Genre expectations and personal history

Tally-MarksA few weeks ago, a journalist asked me during an interview what I thought of Fifty Shades of Grey. I said that since I haven’t read it, I don’t really have an opinion and we moved on to other topics.

But the reality is that of course I have an opinion on 50SoG. Everyone does.  My friends in the BDSM community largely abhor it. My partner has given me horrified recountings of multiple plot-points that are often written about on the internet as abusive. And tons of people I know mock its language choices.

On the other hand, it’s sold a ton of copies, made a ton of money, and is a subject of positive interest and very often enthusiasm in the romance space.  Lots of people find it turns their crank just right.

And amid all of that, I’m supposed to feel something.

But I’ve largely avoided reading it so I don’t have to.  I’m pretty sure it’s not my cup of tea, and I would likely be concerned at its misrepresentations of safe/sane/consensual and/or risk aware kink (I’ll talk about the difference between the two terms when my and Erin’s upcoming novelette Room 1024 comes out in April).

But at the same time, I’m not really interested in policing other people’s fantasies or assuming that readers don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. I’m also wary of engaging in the (internalized) misogyny that often gets directed at romance and erotica readers and writers. And I don’t want people to feel bad about what turns their crank. Rather, I want them to talk about it.

In fact, I’m a lot more interested in hearing about why Fifty Shades of Grey punches people’s buttons positively and building something useful out of the degree to which the book has helped to make sex and desire a more public conversation.

Now, I’m not saying other people should stop criticizing the book or worrying about the issues they’re worrying about.  Those are legitimate, important, and helpful conversations as far as I can tell. I’m just saying I don’t feel like my contribution there would be useful or meaningful — to me or anyone else.

Besides, I’m sort of struggling with my own feelings about the intersection of media, sex, desire, and judgement.

This is where I tell you I’ve slept with a lot of people.  More than 50.  Probably not much more than 60; I’m not entirely sure.  But I’m 42, my 20s were adventurous, and I don’t have the time or inclination to make a comprehensive list.  It doesn’t seem important. I’ve practiced safer sex, I’ve gotten tested, and I’ve largely avoided any entirely disastrous choices.

But I’ve got a number, and to a lot of people it’s kind of a big one. I’ve never hid it from anyone, I’ve never been bothered by it, and when other people are bothered by it, I just generally decide to be bothered by them.

Some of that is a reflection of my peer group, of friends who aren’t judgmental whether they’ve had sex with no one or everyone, and of growing up in a queer culture that demanded sexual expression as our right and a sign that we were still alive in the age of AIDS.

Some of it is also just some strange internal intensity I’ve always had about my ownership of my body and my use of it as a tool, as an altar, and as a weapon. I danced before I spoke, so I’ve always known what my flesh could do.

Lately, though, I’ve been feeling a little shamed. Now let’s be clear, no one has been actively or passively shaming me.  Rather, I’ve discovered my own insecurity about my number and about my history that I didn’t know I had. And I’ve discovered that in reaction to my creative life.

Starling (and the whole Love in Los Angeles series) is not a book for everyone, for lots of reasons, including that no book is a book for everyone.  I’m cool with that.  I’m even excited by it, because I’m thrilled when people who really want or need a book like Starling find it.

But one of the reasons its not for everyone is the degree to which it features both polyamorous and monogamish couples. And sometimes when people aren’t into that aspect of the book and talk about it, that feels weirdly personal.

It’s not just the book though.  I’m also a SAG-AFTRA actor. That is, after all, part of where Starling came from; Erin and I wanted to write a story that was less about Hollywood glamor tropes and more about the realities of the hard work of making TV and film.

And because of this background, people often ask me things about how love scenes or kissing on camera works.  And most of what I have to say comes down to — over and over again — that it’s just work.

But if you’ve never done that work, the idea of someone else telling you what to do with your body, or making you take off your wedding ring to play a character, or asking you to engage with someone else in a way that at least looks deeply intimate by the time it appears on screen, can be really hard to imagine.

It often seems legitimately uncomfortable (and, to be fair, as an actor it often is).  It can even seem from the outside non-consensual (this isn’t true, again, it’s work, and it is handled in a dozen ways at a dozen points to make everyone as comfortable and safe as possible).

Because I’ve done that work (I got into the union by playing a nudist in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus and look, can you say you’ve spent a day naked with Nicole Kidman?), because I’ve been in poly relationships, because I’ve been deeply engaged in the kink community, and because I’ve slept with what is — to many people — a lot of people, I know what some people think of me.

But until I started to make art about it, I never knew I cared.

So if you love Fifty Shades of Grey, I want to know why.  If you struggle with other people shaming you for the fact that it turns your crank, I want you to be able to talk about it. because if kink is something you want if your life, that conversation where you can be open about your desires and advocate for yourself, is the first step to finding a way to do kink in a non-abusive, safe(r), and more responsible way.

