50 Shades of Non-Consent: Editing BDSM Erotica as a Queer Top

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“Just let me take care of you,” the hero whispers, choking back a growl as he pushes the heroine down face first on the bed.

“You are what we call a natural sub,” he says, tracing the paddle across her ass. “Are you ready to submit for my pleasure?”

The heroine nods her head shyly, her cheeks apple-bright. “Yes,” she says, “I want to belong only to you.”


When 50 Shades of Grey exploded in 2012, I was editing erotic romance novels five days a week in a cramped pink building in South Austin. 50 Shades made “BDSM” the most marketable term in the romance/erotica industry, and it made my already uncomfortable job a living hell.

I began working for Harpy Publishing1 out of desperation; I had just left New York for Austin and needed steady paycheck while I applied for graduate programs. You have a sense of humor, I reminded myself when I received my first assignment: to calculate the number of explicit words in a novella where a virginal witch experienced her first orgasm at the stroke of midnight.

Yes, I was put off when I found out all books featuring F/F romance were automatically assigned to the lowest (least bought) imprint and specifically tagged so that our readers could avoid them. And yes, it was immediately clear that casual misogyny abounded in these books: supporting female characters only appeared so the heroine could defeat them, and the hero would always choose the “good girl” over “the slut.” But I need a paycheck, I reasoned. I am not their audience.

We are not their audience, my friend Shannon and I would repeat over our third (or fourth) glasses of wine at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday.

It’s easy to convince yourself you are “taking something too seriously” when what’s offending you doesn’t hit close to home. The books that poured into our office post-Christian Grey were another matter entirely. Suddenly, the paranormal shape-shifters searching for their forever mate were doing so with handcuffs in hand.

Reading them was like spending eight hours with a muddy, inexpertly placed boot on my chest. It was hard to breathe; it was hard to go home and ever, ever feel clean.


 

When I came out at 24, sometimes it was also necessary to come out as kinky, although I didn’t have exactly the right vocabulary for it then. Feminine-appearing and soft-spoken, I am not most people’s idea of a Domme. When I started at Harpy, I was a total novice, still trying to reconcile my desires with how I saw myself in the world. At the beginning of my job, when I was reading only one BDSM-themed manuscript every few weeks — books written by women familiar with kink — I felt as if we were sharing a secret. This, I thought, this might be me.


 

“Your safeword is RED. You should understand that if you use this safeword we will stop immediately, but we can never see you again.”

It’s a regular workday post-50 Shades. I’ve run to the coffeeshop on my ten-minute break to get coffee and a breakfast taco. We are not allowed to take any breaks while on the clock except during two designated ten-minute periods during the day, at 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. sharp.

The words I’m editing are so familiar I can repeat them along with the two Doms.

“We would never ask you do to anything you couldn’t handle.”

A heroine with tears glistening in her eyes nods her head. I sip my coffee.

“You can trust us completely.”

At this point the guidelines for our “good imprints” have been whittled down until there is only one acceptable BDSM heroine. She cannot have any past history of D/s relationships, have ever engaged in casual play, or, heaven forbid, have ever been a Domme herself. In short, she is never a woman interested in BDSM. Additionally, she is an insecure girl who is willing to accept abuse if someone spit-shines it and calls it love. She is never someone I can see as a consenting submissive.

I take a bite of taco and keep proofreading. The heroine has a stalker. The stalker might have broken into her house. The two Doms go to investigate. She comes with.

“Stay downstairs while we look around,” they say. Taco. The heroine hears a strange noise in her bedroom and goes upstairs to investigate. Something awful like I KNOW GRACIE ANNE YOU BITCH is written on her wall in ketchup or blood.

I correct a few typos. The heroes come back upstairs to find the heroine understandably terrified.

“How could you have disobeyed us? We have no choice but to punish you.”

