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BDSM WEEK – GUEST POST: Heidi Cullinan

 

We asked some authors who write BDSM about BDSM.  Here’s what Heidi Cullinan had to say:

What is BDSM really?

The thing we need to always remember is that BDSM is not a fetish or a trope: it’s a community populated by real people. BDSM is not something authors invented to spice up sex. Yes, some of us may flirt with part of the acronym in real life or in our stories, but when talking about BDSM, we must remember it is an identity and sometimes out-and-out way of life for real humans.

When we read or write about BDSM, we need to treat it with the same respect we’d treat anything real. Perhaps we need to give the topic a little bit extra respect because there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the community. Western culture in particular has a huge hangup about sex, especially sex outside carefully scripted missionary lines. Sex involving BDSM is often far from vanilla.

Yet perhaps the most important distinction about BDSM is that it is not necessarily about sex. BDSM is about control, permission, boundaries, and trust. It is entirely possible to have a healthy, intense BDSM relationship with a partner not involving sex at all. The honest truth is that true BDSM relationships are difficult to write on the page and make them interesting to a reader, because all the thrill is in the headspace the two partners (or three or however many are involved), the dynamic created between them. It isn’t the rope that’s exciting, nor the flogger, nor the spanking. It’s what those acts and tools mean to the players.

What part does it play in books these days?

For a lot of people reading or writing BDSM is about expanding their horizons and deepening their understanding of relationships, sexual or otherwise. Unfortunately also it’s all too often about giggling and feeling titillated because something is “naughty.”

The thing we must remember when reading or writing BDSM is that unless we practice ourselves, we are appropriating something real for our own purposes. It’s not that we have to be crazy PC police, but we have to approach this topic with respect and honor. I’m not a fan, for example, of Fifty Shades of Grey because I feel James appropriated BDSM poorly. Essentially Grey is a bad Dom and is flagrantly abusive at times, which makes for great conflict but is a horrible flagship for the community.

Exploring BDSM is very exciting and can be not just fun but very moving. We don’t have to want to be dominant or submissive to enjoy reading about the lifestyle, but by living vicariously we can either open our minds or find secret parts of ourselves reinforced or validated through the journey. We can also experience the thrill, yes. It’s fun to journey into something forbidden or new.

But BDSM characters are not occupants of some titillating sexual zoo, and neither are the members of the real life community these characters echo. Though I don’t practice myself, I’ve met many members of the community, and overall what I am struck by is how real and self-possessed BDSM lifestylers are. Warm, loving, confident, and above all so mindful of others they often shame me for my egoism and callousness.

It’s my hope that anyone writing about romance bases his or her story on this realism, this true community and not on perpetuating negative or presumptuous stereotypes.

Does it fit in romance or outside romance?

Oh, I think it can go either way. BDSM is all about relationships, and so are romances, so it’s an easy pairing. An easy reach in a BDSM-flavored romance is to have one partner be green, because then the author can explain and lure the reader in slowly. But I don’t think it had to be that way at all. The emotional arc of a BDSM relationship can be moving and meaningful in a way vanilla sex would struggle to reach. There is so much vulnerability in allowing someone control of your body, with or without sex. There is so much honor and love that goes with being the person allowed to have that control. We can discover so much of ourselves in watching that interplay.

But that said, BDSM could be involved in a mystery plot, or a fantasy, or anything. Almost all stories feature relationships, and again, BDSM does not have to involve sex. An entire story could be written about two straight men in a BDSM relationship where no sex ever occurs. It could be a beautiful, intense, revealing novel about men and how they interact with each other. Or women and women, or men and men, or a delicious mixture thereof.

For those wanting to explore the genre but are ‘scared’ what should they expect/understand?

Well, first off I’d say talk to your friends/read blogs to help find authors doing it right—and right for you. Read reviews and let yourself get spoiled a bit so you know your ride will be safe. Because yes, a lot of authors write it badly, and some that write it well are still not necessarily the right place for a newbie to dive in.

To try anything new we need an open mind, and because BDSM is about control, it’s very scary for a lot of people. Because most authors also include sex when writing about BDSM, it’s a double whammy. We have a lot of hangups as a culture about sex.

I would recommend James Buchanan’s Hard Fall as a good set of training wheels, as well as Kim Dare’s With a Kiss. Both authors understand the lifestyle very well and use BDSM as part of their novels with grace. If readers enjoy these books, maybe branch out into others.

Speaking for my own work, I would say Special Delivery is a good way to wade in, but Nowhere Ranch is pretty intense. Emotional and real, and a lot of people cry, but it also has fisting. If you’re nervous, I’d take a ride with Sam and Mitch before strapping in with Travis and Roe. But Special Delivery is about exhibitionism and playing with the taboo of shame: for some people fisting might be easier to take.

