Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What's Missing from BDSM Romance?

At February's monthly meeting of the New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America, Tamsen Parker and Teresa Noelle Roberts, two talented members of the chapter, gave a fascinating workshop on "How to Throw a Kink into your Romantic Arc." Focusing not on the whips and chains aspects of kinky romance, but instead on its psychological and emotional aspects, Parker and Roberts talked about what an author who wishes to write kinky characters convincingly needs to know about the world of BDSM and kink, explained some of their pet peeves about erotic romances that portray kink less than convincingly, and explored how to write about specific kinks when you yourself don't find said kink sexy. I don't write kinky romance myself, but I do read it, and I found their presentation both informative and thought-provoking.

From a gender standpoint, one comment that Parker made really stood out for me. Masochism, she noted, can come in two different flavors. Some masochists enjoy pain, and experience it as pleasure: a "a pain slut." Others, however, don't like pain in and of itself, but instead "enjoying taking it for their partner." For this latter type of masochist, pain is painful, not pleasurable. But the pain is worth it, for the pleasure it gives the partner to inflict it, and the pleasure it gives the receiver to offer that pleasure to a partner.

In my own BDSM reading, I've often noticed a difference in the depiction of female submissives and male submissives, and Parker's comment clarified for me just what that difference was. Female submissives in BDSM romances are far more often depicted in the first masochism category, people who enjoy pain, people who take pleasure from the pain itself. In contrast, male submissives more typically fall into the second category, people who "take pain" for the pleasure of a partner. Why?

Submission as strength
At the end of the workshop, I asked Parker about the gendered portrayal of masochism in erotic romance, and whether she thought it accurately reflected real-life BDSM practice. Were actual female masochists more often pain sluts, and male masochists who enjoyed pain in and of itself far less common? Or was this a reflection of historically gendered romance tropes, romance tropes that insisted that men and masculinity be depicted as strong and empowered?

I didn't write down her exact response, but I think that our conclusions were similar: both romance tropes and larger social norms about gender make it not as commercially viable to portray masochistic male characters who enjoy being submissive, who enjoy pain, who enjoy being humiliated. Especially if their Dom is a woman. If an erotic writer wants to appeal to a wider market, aka a market that includes non-kinky readers as well as readers involved in the kink scene or lifestyle, that writer cannot stray too far from the gender expectations of that wider audience. The one bright spot: Parker did say that she thought while a writer who crafted stories with masochistic men of the first type might develop a smaller audience, it would likely be a more devoted one.

Many readers envision erotic romance as a space of freedom, a space where anything goes. I know I did when I first started reading it. It seems more than a little ironic, then, to discover that erotic romance may be just as gender-bound in as more traditional romance fare...

Have you read any compelling erotic romances (as opposed to erotica) with a male character who enjoys pain for its own sake, not for the sake of a female partner? Who takes pleasure in being submissive?

Photo credit:
Submission as strength: Pinterest

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


Happy Valentine's Day! How are you planning to celebrate?

My alter ego, Bliss Bennet, is marking the holiday by releasing book #3 in her Regency historical series, The Penningtons.

A short description:

Theo Pennington, newly named Viscount Saybrook, has a long history of failing those he loves. But it's surely not his fault that the funds meant to pay his sister's dowry have gone missing. Can he trust Harriot Atherton, daughter of his steward, to help him find the lost money? Or might she be the one responsible for its disappearance?

Harriot (Harry) Atherton isn't the most obvious of feminist protagonists. As one reviewer of the book has noted, "Harry is the sort of heroine who is very easy to relate to in that she is a caretaker; she is intent on doing the best for everyone around her and completely ignores her own wishes and desires in the process" (All About Romance). But her character arc focuses on learning how impossible it is to reconcile everyone's differing needs, and that her own desires are worthy of being met, too. A feminist message many women have difficulty hearing.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be stopping at several writers' blogs, writing guest posts about researching illustration sources, attending the "Stuff Ball," and using music lyrics to help develop characters and relationships. A different marketing idea I've been playing around with is creating picture quotes for A Lady without a Lord. Using the online design software Canva, I've put together a bunch of teaser picture quotes (see some samples below) to publish on social media. Are picture quotes for romance novels something you enjoy seeing on your Facebook and/or Twitter feeds? Or do they feel too much like intrusive advertising?

