Importance of Positive Representation of Kink in Romance

This post was originally written for and posted by RT Book Reviews on April 23, 2018:

When I was in college, I attended my first Take Back the Night event. It was in coordination with the Clothesline Project, and as I sat there, pouring my heart out with paint markers onto a piece of white fabric, I listened to my fellow students share their stories.

It was the day I realized that what had happened to me on a dark and scary night in my adolescence wasn’t my fault.

When your first sexual experience is something violent, it’s hard to figure out who you are and what you like without wondering if there’s a correlation. Sex that was sweet and gentle bored me. My mind wandered, and satisfaction was difficult to achieve. It wasn’t until the first time a man strapped a pair of leather restraints around my wrists that I thought, “This. This is what I’ve been missing.”

But I still had no answers. How could I enjoy something like that after what I’d been through? I needed to make sense of it, but how? Talking to friends felt strange, as did the idea of telling my former-hippie, feminist mother. The internet was this new thing that didn’t make sense yet (OMG I must send this forward to ten people or I really might have bad luck for ten years!), so that didn’t seem like a place to start. Books were my next recourse, but at the time, I wasn’t reading romance novels. The one “bodice ripper” I’d come across about the Beauty-and-the-Beast-type hero who went mute in a fit of apoplexy after a duel and the virginal heroine who nursed him back to health was not my jam. And venturing toward the erotica section in the back of the local chain bookstore felt dirty and wrong, so I abandoned my search. A decade later, however, when I started dabbling in fan fiction and then fell down the rabbit hole of erotic romance eBooks, I finally stopped feeling ashamed and confused.

Through those stories, I started understanding myself and began writing ones of my own.

Thankfully the world has changed since then, with a plethora of kink-positive novels out there for people to download and enjoy. And yet, despite the upsurge in erotic romance over the last few years, it still feels like the redheaded stepchild of the genre, and in the industry overall. All too often after admitting what I write, I’ve gotten the nose-scrunching, slightly disgusted-yet-polite response of “Oh, I don’t read that.” I’ve been told by people at my day job who admit to loving “dirty books” that I should “keep writing it on the down low.” I’ve even gotten the chipper, well-intentioned response of “Maybe you could write something else, like children’s books!”

Perhaps the stereotypical, knee-jerk response comes from the fact that some novels are an awful portrayal of kink. Maybe it’s because many people still can’t stomach anything that to them seems violating and extreme. And not everyone enjoys reading BDSM. But the authors who write it well know that their stories are not actually about the graphic, limit-pushing sex. In their books, kink is not the plot. Trust is.

In Cara McKenna’s Willing Victim, Laurel isn’t running her own life. Avoiding searching for a job in her field of engineering and waiting tables instead, she’s afraid to put herself out there. Going to watch Flynn, a near stranger, box in the seedy basement of a bar is the first decision she makes in a while, as is the choice to enter into a sex-only-and-rough-at-that agreement with him. The role playing scenes are intense, and the language isn’t sweet, but it’s messy and it’s real and it’s honest, and asking for what she wants gives Laurel the confidence to take her life back into her own hands.

Tamsen Parker’s Craving Flight tells the story of an Orthodox Jewish submissive divorcée who enters into an arranged marriage with the local butcher. Tzipporah’s ex-husband was disgusted by her desires, and Elan is a gruff and intimidating widower. The social norms in their community combined with Tzipporah’s previous experience make it hard for her to mention what she likes in bed. But after her deeply uncomfortable admission that she enjoys being hurt, Elan is not at all shocked. Instead, he understands how being controlled makes his wife feel free.

Katie Porter’s Hard Way is another book that gets it right. And don’t even get me started on Kit Rocha’s Beyond series, where sex and shame absolutely never go hand in hand. These authors know that kink-positive books are about intimacy. It’s about characters allowing themselves to crack open pieces of themselves and show something they’ve rarely, or perhaps never, shown anyone.

Which was the direction I was going in when I started writing Her Claim.

At the outset, I tried to talk myself out of it. How can I write a sex-positive book about a woman whose deep-seated desire is to be overpowered? A ball-busting, half-Cuban lawyer, Cassie wants to take on the world. Her hunger for sex that pushes boundaries, for a man to act out scenes of consensual non-consent, are not attributed to any past trauma. It’s simply an urge that she doesn’t understand and hates to admit. Patrick doesn’t share Cassie’s desires at first but finds that fulfilling her needs is what gets his rocks off, and Cassie learns that it is possible to want to be demeaned while both still respecting herself and being respected by her partner.

And isn’t that what romance is supposed to be all about?

Writing a book about consensual non-consent in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp was not an easy choice for me. Perhaps it’s poignant that Her Claim is coming out during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, because it’s my chance to show that books that fall outside the general box of what the mainstream finds appealing can still be about healthy relationships. To show that they can be about both kink and emotions. The heart and the heat. It was something I, as a sexual assault survivor, needed to write. (And as it turns out, my mom is my biggest supporter, and is quietly promoting all my books to the retirement communities of Palm Beach County, Florida.)

In a way, kink-positive novels are the condensation of all the things romance should stand for: people opening up and allowing themselves to be vulnerable. Characters feeling no guilt about asking for, and enjoying, the things they want. It’s about someone else not only accepting you for the way you are, but it’s that person holding up a mirror when you’re defenseless and raw, and saying, “Here. Here is the way I see you. And that’s why I think you’re beautiful.”

And there needs to be more of that.

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