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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
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Wednesday 25 February 2015

Interview with Katie de Long (Part 2): Abuse and Romance, Part 3

Hello hello!

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 TwitterFacebook, 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! 

Sunday 22 February 2015

Interview with Katie de Long (Part 1): Abuse and Romance, Part 2

Hello hello! Continuing our discussion about BDSM and abuse romances, let's talk about a writer who gets it right. Let's talk about Edgeplay by Katie de Long

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: Describe yourself in 20 words or less.

A bad girl through and through. Sharp-edged, outspoken, exhibitionistic, and a little crazy. That about sum it up? Also, as will become evident in this conversation, a survivor and a submissive.

Q: Fifty Shades has had an incredible backlash, even bigger than the one Twilight faced. What do you think is behind that?

A: 50 Shades lies on a number of psychological and sociological fault lines. Twilight was on some of those faultlines, but not all. 50 Shades is on the goddamn Hellmouth of rape culture and patriarchy. Everything from its handling of gender, female friendships, slutshaming, arousal as consent, BDSM as a moral failing, is framed on a society that emphasizes toxic femininity.

Basically, we-- both women and men-- determine women's worth based upon their ability to suffer for everyone else. You see it in “my child's birth was more grueling than yours” one-upping, pornography that glorifies women's lack of pleasure or sometimes even outright pain in anal sex scenes. There's this sense that, the more you give up, the less you respond to aggression, the less you demand from those around you, the better you are, as a person, that isn't really there with men. Women need to be martyrs, giving up their happiness, their bodies, their hobbies, for anyone who asks-- be it a verbally abusive family member, a partner who coerces them into sex acts or kinks they aren't comfortable with (Ahem, 50 Shades), or a stranger on the street who demands they have a conversation, when they have places to be. It's a consistent framing of a woman's good boundaries being none, and any attempt to put down boundaries as being bitchy, irrational, unreasonable, frigid, chasing him away, overreacting, having misplaced priorities, etc. The list goes on and on.

Toxic masculinity is the idea that men are defined by the amount of pain they can give, or take, from other men, without showing pain. It has its own heavily harmful effects, too. But the stuff that lets readers identify with Ana, despite her many flaws, and her fairly bad judgment is entirely rooted in the fact that she plays to an idea of womanhood stemming from old-world morality-- that man's sexuality is something to be suffered and managed by virginal women with no sexuality of their own, for no pleasure of their own, because otherwise the men would become depraved and run the world to hell. If Ana actually seemed like she liked the kink, well, that would remove some of the weight of her journey, right?

Point is, Ana is polarizing, because any given reader's feelings on her are tied into their feelings on the way they fit in with the world. If they're someone who has already rebelled against toxic femininity, they'll think she's a doormat, an abuse victim, and that the whole work is playing into an incredibly harmful system. And they wouldn't be wrong. But if they're someone who holds those feminine ideals, or who has lived their entire life in that system believing it was the only way to be happy, you'll see her as a strong person for taking everything he dishes out, and you'll be rooting for that happy ending. And you still wouldn't be wrong.

To be honest, I don't like either of the poles on this one. “Fifty Shades glorifies violence against women!” “Fifty Shades is just a fantasy.” Both are true, and neither is the point. I do think it's important to look at what in our culture contributes to it being such a widespread fantasy, especially in light of its misrepresentation of some of the core tenets of the BDSM lifestyle. If only because that'll help us figure out what else taps into those fantasies, and maybe be able to promote some other fantasies, as well.


It's like the eye of Sauron, but sexy. This is Katie de Long--well, her eye.

Q: What's the biggest difference between your book and Fifty Shades?

A: Consent is the big one. At every step, Nina consents, and at every step, her limits are respected, even when they're pushed. Edgeplay is also a little different in that the limits being pushed are rarely kinky ones; it's BDSM, but not BDSM of the kind that has serious kink (At least not pictured in the context of the story, though Nina and Daniel are experienced playmates, and certainly enjoy their kink. It just wasn't relevant to the arc in this particular story.) The BDSM power play is a tool in it for her to explore her power and her agency, since it's something that her experiences have told her can't be explored in a meaningful way with more vanilla encounters. Whether she's enacting a brutal rape fantasy, or pushing herself to stop freezing and going out of body when kissed, she's there because she wants to be, and she can walk away at any time.

And, too, her problems are different from Ana's. Ana's revolve around this “how much can she take” dynamic as more and more “kink” is heaped on her to show that she's good enough, strong enough, to deserve Christian's attentions, and take everything he can throw at her-- see the toxic femininity comment above. Nina's problems revolve around a “how much can she take” dynamic in regard to pushing past her trauma, but the stressful stuff being heaped on her, that nearly breaks her, is run of the mill affection. Ana fears being spanked-- or “hit,” as she often refers to it. Nina fears being touched gently-- you can beat ten shades of bruise into her, and she'll smile, say “Thank you, Sir,” and feel that the world makes sense. Pain isn't frightening.

As far as the Doms, well, Daniel, Nina's Dom, is careful to respect her limits, and is actively hurt when he thinks he's overstepped himself in play. He's got some flaws with overconfidence, and at times that does lead him to be manipulated, or to make decisions that hurt or undermine Nina, but he's very particular about boundaries, and his attention to detail means that he ends a scene too early, rather than pushing it too late, as Christian Grey does. To be honest, I see Nina as being far closer to Christian Grey, than Daniel is. Except that she's the submissive, so it's a completely different thing, even if on paper those two characters have some similar things-- traumatic histories, aversions to being touched, dislike of intimacy. Basically, the gender dynamics in Edgeplay are completely different than in 50 Shades of Grey.

Q: What is it about this kind of dark romance that seems to have struck a nerve?