The truth is all reading is risk, which is why it’s fun. I never mind though if someone doesn’t want to read my BDSM works, or only wants to read those. I don’t like coconut in my ice cream and hate nuts in my brownies. Everybody wants different things, and that’s okay.

What are some common misconceptions?

That BDSM is all about sex, that BDSM is a fetish, that BDSM is whips and chains and handcuffs. It can be these things, but this is like saying Iowa is about pigs and corn or that New Yorkers are sarcastic, rude, and move too fast and everyone in LA is a crazy vegan who calls their pet a companion animal.

BDSM is about control, giving it up and accepting someone else’s with grace and courage and love. It’s about boundaries and limits and exploration: safe, sane, and consensual.

I think the biggest misconception is that people focus on spankings and ropes when those are just the toys and the tools. Headspace is the name of the game in BDSM. Letting yourself be done or being brave enough to do someone else—that’s the thrill.

How have elements of BDSM have crossed into contemporary romance? Why does it work/when doesn’t it?

I think BDSM has entered romance, especially contemporary, because culturally we are, by degrees, opening our minds to what relationships can be. Not simply man and woman but man and man, woman and woman, and multiple partners. Allowing for different types of relationships, taking BDSM out of the taboo and fetish category and simply making it another flavor is part of that progression.

While allowing what works for some will never work for others, I’d be willing to make a blanket statement saying BDSM elements in a romance are more likely to work when they’re considered part of the relationship and not simply a marketing tool or means to titillate. Anyone adding BDSM to their novel “because it’s so hot right now” is highly likely to add those relationships poorly, unless that initial desire to join in is followed by research and respect.

I guess my final words on this subject would be to always remember appropriation. When I write about gay men in love, I am appropriating because I am not a gay man. When I write Latino characters, I am appropriating because I am not Latino. I appropriate truckers too, and cowboys, and ballet dancers—though these three groups aren’t culturally marginalized the way some ethnic groups and orientations are. It’s not that I can’t write about things that are sensitive and not in my personal experience wheelhouse, but I need to behave respectfully when I do.

BDSM is the same. Because this topic is sensitive and fraught with misinformation and bad representation, as an author it’s my job to behave like an adult when I write about it. It’s not that every novel needs to be an instruction manual or full of deep meaning. This is a topic, however, which requires extra care because doing damage is so easy. In the same way we all like to be heard and seen, in the same way it wounds us when we are overlooked or callously mocked, the real people in the BDSM community appreciate it when we celebrate their lives, not use gimmicky elements because we think it might get us a few more sales.

I don’t think readers have to be so focused on this care and attention, but mindfulness never goes amiss. If it’s clear an author is misrepresenting or simply pimping out the lifestyle? Maybe don’t read them. It’s hard because a lot of this is subjective, but at its heart it’s simple common sense. We’re all humans. We all respond to love and respect. In the end, I think that’s probably all we need.

http://www.heidicullinan.com/

13 comments on “BDSM WEEK – GUEST POST: Heidi Cullinan

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  2. Sheri
    November 18, 2013

    Wow…I can’t tell you how wonderful this post is. Extremely helpful in clearing up misconceptions most people (including myself) have.
    I’m often confused and struggle grasping the ‘why’s’ of BDMS.
    Thank you so very much for enlightening and educating me. Special Delivery is coming up on my tbr and I am very excited for it.
    Thanks again!

    Like

  3. Sandra
    November 18, 2013

    What an amazing post. Just when I thought I couldn’t admire you more… well done!

    Like

  4. gigi998877
    November 18, 2013

    LOVE this post! I just got done reading a big ‘ol heap of BDSM garbage. It is so refreshing to read BDSM done right.

    Thanks Heidi and BioB staff!

    Like

  5. When I first realized that submission and dominance was about and trust it was like opening a door in my mind I didn’t even know existed. If the author hadn’t respected those aspects I’m sure I wouldn’t have read further. Hurray for excellence in writing. Great post!

    Like

  6. loederkoninginkatinka
    November 19, 2013

    Fantastic post, so clear. I especially like the part about the misconceptions. I’m always disappointed when books are only about the whips, chains and handcuffs. That’s not the appeal! Well, only a small part of it. It feels like they’re only scratching the surface and don’t understand what it truly entails (it’s not like I completely do, but, yeah).

    Like

  7. Anna Martin
    November 19, 2013

    I’d really really REALLY recommend Heidi’s Special Delivery for people interested in the D/s relationship that really is more about domination and submission rather than sadism/masochism. The relationship between the two characters is a romance, the kinkiness just works into that. It was one of the first M/M books I read – no regrets there!!

    Like

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