiliation, for example– but what makes this “realistic” is that it accurately reflects the BDSM experience and a realistic romance, in as much as a fictional novel can.

ripper-catalystsAnother example of this is in the Scientific Methods Universe, by Kris Ripper (M/M, M/F). The first book, Catalysts, is very heavy on the psychology behind BDSM. In fact, the two main characters don’t even have sex until well into their relationship, focusing instead on the emotional needs of both characters and the catharsis they both receive as a result. One of my favorite things about Kris is something ze wrote in zir profile: “I write to see my world on the page.” I think that accurately summarizes the “realistic” BDSM novel for me.

But I’m definitely not saying that Realistic BDSM is in any way better! In fact, I think the vast majority of romance readers find it to be too much at best, distasteful at worst. It’s not pretty, and the romance is often eclipsed by the mental processes and emotional catharses of the characters. They’re still romances, but they don’t allow for the level of escapism and fantasy that most readers want.

Personally, the books that I tend to love the most are the ones that straddle the line between Romantic and Realistic. These are the books that show a detailed power exchange, or which include beautiful emotional vulnerabilities, but which leave a shine on the top that says, This is still fiction. This is a romance novel. I can read it knowing it’s not realistic, but that there are aspects of realism in it.

Zabo-JustBusiness

Anna Zabo’s Takeover and Just Business (both M/M) are prime examples of this. In Just Business, which came out earlier this year, there are two damaged men who struggle to come to terms with their desires and the urges they feel. A Dom wonders if he’s a monster for wanting to hurt people, and a sub wrestles with the desire to trust and submit while still maintaining his own individuality and independence. But it’s still very much a romance; the focus is equally on the (handsome, brilliant) characters and the sexual tension between them, along with the psychological aspects of their relationship.

I also think a lot of readers divide BDSM into “light kink” and “hardcore”, or some variation thereof. Much like the SSC/RACK division, I think these descriptions overlap “romanticized” vs “realistic”, but aren’t synonymous. Hall, Alexis - For RealThere are a lot of BDSM romances that are extremely realistic, but which have almost no “hardcore” elements.
One example is For Real by Alexis Hall, which is a stunning look into the relationship and power dynamics between a nineteen year old and a thirty seven year old man. The roles are reversed here, with the younger man dominating the older, but the psychology that Alexis explores is a perfect example of a realistic BDSM relationship, with imperfect characters, a focus on the power exchange… and also a romance that makes your heart melt!

In the end, the two types of BDSM will probably always exist under the same umbrella. Unlike other Romance subgenres, which have been broken down into more detailed categories (fantasy is now also magical realism and urban fantasy… not to be confused with paranormal; contemporary includes cowboys, military, and more), I don’t foresee BDSM being divided even further. For most readers, BDSM is a one-size-fits-all category; any novel with kinky sex is BDSM, and the bulk of readers probably aren’t aware of the different aspects of BDSM anymore so than they’re aware of the difference between Victorian and Regency England settings.

 

I’m going to stop rambling now, but please feel free to drop me a comment and tell me that I’m way off track, or if you have better ways to define (and redefine) BDSM Romance.

And again, these are just my thoughts and my opinions. They are not representative of all BDSM practitioners, and my definitions are not representative of anyone else’s. All cover images used are owned by their respective authors. Header image is via Can Stock Photo, and image of the roses and leather gloves is from Lancome’s photoshoot with Emma Watson, because hello, hot.

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13 thoughts on “Redefining BDSM Romance

  1. We’re having a really excellent conversation about this on a closed Facebook group, so I wanted to add some of my comments from that. For privacy reasons, I’m not posting any of the original comments unless given permission.

    Alexis Hall (author of For Real) wrote:

    I found this really fascinating, El, thank you for sharing with us. I think you’re absolutely right that there’s ‘romanticised’ and ‘realistic’ BDSM – though, err, honestly I hadn’t thought about it in such neutral terms. Although obviously what’s realistic for one reader isn’t going to be realistic to another.

    I think where it gets sticky for me is that for some readers romantic BDSM IS what BDSM should be. Not even just what they prefer reading about (and what you prefer reading about is 100% okay, always!) – but unless your dom is a 7ft billionaire who never has as moment of vulnerability or uncertainty then he isn’t dom enough. And the submissive is this … exquisite trembling non-person. Which is fine for fantasy-land but I dislike the idea that it’s the “default” idea of what kink is.

    Similarly something that troubles me a lot is the way what you might call the “totems” of kink/BDSM can get imported into books without much consideration for how they work or what they mean. Like SSC/RACK BDSM has a safe word and a safe word means it is Safe and Right. But … like I’ve read books where it’s the dom is all like “If you say your safeword that ends the scene, and you go home, and you never see me again, it’s over forever!” And that’s not … err … safe. That’s emotional manipulation, y’know?

    My response:
    There’s so much more that I wanted to talk about, but the post was just getting too long. I do think that the “romanticized” BDSM (or whatever term you might prefer for it) is what most people want to read about. They like their snooty billionaires grin emoticon. But those are people who, for the most part, don’t really understand what BDSM is, which is why I wish there was a way to divide it. It’s like the difference between historical fantasy and historical… one should be grounded in real events, but the other can just use the elements that the author and reader want, with none of the boring/gross realism.