The heroine, who before now has barely been spanked with someone’s palm, is now being strapped down on a hobby horse. The Doms explain that her behavior has earned her a caning. “It’s for your own good. We don’t want to do this but we have to.” They take turns caning her until she cries snot. I sit there, trying to digest my taco, reading a graphic description of how much snot is running down her face.

Suddenly the MS has become a horror movie. I resolutely feel as if I should quit. I think I need to go throw up, but instead I just pace in the bathroom until I calm down. I have seventy more pages to proofread that day if I’m going to make my copyediting deadline.

So I keep reading. Sometimes I read blatant noncon, where the heroine is not allowed out of her own house, to wear anything but underwear, or to close the door when she goes to the bathroom. In these books, she has sex with the two “noble” Doms, because it is the easiest way to gain a modicum of freedom. If I make a real stink about it, I may be allowed to tag these books “forced seduction.” Usually, Harpy markets these books as consensual love stories.


 

Seven or eight months in at Harpy, I’m reading a new BDSM novel every two days. On Wednesdays, my girlfriend and I have movie nights where we eat too much popcorn and I try to navigate the minefield that sex has become for me.

“Are you sure you want me to?” I’ll ask again. I’m no longer confident of the line between consent and coercion. I’ve read countless scenes where the heroine says no and the hero keeps putting his hand up her skirt.

“Is this okay?” I ask when I’m tying up her wrists. I know to avoid any words or phrases that the Doms in the books I edit might use. If I call her, say, “little sub,” I’ll lie awake after she has gone to sleep, feeling gross and anxious.

On the other hand, if I bottom, I’ll just feel unworthy because I’m such a bad top — one who cries after (or during) sex, who loses focus and can’t commit to a scene. You, I tell myself, shouldn’t get to relax.


 

By the time I leave my job — I’ve gotten into graduate school — we explicitly don’t accept books with female Dommes for any of our regular imprints. I imagine making a t-shirt that says DOMME on it in all caps and wearing it to work every single fucking day I have left.


 

“You have done all I ask — clearly, you are the perfect woman. Will you do me the honor of wearing my collar?”

The path of least resistance is to write off 50 Shades of Grey as harmless fluff, but frankly, after editing over one hundred novels full of distortions and abuse, I don’t think I could respect myself if I did so. The romance novel industry perpetuates the idea of women as pliable and multi-orgasmic. The Doms in the books I read were looking for empty vessels, novice subs who would imprint onto them like ducklings.

Yes, I know the difference between real life and fantasy, but the two bleed into each other. As much as I want to believe otherwise, those depictions of D/s factor into how I behave as a top, how, in my most uncertain moments, I think a “real Dom” should proceed.

And books like 50 Shades set a dangerous precedent for would-be subs: one where hyper-femininity is demanded and safe words are for the weak. I understand why, upon reading these books, some people become adamant that D/s is just an excuse for violence against women. The relationships portrayed in these books are, without a doubt, abusive. I worry about the women who, instructed by 50 Shades, would not be able to recognize the difference between an abuser and a Dom — the women who will inevitably take their curiosity over to Fetlife.

In the world of 50 Shades, I — a queer Domme — am unthinkable. And the subs I know, not instantly recognizable, but real people with a variety of preferences, are equally absent.


 

This is not the real name of the publisher.

Profile photo of Jennifer Hanks

Jennifer Hanks is an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans. Her work appears or is forthcoming in journals such as PANK, Luna Luna, Muzzle Magazine, and Word Riot. She is currently working on a book-length project about the Virgin Mary and the zombie apocalypse. You can follow her progress on Tumblr.

Jennifer has written 1 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. Thumb up 18

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    Thanks for this. I was riveted by this piece. It’s very on point and incredibly worrying for me. Right now I’m working on a book that I’m sure I’ll have to self-publish, because it’s literary fiction, humorous, that’s filled with enthusiastically consensual sex – every step negotiated, and all kinds of configurations. In other words, an unsellable, cross-genre mess. I just want to write fiction with the sex left in.

