Thursday, 30 January 2014

Cecilia Tan: On Kink-Positive Writing and BDSM

Today I'm joined by Cecilia Tan, whose book Slow Seduction was released on the 26th January.  The second in the Struck by Lightening trilogy , it looks at BDSM relationships and how - when consensual - they can be incredibly affirming.  50 Shades of Grey, as great as it was in making BDSM accessible, still portrays BDSM as something strange, something to be 'cured' (Christian Gray gives up his Red Room).  I asked Cecilia what she thought and what she was trying to accomplish within SbL:

I've been writing erotica and romance with BDSM themes going all the way back to my first book, 1992's Telepaths Don't Need Safewords. For years that meant I was well-known within the BDSM community but largely unknown to the mainstream because the big publishers found BDSM in fiction too "controversial" or too "difficult" to handle. All too often, their objections amounted to fears that either BDSM was actually harmful to women or that they would be criticized for publishing material that OTHERS believed was harmful to women. Any strike against a manuscript can be enough to convince an editor to move on to a safer acquisition. In short, my fiction was considered too hot to handle. 

Recently, though, publishers proved how out of step this cautious approach put them when a BDSM-themed book series from a tiny publisher exploded across the English-speaking world: I'm talking about 50 Shades of Grey, which was then repackaged by larger houses and became one of the best-selling English language books of all time. Scrambling to catch up to the tastes of millions of readers, the publishers have leaped into the fray with dozens of books trading on the themes in 50 Shades of Grey, including BDSM, mysterious billionaires, and naive heroines. Which means, at last, a publisher did NOT tell me that BDSM is too much for readers and instead encouraged me to explore that territory! The result is the Struck by Lightning series: Slow Surrender which came out in 2013, Slow Seduction which launched on January 26 2014 and Slow Satisfaction, due out in August 2014. 

Knowing I was writing explicitly for an audience that had very likely read 50 Shades of Grey but had never read any of my other work, I set out to make this series familiar but with a few important distinctions. Some of the differences are obvious but minor: Ana in "50" is a college student, my Karina is a grad student. Others I baked in as major distinctions: Christian Grey has his Red Room of Pain, my James has no "dungeon." The entire world is his playground and anything within his reach could become a sex toy. 

One of the major contrasts I tried to make is that as the leading couple falls more and more deeply in love, the BDSM doesn't lose intensity: it gains it! That's more true to the experience many real life couples have with BDSM. As their trust and knowledge of each other grows, they can push the envelope of what they explore through bondage or spanking or role-playing, whatever parts of the BDSM spectrum they are employing. 

Another is that the dynamic in Slow Surrender is not built merely around the sub "letting" the dom do things to her. In "50" I often felt that Ana was too passive for my taste. Not surprisingly, that's also one of the main criticisms of Twilight, which "50" started out fanfic of, and one of the criticisms I see pointed at many romances which DON'T even have a BDSM element. Can you imagine if contemporary romances portrayed sex as something the heroine was merely supposed to "endure" for the sake of the hero's passions? Lie back and think of England? No, books these days tend to portray sex as something the heroine enjoys, and loves, needs, and wants with the hero. Well, BDSM is sex. The heroine in my BDSM novels enjoys, loves, needs, and wants it every bit as much as the hero does. The fact that he's the one doing the tying up and she's the one who gets tied up doesn't change that.  

James engages Karina, giving her choices, and constantly reinforcing that she is the one who makes the choice to play with him. Her consent is never taken for granted. There's a way in which his anonymity and secrecy work to Karina's advantage at first: if at any point she decides she doesn't want to play these sex games anymore, all she has to do is walk away. Once she becomes more emotionally invested, though, that dynamic changes and she demands more--and gets it. 

Another way to look at it is with the phrase "it takes two to tango." BDSM is commonly referred to as "power exchange." That word "exchange" gets forgotten sometimes, when people imagine that it means the sub gives up all the power and the dom keeps it all. The dom may be the one who leads in the ballroom dance, but both dance partners have to be participating or they'll fall flat. And BDSM is often like the tango, where the power flows back and forth, as each partner takes cues from the other. I sometimes describe BDSM as "improvisational sex." Instead of following one specific "script" that goes from kiss to intercourse, many possibilities branch out. For a fiction writer that's exciting, too, because it gives me so much to play with and so many ways to arouse and entice the reader. 

My hope is that as Karina learns how much power she has in the relationship, far more than she realizes at first, readers will learn how empowering BDSM dynamics in a relationship can be.

Go check out the first book in the trilogy, Slow Surrender, and explore for yourself kink-positive writing!


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