On Dominance in Erotic Fiction: A few Questions

focal-points-large-preview-optOne of my readers, Sally, left me some questions that I felt required a little more thought and more space than was available in a comments reply, so I’ve answered them here.

Her questions were:

1.) As an author of erotic fiction, what assets or personality traits do you believe make the male lead in a work of erotic fiction attractive to the ‘everyday’ reader?
2.) In stories regarding a Dominant and Submissive, why do you think readers have an impulsive reaction to be attracted to either or?
3.) a.) What is it about domination that the characters themselves find appealing? b.) And what do you think is it about the concept of domination that readers find appealing?
4.) What kind of connection do the submissive and dominant characters have to have? Is it both physically and mentally?

Not sure I can do this to Sally’s satisfaction, but I’ll answer as honestly as I can.

1. As an author of erotic fiction, what assets or personality traits do you believe make the male lead in a work of erotic fiction attractive to the ‘everyday’ reader?

I honestly don’t feel I have a lot of authority as an ‘author of erotic fiction’. I can tell you what I believe make a male main character work for me, but I’m pretty sure I’m not speaking for many other erotica authors. However, it’s fair to say that he does have to ‘work’ for me first, or I just won’t give a shit about writing the story. Also, I don’t know what an everyday reader is. If you mean a reader of mainstream erotica, then believe me when I say that I am pretty sure my stories don’t appeal to them at all if sales are any indication of this. But that’s okay, because I’m not all that interested in appealing to them. There are lots of writers filling that market already.

So, I’m going to tell you what I believe makes a male main character in erotic fiction attractive to me. Pretty much the same thing that makes a main character of any gender attractive in any sort of fiction: I need them to seem realistic, I need them to have credible, non-superficial flaws and tangibly unique qualities that make them unlike other characters. I need them to be able to change through the story. I need them to have agency and volition – to be agents of change rather than victims of circumstance. I enjoy writing erotic fiction that involves male characters whose erotic attraction doesn’t come from standard measures such as physical attractiveness or wealth. That’s a challenge to me as a writer and, I think, a pleasant change for the people who read my writing. So, I like to focus on the psychological aspects that make people attractive – the way they express themselves, the thoughts they have, the way they see the world and how they cope with adversity. Most especially, how they negotiate their own desires.

2.) In stories regarding a Dominant and Submissive, why do you think readers have an impulsive reaction to be attracted to either or?

I think some readers are very attracted to stories that agree with their own world-views and present a story in a way that most closely matches their fantasies. Others are a little more adventurous. Undoubtedly there are some readers who are sexually submissive and really only like stories told from that point of view, or stories that feature a dominant who is a projection of their own fantasy – and a story that deviates from that can really annoy them.

Personally, I really like to challenge myself, and invite my readers, to look at that power dynamic more laterally. This usually ends up destabilizing the apparent power dynamic. Sub and Dom are essentially ‘roles’ or ‘scripts’ that people agree to take on. But the actual power dynamic at play beneath the surface is more complex, and probably more equally distributed. For some readers, that reveal is gratifying, for others – it just interferes with their consumption of a fantasy they love.

I’m not knocking fantasy; I’m just not interested in writing it. I suspect most of my readers aren’t that interested in reading it. If they were, they’d have stopped reading me.

3.) a.) What is it about domination that the characters themselves find appealing? b.) And what do you think is it about the concept of domination that readers find appealing?

a.) What is it about domination that the characters themselves find appealing?

It would be a little disingenuous to answer that question without pointing out that characters aren’t real humans – they’re the product of the writer’s imagination. I’m not a mystic when it comes to writing; I don’t believe that characters ‘have a life of their own’ even though it sometimes seems like they do. But characters are usually based on real people, or an amalgamation of a few people the writer knows. So, perhaps the question is… what is it about domination that people find appealing?