If you're curious, you can find out more information about A Lady without a Lord at any of your favorite online book retailers:

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Having your Kink and Condemning it too... A discussion with Madeline Iva about 50 SHADES OF GREY film & books

A few months ago, Madeline Iva over at the Lady Smut blog asked me if I'd be interested in joining her for a conversation about the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon in February, on the weekend when the film of 50 Shades Darker opened. I had to admit to Madeline that I'd never read the books, or seen the first film, but that I thought it might be time to catch up with the popular romance zeitgeist. So I spent a chunk of this week reading 50 Shades of Grey and 50 Shades Darker the books, viewing the DVD version of 50 Shades of Grey that I borrowed from the library, and sitting in a (surprisingly empty) theater on yesterday afternoon, watching 50 Shades Darker the film.

Hope you'll check out my talk with Madeline over at Lady Smut, and that you'll add your thoughts here or there about the books and the film, and whether they represent a step forward, or a step back, in regards to women's sexual freedom.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Laughing at the Tragic Lesbian Romance Ending: Siera Maley's DATING SARAH COOPER

The romance community tends to agree that a romance is not really a romance if it doesn't end happily, or at least end "happily for now." How, then, can a subgenre of romance have a trope that's all about the unhappy ending?

When that subgenre is lesbian romance films. And perhaps Young Adult lesbian romance novels, too?

As blogger Danielle on The Radical Notion blog argues in "The Curse of the Tragic Lesbian Ending," the majority of lesbian romance films conclude with decidedly un-HEA moments:

Victims of the "Dead Lesbians" TV trope
If you identify as queer, you're lucky if you've got a handful of decent films to choose from, and even luckier if one or two of those films don't end with the protagonist dying, going to jail, or ending up alone. I can't tell you how many lesbian romances I've watched that have ended with one of the female characters meeting some awful fate.

The situation in young adult books with lesbian characters isn't quite so bad, at least in the books I've read. But still, the HEA, or even a HFN ending, is far from the norm.

Something that #ownvoices author Siera Maley takes dead aim at in Dating Sarah Cooper.

The premise behind Maley's novel is both high-concept and potentially cringe-worthy. On her way home from school in small-town Georgia, Katie Hammontree interrupts a football player bullying a fellow classmate, Jake, for being gay. Jake ends up with a split lip as a result of the encounter, and Katie invites Jake into her house to help clean him up. And invites her bestie, Sarah Cooper, over to help, since Sarah intends to go to nursing school after graduation next year. Jake, mistaking Katie and Sarah for girlfriends because of their playful physical closeness, invites them to come to a meeting of an unnamed school club to which he belongs: "if you guys ever wanted more people to hang out with and talk to and stuff... or if you just wanted to hang out with me and talk, you could come. You know, if you felt like spending time with people who can relate to you" (21). The girls, friendly but oblivious, accept. But when they find out from Jake just before stepping into the meeting that the club is a support group for gay students, impulsive Sarah decides to go with it. Dragging a reluctant Katie behind her, Sarah announces to the other students "Katie and I have been dating for about two months now, and we're ready to tell the world" (43).

Sarah's justification for her impetuous declaration is that it's a great way to get the guy she's been crushing on to notice her. "Guys like lesbians, right? And they also like challenges" (46). And because she and Katie are far more popular than the rest of the queer kids at school, "we'll be majorly boosting the confidence of the kids in that LGBT club" (46). Katie, worried about humiliating Jake and about being accused of making fun of the rest of the club, reluctantly decides to go along with Sarah's deception.

After Sarah and Katie out themselves to the wider school community, they learn a lot about what the queer kids in their school have to face every day. Word was that lesbians have it easy, especially compared to queer boys; homosexual boys get physically bullied, but everyone likes a lesbian, right? In fact, the straight boys like a lesbian a little too much: "Hey, Katie. Heard about you and Sarah... so what's that like and where do I buy tickets?"

