This topic has been coming for a while and it’s going to be a long, and hopefully interesting post because I have a lot to say about it. I’m going to use the example of Fifty Shades in the beginning, but this post isn’t specifically about that series—so don’t run off because you can’t stand the books, or because you love them and think I’m going to rip it apart.
I’m only using Fifty Shades because I found something cool I wanted to share, and it inspired this first part of the post. It puts into pictures something I’ve explained to people many times. So here it is if you want to pop over and take a look before continuing… or just wait until the end so you don’t forget to come back. Either works: https://www.ohjoysextoy.com/50shadesofgrey/
The biggest problem kinky people have with Fifty Shades is the unrealistic and unhealthy relationship dynamics between Christian and Ana—particularly where it involves the BDSM relationship. Whether you love Fifty Shades or you hate it, I think you might get something out of this post.
Fifty Shades has major issues. I don’t think anyone can deny that. There are basic relationship flaws and then when it comes to BDSM there is some unhealthy stuff there. But if you write BDSM you can’t totally hate it because Fifty Shades has helped our genre to boom.
Seriously. It wasn’t the first D/s or BDSM book to hit mainstream by any means, or even the first to get a Hollywood movie, but its popularity has really helped get this genre noticed and accepted. In fact, these books and movies have made being in a BDSM relationship easier too. I’m not joking. I no longer get the horrified looks I used to get when someone found out I was a submissive. Instead of “Ew… you like to be abused?” I get “Ooooh—Fifty Shades stuff, right? Kinky! Hahaha.” Sometimes with a wink and a smile, but rarely with judgment anymore.
Fifty Shades helped kink go mainstream and you have to recognize that even if you don’t care for the books. Plus as authors of BDSM or D/s novels I know that a lot of our sales come from people who started with 50 Shades, got curious, and went looking for more–which leaves some of us conflicted because Fifty Shades has given some of those readers some unhealthy ideas about what a D/s relationship is. There’s a meme out there that says, “If Christian lived in a trailer park no one would be romanticizing this relationship.” They aren’t wrong.
I’m not trying to bash the books because I only read the first one, but I will give you my opinions. It was okay. Not fantastic or breathtaking. Not so horrible I dropped it ten pages in—but it was okay. I had trouble getting through it and decided it wasn’t for me. There were things in it that bothered me, ironically enough the kinky stuff wasn’t very high on the list. True, contracts are a rarity in a BDSM relationship and when they are used it’s more for Master/slave relationships than Dom/sub, but every relationship is unique and if the worst thing that came out of that series was more people using contracts would it really hurt anything?
The fact that Ana wasn’t into it and Christian kept pushing doesn’t make for a great start to a BDSM relationship either. But I know dozens of couples with one vanilla spouse who was talked into trying it by their other half. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t. Kinky people trying to talk a vanilla lover over to the dark side is far from new or unusual. Things were explained, there were safewords, meh…to be honest I’ve been in relationships that were less healthy and had Doms who were more controlling.
I didn’t really like either character all that much to be honest. Ana with her internal monologue was a trial for me, but when she demanded he show her the worst he would do and then stomped out screaming “You monster!” after he hit her with a belt nine times–the submissive in me did a doubletake. I mean…nine isn’t even a warmup. I once was spanked in a club for two hours by, I don’t even know how many people, and it was over two thousand swats with various implements before I lost track.
(Warning: Don’t go into a BDSM club on your birthday and tell people. You will discover a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘birthday spanking’.)
So yeah, I did look down on her for that. Christian with his stalkery ways was more palatable to me. Probably because the whole ‘stalking someone you love to surprise them’ thing was a really popular trope in the 90’s so I grew up watching movies where guys suddenly appeared when they knew the girl they were interested in would be some place. And a guy pushing after you said no was the norm not the exception. I’m not as woke as I should be, I guess. The world is changing, and those things are less acceptable to the next generation, which is not a bad thing.
I was more bothered by him going on and on about the things he refused to do (romance, dating, love) while he was actually going ahead and doing them with her. I mean… broken, sure. Stalkery, okay, but lacking self-awareness was the limit for me. So, I finished the first book and then walked away from the series and never looked back. I prefer my D/s fiction to be written by people who have lived it or at least researched it thoroughly–but that’s just me. My opinion.
