A few times a month, my "work" involves scratching my head over the best ways to describe the nitty gritty of sexual encounters between my characters. Maybe unsurprisingly, this can be a little strange for people to learn about me in my everyday life.
That brings me to the topic of my post. Is it weird? Is it strange for me to have to explain to new people I meet that I write romance books and that they are kind of raunchy? Was it even weirder when I was actively writing BDSM themed books like "Knocked Up by the Dom"? How did my old Catholic school principal and colleagues react when I ran into several of them two years into my writing career and explained what I was doing?
As you'd probably guess, the answer is complicated. Over time, it has become less and less weird for me. Early on, I was so engrossed in trying to learn the ins and outs of the business that I don't think I was even aware enough to care about what anyone thought. But once I got more settled in, I started to grapple with the question of how to handle it. After all, I could easily fib and just tell people I was a marketing consultant or something vaguely true that would obscure the truth.
After a lot of thinking, I realized I had some pretty strong feelings about this. For starters, I wasn't willing to lie about what I was doing because I'm damn proud of what I've done and how far I've come. Even if I hadn't found success with my books I have, I've still written and finished over thirty books. Even when I'd written one book, I was still really proud of that. It takes a mountain of effort and determination to do, and I decided anyone who wanted to judge me for the content of my books wasn't someone I needed to worry about.
That leads me to my second point. I caught myself recently thinking something along the lines of, "now that I write lighter, romantic comedies without shirtless guys on the cover, it's a little less embarrassing to tell people about what I do."
When I realized I was thinking that way, I felt really bothered. Part of what brought that thought on was that I have recently been planning to write another BDSM style book, but this time in a romantic comedy style. It almost felt like I'd be taking a step back from this more "civilized" path I've been on.
Ultimately, I decided those feelings were resulting from social pressure. And I thought about how much social pressure I was feeling to be ashamed just for writing about BDSM. Imagine the kind of stigma people would feel who enjoy practicing BDSM in their sex lives.
So, for starters, I am once again looking forward to telling people exactly what I'm writing when the topic inevitably comes up. I'm not going to let that niggling pressure in the back of my head to feel ashamed matter to me. After all, the truth is that I am happy to be writing what I'm writing. If I meet somebody new who is going to take issue with it, then I'd rather put the full truth out there from the get-go and skip to the part where they decide they don't want to be friends with me.
Even my in-laws have made no secret of the fact that they don't approve of what I write. I've also heard them mention how they are relieved by the direction my books have been moving, but I've still been bothered by the way they talk about my romance writing like it's a stepping stone to get me to writing "real" books some day.
I still remember when I wrote my first BDSM book, Punished, we had met a couple at church who invited us to eat lunch afterwards. I was really excited because Punished had actually just jumped into the top 50 and became my first ever top 100 book that day. So when the topic of what I do came up, I was excited to kind of over-share about everything. Once I got to the part where I explained that the book is about BDSM, I saw the looks on their faces and realized they had already sort of decided they weren't interested in continuing the friendship. Sure enough, the next couple times we tried to set up a casual hangout or lunch, they made excuses and declined.
One argument would be that I shouldn't have dropped a bombshell like that, especially with people we met at church. The other argument (and the one I'd make) is that if people are going to decide they can't be friends with us because of what I do for a living, why should we waste weeks or months building up to telling them about it?
So, instead of scarring me and making me vow to never tell people what I write again, I want to turn it into a point of pride. Yes, I write BDSM. I'm going to be happy to tell my in-laws I'm writing those books they wish I wouldn't write again. Why?
It's not because I enjoy being obstinate or difficult. It's because I think people are so quick to write off anything beyond vanilla sex as somehow vulgar and wrong. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm actually a very boring person in my own sex life. That may come as a shock, especially to those who know me in my personal life and love joking about how much of a freak I must be in the bedroom to write what I write. I always say something similar to that comment. Would you assume Isaac Asimov was secretly allowed to fly faster-than-light spaceships and to see glimpses of the future to write about it? Did Tolkein personally know dwarfs and orcs and elves? It's writing! We use our real life experiences to get as far as they'll take us and then call on our imagination to do the rest.
But one of the really interesting parts about putting myself in that imaginative position with BDSM has been seeing how different I think it really is than what people imagine. I also think this applies to pretty much any healthy, consensual sex act that may be seen as a kink or strange from the outside.
And here's what I've come to realize... Sex is a symbol in so many ways. Yes, there's the biological drive to do it and the part where it feels good if you're doing it right, but it's more than just that. For the majority of people, it becomes the ultimate symbol of trust, commitment, vulnerability, expression, etc. It takes so many emotions and feelings we experience on a small scale and ratchets them all up to ten.
If you look strictly at "vanilla" sex, you get all of that. However, we're all made differently with varying insecurities, points of confidence, and areas of need. In my opinion, that's where things like BDSM can be an amazing tool for some people.
Take, for example, a person who had an extremely difficult childhood. Maybe their response was to put up walls. The only way they could survive to adulthood was to shut everyone out and just keep their eyes forward, never giving an inch. Well, adulthood may roll around for that individual and their childhood adaptation could become more of a hindrance than a boon. Maybe now they can't form successful relationships because they still instinctively push everyone away.
To me, that's a great opportunity in a story to bring in something like BDSM. The character could have all the normal benefits of healthy sex, but also explore the unique ability BDSM offers to allow someone to surrender in a safe, controlled setting. Because of that character's history, the act of giving up control in a sexual setting becomes more than just a sexual act of "kinkiness". It's therapeutic. It's emotional and a critical moment of development for a character.
That, I think, is an aspect of writing about sex that I don't think many people consider. It's not always just about getting off. Sure, we can have our fun as readers and writers. It should be fun and exciting. It should make you feel good. But it can also be a celebration of an often neglected aspect of our own relationships. It can spark a desire to start paying more attention to our partner's physical needs or even our own. It can give us ideas or it can let us experience emotions second hand without ever needing to put ourselves in compromising or frightening positions.
I think the most appropriate way to end this post is with the message I wish I was confrontational enough to pass on to everyone who has ever judged me for being a romance author.
I don't need your approval to feel good about what I'm doing. I could turn this into a massive rant, but it all comes back to that. You're welcome to disagree with me. You're welcome to decide you'd rather not associate with me. At the end of the day, I'm writing what I write for my readers who enjoy it and who benefit from it. Everybody else can take a back seat, because I'm happy right where I am.
(this is the part where I'd drop my hypothetical microphone)