Sex + Power = ?

A while back, Carolyn Jewel tweeted a link to Thomas MacAulay Millar’s  “Domism: Role Essentialism and Sexism Intersectionality in the BDSM Scene.” Drawing on academic ethnographies by Stacy Newmahr and Margot D. Weiss, Millar argues that:

In The Scene, it’s often the case that the social spaces — I’m not talking about the BDSM play itself, but the social interaction of the participants outside the bounds of play — privilege dominants and devalue submissives. . . . [P]art but only part of this is that more of the dominants are men and more of the submissives are women.

In other words–to over-simplify a long, fascinating, nuanced argument–the BDSM community is not immune to sexism just because its members are in some ways both outside mainstream society and self-conscious about power dynamics. “Domism,” Millar explains, shows up in big ways, like equating submission with weakness and assuming people must have a reason for being that way (whereas the desire to dominate is natural), and small, like telling the female submissive at the table to go get the drinks even though she hasn’t agreed to submit to anyone there.

My first response to reading this (well, my second after “how depressing but unsurprising”) was, “That explains a lot about erotic romance.” But I wasn’t actually sure what I thought it explained until I read a couple of posts this week that made things clearer for me. [Some quotes below the fold are very adult language.]

One was Robin/Janet’s “Too Many Rules” post on form and formula in genre Romance; the other was this Olivia Waite post reflecting on a “domestic discipline” erotic romance that she felt idealized the at-best-benevolent sexism of its hero. Right now, erotic romance seems to be full of a formula whose sexual power dynamics map onto sexist power dynamics. (I’m using formula in Robin’s sense, not in a derogatory sense: “formula provides familiar elements [like plot or character types] that a reader may like and want to see in particular combinations.”)

I bet you know the formula I mean: Dominant billionaire/sex club owner/law enforcement dude/[insert power position here] meets naive young woman he instantly recognizes as a submissive (though she doesn’t know it yet), stalks/pursues/makes a deal with her, and initiates her into BDSM. He gives her mind-blowing orgasms. He knows what she needs, sexually and in other ways, better than she does. He takes care of her–and often she needs to be cared for. When she resists his commands, it’s naughty, not an assertion of agency or subjectivity, because he always knows best.

I feel that any discussion of this needs to come with disclaimers, so here is my legal fine print:

  • We all know why this particular formula is surging in popularity right now, but this post isn’t meant as a veiled swipe at any one book. The formula predates 2012’s giant best-seller. It exists in non-erotic (or not explicitly erotic) forms, too. Think, for instance, of Northanger Abbey. Now think how easy it would be to write the erotic rip-off version, with Henry Tilney as the Dom who knows best and educates young Catherine Morland in the ways of submissive bliss (I’m not sure why everyone’s writing naughty Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice when this fits so much better).
  • The blurbs and plot summaries make a lot of current top-selling erotica/erotic romance/hot romance sound identical, but in fact the author’s voice and story-telling skill and the nuances in how she deploys the formula can make what’s inside the books quite different, just as Regency marriage of convenience stories can be quite different from each other. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be readers who hate some versions of this story and love others.
  • The basic formula isn’t automatically sexist, just as being a male Dom or a female submissive in real life isn’t.
  • Taking pleasure in reading or writing this kind of book doesn’t make one a bad person or a bad feminist. I don’t think there’s any art that’s morally or politically correct (by whose standards, anyway?), and having just finished a novel set in North Korea, I’m forcibly reminded of why political correctness should not be a goal of art. We can enjoy problematic art–I know I do. Pointing out some of the problems need not be a criticism of those who enjoy it.
  • People interpret these stories in different ways. What some people read as sexist, others won’t. This formula can be read positively through a feminist lens, too: for instance, it takes the male dominance which in real life is often used to oppress women and devotes it instead to their pleasure and care. Multiple interpretations can be valid, as I’ve suggested before. And the tension between different readings may be part of what makes this formula so enduring and appealing.

There’s plenty of erotica and erotic romance out there that isn’t using this formula, of course; I know that, even when Amazon recommendations and best-seller lists are making me feel otherwise. But even in genre books that aren’t BDSM erotic romance, the sexual power dynamic is often one of masculine power and feminine submission.  I do think the prevalence of that dynamic in fiction, and perhaps in women’s private fantasies, is partly a reflection of the sexist culture in which they are written. Romancelandia, like The Scene, is not immune to the society in which it exists.