I am not the world and my opinions are really only going to be important to people who agree with me.
But it’s okay to read and enjoy fiction that has issues, fiction that doesn’t show the best example of a relationship, because it is fiction. You are allowed to like a book that might have problems with the writing style, or faulty grammar too. A book doesn’t need to be perfect to be enjoyed. Sometimes the story transcends all of those little faults for the reader and when it does it’s magical.
And writers–you are allowed to portray a relationship in your book that has flaws. People have flaws, all of them, so there’s no reason for fictional characters to be perfect.
This is the most important thing to remember. Fiction isn’t real life. It’s entertainment and should never be mistaken for a how-to guide. I am horrified when I hear that people have based their real-life D/s relationship on Fifty Shades, but you know what? I’d be horrified if they based it on my books too. My books are not instructional manuals; they are stories to entertain, titillate, and excite people.
While my blog might be filled with helpful information and articles about real D/s relationships, my books are just fiction. They should inspire and enflame your fantasy life, not teach you how to submit, or how to dominate someone. That’s not to say you can’t act out any scenarios I present in them, sure why not, I love roleplay too, but don’t model your relationship on fictional couples.
Fantasies have never been politically correct and most of the time aren’t morally acceptable outside of your head either. I’ve fantasized about many things that I would never in a million years want to happen to me in real life and every man and woman who has ever had a rape fantasy should immediately understand the difference between something hot to get off on—and something you want to actually happen.
I do worry sometimes about people thinking that I’m condoning or encouraging unhealthy behaviors in a relationship. It’s something a lot of authors think about—but in the end readers need to learn to separate fantasy from reality on their own.
And that brings me to the other thing I wanted to address. Up in the beginning I said that I’d found a comic that inspired part of this post. Well, I was already thinking about this basic topic because of a review I received on my new book, Surrendering to Her General under pen name Sadie Marks.
I know we’re not supposed to read our reviews and I try to resist but I do sometimes go and look. So, I came across it on Goodreads and it was honestly a great review. Very insightful and detailed, with both positive and negative feedback, which I love. I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to think I’m upset about the review at all, but it did mention something that inspired some thinking on my end about whether we, as authors, are responsible for the underlying messages that people get from our books.
I don’t have any intention of making a habit of replying to reviews and I didn’t this time either. Books should speak for themselves without explanation. Plus, it freaks the reviewers out and they shouldn’t feel like they are being harassed for their opinions. But because the review made an interesting point and I’ve been thinking about it, I’m going to show you just the applicable part of the review here:
“I really, really didn’t like that she got a new and “improved” body in exchange for contracting as a slave. This was too close to body-shaming for my comfort. What’s wrong with having scars? Blemishes? Brown hair? I really wish authors would stop creating characters that are young, beautiful, and thin. Ms. Marks: the message you’re sending in a culture that already body-shames far too many girls/women isn’t a good one.”
(I shouldn’t need to say this, but do not under any circumstances hunt down or harass the person who left the review. I’m glad they left it but either way they have a right to their opinions. I’ve seen people attacked for reviews before, in fact, I have been and I really think it’s wrong.)
Whoof. So, those are some heavy words and it was hard for me to read because I am 100% against body shaming and I believe all women are beautiful. I have more than enough faults both physical and otherwise myself to feel like I have no right to criticize another woman for her appearance or imply women should want to change for society.
What’s ironic about this is, being pretty wasn’t my first thought when I wrote about the new body bribe to get people to sign up to be willing slaves. I felt then, and still feel that this technology would be a gift to people whose bodies have failed them in much deeper ways than looks.
The concept of this series was inspired specifically by a conversation with a friend of mine, who is trans. They said “Why would aliens even need to kidnap humans? If they could just offer us new bodies so many people would sign up willingly.” That comment and the conversation we had afterwards got me thinking seriously about how true that was and the plot sprang to mind.
I started to think about how much of a gift that would be just to trans people and people with chronic pain issues. I have several people in my life who have debilitating physical conditions that cause daily pain and will never improve, as I do myself. I would probably jump at the chance to have those issues vanish and probably some of them would also.
