Villains in Leather: Negative Portrayals of Kink in Fiction

41SITzvYzCL._SL500_AA300_It has been a few weeks of strenuous debate on the net about kink and how it’s portrayed in the media. Meghan Murphy ( and William Saletan (Slate), who both have a large mainstream reading audience, wrote posts exhibiting a basic lack of understanding about kink and BDSM. They each, in their way, made exaggerated and very inaccurate correlations between kink and criminality – even murder. I felt like I was back in the 50s reading articles that stereotyped all gay men as pedophiles because one gay man was caught molesting a child.

There were some very eloquent, well-argued responses. “I Am An Abuser” from Michael (Molly’s Daily Kiss), “Do Your Homework” by SexGeek, and “BDSM & The Faulty Personality Presumption” by Isabel (Diary of an Undercover Kinkster).

I’m not going to revisit any of the arguments or defenses. That’s been covered. What I’d like to address is lesser but, for me, very thorny issue of how BDSM or any kink in particular is portrayed in fiction.  Like many racial minority, feminist and  GBLT action groups, the kink community wants to be represented in a positive light in the media. And I understanding why that is. Decades of having these groups depicted as criminals, cretins, and predators, they want the inaccurate stereotyping to stop. And not just in non-fiction. They feel that positive portrayals will encourage culture-wide acceptance of who they are as people. And they’re not wrong. Films like “Philadelphia“, TV shows like “Queer as Folk“, books like Sarah Water’s “Fingersmith” have probably done more to get the normative majority to reconsider their prejudices than anyone cares to admit.

At the opening of her post, Isabel says “I was watching last week’s episode of CSI, a show I usually love, when I was wacked across the face with a similar storyline to what I’ve often seen before – BDSM portrayed in a negative light.

This is an issue I am really, truly torn about. On one hand, I recognize the enormously beneficial aspects of positive portrayals of minority groups. On the other, I feel that there is a grave danger in any fiction writer being at purely at the service of social activism; for me, that is nothing more than  propaganda. Furthermore, I feel that a constant demand to only represent, say, kinky people, in a positive light, means that I am not seeing them as individuals with individual stories, but as posterboys/girls for the group. And that is as much a stereotype as a badly executed and inaccurate negative portrayal.

So, what’s the solution?

I believe that part of the answer is to consider the complete oevre of the creative producer (or, in the case of CSI, look at the series over time. It has produced some very intelligent and sensitive kinky characters as well. You can’t accuse them of always using kinksters as villains.)

Another partial answer can be found in the work of people like Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City Series) or Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, Affinity), or Laura Antoniu (The Marketplace Series) who almost completely contextualize their stories within their subcultures, portray them with accuracy and can then allow for both the protagonists and the antagonists to belong to the same sub-culture.

My solution – and it’s a very imperfect one, I admit – is to rely on really in-depth and complex characterization. I believe our individuality is fundamentally more significant, more important, than any membership we might have to a group. I have written gay, kinky, racial minority antagonists. But what makes them antagonists is not their sexual orientation or their racial background. It’s their individual behaviour.  Similarly, my protagonists have been kinky or gay or Asian, and their goodness is also not a product of their sexual orientation or cultural background. They’re simply a good person.

I know this does not sit well with the various social action groups. And I acknowledge and understand why they wish I were more of a Maupin or a Waters. But for me, as a writer, the story and the character come before the politics. I don’t feel it’s my job to be a social activist, but to tell stories well. I understand that other writers feel differently, and I respect their choices.


  7 comments for “Villains in Leather: Negative Portrayals of Kink in Fiction

  1. March 12, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    Hear, hear. I do feel that pressure though, when I’m writing, and it’s hard not to listen to the voice that says I can’t portray a character in a way that is negative in those terms. Very tricky.

    • March 12, 2013 at 4:41 pm

      Yup. It’s tricky. I guess one has to do what one feels is right and be prepared to defend one’s decisions.

