Well, we're back to discussing Fifty Shades and the far-reaching impact it's had. Let's get back to talking with Katie de Long, an up-and-coming dark romance author.
Who's Katie? Katie de Long lives in the Pacific Northwest, realizing her dream of being a crazy cat-lady. As a kid, Katie flagged the fade-to-blacks in every adult book she encountered, and when she began writing, she vowed to use cutaways sparingly. After all, that's when the good stuff happens. And on a kindle, no one asks why there's so many bookmarks in her library.
Q: Fifty Shades has been called "Mommy porn". It's a nasty term to use, frankly. What do you think drives the fantasies behind "mommy porn"?
A: Hah, yeah. People are still more than a little tied up in the idea that women by default have no sexuality; that, in effect, they aren't losing anything becoming virginal again once they've started a family. It's in the backlash to public breastfeeding, and the core “joke” of “porn for women”-- that this is what she looks at for satisfaction, rather than depictions of any real sexual activity, because women would rather look at cooking than sex.
Honestly, the cat's out of the bag on this one. “Mommy porn” has already diversified greatly. Nowadays, “sweet romance” is a romance subgenre, where it used to be almost the entire genre, aside from a handful of erotica publishers whose work wasn't widely available or displayed prominently, and could not be enjoyed in public. And even the old romance genre style of sweet romance bodice ripper is still usually shoved under the same umbrella. Because a love story is automatically a woman's version of pornography. But I digress. Now that people are talking about womens' fantasies, it's narrowing down into more diverse subgenres. Yes, we've always had things such as the Harlequin imprints that set readers expectation for something specific-- second chance love, a firefighter hero, a military hero, a foreign prince hero, struggles surrounding a secret love-child, that sort of thing-- but we're seeing it diversify even more, with additions such as scifi romance, dark romance, romantic thrillers starring antiheroes/heroines. The labeling hasn't kept up, mind you, with the e-publishing explosion, and erotic romance explosion, but romance readers are getting more and more particular at asking what they want. They don't just want a romance, they want an alpha male romance, a BDSM romance, a capture fantasy or Beauty and the Beast retelling.
And to an extent, retailers have been doing their best to hamstring that fragmentation. It's what their customers want, it would make them more money, but it would also appear as a “tacit endorsement” of the content for them to add a simple adult filter toggle and additional subcategories on their site, which would get them in trouble with conservative customers. Better for them to just pretend they don't know it's there, and ban it when it might net them bad press. (Sarcasm, but also the truth of their responses.)
At any rate, with erotica/e-rom/romance readerships being majority women, for the moment, we're beginning to see the breadth of female sexuality and women's fantasies. So of course not every one will be to our tastes. Human sexuality is a weird and beautiful beast, especially where it intersects with our existing socialization. You are a product of your culture. And honestly, the presence of abuse fantasies in our collective unconscious, how is that worse than any of the other ones espoused in mainstream pornography? Women moving from jailbait, to barely legal, directly to MILF, and then never being seen again. Cougars being a comedic presence in mainstream films, but barely present in porno... People of color, or QUILTBAG people being fetishized or exoticized (IE huge black cock, fiery Latina, tiny Asian pussy, Asian schoolgirl, Chicks With Dicks, lesbian porn produced for men, not actually for or with lesbians...) Subsets of porn focusing on sex as an uncomfortable encounter for the woman because of the man's incredible power in fucking her.
Can I let you in on an unpleasant secret, too? Men have these abuse fantasies, as well. We make it out that 50 Shades is all about womens' issues with abuse, but the fact is, it's long been a thread in our sexual narrative. There's an anecdote about a porn star who stopped acting in straight porn after a producer told her “I don't care if you're crying; you think the guys watching this care if you're crying? Hell, they want to see you cry,” during a scene. Everyone who's worked in a strip club knows that there'll always be some guys whose sole fulfillment there is in hurting you, however they can. They're the ones who insult you, do things they think will humiliate you, or lash out in little violent ways that they don't believe will bring them law enforcement attention, like licking you against your will, biting you, grabbing you... Why is one narrative “boys will be boys,” while the other is the end of the goddamn world, once women forsake healthy relationships for their abusive fantasies?
Hell, why is 50 Shades of Grey so much more threatening than the Grand Theft Auto games? We're shocked to see erotica on Kmart shelves, but we're shocked when sex worker protests get GTA taken off Kmart's shelves.