Colton was the first of many, many guys that day who felt the need to gawk at us, tell us we were hot, announce their approval, or all three. We got questions about threesomes, questions about what we did in bed—all of which were completely invasive and inappropriate and absolutely qualified as "rude"—and questions about which one of us was the man in our relationship. We were whistled at, catcalled at, stared at, and shouted after, and I got called a "dyke" twice in casual conversation.  (57)

And that doesn't even mention the sexually harassing text and email messages that start arriving on both girls' phones. And the difficult conversation Katie has to have with her ex-boyfriend, with whom she broke up a few months earlier, appeasing his fears that he "turned her" gay. And the need to prove to a doubting fellow LAMBDA member that she and Sarah really are dating by kissing Sarah in the middle of a meeting.

That latter one is really the kicker for Katie, because "kissing Sarah just once had felt better than all of the hundreds of times I'd kissed Austin combined" (98). Might she really be gay? "What if my perfect boyfriend was actually a girlfriend? And how on earth was I supposed to know if that was the case?" (137)

Even worse, if Katie is gay, is she destined to be like one of the heroines of the lesbian romances that Sarah has been reading and watching for "research," a loser who falls in love with her straight best friend only to be doomed to rejection? As Sarah describes the pattern,

"Book number 1: one of the girls realizes she's straight. Book number 2: one of the girls realizes she's bi and loves a guy, and the other girl ends up alone. Book number 3: they both get murdered by vampires.... No matter what I picked up, there was always someone who got screwed over. I didn't want to end up like that. (242)

Neither does Katie. But one of these best friends is going to have to start being honest with the other if this book is going to have the happy, rather than tragic, ending promised by its comic tone.

In  "From Problem to Pride," Blogger Daisy Porter suggests that there are three types of YA books with queer characters:

• The gay problem novel, in which a queer character comes to terms with their own sexuality, the sexuality of a relative, or deals with coming out of the closet
• The "gaytopia" novel, in which being queer is not a problem
• The "Big Gay Book," in which queerness is the focus, but in a celebratory, rather than problematic way

Porter's first category includes many lesbian protagonists. But the "gay" in the "gaytopia" and "Big Gay Book" categories is telling; girls who love girls still rarely feature in novels in which being a lesbian is not a problem, or in which lesbianism is celebrated.

While I can't say that I love the idea of holding up characters who, in Katie's words "manipulate and use a minority group for their own gain" (76) as heroines (Katie and Sarah get off pretty lightly when they finally admit their ruse), I can definitely get behind more lesbian YA romances with HEAs. Or even HFNs.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Dead Lesbians on TV: Autostraddle
"Hand Holding": Chaos Life

Dating Sarah Cooper
indie published, 2014

Friday, February 3, 2017

Bestseller Lists and Gender

Have you heard about the changes the New York Times is making to its bestseller lists? As reported in Publishers Weekly on January 26, the newspaper will eliminate several of its bestseller lists—primarily online-only bestseller lists. Or in other words, e-book only bestsellers. A category in which romances make up the biggest part.

Which means that many romance authors, especially self-published ones, will no longer "make" the New York Times bestseller list, because their e-book sales will no longer "count." Which in turn means fewer romance authors will be able to use "New York Times bestseller" or "New York Times bestselling author" tags when they promote their books.

With all of the political madness ripping through our country right now, why should you care about whether or not romance novels appear on the New York Times bestseller lists?

Because the connections between genre and gender matter.

On Tuesday, January 30, Romance Writers of America issued the following statement:

As a trade association representing more than 10,000 writers of romance fiction worldwide, Romance Writers of America (RWA) is deeply disappointed by the decision of the New York Times to change its bestseller criteria.