    Oh yeah, a lot of so-called BDSM novels feature some serious emotional manipulation. I usually put those down unfinished, because it makes me seriously uncomfortable.

    I didn’t use “realistic” to imply that it’s the real thing, simply that the story has elements of realism. It might not be real to every BDSM practitioner, but it should be something they recognize as being possible/plausible. Whereas, of course, anyone who doesn’t really understand what BDSM is (besides kinky sex and maybe some leather pants) would find it super unrealistic wink emoticon. So I’m open to changing the terms.

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  2. Responding to a comment about how both types have their place, and how BDSM is different for everyone:

    [Both types] TOTALLY have their place! And I love romanticized BDSM. I read to escape, y’know? I love imagining something other than the world around me. And a lot of romantic BDSM is REALLY fantastically done, where you can tell the author knows exactly what they’re talking about, but just chooses to take the romantic approach.

    I agree that BDSM is different for everyone, which is why I wish there was some division of the term in classifying a novel under that umbrella. If I saw a novel listed as “romantic BDSM” vs “Realistic BDSM” (or whatever term is more appropriate), it would be a lot easier for me to find books that I enjoy.

    As a reader, we go into a book hunt looking for something specific a lot of times. We want something that is challenging the “right” way (as you and Kris said below), or something that’s utterly ridiculous and escapism. So for me at least, as a reader, the idea of browsing the BDSM genre on a booksellers website is a frustrating mess. If a reader wants a book with dukes and viscounts, they go straight to search for Regency. If they want fantasy set in the real world, they go to urban fantasy, not high fantasy. But for someone who likes to read BDSM, there’s no way to break that down and say “I want a lighthearted kinky romp” vs “I want something deeper and more psychological”.

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  3. Another comment from Alexis:

    Something I’m sort of wary of, just on principle, is assuming romanticised-BDSM is for non-kinsters and realistic-BDSM is for people with experience. Even it doesn’t contain one, it feels like it’s the sort of thing some people could read as a value judgement. I mean everything is perspective and context.

    And I mean, Joe W. Hill sometimes employs a kind of magical realism to depict her kink (there’s magic orgasm-forcing chemicals in NATURAL LAW) and yet it’s definitely written about from an experienced perspective.

    My response:

    That’s a big reason why I’m not sure those terms are really good descriptors, although again they’re just the way I, personally, classify things. I do think there’s probably a huge overlap of non-kinksters who prefer romantic-BDSM and kinksters who prefer realistic-BDSM, but it does put a sense of restriction and judgement, like you said. But I know Dommes who have been in the scene for decades and still love smutty romance, and I know people who have never participated in BDSM who love the realistic/hard-core stuff, so…

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  4. Fascinating discussion! I’m definitely one of those readers who is more interested in a romanticized version of BDSM (hard core scenes push my comfort level for sure, though I’ll still read some of them). Of the books you’ve mentioned I’ve read Anna Zabo’s Just Business which I really enjoyed, and Alexis’s For Real (which was so unique and one of my fave books of 2015), Purely Professional (that one was so-so for me, but definitely was very explanatory), while the Joey Hill I tried was difficult for me to get through (and in fact I didn’t finish it).

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    • Glad you enjoyed it! What I love about BDSM is that there’s usually something for everyone, if you dig hard enough. There’s the sweet, sultry side, and the gritty side, and everything in between. I haven’t read the Joey Hill yet, but it seems like a lot of people suggest at least giving it a try, so I definitely plan to.

      One of the discussions I was having was about how BDSM should be sorted… since everyone has such different tastes in BDSM Romance, simply saying “BDSM” doesn’t really cut it. I’m actually about to post that discussion in another comment… but it’d be nice if there was a way for you to find romanticized BDSM and not have to weed out the novels that have scenes you don’t enjoy!

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  5. I was talking to Iben on our FB group, and she had some really great points. With her permission, here is our conversation (Iben’s in blockquote, my responses in plaintext):

    I realized this bdsm’er vs non-bdsm’er was an over simplification, but not really why. Which is why I ike having these sorts of discussions. I can see how it aligns with judgements (although I was thinking more along the lines of what would actually get a person off/keeping them interested in the story and the characters).

    What I was thinking, was that while some realism would be a way of getting more into the story and the characters for some, it would be un-interesting or even off-putting to others. Though what is considered realistic and not will obviously vary from person to person as well.

    It’s possible to go into character psychology without a romantic relationship behind the story. But a great many bdsm’ers I know will prefer a romantic connection. So yeah; in conclusion, you guys are right, and very wise and reflected people smile emoticon

    I think there are BDSM novels, and there are BDSM Romance novels, and those are two different things. BDSM Romances still have the romance factor, the HEA, the relationship. BDSM novels would just be erotica… sex with no romance.

