Today’s Post on Submission and Consent in Erotic Romance

{Trigger warnings for brief mentions of rape, domestic abuse, and questionable consent.}

True story: when you write an erotic romance with an explicitly feminist heroine, I’m going to want to talk about it. As an erotic romance author and practicing feminist myself, I’m always on the lookout for the points where feminism and romance intersect. So when I heard that Cara Bristol’s third Rod and Cane Society book (a series whose kinky tropes are spanking and domestic discipline) had a self-identified feminist heroine, I knew I had to see how she worked with that premise.

Reader, it did not go well.

I’m not going to start with every single thing that bothered me about Body Politics. (My three word review: one long mansplanation.) I’m not going to start with how the heroine’s feminism was treated as the obstacle to Tru Luurrv, or how it felt like it had come to us straight from the Nixon era (have we no feminist icons more recent than Gloria Steinem?), or how the hero’s constant boundary-pushing undermined the lip service he gave to consent as the bedrock of a domestic discipline (DD) relationship. I’m not even going to start with how many curse words I shrieked at my e-reader when the heroine tried to use her safe word and he told her she wasn’t allowed to safe-word out without trying the thing he wanted her to do. (That’s what a safe word is for, you presumptuous fuckstick!)

What I am going to start with — spoilers! — is the bit where the story got super, super creepy.

We’re halfway through the story. Hero Mark has taken heroine Stephanie to a charity auction at the Rod and Cane Society (a wife-spanking fraternity) and one poster spurs a discussion about how they both want children—she wants boys, he wants girls. Stephanie dreamily reflects:

He would be a very involved parent. A loving dad. A strict father. One who spanked his children when they misbehaved.

And his wife. (Kindle location circa 1480)

THIS IS NOT OKAY.

All along, Mark has made the distinction between erotic spankings and disciplinary spankings. But all along he’s also argued that both are consistent with feminist principles of gender equality — because Stephanie chooses to be in a DD relationship with him, ergo her consent is given, ergo everything’s fine and everyone’s equal. (Meaningful consent of course is not an on-off switch, but an ongoing negotiation — arrrgh!) A typical passage: “Domestic discipline wasn’t about punishment but intimacy and bonding. Spanking — the aspect that had garnered Sentinel headlines — represented only one facet of a complex relationship dynamic.” (Kindle location circa 2306)

The quote about spanking kids and his wife, though, punctures this illusion. Either the disciplinary spankings are entirely non-sexual — meaning that, despite the rhetoric, his wife is as much his subordinate as his child is — or the disciplinary spankings are part of an intimate, adult dynamic — meaning that spanking his kids is, at best, horrifically inappropriate. At worst, it’s abuse.

Because children, of course, can’t consent to something as complex as what Mark is offering Stephanie.

These concerns never cross the mind of our ‘feminist’ heroine — who has no close female friends or family, which is more odd the more I think about it. Is she secretly a Regency governess magically transported across the centuries? (Wait — has someone written that book? I would totally read that.) She believes Mark pushes her boundaries and argues with her and makes demands because he wants her and cares about her so much. And because she chooses to submit to Mark, and to marry Mark, and to walk down the aisle carrying Mark, Jr. in her arms instead of a bouquet — no, I’m totally not joking — we’re supposed to accept that this is a happy ending, when it was really just one long episode of Hero Knows Best. This story played so fast and loose with the notion of equality that the word becomes unmoored from its accustomed definition. Equality, for Mark and Stephanie, means “we’re both happy because he’s in charge.” That may indeed be happiness — but it’s not equality, and it’s not feminism.

And just to be clear, I have tied up heroines of mine before. I’ve also tied up my heroes, for the record. Power dynamics can be hot as all get-out, and intense D/s relationships on their own aren’t enough to put me off a book. (One of my favorite reads from last year was Tiffany Reisz’s The Siren, where the D/s and kink content is far more extreme than anything in Rod and Cane.) And I’ve been known to question the idea that escapist fantasy for women must be morally correct at all times. But there are also narrative tropes and structures that I’ve come to see as toxic, including the one where a powerful, dominant man ‘knows better’ than the heroine, even about her own emotions and experiences.

Because the biggest problem with Body Politics as a story is that all the changes, struggle, and sacrifice belong to the heroine. At the end of the novel, Mark has gotten what he wanted, has never been proven wrong, has never had to change his preconceptions, has never had to do anything except exert his will as forcefully as necessary. He magically knows what Stephanie needs and gives it to her even when she protests. It is troubling because this is presented as ideal. Unlike Christian Grey, who is otherwise also a poster boy for troubling issues of consent, Mark’s power is never questioned or presented as a problem. (Have I mentioned that he’s the deputy chief of police? And that the day after they meet he calls her at work at the women’s network and tries to talk dirty to her over the phone? What a catch.)

Meanwhile, Stephanie has been stalked (she’s relieved at first that Mark doesn’t know where she lives, but oh that’s right DEPUTY CHIEF OF POLICE, so she can’t say no to a second date because he’ll just show up at her apartment anyways and how the hell is that romantic again?), spanked roughly, fired, and emotionally traumatized. (By other women, naturally, because that’s how feminists do.) She’s had her every position and principle questioned — and at the end she gets a new job directing a women’s program at Rod and Cane, “to assist women in developing their potential and influence within the context of a domestic discipline marriage,” whatever the hell that means. Stephanie has become totally subsumed into Mark’s goals and desires.

In a recent interview at governingana, Cara Bristol explained the book as follows:

I wanted [Mark and Stephanie] to work it out, to show the thought processes and negotiation that might lead a diehard feminist to allow herself to be disciplined by a man.

I especially wanted to show the give-and-take that exists in relationships, including DD ones. What I hope readers take away from Body Politics is concern and caring with which the hero Mark treats the heroine Stephanie. Her well-being is foremost on his priority list.

But benevolent sexism is still sexism. And it’s hard to see Mark as truly benevolent when this novel debuts on the heels of Alisa Valdes’ The Feminist and the Cowboy and revelations that the uber-alpha dude in the title who ‘cured’ the author of her feminism was in fact a completely abusive asshole. “I need to be the one in control” is a statement that should send up huge red flags, especially in a narrative with a supposedly feminist character who supposedly works with domestic violence and rape survivors — not that we ever see her do any of that on the page. (Courtney Milan’s Unraveled, in contrast, features a hero whose need for control is presented as an obstacle, not as an unchangeable given.) Ultimately, Cara Bristol’s novel heavily privileges the assumptions and desires of a man who gives us this charming moment, in mid-spank, with the heroine pantsless and bent over his knee:

“Aren’t you going to deliver the feminist party line about how your body belongs to you?”

“Not when I’m in this position.”

He laughed. “Smart move.” (Kindle location circa 1316)

Recently in the news we have seen Republicans try to bloviate about the definition of rape, we have seen women in Ireland dying needlessly in hospitals because the state overrides a woman’s decisions about her own body, and we have seen riots in India over the stunning combination of sexual violence against women and police indifference to same. This is but a sample of what feminism is fighting against today. (And womanism! Hi to all the womanists! Womenists?) This is what we’re all writing and Tumblring about and marching and fundraising and working to fix. Feminism has its problems — let’s talk about the intersections of class and race in mainstream feminism sometime — but it is still very vital to many women’s lives.

If we can critique a Regency romance for historical accuracy, we can certainly turn that same lens onto a contemporary. The feminism presented in Body Politics felt hollow, a straw man set up so Mark’s love and protection could knock it down. This was not a “negotiation,” as the author described it.

This was a set-up. That book was rigged.

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