Professor, I Have Some Questions: Delphine Dryden’s “Theory of Attraction”

A couple of weeks ago I read Delphine Dryden’s erotic romance novella Theory of Attraction, and I’m still thinking about it. This isn’t a review (willaful has a good one) so much as a reflection on questions the book raised for me.

I liked the book (as I did the previous Dryden novella I read), and that’s especially telling since it depicts a BDSM relationship in which the hero initiates the heroine into submission, and I am so f*ing sick of hearing about this type of plot right now. Dryden does it differently: the hero, Ivan, is somewhere on the autism spectrum, and Camilla is teaching him about social interaction at the same time that he’s teaching her about D/s. The interplay Dryden creates between those lessons is interesting. (Ivan is an astrophysicist and Camilla calls him “Professor” when she’s submitting to him.) Although Ivan’s dominance is partly connected to his autism–the control and ritual  soothe his anxieties about intimate interaction–this isn’t presented as “he’s kinky because his brain is broken” but just as part of who he is. Camilla’s narration is funny at times, emotionally intense at others. I like Dryden’s voice and her nerdy characters and will definitely read more from her. But.

There were ways in which this book didn’t work for me, or questions it didn’t answer. I have this problem with a lot of erotic romance, partly because most of it is short–this story takes place in the span of a few weeks. But it’s also because the erotic part is often pure fantasy, which is fine with me, but I like my romance more on the realistic side. As a fun hot fantasy, this book works; as a believable romance that really digs into the characters, I wanted more, though that may not be a book Dryden wants to write.

The ending, as willaful notes, seems particularly problematic. I believe these two can have an HEA, but there’s a blithe “everything will be awesome” last line, and obviously the quirks of Ivan’s brain that make a relationship with him a particular kind of work are not going away. He isn’t going to change that much. I wish that had been dealt with a bit more realistically.

I had some questions about how the D/s relationship will relate to their romantic relationship, too; I’ve read a handful of erotic romances featuring BDSM, and they often leave me with questions in this area. I don’t expect fiction to be a primer on D/s relationships (there’s non-fiction for that). And I realize that framing this as two separate “parts” of their relationship, or two separate relationships, as I just did is problematic. I guess it’s not clear to me how and to what extent the D/s relationship will be integrated into their romance going forward, how much of their relationship outside “the bedroom” will be a D/s one. Maybe specifics will help clarify what I mean:

  • Ivan’s been going to a club. He mentions it a few times, but they never really discuss it. If I were someone who had previously been in monogamous vanilla relationships (oh wait …) and I met a guy who’d been going to BDSM clubs, I’d have questions: what is he getting from this experience? will our relationship satisfy those needs, or will he want to keep going? (the implication seems to be no–he describes it as “a substitute for dreaming”). Camilla’s lack of curiosity about this aspect of Ivan’s life and sexuality seemed strange.
  • There’s a scene where Ivan says he wants to do something, Camilla asks him not to do it then, he asks her if it’s a hard limit, and since it’s not, away they go. This really bothered me. Just because something isn’t a hard limit doesn’t mean you have to demand someone do it when you introduced her to BDSM, like, a week ago (does it?). Some people do dive into a new experience head first and whole hog, but Camilla isn’t presented as that type, so this aspect read more as fantasy than as coherent characterization. Readers talk about liking BDSM erotica because it makes negotiating and talking about desires so overt. I find it doesn’t always do that as much as I’d like it to. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where someone uses a safeword, for instance. I’m guessing that happens more often in real life (but what do I know?). Fantasy Dom always knows what you want, what you really really want, before you do so doesn’t have to take no for an answer, despite the lip service paid to safe, sane and consensual/the submissive is really in control. I don’t love this trope and it was a little too present here for my taste.
  • Camilla doesn’t reflect all that much on what it means for her to be a submissive. That is, she thinks about it in the moment of having sex, but there’s not a lot of reflection on how it might shape her self-image. (Or maybe she does, and I didn’t pay attention?)
  • Ivan says he didn’t introduce Camilla as his girlfriend because he sees her as his submissive, and that’s a more significant role to him. “Girlfriend” would suggest to him that she has somehow disappointed him. I would have liked more reflection on the meanings of these two terms for them, and on how much submission will permeate their relationship (it’s clearly not a full-time aspect of it, and I like the way Dryden signals the shifts between modes and how Camilla learns to pick up on them).