    But I think what you said, about how it varies from person to person, is exactly why the BDSM Romance genre should be broken down further. Because simply labeling a romance novel as BDSM means a reader doesn’t know going in if they’re getting the romanticized version (with the 7-foot Dom) or the realistic version. And while both novels will (I assume, since they’re still romances) have relationships and kissing and HEAs and all that jazz, there will be significantly different approaches to the BDSM elements.

    And I know like you said, calling it “realistic” doesn’t apply for everyone. I’m definitely open to a better term. I say “realistic” though because it’s plausible, and grounded in actual BDSM practices. It’s life-like. But I don’t know what a better descriptor would be.

    What if we could tag books with this kind of information, instead of making sub genres, which may overlap a great deal? If we want to fit novels into either the one or the other, we will get into the whole problem with categorization/dichotomization. My own favourites would be the novels which manage to straddle the two available categories (incidentally how I feel about sexuality and gender in general;-))…

    Book reviewers can totally tag it, but how would that work in the publishing industry? Publishers and booksellers (and even, to an extent, authors) label anything with kink in it as a BDSM Romance, and leave it at that. So as a reader, you have to analyze the blurb, dig through reviews, and hope you find something that narrows the sub-genre down a bit.

    Looking on Amazon under the Romance Kindle section, there isn’t even a section for BDSM. But selecting Historical immediately brings up Ancient World, Medieval, Regency, Scottish, and Victorian as options to narrow down your search. But I finally find BDSM… under Erotica. So that right there tells me that a) major booksellers don’t understand the different types of BDSM on offer (if they automatically jump lump the sub-genre under erotica). And there are more than 50,000 books in the BDSM Erotica section… and only 2,000 in the Ancient World Historical Romance.

    All of this rambling to say that there is, for me at least, a clear need to differentiate between different types of BDSM Romances. What the terms used to specify those, I’m not sure, because my terms are certainly not perfect.

    I really, really agree that this would be helpful for us readers. So, genres of BDSM Romances. I’ll have to think about that, diverse labels is something I will always like wink emoticon

    (I was talking about my very unrealistic wish that pubishers/booksellers would operate on a “search, not sort”-principle. Which is problably not something that appeals or even seems very logical to the majority of ppl out there.)

    Oooh, tell me more about search, not sort? As in, tagging books so readers can search by tags? Or something else. *is intrigued*

    That’s honestly the reason I posted this whole long rambling mess, because I really think the way the romance genre is divided now, especially for BDSM novels (which are totally my favorite, in case people couldn’t tell from the aforementioned long rambling mess), isn’t a great way to help readers find what they’re looking for.

    Well, I’m quoting the gmail motto there (search not sort), lol wink emoticon But by using archive tags/search words that could be combined (like in a library or a blog), publishers and booksellers would make my hunt for books a lot easier, I think. (Like, I’d love to find more BDSM romance novels straddling the romantiziced/realistic containing sexually fluid and/or gender non-comforming MCs. Which would be a very realistic aspect as well for me personally, since almost all kinky/bdsm ppl I know are one or the other, or both. I know I had a spontaneous joygasm (or something like that) when Alexis had someone with the pronoun they in For Real.)

    Also, by logging searches on such tags, you would get a lot more user data on which to base suggestions other than what other ppl have bought. Which is way creepy, but also helpful. It wouldnt have to be either/or, though, you could still browse pages by genres, ofc.

    Maybe there are other ways of finding stuff on the sites, and maybe publishers are better at this than I know, though? I’m certainly no pro in the book industry. I rely a lot on web searches and a few kinky librarians wink emoticon It sounds rather typical that bdsm romance would be bunched in with erotica (I suddenly find myself hoping that someone will write some bdsm with asexual chatacters to fuck with annoying assumptions).

    I definitely wish that was an option. Riptide Publishing has a fantastic search option on their website… you can search by tags, gender, orientation, etc, and narrow things down until you find exactly what you’re looking for. Dreamspinner also lets you search by tags, I think.

    OMG I was just discussing an ace BDSM romance the other day with another blogger friend! YES YES I WANT THIS! I’m honestly tempted to write it (I’m about to start on an m/f ace romance, since I’m ace and have never found a het asexual relationship), so perhaps someday grin emoticon.

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  6. I don’t know which I love more – your post or the comments an answers. It’s such an interesting topic.
    I’m totally for dividing the BDSM genre into subgenres. If I want to read something specific, like a BDSM novel which focusses on the psychological side of it, I’d be lost. Of course I’m lucky you could rec me one. Just finding the BDSM novels in the whole Erotica genre can be hard. Because suddenly everything’s BDSM.
    I really love AO3’s tagging system because you can really search for the things you want to read right now. Something like this in the actual publishing world? it would be perfect.
    Still waiting for my ace BDSM novel. ;D

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    • The commentary from other people is SO GOOD! It makes me excited to see people talking about this. Everyone has such great points, and I love seeing different sides from both authors and readers.

      Did you see that someone else wants an ace BDSM novel as well? Ahhhh, I wish someone would write this! (Not me, because I’m trying to wrap up my NaNo novel and go into the next one, which is an ace romance but not BDSM.)

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  7. Pingback: El’s BDSM Book Recs | Just Love: Romance Novel Reviews

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