It's like the eye of Sauron, but sexy. This is Katie de Long--well, her eye.
Q: Some people are concerned about the book promoting abuse. Do books make women "want" abusive relationships?
A: I don't see it promoting abusive relationships-- women know the difference between fantasy and reality. Certainly, it glorifies a lot of little manipulative tendencies that happen even in otherwise normal and healthy relationships; I think that's why it's easy for it to remain a fantasy. Despite the frequency of these flags, or the overall pattern drawn, people can see themselves in Ana and Christian's relationship. The gaslighting thing over her “overthinking things?” Name me one woman who hasn't had an emotional reaction shrugged off by her partner with that reason. Or who hasn't felt she was, and needed a partner to confirm it so she could stop second-guessing herself and make the decision. We often don't support women in their decision making, so even simple choices can sometimes be fraught, knowing the flack you might take for it.
And-- I may get some flack for saying this-- the difference is in the frequency of the flags in 50 Shades. No matter how much you love someone, how supportive or nurturing your relationship is, it will have fights, and manipulations, and miscommunication. Simply the presence of the red flags as something you identify with from your own life doesn't mean you're primed to end up in an abusive relationship. It means that we live in a society that already penalizes honest communication, and that thrives on shoving issues in the closet. That barely recognizes gaslighting, mansplaining, or controlling tendencies as unhealthy, let alone abusive, a word with a particular weight, since it denotes a particular kind of “monster”.
And the audience for 50 Shades, in particular, skews a little on the older side than some other romance readers, and that also plays into a difference, since past a point, women were trained not to throw the baby out with the bathwater by abandoning loveless marriages. So for someone whose relationship is fine, but not all that, who sometimes experiences a lack of sexual satisfaction or interest from her partner, or a bit of gaslighting, 50 Shades reinforces a lot of what they know and feel is right in their relationship. It doesn't judge them, or make them think that their life is fucked up, or that the marital counseling isn't working and it's all their fault.
Personally, I do believe that 50 Shades romanticizes an abusive relationship. But I don't believe that it being out there and popular is a sign of the end of the world, or anything. Honestly, I love that so many discussion have come from it. You think we'd be questioning the psychology of an abuse fantasy if we were talking about the last Spiderman movie, which had some honest-to-god creepy stalker shit framed as romance? Even discussions on problematic content (Like the song Blurred Lines) rarely rises to a level in popular discourse that 50 Shades has. Honestly, I think it's done a lot more to call attention to those red flags, and to make women think about which are acceptable in a relationship, than any ad campaign or Lifetime survivor story movie.
Q: Edgeplay focuses on a sexual assault survivor, Nina, and how she uses BDSM to build her boundaries. Can you tell us more about healthy use of BDSM and boundaries?
A: Well, I'll start by saying we have a real problem talking about consent. Especially in the US, but even internationally, since for better or for worse, American culture has largely dominated, through film and music. We've exported our problems abroad. And, to be fair, Western culture is hardly the only one to have a problem with the idea that a woman's body isn't there to service whatever man wants it.
There's lingering effects of conservative morality that claim that the absence of no, or the presence of arousal, can be a yes-- that anything other than an outright no is too confusing for a man to recognize as a no, and the idea that a woman should never say yes, lest she become a slut... Abstinence-Only sex ed that doesn't cover enthusiastic consent, and a general lack of understanding of boundaries (see the catcalling debate, or the public transportation leg spreading debate)... The list goes on and on.
Basically, we really don't educate people to provide a framework for people to talk about their wants and needs-- especially sexually. And BDSM is the exact opposite. It's an ongoing conversation that's intended to change as you do. In some ways, this makes it the perfect tool for exploring your sexuality, both vanilla and kinky. And for someone whose consent has already been violated, it can be a hugely useful tool for rebuilding trust in your consent, believing it will be listened to. In a perfect world, we wouldn't need discussions of Dom/sub roles to set boundaries. But for a lot of people, those conversations never happen until they decide to try embracing one role or the other, and start those negotiations. And in a lot of relationships, both partners would benefit from these conversations.