A: A little more on this specific kind of romance in the question below, but I think people use dark romances similarly to horror, for catharsis in the fear. Indeed, the two genres often have a lot of overlap. Tweak a few wordings in 50 Shades of Grey, and you have a tragedy about a woman psychologically and physically abused until she gives up her very identity. Tweak the wording on a few of the scenes in a captivity fantasy romance and it becomes a harrowing fight to escape from imprisonment by a monster. Tweak the balance of elements in a revenge thriller about a girl getting close enough to avenge her dad, and you have a dark romantic thriller when her conflicting feelings toward her target and those around him become plain.

That gives it versatility; you can incorporate thriller elements, film-noir elements, suspense elements, dark supernatural or horror elements, and explore some of the most complex variants of human sexuality. And this isn't a new thing. Look to the movies, and you'll see an endless parade of concepts that would be lumped in with Dark Romance, worked in as romance subplots in action movies, self-destructive fighters redeemed by the love of the right woman, brightened up a la Pretty Woman, or explored through stalker narratives like Elijah Woods' rendition of the classic movie Maniac, which is in many many places just a few conversations and a sex scene away from an actual romance. We're honestly really familiar with these narratives: the hatefuck revenge one, the Beauty and the Beast capture fantasy, the girl in over her head with a Mafia Don, the nice guy turned stalker... They aren't always center stage, but they're still present in our vernacular, and so long as that's the case, we'll continue to see people draw to these blends.

Q: Are romances about abusive relationships a special, unusual category, or do these dynamics play a part in almost all relationships--real and fictional alike?

A: Every relationship. No matter how loving, you'll always have miscommunication, points of friction, that when repeated can form abusive patterns. It's one of the reasons why maintaining a close connection to people is such a labor-intensive endeavor. Even those who haven't survived abuse have the framework to empathize with a character in that situation, just based in their own experiences.

And this might be a somewhat controversial position to take, but I think people are drawn to abusive fantasies as a way of processing things that they think are off in their own relationships. See, there's a ton of different emotional cycles that go into living in an even minorly abusive or unsatisfying relationship, and a lot of conflicting feelings. Society expects one reaction-- universal revulsion and fear-- but ignores the multitude of others. Same as we gloss over date rape or incest in favor of stranger-danger narratives that are easy and linear. It's one of the reasons why most abuse narratives are framed around utterly unlovable abusers, and the central question is often “why did she stay?” or “how much will it take to get her to leave?”

But living in a less than happy situation, even if it's not outright abusive, it's an emotional mess. What can you do to make it get better? What are you doing wrong? Is this the best it'll ever get? Is this the worst it'll ever get? Could you forgive yourself for giving up on the good things in this relationship?Would you regret it in a decade if you did leave him? Do you even have the ability to leave, since you've been off the job market a decade, and your certification in whatever field you were in before has expired? He was so nice and cuddly this morning. He would be so hurt if he knew you weren't feeling fulfilled anymore. You're gonna spend time with his family today, and his sister is a great friend of yours. Think how hurt she'd be, to no longer have you around, for his feelings!

People deal with these types of pressures and doubts differently. Some people cheat on their spouse, find love, sex, excitement, or support outside the relationship, while keeping the relationship stable. Some people drown themselves in online RPGs, to feel they truly can become powerful with effort, and there's a tangible correlation between what they put in, and what they get out. Some people look at how much worse it could be, and drown themselves in dramas or tragedies, to say “At least I have what I have.”

And some people look at the possibility of changing an abusive man, or what unconditional love means in the context of an abusive romance, and take something uplifting from it about their own ability to persevere through whatever rough patch they're in. Not because they intend to stay with an abuser, or want to be in an abusive relationship, but because that “love conquers all” feeling makes it easier to forgive their partner for forgetting their anniversary again.

That's all for now, but part 2 is coming soon! Stay tuned. 

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 TwitterFacebook, 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! 

Tuesday 17 February 2015

50 Shades Of Commentors: Abuse and Romance, Part 1

Hello hello!

So, longtime readers will know that I owe the Fifty Shades of Grey series a bit of a...debt of honour, I guess. The marathon read-along I published on Twitter, complete with a prologue and epilogue blog post for each, is what established my name. The authors I've met, my editing career...none of it would have been possible without a goofy and darkly disturbing trilogy of poorly written and imagined porn.

However, I've seen cries from across the internet over fifty shades of fatigue. So instead, I'm going to bring you a short series on dark romance and BDSM, and we're even going to talk about why the hell this series (and other dark romances) have been so popular. Clearly, the movie has touched a nerve, and it's too easy to hate on it. So we're going to do the hard thing, and examine why it works--as well as providing much better alternatives. I've even got an exclusive interview with the up-and-coming dark romance darling Katie de Long, a new author who's bringing a shadowy, diverse, intelligent angle to a much maligned genre. 

First, however, we're going to start this the easy way--I present to you, the comments section of every Fifty Shades of Grey article I've read so far.

  • A Middle-Aged Man ·  Top Commenter
    Oh, man, I can't believe my wife is dragging me to this. *barf*
    • A Middle-Aged Woman
      Read the books. Why hasn't anyone read the books? They're so much better!
      • Some Twentysomething Feminist
        Holy crap, these books are basically a manual on abuse! Why the hell aren't we talking about this? 
      • Another Feminist
        No kidding. I love BDSM, but this is driving me crazy. Let's have an intelligent and reasonable conversation about alternatives to this book!

        A Well-Meaning Devil's Advocate
        We don't really talk about crappy role models for men, though. What about the bad lessons young boys are learning?
      • A Middle-Aged Woman
        How did anyone survive these books? I laughed my ass off at the prose and her "inner goddess", way too hard to get my panties in a bunch.