Things that are awesome in comments on this post: your experiences, desires, questions, concerns, information about safe/sane/consensual and risk aware kink, and book and media recommendations. Things that are not awesome in comments on this post: Telling people what they are allowed and not allowed to find sexy or not in their heads.

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5 Responses to Genre expectations and personal history

  1. Chrissie says:

    I’ve been a fairly active member of kink communities for five years. When Fifty Shades first exploded I was thrilled–I didn’t know anything about it other than it was a book about a BDSM relationship and that, holy crap, my local Chapters had all three novels on a giant display in the middle of the floor. I was excited to see a book that was by a woman for women, and focused on a dominant/submissive relationship, made accessible to mainstream consumers.

    I was lucky enough that when I first expressed my less-than-vanilla desires to a friend they directed me towards Fetlife, and from there I was able to go to my first much and meet lots of like-minded folk. I had real life people to discuss my kinks with, and a safe and positive community within which to explore them.

    Not as many people are as lucky as me. I’ve been the awkward teenager who couldn’t help being turned on by things she knew she shouldn’t be and unable to put a name towards what it was she was feeling or what she was looking for. I know how it feels to be grappling with an attraction to BDSM and have no idea that BDSM is a Thing, in the first place, let alone a Thing with a wide and varied community and something practiced enjoyably between consenting adults.

    So, I am absolutely, one-hundred-percent grateful towards Fifty Shades of Grey for maybe being that friend who goes “Oh, hey, you’re into that? Well you’re not alone.” to anyone out there who wasn’t able to confide in a real life person like I was.

    That being said, I’ve read all three books and I agree that there are sooooo many problems with them. The writing is terrible, the relationship between Christian and Ana is toxic and creepy, and the idea that Christian is only into what he’s into because he was abused by his mother as a child is frankly insulting.

    But I’m going to see the movie. And I’m going to support anyone who also chooses to see the movie. I hope the movie will portray a healthier relationship than the books, though I’m not expecting it.

    I continued to read all three books because I want to be able to say “You thought that one scene was hot? Great! Here’s somewhere you can go to find out more about that thing,” or if someone thinks the entire idea of BDSM is abuse after reading I can let them know that it’s not really an accurate portrayal, and point them in the direction of books that do it better. Which is why I am also going to see the movie.

    Fifty Shades started a dialogue and it’s up to the rest of us to continue it. We can’t let it be the only narrative, but we can definitely let it start the conversation.

    (I highly recommend Laurell K Hamilton for sexy, responsibly written BDSM. And for movies, do yourself a favour and watch Secretary.)

    • priscilla says:

      “Secretary” may be good porn for some folks. I don’t, however, think it’s a good representation of BDSM. It has the same implication as 50 Shades- the female lead is “into” what she’s into because she’s damaged. But aside from that, the relationship depicted is very unhealthy and sad. I was appalled when it came out and so many kinksters were lauding it as a great movie about BDSM.

      • Chrissie says:

        Really? I didn’t see it that way at all. I felt like Lee’s self-harm had a lot to do with her desire to gain control, and find some sort of outlet, and I think E Edward offered her both of those things. There’s something incredibly powerful about surrendering; she could control her life by allowing him to control her.

        I don’t see that as someone who is damaged being attracted to something that could damage her further. I see that as someone making choices of her own free agency for maybe the first time in her life, and finally feeling powerful.

  2. verity says:

    I mean, I got into bdsm through reading fanfiction when *I* was a teenager. (And you know whose!) But it wasn’t stuff I picked up off the table in Borders. I read it in community and talked about it in community. Even when I read crappy kink fic, I read it in dialogue with other works. And sometimes I loved it despite its flaws and faults.

    My family has known I write fic since I was, like, 12, but the first time I was able to really talk about transformative works with my extended family was this past June. “This is part of an important tradition of women’s erotic writing,” said Roller Derby Aunt Who Used to Be On LJ as her two-year-old darted between us. “I can’t believe they cast Jamie Dornan,” said Favorite Cousin’s Mom Aunt. “As Christian Grey? Really?” “I guess I’ll go see the movie,” said Godmother Aunt. “I’m going to the midnight showing,” said I. My mom patted me on the back. Whatever the source material, this is a conversation I’m glad to be a part of.

  3. Megdelyn says:

    I read the books after I met 4 people in one week who recommended them. I don’t think I knew it was about a bdsm relationship when I started – just that I was told they were “hot”. I was hooked by the ridiculously wealthy man meets average working girl and wins her by throwing gobs of money at her plot. That got me through the bad writing, poorly drawn characters, pop psychology and inaccuracies. Money and penthouses turn my crank more than braided leather, apparently.
    Despite all the drawbacks, I still enjoyed reading them. I think it was because Ana enjoyed the sex. If she’d been introduced to his playroom and didn’t find it titillating and ultimately pleasurable then I’m not sure I could have put up with the rest of it. So I enjoyed her enjoyment of sex.
    Didn’t know I was such a voyeur.

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