In the end, I think my frustration with the prevalence of this formula comes not so much from feminism as from boredom. A single routine in the bedroom is not hot, after all. “Sex + power = ” is not a formula with just one answer. And though I think part of the popularity of BDSM erotica is that it makes sexual power dynamics so explicit, I believe all sex (at least all good sex) involves power in some way. Even if partners don’t think in terms of submitting to each other, we’re giving desire power over us and surrendering to physical sensations, acknowledging that the other person has the power to give us pleasure.

I’ve liked books that follow the formula I outlined above. It’s not that I want them to die in a fire. I just wish it were easier to discover stories that explore “sex + power” in more diverse ways. When I think back to the scenes I found hottest in my recent Romance reading (whether in books labelled erotic or not) I realize that the complex sexual power dynamics are part of what got me.

Take, for instance, the purple ink scene in the above-mentioned Carolyn Jewel’s Not Proper Enough. Fox tells Ginny:

“If I were being crude, I’d ask you if you know that if you were to shave the hair on your quim, your newly bare skin would be unbearably soft. And then I’d demand that you do so before our next fuck. . . . If you were to do such a thing, I’d write my name there . . . in purple ink.”

This is all in the conditional. Fox doesn’t demand she do it, nor does he do it to her. In response, Ginny finds the ink, tells him to lie back, and writes “For the Lady Eugenia” up his abdomen. Fox interprets this as an “implied promise” that he’ll be allowed to do something similar to her in future. Where’s the power here? Fox imagines having it; Eugenia exercises it (and Fox wonders how “he lost control” of the moment). But his words also have a seductive power over her, and she’s surrendering, rather unwillingly, to her desire for him at the very moment that he’s surrendering to her. Power is dispersed across the field of their encounter.

My favorite erotic romance last year was Charlotte Stein’s Restraint. The title might imply a BDSM story, but no one gets tied up. Nevertheless, this story is all about sexual power. Mallory thinks Artie despises her; it’s clear she’s attracted to him, and resents the power this gives him to hurt her. When she realizes the truth–he’s attracted to her but too repressed to be comfortable with her sexual openness–she delights in using the power she has to shock and arouse him. But like Ginny, she’s simultaneously surrendering to her feelings for him (something she can’t easily express).

And Artie has power too. Mallory enjoys the feeling that she’s surrendering to someone so big and strong, that he’s more physically powerful. She sometimes allows herself to feel dominated, even if she’s conflicted about submitting to her desire: “I feel like I’m being punched repeatedly with pleasure. I can’t even take the sensation it prompts, and I tell him so. . . . I’m glad of his hands on me, holding me, as the pleasure pulses through my sex.” or “He actually says the words: you’re so little, which I just add to the list of things I shouldn’t find arousing to hear.” Power shifts around, moment to moment: each has power over the other, each is surrendering.

Sex + power = almost any situation an author can imagine. I wish my Amazon recommendations reflected that better.

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15 Responses to Sex + Power = ?

  1. This is a topic that I’ve given a lot of thought to because I think power dynamics are integral to making sex scenes sexy, and I find it disappointing when those dynamics play out predictably in books, as is often the case. I think it often enriches a story when whatever the conflict keeping the couple apart plays out in the bedroom, too. If only authors brought the specific emotions infusing the couple’s relationship at that particular place and time into the sex scenes more often, we’d have fresher and more distinct sexual encounters, whether in erotic romance or in general romance. I don’t think you can separate power games and sex from each other, so the question for authors IMO is how to separate that couple and that moment in time from all others.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree 100% with all of this. Romance characters are often recognizable types, and I’m fine with that, but they need to feel like individuals, too. Why are these particular people having this particular conflict?

  2. sonomalass says:

    I think that’s what I enjoyed so much about Sherry Thomas’s recent trilogy, especially the third book. Complex, shifting power dynamics that have to be negotiated by the couple as part of finding their happy ending. Same with Pam Rosenthal’s books. Each relationship, each situation, feels unique.

    Great post, Liz, and a lot of food for thought.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, and yes, I think the books I’ve loved best may employ familiar formulae but make the feelings of the characters about this situation seem particular to them. Not an easy thing to pull off.

  3. Liz, I really appreciate this intelligent post. I think about this a lot too. As you said, “Romancelandia, like The Scene, is not immune to the society in which it exists.” And, in fact, it is engaging with REAL social dynamics that makes a story interesting and compelling.