Romance authors, most of them women, have dominated the best-seller lists in mass market and e-books for years. To dismiss these authors and the millions of readers who buy their books is to ignore what "bestseller" truly means. Each year, consumers buy more than $1.3 billion worth of romance fiction. If the New York Times eliminates the mass market and e-book lists, they are proving that they are out of touch with what consumers actually buy. Further, the dismissal of two formats dominated by women can't help but feel sexist.

RWA strongly urges the Times to reconsider its decision.

I don't know for certain, but I'm guessing that the word "sexist" hasn't appeared very often, if at all, in official statements from RWA in the past. Though some RWA members have expressed discomfort with this language, feeling that the Times' decision was not intentionally sexist, most members who have commented on listservs that I subscribe to applaud RWA's highlighting of the implicit sexism of the change. I join them in thanking RWA for taking such a strong, vocal stance.

RWA is also working with other organizations to draft a joint statement that points out the detrimental effect the Times' decision is likely to have not only on many women writers, but also on writers from historically underrepresented groups.

What are your thoughts about bestseller lists? How do they effect your romance purchasing choices?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Politics and Intersectional Feminism: Alyssa Cole's LET US DREAM

On the eve of the American election this past November, I was planning to celebrate the country voting in its first women president by reading the recently published anthology Daughters of a Nation: A Black Suffragette Historical Romance Anthology. Four stories, each featuring African American women fighting for the vote on behalf of both their sex and their race at four different points in U. S. history, these stories promised to point out both how far our country has come in widening the franchise and how far it still has yet to go.

But after the shocking outcome of November's election, celebration was no longer on my mind. I set the anthology aside, and split my reading time between political reporting/calls for activism and old romance favorites, books that I could depend on to give me welcome comfort in these painful political times.

But as the Women's March on Washington approached, and I began to read media stories about tensions between white women and women of color involved in planning and participating (or not participating) in it, I found myself turning back to Daughters. And in many ways, I'm glad I waited, for reading its stories, in particular Alyssa Cole's Let Us Dream, helped me as a white feminist to understand those tensions in a way that more analytical, theoretical writing hadn't.

The 15th Amendment: the "right of citizens of the United States
to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States
or by any state on account of race, color,
or previous condition of servitude." 
The first three stories in the anthology (Lena Hart's In the Morning Sun, set in 1868; Piper Huguley's The Washerwomen's War and Kianna Alexander's A Radiant Sun, both set in 1881) give readers slices of history likely unfamiliar to many contemporary readers: efforts to educate free blacks in Nebraska in the wake of the Civil War; the tensions in the African American community over whether to campaign for female suffrage for all races, or to focus on ensuring black men's right to vote was not curtailed; the efforts of African American washerwomen to strike for a better wage; black women's suffrage in Wyoming, the first state in the union to give women the vote. All include sweet romances, too, some interracial, others between black men and women who do not always agree when it comes to women's rights.

But Let Us Dream was the story that really made me sit up and take notice. Not only because Cole interweaves the political themes of her story so tightly with the arc of her romance, but also because those political themes strike just as resonantly in 2017 as they do in 1917, the year in which Cole's story is set.

Bertha Hines has spent years dancing to the tunes of men: first her father, who pretended to be East Indian rather than African American after witnessing how differently men from India were treated, and who taught his daughter how to dance in a sari, as if she had been born in India, too. And then for her pimp, later her husband, Arthur, owner of Harlem's Cashmere club/whorehouse. But now that Arthur is gone, leaving the Cashmere to Bertha, Bertha has no desire to hitch her star to another man's wagon, thank you very much. She'd rather spend her time teaching the women who work for her all about government, so they'll be ready to vote when New York finally grants women suffrage.

From the Puget Sound American, 1909
But when a friend sends Amir Khan to work as a dishwasher in Bertha's club, he and Bertha immediately begin to set sparks off of each other. Amir, a Marx and Engels-reading socialist who left Bengal to see the world, is just as stubborn, and just as devoted to social justice, as is Bertha. But in the wake of the Immigration Act of 1917, which barred immigration from Asian Pacific countries, Amir is an "undocumented alien," with as few political rights as Bertha. A situation that has striking parallels to this past week's presidential executive order barring immigrants from seven primarily Muslim countries—particularly as Amir is not Hindu, but Muslim.