Power is appealing. The ability to control one’s own destiny is appealing and the more power you have, the more likely – barring acts of God – you are to be able to do that. Sexual power is appealing, I think, because – in real life – most people feel a distinct lack of control when they find themselves in the throes of passion. So fantasizing and even performing in a position of control is very attractive, very erotic, for a lot of people. Even the most submissive subs tend to enjoy the power of erotic attractiveness they hold over their dominants. It’s not as clean cut as it is often portrayed.

b) And what do you think is it about the concept of domination that readers find appealing?

I honestly don’t think I’m able to answer that. I can really only answer for myself and my answer is a pretty complex one. I find the concept of someone who chooses a formal position of dominance appealing because, whether they know it or not, it requires a fundamental sacrifice. Dominants willingly take on the burden of much of the responsibility for what goes on between them and their submissive partners. That sacrifice is considerable. The risk is also considerable. If things fail, it is – at least formally – their fault it has failed, since they were the person with the power.

I also find dominants appealing because there is usually a deeply buried sense of their own powerlessness that drives them to want to claim control so overtly. It is often a desire born of a core sense of lack. To me, that makes them interesting and attractive as subjects to read and write about. Especially since no amount of power or control can ever really address that underlying sense of lack. It is always there, gnawing at them from beneath. Being dominant only offers them a short period of respite from that sense of powerlessness, which keeps their desire, their need for dominance always partly unsatisfied. Makes for good erotic conflict in stories.

I’d also like to add that there are two overt social transgressions to taking on roles of dominance or submission. Both involve saying aloud what is true but is forbidden to say in our society: that few of us have a lot of power or control over our lives. Much less than we want to believe we have. Much less that a supposedly ‘democratic’ and ‘free’ society pretends we have. So taking on the label of a dominant is a kind of challenge: if you’re a male brought up in a society where women are supposed to have equal rights, then claiming that role as a dominant is transgressive. You’re not supposed to do it, and there is an erotic thrill in breaking that rule. Meanwhile, if you’re female and claim dominance, that is even more transgressive, since historically women have had very little overt power.

But – and this might be counter-intuitive – I think taking on the label of submissive is even more transgressive. Contemporary society likes to pretend that women have an equal share of power, so overtly positioning oneself as a submissive woman is a lot like spitting in the eye of feminism. These days, that’s pretty damn transgressive. Meanwhile, taking on the label of submissive as a man is even more transgressive, because it is historically the position of women. Submissive men who demand recognition of their masculinity while placing themselves in sexually submissive positions are truly challenging mainstream concepts of gender roles.

On the whole, I think BDSM is a kind of formalized way of disrupting social norms: by making implicit realities explicit, by parodying and inverting gender and sexual roles, by turning pain and punishment into sexual gratification.

I’m sure other readers (because I am always a reader first) have very different reasons for being attracted to the concept of dominance. Maybe some of my lovely readers can give you their answers down below in the comments area?

4.) What kind of connection do the submissive and dominant characters have to have? Is it both physically and mentally?

I think that depends entirely on the story. Some people are only looking for sexual experiences. They enjoy the physical aspects of D/s or BDSM but have no interest in anything mental at all. I don’t personally really understand this form of interaction, so I don’t write about it much. For me, the interest lies in how the power dynamic plays out mentally. Of course, physical acts can act as a device by which the mental underpinnings of D/s are brought to the surface and explored in the narrative. But eroticism is never about acts or events, it’s always really about how those acts or events affect the person mentally and emotionally. So that’s what I try to write about. Sometimes not terribly successfully, because language is a very imperfect tool for conveying the reality of experience. But I keep trying.

I’m fairly sure Sally would greatly appreciate if anyone who cares to do so would volunteer some answers of their own. Please feel free to chime in!

  12 comments for “On Dominance in Erotic Fiction: A few Questions

  1. May 19, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    I’m going to think about these questions and do a post of my own.

  2. May 20, 2015 at 12:25 am

    What makes domination so appealing? I think about myself in a teamwork setting. I want to defer to the person who exhibits the strongest leadership skills. I offer my skills to them to use to make the team run smoothly. I play my part, they steer, and we function properly. And happily and productively as we should.