  2. Kathleen Bradean
    March 12, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    I think every subculture goes through Ghandi’s levels: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

    The laugh at you, as LGBT people know, is that you’re the punch line for juvenile jokes. Included with this is the gay of least resisitence. The good gay. The one even homohaters would tolerate because he’s not sexual and he’s non-threatening and oh how he agrees with you that most of his people are horrible. I’m waiting to see the BDSM equivalent of this emerge.

    Then there are cautionary tales and morality plays and complete misrepresentations in media as they fight you.

    The part Ghandi missed was the step of seizing your identity and creating a shared space of counter-information, where another sterotype emerges (but at least it’s positive). This is sainthood.

    Then, finally a fully-fleshed, balanced picture emerges, and everyone loses interest because there’s something more shocking for ignorant talking heads to spout off about in the media to alarm their viewers/readers. And that, my friends, is called winning.

  3. Catherine Mazur
    March 13, 2013 at 2:56 am

    There are a lot of people who use BDSM and the BDSM community to hide, or to justify, their abusive practices. People with certain kinds of abuse histories, who are untreated, are often drawn to BDSM but end up finding themselves drawn to the kinds of partners that use it as an excuse to cross boundaries…or end up being the “true Dom” who passes off rape as play. Whether kinksters want to admit it or not, the scene is FULL of unstable people. Some of them are dangerously so.

    So, from the perspective of realism, writing unstable characters who call what they practice BDSM when what they’re actually doing is abusing people is perfectly legitimate.

    I think a big problem with this, though, is how lots of mainstream narratives inadvertently support abusers in the kink communities by taking situations that are abusive and presenting them as appropriately romantic (Twilight, 50 Shades, a million Mills & Boon titles) while other mainstream narratives present what appears to be consensual BDSM activities as indicators of an abusive personality. Hence the character with the BDSM porn who automatically becomes a suspect in a pedophilia case, or the murder victim who liked to sub and/or bottom at parties and is blamed for her gruesome and sadistic death—after all, she liked getting choked and hit and cut at the parties, right? How did her murderer know she didn’t like it? (Because someone is going to consent to snuff*. Yeah right.)

    I too think the best way to handle kinky characters is to write them well. Don’t be lazy and allow “kinky” to stand in for something else (evil, stupid, slutty, whatever). Good characterization makes “kinky” just another prism through which to view their individual complexities.

    *I have to admit, though, to a slight fascination with the cannibal case in Germany, that one where the guy wanted to be killed in a certain way and then eaten. Since the victim is dead and cannot vouch for whether or not this story is true, and there is no foolproof way to substantiate such a claim, it is not my opinion that someone can or should be allowed to (insomuch as it lets the killer off the hook) consent to snuff. But it brings up a lot of thoughts for me on the nature of consent and whether or not people should have the right to terminate their own lives in whatever manner they see fit.

  4. March 13, 2013 at 8:05 am

    Oh, the artistic battles fought in the name of social activism. Not all artists are trying to make a political statement or change the world. Some (I dare say, most) are simply trying to investigate and portray the world around them in an entertaining and thought-provoking way. While I try not to openly offend anyone or stereotype my characters (no one likes a cliche anyway, right?), I don’t really care if the audience is disappointed by my unwillingness to try and change the world of sex with my writing. Not trying to change anything…just trying to enjoy what’s already there.

    Interesting topic.

  5. Aiona
    March 17, 2013 at 4:06 am

    @Catherine Mazur: Thank you for putting into concise words my thoughts as well.

    @Remittance_Girl: I appreciate your addressing this topic and your writing shows you have for a while. I hope to achieve the same balance of artistic portrayal that doesn’t deceive and yet still entertains. You say your way isn’t perfect, but if I may paraphrase my favorite quote from the movie _Beyond Sunrise_, the answer is in the attempt. And I enjoy reading your attempts. 🙂

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