That is not the only echo, past to present. In the story's opening, Bertha attends a meeting of the Colored Women's Voting League, where the "good women. Upstanding, pillars of the community" assert that there is no friction between white and black women of the suffrage movement ("Bertha was tempted to ask why they needed a separate organization—and a separate building—for Negro women if there was so much unity, but that would have been low. Besides, she knew why. They all knew why") (Kindle Loc 4124). They also express their discomfort with the presence of Bertha, former sex worker and current owner of a house of ill repute, especially after she challenges them to include "the poor laundress, the illiterate maid, the downtrodden prostitute" in their outreach efforts (4125). The Voting League's leader tells Bertha "we have limited time and resources an where we direct them is of the essence" and that "Once we win the right to vote for all women, we'll be able to better use of power to uplift" (4138). Bertha leaves, but not without imparting one last shot of her own: "Uplift? You mean the same patronizing lies women have been fed by men for generations? That we've been fed by Whites since the end of the war?" The rifts that the media honed in on in regards to the Women's March on Washington—tensions between whites who want to focus on women, and POC who wanted to send a more intersectional message, and "good" women who are reluctant to inclue "bad" women (sex workers) in their ranks out of fear of weakening their position—are not new ones, Cole's story reminds us; they have existed for years, for more than a century.

Both Bertha and Amir are angry about their political mistreatment, and the lack of social justice they and others like them experience daily. And both use words as weapons, defending themselves from any perceived attack on their pride and self-determination the other appears to threaten—even if said attacks are not intentional. It takes an equal exchange of knowledge—Amir will teach Bertha how to really do an Indian dance, and Bertha will teach Amir about American and New York government—before either can move beyond the strong fronts they've erected to protect themselves from prejudice and abuse to glimpse the truer, more vulnerable person standing behind them. And even once they have caught that glimpse, it's still all too easy to make assumptions, to respond with anger instead of patience when misunderstandings inevitably arise and feelings are hurt. Trust takes a long time to build, even between people who have the shared experience of being oppressed.

There are so many telling scenes, so many quotable lines in Cole's story, I can't begin to do justice to them here. So I'll just end with the one I really needed to hear after the end of the first two weeks of American's current appalling, disheartening presidential term. One of Bertha's girls asks:

"Why does voting matter? I'm just thinking about how Du Bois and everyone got all hopped up over getting Wilson into the White House. Wilson talked a lot of stuff about making things better for us, about justice and kindness, and look! Things are worse than ever with him in office. More segregation. More injustice. Hell, forget Wilson; the suffragettes didn't even want us at that parade of theirs." (5022)

In response, Bertha spins a story, one with a telling, and prescient, moral:

"One time, a long time ago, I met a john who talked so sweet. Looked rich. Smelled good. Came in here telling me I was the prettiest thing he'd ever seen, begging me to put it on him, all that nonsense. I thought he was swell. Classy. Let him convince me to go back to a room with him. . . . That man threw me on the bed and started trying to get crazy. Thought because he was paying for it, he could do whatever he wanted. but I screamed and the man running the hotel bust through the door and pulled him off me. . . .  What I'm saying is, I bet on that man. I thought he was the best choice of the pickings that night. I thought he was gonna do right by me. And I was wrong. That didn't mean I didn't go back to work the next night. That didn't mean I never got fooled again. When you're trying to survive, sometimes you're gonna encounter liars. Politicians are the worst of them. But there are good ones too. You take your chances there like anywhere else in life because the only other options is giving up." (5036)

One of the many great signs at
the Boston Women's March

Scream and holler, go out and protest, take your chances, and go back to work the next night (or day), no matter the result. And above all, don't give up. Messages that I took to heart as I went out and joined thousands in Boston's Women's March, and that I continue to hold close as ever more disturbing news oozes out from our nation's capital.