    If you look at what’s being published, it would seem as if all people want is abusive deflowering tales. Who are the people that read those? Am I completely spoiled in that the readers I meet enjoy their sex stories consensual and queer? Is our relationship with sex as a species so messed up that we can only accept it with a dose of violence and female subjugation? I don’t get how these trends for terrible, inaccurate depictions of sex manage to ruin things so fast.

    Your time at this publisher sounds like a horrifying experience, especially in the way it spilled over into your private life. Recognisable, too, because I’ve often had editing/translation jobs where I’ve wanted to wash my brain out with soap at the end of the day. Clearly, something needs to be done. Does anyone have a mountain of money? I want to start a publishing house in which every book is a treasure of inclusiveness, accuracy, and things that are actually sexy.

  2. Thumb up 9

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    Great article. I knew that 50 Shades depicted a relationship that was not at all ethical D/s (and that it’s being read by people who aren’t knowledgable enough about D/s to know that), but I didn’t know about all these gross copycat books.

    I actually just had an interesting conversation, mid-comment-writing, with my fiancé after mentioning this article to him. I haven’t read 50 Shades, but if it was better-written and marketed clearly as fantasy about a blurred-consent/non-consensual relationship, I might. Lots of porn/erotica depicts non-consensual scenarios, and I tend to feel that as long as it’s crystal clear that those scenarios are pure fantasy (and that the porn is produced ethically, by actors who are consenting), it’s fair game. The problem here feels like it’s that that whole system of clarity about fantasy and the importance of consent has gone sideways. Skeevy non-consensual scenarios aren’t being appropriately labeled; his moves them from the realm of pretend and fantasy to an abusive reality.

    I don’t know – those are my first thoughts, prompted by our conversation. Would love to hear what others think.

    • Thumb up 5

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      That’s a very interesting point. Inappropriate labeling and the fact that the line between fantasy and reality blurs is definitely part of it.

      Because 50 Shades started as Twilight fanfic, it perpetuates all the stalker-type problems that Twilight had without being able to say – yeah, but hello, vampires! It transposes the relationships depicted into a version of reality. And it is true that this makes it much more obviously abusive. The 50 Shades books having been labeled BDSM fiction is so ludicrous – the only thought on BDSM that seems to have gone into them is ‘That’s this thing where people do stuff you don’t want, right?’ and then no one stepped in to say, ‘No, actually, that would be rape you’re thinking of.’ Yet for so, so many people, that woman-as-helpless-victim scenario is now what pops up automatically in their minds when they see BDSM mentioned. Argh.

      When you’ve got an author like Kristina Lloyd writing BDSM, a problematic issue with safewords for example might still come up, but there’s nuance and depth in the relationships depicted, so that the problem of it is highlighted within the book. With 50 Shades, nuance has gone right out the window, and the copycat books have a much more restricted view of relationships because of that.

      I think that if it became clearer to publishers that readers want the fantasy of non-consent as a (negotiated and played-out) fantasy, and not as a warped view of reality, then there would be more room for nuance and correct labeling.

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      I feel the same way about visual pornography and it is a relief to hear that someone else feels the same. I would rather watch non-consensual sex fantasy that is clearly non-consensual sex fantasy than Brazzers style “punishment” porn, which essentially looks like a non-consensual sex fantasy for the first ten minutes and then looks like a regular old porn shoot for the remaining time. Maybe a part of that is laziness, but I can’t help feeling that I’m supposed to think that forced sex is okay as long as everybody is enjoying themselves at the end.

      I tried to bring this up to some of my friends but I think that they were way too hung up on the idea that I enjoy non-consensual sex fantasy to have any sort of productive conversation. Ah, well..