It’s a strength of the book, really, that the characters were so well drawn that I’m still pondering them and their relationship. These questions make me want to re-read–perhaps at a moment when I’m not so f*ing sick of hearing about D/s books.

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6 Responses to Professor, I Have Some Questions: Delphine Dryden’s “Theory of Attraction”

  1. SonomaLass says:

    When/if you feel like reading BDSM again, I recommend Katie Porter’s third book in the Vegas Top Guns series, Hold ‘Em. Female dom being initiated by an experienced male sub, and they spend quite a bit of the book figuring out how to have a relationship and which elements of their sexual dynamic do and do not extend to non-sexual contexts. While I didn’t enjoy it as much as the earlier books in the series (different kinky), I think that’s largely due to BDSM burnout, and I did appreciate that the sexual dimension was handled in a less idealized way than I’ve seen in some other books.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, I’m glad you mentioned that, because I was thinking “I read about some book that flipped a lot of the usual tropes” but I couldn’t remember what it was.

  2. willaful says:

    Some good questions. I actually thought the book did a good job of showing how the D/s was something they went in and out of in a natural fashion. Though that brings up the question of whether that could happen so easily with someone who needs routine and ritual.

    One of the things I liked about The Siren, btw, was that the safe word actually did come up. I agree that that’s something you almost never see actually being used.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I liked the natural in and out part, too. I did feel it was something they’d work out. It’s partly that the book is short, so some of these things are more gestured at than developed. You know, in a lot of books I wouldn’t notice these kinds of “gaps” because I’d fill them in from my own experience. I think to make a D/s relationship realistic for most readers is harder, because it’s outside many readers’ experience–and a lot of books focus mainly on the sex part. See, this is why I will read it again one day!

  3. Las says:

    “I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where someone uses a safeword, for instance.”

    That’s been my biggest problem with BDSM erotica–for all the talk about safewords and limits I rarely come across any examples. What I’ve seen several times is a sub who wants to stop because it’s too much for her (or him) but forgets to use her safeword, and then the Dom talks to her about the importance of using her safeword. Nora uses her safeword in The Siren, but that was basically to get Soren to shut up–she never used it during anything physical. Frankly, I’d rather read BDSM where things like limits and safewords aren’t even mentioned, because it’s annoying when an author brings those things up just to say she did but then does nothing with them.

    I read a great blog post (which of course I forgot to bookmark) the other day about how all the “consent is sexy” rhetoric, particularly in BDSM, can be problematic, because it creates a culture where not-consenting isn’t sexy and therefore undesirable. It put into words what I’ve been thinking for a while now.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I was reading a blogpost someone linked to on Twitter–a blog by a submissive–and she talks about a time she uses her safeword. During what for her and her partner is pretty “routine” sex, that normally she’d be fine with, but suddenly she just couldn’t take it. That’s partly what made me wonder whether, or suspect that, the use of a safeword is probably not THAT uncommon in real life.

      I think it’s part of the idealized sex in romance, where people are never (OK, there are exceptions) physically uncomfortable, not into something, not in the mood. And I get why, it’s partly fantasy. But I guess I’m troubled by the implication that not being willing to push to your limits and beyond at all times is some kind of failure or imperfection. Especially given the gender dynamics typical of BDSM in erotic romance.

      It also made me think of the perennial condoms in romance thing. Fantasy la-la land where you don’t mention them (or where dubious/non-consent is part of the fantasy) is OK with me, and so is a realistic portrayal. It’s in the middle ground where things get awkward: it’s OK not to use condoms with Mr Manslut when you’re on the pill, for instance. When they discuss condoms and ignore the reality of disease, I’m distracted. I know it isn’t sexy, but not all of love is sexy. Does romance have to be a pure fantasy genre? Not in my books.

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