Illustration credits:
15th Amendment: New York Times
Puget Sound American: South Asian American Digital Archive
Rise Up: Photo taken at the Boston Women's March, January 21, 2017

Daughters of a Nation: A Black Suffragette Historical Romance Anthology
Maroon Ash Publishing, 2016

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Small-Town Polyamory: Heidi Cullinan's SANTA BABY

Threesomes are a common sight in erotic romance, and even now in some hot contemporary romance. But in the typically conservative subgenre of small town romance? Leave it to Heidi Cullinan to craft a story that combines old tropes and new identities, all with a hefty dose of (Christian) holiday cheer.

Cullinan's unusual holiday story is set in the small Minnesota town of Logan, whose citizens are trying to revive it by making it a tourist mecca for all things Christmas, with particular appeal to the LGBTQ crowd (the first three books in the "Minnesota Christmas" series featured the romances of thee gay male couples). To help with this project, the town has hired developer Dale Davidson, a friendly people pleaser who is developing a crush on town librarian Gabriel. Dale knows he is polyamorous, but Gabriel appears to be in a committed, and decidedly monogamous relationship with Arthur, the son of the town's biggest gossip. But when straight-shooter Arthur cuts to the chase—"You just flirting, or you interested?"—and invites Dale to come play, Dale can't help but wonder how good an idea it is to "start something in a small town"—especially the small town that has hired him. But Dale's emotional attraction to nerdy, neurotic Gabriel, as well as his kinky attraction to dominant Arthur, has him throwing his better judgment aside.

Unfortunately, though, Dale's not the only one with worries. Gabriel, who only recently became involved with Arthur, his first boyfriend, is feeling decidedly guilty about his own growing attraction to Dale, an attraction that seems to be something more than just physical. Especially because his love for Arthur is just as strong as ever. Admitting that he was gay and enjoyed submissive play was hard enough. Gabriel is just not willing to even think about the possibility that he might be polyamorous, too. Especially since he and Arthur are hoping to take in foster children soon after they marry, and if anyone found out he was in a relationship with two different men, the folks from Social Services would look decidedly askance.

And so the hot three-way turns into an embarrassing melt-down, and Dale returns home to the Twin Cities, disappointed. And Gabriel and Arthur try to return to their own lives, and preparing for the upcoming Christmas in July town celebration. But Gabriel is simply not his usual happy self, something that not only Arthur, but a lot of the other townspeople in Logan, can't help but see.

Arthur, who has a lot more experience in the kinky sides of life and love than Gabriel does, slowly begins to realize just what's going on inside Gabriel's head. And with some help from an old friend of his own, Arthur knows that he needs to help Gabriel acknowledge and accept all aspects of himself. Even the ones that Arthur himself doesn't share: "I'm telling you, if you're discovering your heart is complex enough it wants to fall in love with two people at once, I will not be the asshole who turns you away for wanting to be who you are." (929).

And so Gabriel and Arthur continue to plan their winter wedding, even while Gabriel and Dale begin to quietly date. And Dale, with his own submissive tendencies, enjoys power play with Arthur, even if he and Arthur do not share the same type of romantic feelings for one another that Dale shares with Gabriel. Might this "thruple" somehow find a way to make a life for themselves, even in the midst of a very small town? Even if Gabriel and Arthur have to give up their dreams of being parents someday?

I've read many erotic romances, and some contemporary romances, which featured threesomes. But typically, those books have been tightly focused on the three members involved in a relationship, which, even if the situation is not presented as a fantasy within the book, can give it the feeling of a fantasy to the reader outside the book. In contrast, Santa Baby is the first romance I've read that actually felt like its characters were struggling to figure out how to embrace a polyamorous identity but still be part of a larger, non-kink community. It may be wish-fulfillment on Cullinan's part to make Dale, Gabriel, and Arthur's complicated relationship ultimately acceptable to the residents of small-town Logan. But it's a wish-fulfillment that makes me think more about the feasibility of integrating polyamorous alternatives to monogamy into "normal" life than any erotic menage romance ever has.

Santa Baby
(Minnesota Christmas, Book #4)
indie-published, 2016