For some of those who've survived abuse, BDSM can be a great way of rebuilding trust, working through hurdles, with someone who is expecting the absolute worst, and is watching to see what they need to do to make it healthy for you. But it goes beyond that. Even if it's just that you're shy, and have a difficult time expressing yourself, negotiating to try being a sub can result in you becoming a lot better at stating exactly what you want. If you're already a forceful person, negotiating how you might Dominate someone, maybe it lets you feel less guilty about stating exactly what you want, or reassures you that you are giving others what they want, too. Or maybe you want to try the opposite role. You want to give up your power, and know that things will still be okay. Or maybe you want to know that even if you choose not to be assertive most of the time, you could, in a pinch, take charge.
Q: What do you think the next big romance trend will be?
A: I think that depends. I think we're approaching a bit of a crossroads as things with the major etailers get dicy over their “we'll know it when we see it” censorship policies. If they continue to unevenly block titles for adult content, they're going to alienate a lot of readers-- sexual content made the kindle, and it can unmake it, too, if enough readers realize that Amazon's policies are directly preventing them from finding their chosen kinks properly. Right now, there's a distinct lack of labeling-- any effort on the part of authors to explain the content of their work can be used against them when the title is reviewed or indexed, and the categorizations are uneven and don't reflect readers' preferences, and can't always be done in the KDP dashboard accurately. So that works against everyone-- especially readers who want an easy way to differentiate between an alpha male romance, and an abuse or capture fantasy. That lack of labeling is why 50 Shades of Grey is labeled a general erotic romance, rather than an abuse fantasy or dark romance. And unfortunately, that labeling hits hardest at those who understand why that labeling is needed. I've had difficulties distributing Edgeplay because the explicitly consensual activity is lumped in with nonconsensual fantasies that retailers have already taken flack for distributing. And I'm not the only author I know of who has had problems distributing books that treat sexual violence from a perspective of a survivor, in all of the horror that entails, rather than simply glossing over it as a gritty plot point. It's unfortunate that if we put a trigger warning-- which, as survivors, we know the title needs-- we run the risk of getting blocked from the market, but if we leave it bare, we well know the consequences of a reader getting triggered, when they never would have picked up the book with the warning there. Being triggered, forced to relive painful memories, can be insanely disruptive. Just writing Edgeplay triggered me at times. For a while there, I flinched when my man-beast touched me, and I was so deeply in Nina's PTSD thought patterns that they unearthed several similar ones of my own that I worked through years ago. There's no way in hell I would chance someone being triggered that way by my work, not when the trigger warning would tell them from the start to stay away. See, we look at recovery, whether from abuse, eating disorder, self harm, etc. as a one-and-done. You work through it, then you're better. But it's a spectrum, and an ongoing journey. And the lack of labeling and trigger warnings, and the inability to recognize the difference between a rape fantasy story, and a story using a consensual rape fantasy just leads to confusion that ultimately hurts readers.
Amazon's not the only one, or even always the worst one (See the Kobo Pornocalypse fiasco) but if it reaches a point where a competitor forms that does properly label things, and not adopt policies akin to corporate censorship against certain kinks, we'll see a lot of growth in those genres, and in newer genres that may be filtered out. I, for one, would love to see alpha male listed as a subgenre of romance, because that would open things up for readers like me to easily find beta male romances, and probably lead to a boom in writing and labeling those. Right now, they're all mashed together, and the popularity of the alpha means that I can probably count the beta male romances I've stumbled across on one hand. And that's a shame for those of us (and there are many) who are put off by the alpha male and don't find him a good fantasy for us. Cruise the comments section of any piece on the alpha, and you'll see a hugely polar difference between alpha lovers and alpha haters-- it doesn't benefit anyone to have both these disparate groups' fantasies labeled as the same thing, and it just makes it harder for both of them to find what they want. Let's be all about the customer, Amazon. That's your thing, right?
Q: Which foods do you absolutely hate?
A: Well, I've never handled meat very well. It makes me sick, queasy, and I have really nasty dreams amid all the sick and queasy. I feel so much perkier and lighter when I eat vegetarian. And I don't have much of a sweet tooth to speak of. A bite or two of something sweet is more than enough for me, and anything beyond that just doesn't taste right.
And again, if you want to keep up with Katie de Long, check out her website here! You should also have a look at her Twitter, and stay in the loop by signing up with her mailing list.
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Leave your comments, rebuttals, and vehement agreements below. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on Twitter, Facebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!