  3. Thumb up 7

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    Thank you for writing this! It is not said nearly enough how 50 Shades is an appalling glorification of non-consensual domestic abuse portrayed as a “legitimate” BDSM relationship. For anyone who has ever been a Dom or a Sub it is blindingly obvious that EL James (and later copycats) could not be bothered to do even the most basic research into the lifestyle. (For anyone who is even vaguely literate it is also very clear that James et al have no idea how to write, but their abuses of the English language and hateful characters are less important than their complete lack of understanding of their subject matter.)
    According to 50 Shades, only deeply disturbed psychopathic individuals become Doms in order to channel their aggression towards their Sub (I do it because I love you), and only insecure, inexperienced virgins become Subs either because they are “naturally suited” to the role, or because they resign themselves to fulfilling their partner’s “need” to beat them senseless (Maybe he’ll love me). Oh, and she hopes she can change him (wtf?).
    In reality, Subs are extremely secure, self-assured people who know exactly what they want, how to ask for it and demand total respect from their Dom partner. Doms only get off on hurting their partner when their partner is getting off on being hurt. Because, duh, that is what a mutually consensual sexual relationship is all about!

    Hope you all can excuse the rant! As you’ve all noticed, I have some strong feelings about this crap (isn’t it depressing how many people are buying into it?).
    For those who want to know what the fuss is about but don’t want to cause irreparable damage to your calm/give EL James any more money, the girls on this blog effectively tear it to shreds chapter by chapter: http://www.snarksquad.com/category/books-2/fifty-shades/fifty-shades-of-grey

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    One more!! I think there need to be articles like this by people who actually practice BDSM all over the internet, and it need to be spread like wildfire.

    I myself don’t practice it (regular sex for me, thanks) but I know of it, I understand the concept, I get the idea, and I have a friend who DOES practice it and we chat about it regularly. So while I might never get a first-hand experience with BDSM, I totally get how 50 Shades of Grey and it’s copycats are just narrating (if that quality of writing can even be said is “narrating”) abusive relationships that support misogyny in disguise as “just another way to sex”.

    I dunno why I get the feeling that the women who buy into this crap are in part some of the women who support or are part of “women against femenism’.

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      Hey Laura, thanks! I do feel that this is a conversation that needs to spread like wildfire :)

      One thing I want to make sure to mention is that I don’t want to demonize at all the women who get the wrong idea about BDSM from these books. Anyone who read these books (of any/all genders) who had no prior knowledge of D/s would come away with an extremely warped perception of it.

  5. Thumb up 3

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    OK, here is the tampon-disposal story. Keep in mind that this was a workplace that was at least 95% female, and that might shed some light on the overall atmosphere there.

    In the bathroom you would find a box of zip-lock sandwich bags, a bag of brown paper lunch sacks, and a print-out detailing how to use these things: 1) place the feminine hygiene product in a Ziploc; 2) place the Ziploc in a paper bag; 3) the feminine hygiene product “must not be visible.”

    First and last time I’ve ever seen (or not seen!) such a thing in my life.

  6. Thumb up 1

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    I realize this is not the main point, but the fact they just flat out stopped accepting books with female Dommes makes me really upset. I mean, the rest is horrible, but I was already aware of most of that. I didn’t realize publishing companies were actually deciding to not even accept books with different dynamics. I guess I’ll just stick with fanfiction. It has a lot of its own issues, and some of it isn’t all that well-written, but at least there’s usually some variety, and some of it is written by people who know what they’re talking about.

    As for the rest of it… I just hope the film doesn’t get as much attention as the book, or if it does, then that these and other critiques will also get more attention.

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    Thanks so much for this article! My heart sank when I was reading it because I just finished writing my first F/F romance novel called “Owning Regina” don’t want to be associated with the tone that 50 Shades has help set. I set out to portray a loving and heartfelt relationship between two sweet people who happen to be kinky. Their relationship is based on deep respect and regular friendship. So it’s yucky when the 50 Shades comparison comes up just because of D/S content.

    But the good news is, readers seemed to have picked up on my tone and have been giving it really validating reviews like this one:
    ”For anyone who enjoys positive, realistic and consensual depictions of kink?”

    Anyway, thanks so much for the extremely thoughtful and important post! It must have been brutal to have had to wade through all that proofreading!!

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