So when I said, “People who felt betrayed or trapped by their bodies showed up in droves.” I was thinking about people who had deeper concerns than blemishes and the wrong color hair. Of course I could have made the offer just that without including ‘beauty’ into the mix.
However, as a physically flawed woman with her own insecurities it’s a fantasy to dream of how different life would be if I could wake up in the perfect body. I don’t think any woman should be forced, by peer pressure, societal pressure, or anything else, to maintain a certain look. But I do believe every woman has a right to seek to change herself if she thinks it will make her happier to look different. That covers everything from dyeing your hair, to losing weight, to getting a tattoo, to having plastic surgery done.
You have a right to change how you look if you want to, without being shamed for it, just as much as you have the right to stay the way you are without being shamed.
I think what the reader missed, maybe what most people missed, was that the Sadecs were fairly oblivious to whether or not the slaves were perfect and gorgeous. They offered the technology because, having been watching Earth for ages, they realized that humans are obsessed with beauty— not because they craved beautiful slaves for themselves. You can take that as a comment on our society.
At no point are any of the slaves/pets complimented on their physical appearance and this is deliberate. Kenzi actually wonders if Sadecs even find humans physically attractive at one point. Which makes sense since aliens would have a different standard of beauty. That question is never answered for her and all she ever knows is that Tal finds her beautiful. He tells her she’s beautiful only twice and both times it’s because of the situation and not her physical appearance.
So, do Sadecs find humans physically attractive? They find the humans attractive enough to be interesting, but because we are alien to them, they have no preferences for hair color, weight, height, etc. In fact, they find the variety intriguing since they don’t have the same differences in their race. That’s why each human picked out their own idea of perfection instead of being given what the Sadecs thought was attractive.
And that was important. Each human chose exactly, down to every tiny detail, how they wanted to look. No one influenced those decisions, not the Sadecs certainly, who would be perfectly fine with blemishes, brown hair and scars as long as the human fits their requirements as Pain Receivers.
Kenzi didn’t choose to submit because of her body. She didn’t decide being prettier was worth slavery—others certainly would sign up for that reason, but she had her own agenda.
But since a brand-new perfect body was going to be part of the deal, I don’t know many women or men either who are so secure in their looks that they would refuse it. However, after reading this review, I decided that there will be one now. In a sequel, maybe even the next one, we will see a woman who chooses to keep her own appearance.
I’m not doing this to placate one reviewer who mentioned it, but because I do think a balanced opinion on the perfect body debate is called for and I like the idea of showing a woman who is so confident that she wants to keep her appearance even when tempted with perfection. It fits the character I want to write perfectly.
So, the answer to the question about whether authors of fiction should be required to only present good role models and healthy situations in our books is— no. Not unless the author chooses, for their own reasons, to put out those messages. At least in adult fiction anyway. I feel differently about children and young adult fiction because their minds are still forming, and they are taught through the stories they read. But I believe adults should be able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.
So no, I don’t think writers of fiction are responsible for the messages people take away from our work. And I think in most cases, we don’t even know what those messages will be. Each person who reads a book walks away with a different idea of what it was about, of what deeper meanings were in it. Because they are reacting from their own feelings and experiences.
That’s why a hundred people can detest a book and another hundred can 5-star it. As you can see from the review I quoted, they came at the situation from a totally different perspective than where I was when I wrote it.
I was making some commentary on how aliens knew exactly what would most entice us (beauty and perfection) while giving people what they needed to be happy and fulfilled, and they thought I was putting out a body shaming message that everyone should look perfect. Things like that are hard to predict. And honestly, you’re never going to find the right combination of words to make everyone happy, while still presenting an exciting story.
That being said, I enjoy putting some positive messages into my books and I like a certain amount of realism in my character’s relationships. Because I have been in D/s relationships for most of my adult life that sort of realism comes naturally to the characters I write even when the environments are fantastical and involve time travel or spaceships.
In the end you’re going to see a nice mix of both healthy and unhealthy things in my books and it’s going to be up to you to sort that out because I’m writing fantasies not textbooks. It might even surprise you to realize sometimes my characters do things I don’t approve of or like either. It’s just part of being a writer and my books would get awfully boring if no one ever did anything wrong in them.
Have a great week everyone!