    Being near someone who is dominant has the same effect. I defer because they appear stronger and in control. I like that they will listen to my thoughts, but ultimately have the vision to lead me where they think I need to go. It’s seeing a strong person and trusting their strength. The appeal is in giving control of some form to someone else. Everyone is sacrificing something so things run smoothly.

    Characters that elicit that confidence are sexy. You know they’ll get stuff done if you fall in line. That Alpha personality says they’ll lead if you follow and everyone is satisfied at the end of the day.

    Does any of that make sense? Maybe that doesn’t answer the question, but it’s what I find appealing.

  3. Larry Harriman
    May 24, 2015 at 7:01 am

    I’m not sure that this answers the questions posed, but I thought I’d share my experience as a submissive male in the hope that they might be helpful.

    Sometimes it’s not about sex. One of my most vivid memories is of when I was tied up, and being whipped. I had a safe word. The pain was very bad . . . so bad that I wanted to end the session. I decided to tell the dom to stop, but then I didn’t. The pain only got worse, but as I accepted it I felt a powerful emotional release. It seemed like I was finally forgiven. I’m not sure what for. I think everyone has made mistakes, or done things that are objectively wrong. No matter how sincere the forgiveness one receives from victims is, guilt can remain. Sometimes you feel that you deserve punishment, and the corporeal form can fill that need.

    Sometimes it is about sex. Sex is scary. You want things and you want to please your partner, but what if the things you suggest or try are received poorly? None of these anxieties matter if your hands are tied to the bedposts. You can simply let things happen without fear of judgement. After all, what could you have done to stop it?

    Sometimes it’s also about gender roles. I do not think that women are weak, but they are often portrayed that way. I do not think that all men are strong, but they are encouraged to at least pretend they are. I want to be weak. I want to be taken. I want to be owned. I want to be pretty. I want to wear colorful shoes and flowy skirts and to have my fingernails painted. I want to be an object of desire. And I want to walk like that in public, but the ‘humiliation’ part of BDSM is perhaps best saved for another post.

    • GuiltySmile
      July 15, 2015 at 2:32 am

      I want to be weak. I want to be taken. I want to be owned.<————-

      This. So many times.

  4. KINK LIVING REPORTER
    June 7, 2015 at 7:10 am

    This is like 50 Shades of Grey. A British written book and British made movie starring British born actors that the author based in America, of all places. It was never published in America and the movie was never released in America and the actors use false biographies that they are from America to sell themselves, but if you read all the troll marketing articles about it in the British run media it was the biggest selling and highest grossing book and movie of the year. Rubbish, of course, as the Americans have still never even heard of either the book or the movie which have passed them by, but it shows you can get away with anything in media words and images. The lesson learned from all of this deceptive fiasco : Kink is as difficult as you make it to be, but don’t make it all up in your head.

    • June 7, 2015 at 8:00 am

      Sorry… but are you saying that 50 Shades of Grey was not published in the US, or didn’t sell there? I’m not entirely I understand your comment.

  5. Jane Anne
    October 4, 2015 at 8:15 pm

    On the issue of power/submission in characters…and readers who relate….you have nailed it. There is so little control over our lives and environment that the surrender to sex and dominance in the moment relieve the existential pressures through which we swim.

  6. Jane Anne
    March 20, 2016 at 7:50 pm

    Pleasures Apprentice is a remarkable study in the core of erotic learning rather than yearning. It provides such a compact essentially non verbal and very tender glimpse of mutual b ne fit, and perhaps a level of joy. Eroticism is an art. You are an artist. Your words are your camera yet is our film. Exceptionel truly literary experience at the highest level. It is astonishing that you can move from a histiory piece like Thu Duc to Cold,Storage and vampirism. It is no wonder that you explored the erotic love hate of two literary magnificos. You have expanded my reading universe. Cheers. For it is a positive experience of deep core experience. The image of the madman, naked and dancing, is a stunner. Merci bien. Intelligence, humeur, piquant oeuil.

    • March 21, 2016 at 9:08 pm

      Wow, Jane Anne. I’m not sure what to say other than thank you.

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