Explicit Consent: Kinky Erotica Through the (P)ages
“Consent is sexy.” These three words have become a popular catch-phrase over the past few years. Though there is (valid) critique of the trope of “sexy consent”, the concept of consent as compatible with—and even a prerequisite of—eroticism has become nearly ubiquitous in the sex-positive sphere. But what about consent and negotiation in the context of kinky erotica? Can lovers negotiating their BDSM scenes be erotic, not merely implied or ignored altogether?
The historical answer, at least in most kinky literature published prior to 2010, is a resounding “no.” Sexy consent isn’t reflected in most “classic” BDSM erotica, and remains a minority even in the 21st century.
Story of O (1954), Pauline Réage’s genre-defining classic, depicts kink as something that the submissive must suffer through. It reinforces the rather troubling idea that kink is sexy because the submissive derives no pleasure from it. O undergoes physical and psychological tortures, but there is no portrayal of negotiations. Furthermore, there isn’t the slightest indication that O enjoys herself, even in a masochistic fashion. O isn’t a masochist at all—she’s a long-suffering vanilla who simply wants to please her partner.
The depiction of consent (or lack thereof) in Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) has already been deemed problematic by many a writer, so I won’t get into the gritty details here. Suffice to say that protagonist Anastasia is precisely the opposite of a model of enthusiastic consent. From page one it’s clear that she, like O, only agrees to Christian’s kinky antics because she wants to be close to him. This portrayal of submissives—especially female submissives—as merely putting up with kink is harmful on many levels, and tacitly implies that it’s okay to push kink onto someone who is only half-heartedly consenting. Suffering is eroticized, but not in a particularly fun way, and definitely not in a manner that most of us would try to emulate; neither Story of O nor Fifty Shades of Grey have endings that would work out for most kinky folk.
But where, I can practically hear all the literate kinksters lamenting, is the erotica that depicts kink as something mutually beneficial, or even romantic and loving?
Alison Tyler’s semi-autobiographical Dark Secret Love (2013), and the entire Story of Submission series, is the sexy, realistic portrayal of kink that we’ve all been waiting for. Tyler openly displays Samantha’s thought processes—even those of jealousy, discomfort, and uncertainty. When she realizes that maybe she can’t bear the sight of her dominant Jack playing with another submissive woman, there is no pretense. Samantha says, in simple words, that she is experiencing jealousy, and she and Jack renegotiate their relationship.
She also vocalizes and enforces her hard limits. At one point she refuses to carry through with a piercing that Jack orders, and there is no implication that she isn’t a “true submissive” because of this limit. Jack doesn’t try to wear her down or push past her boundaries. No, they simply move on, and the rest of their evening is delightfully depraved, with not so much as a hint of resentment from either party.
This isn’t to say that erotica openly modeling consent can’t push boundaries. Au contraire. Jack walks right up to the lines of Samantha’s boundaries, and pushes past the ones that aren’t hard limits. Samantha is uncomfortable in many of the scenes, but that discomfort is something she chooses, and revels in.
That’s the key here: Sam’s desires are central to this series. From the very first page, we, the readers, are only here because she needs to tell her story, every bit as much as she needed pain, restraint, and discipline. Samantha is a slave to her desires, yes, but merely a submissive to her dom. That is to say, she is forced to submit to her deliciously wicked fantasies, but chooses willingly and wholeheartedly to submit to Jack.
Especially in the wake of California’s new Enthusiastic Consent “Yes Means Yes” law, we need more examples of explicit consent, in every sense of the phrase. Not all kinky erotica needs to show consent, but for the sake of newbie readers everywhere, some of it certainly should. Readers need to see what consent looks like on a romantic evening, or between two strangers casually hooking up, and yes—between a kinky couple whose fantasies rest upon the (pretend) premise that the submissive’s consent is violated. We need to see that we all have a real chance at “kinkily ever after,” where whips and chains mix with roses and early morning cuddles. Consent and negotiation can be just as sexy as they are essential to a relationship. Let’s start reading the stories that reflect that, and perhaps the positive attention will shift the trends so that the next kinky bestseller is a little more reflective of a consent culture of BDSM.
From The Author
Eva Gantz is a community-focused writer at the intersection of social media, feminism, sexuality, and tech. She’s the community manager at Stellar.org, a non-profit centered around digital financial inclusion. Previously, she managed social media and marketing strategy for a queer, feminist press. She founded Giving Books a Voice, a business, site, and podcast for authors who want to get smart about social media. She’s passionate about open source everything and hazelnut lattes.