    I also love this line: “Taking pleasure in reading or writing this kind of book doesn’t make one a bad person or a bad feminist. I don’t think there’s any art that’s morally or politically correct (by whose standards, anyway?).”

    As a feminist, I think that reading stories like the one’s you’ve described and observing my very real responses is enlightening in terms of deep social conditioning. I may not like that sexism is still the air we breath, even if less than in the past, and, I may still find a story about a sexist Alpha very arousing. I think that knowing this about ourselves is part of the grueling task of changing ourselves and our society, and its one of the reasons I’m a proponent of erotica. Surface the power, find safe ways to play with it, and then we’re getting somewhere.

    That said, and I think this is related, but I’m not sure why, I purposely don’t engage with ideology when I write, I engage with story and character, knowing my own beliefs and opinions will shape those things subconsciously. (I assume most authors do it that way.) So, I am often confused when someone criticizes a character’s actions as if they were the authors, or as if the author endorsed them, as opposed to simply depicting realistic behaviors in a flawed world. This post is helpful to me in terms of clarifying the lines between readers/writers/and stories–thanks!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Re your last point, Amber: I think that because readers (and authors) use “hero” and “heroine” for romance protagonists, we may expect them to be–well, not perfect, but heroic or ideals in some way. I know I fall into this trap. So it can be easy to think the author is idealizing or endorsing behavior and attitudes that go unchallenged in a book.

      This is a very, very tricky thing to discuss without making problematic assumptions about authorial intent, and as you say, plenty of stuff may get into a book (or at least be read there by someone) that the author did not consciously intend.

  4. Shelley says:

    Such a smart post, and such brilliant comments, too. Y’all have captured a lot of the things swirling in my brain lately. I think part of the problem with so many of the BDSM erotic romances is that we know, ultimately, who has the power, and it’s the Dom. Even when lip service is paid to the idea that the sub has power because of their ability to stop everything with one word, the dynamics that happen in our sexist world and the dynamics we’re shown, especially in club settings, says that the Dom is the powerful one. We know how it will end up. There might be some power struggle, but there’s no doubt about who is in charge. And largely, this is because no culture operates in a vacuum. We’re all influenced by and awash in sexism.

    But no one is powerful all the time. And what Janine said about sex scenes as part of a couple’s growth and development, and each sex scene being a power negotiation, really struck a chord with me. Is it too weird to say that each sex scene is its own miniature conflict that must be resolved for the couple to be happy? And while readers of romance expect a happily-ever-after, we don’t necessarily need to know from the very beginning how these dynamics will play out, so narrative tension is greater when we aren’t certain, when that conflict has some emotional stakes.

    And I want to give Charlotte Stein big, big credit for tackling the role of romance/erotica and how it shapes our desires and contributes to our power dynamics within her own books. Telling Tales does this sort of examination of how people are freed or constrained by what they’ve consumed; it’s a major theme in Control; so does her latest, Addicted. She’s so so good at opening up that vacuum and saying, “Look, this stuff interacts with the great wide world out there.”

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I really need to read more Charlotte Stein!

      I think I talked before about how rare it is to have a scene in erotic romance where a safeword is used. I have never read one, though a couple of people could think of examples when we discussed it. The Dom never, ever gets it wrong or makes a mistake about the sub’s desires. That’s just not realistic (I assume)–and it sometimes means that we get a book where the sub never has to assert her theoretical power to put a halt to things. His cold/troubled heart must submit to love, yes, but in the realm of sex (not that you can exactly separate those) his power might as well be absolute. I’d like to see him mess up in the bedroom sometimes, and have to learn. Although of course I get why a partner who fulfills your every desire without having to ask what it is or whether this is OK is a great fantasy.

      • I can think of a BDSM romance where the safe word is used (though it’s not a favorite of mine) — Eden Bradley’s The Dark Garden.

      • Ruthie says:

        In Cara McKenna’s WILLING VICTIM, Laurel uses her safe word simply to demonstrate to herself that she can, and that it will work. Flynn comes to a complete halt. They have a conversation. Then they begin anew. It’s lovely.

  5. Ros says:

    “I’m not sure why everyone’s writing naughty Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice when this fits so much better”

    Colin Firth.

    Someone makes a film of NA full of sexual tension, then it’ll be the next one to go.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      LOL, yes, and Fassbender for Brontë.

      I am fond of Northanger Abbey, but I don’t find much of the tension in it sexual. Or, as my husband said, “No one’s read that one.”

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