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.

Idle Hands

Well! The vacation was lovely -- even during the part where I threw up on a fish -- but it took us two full days to get home again. And then! I undertook a full backup of my computer -- a huge backup that erased all the other littler backups -- and in the middle of this important process my hard drive up and died like Sean Bean when he's got second billing. For a while it looked as though I'd lost everything -- photos, music, the entire contents of my documents folder, with its current manuscripts and past manuscripts and half-finished manuscripts, can you imagine -- but luckily the inimitable Mr. Waite was able to salvage the documents from the half-finished backup. And now I'm writing this blog post from a brand-new, shiny computer.

But what does a writer do when her primary mode of composition is unavailable?

This writer makes jewelry.

A turquose, white, and gold bangle with pearl accents made of glass, crystal and seed beads. It rests in the palm of a pinkish hand.

I'm calling this the Botticelli Bangle. The pattern is the Scheherezade Bangle from Sabine Lippert's Beaded Fantasiesthough I took liberties with the colors and bead amounts. Bonus: it continues this summer's Grecian theme! I can wear it to the other four weddings we're attending in the months to come!

So yes, I promise I'll be back to blogging regularly now. But it's nice to know I can be productive even when I'm being unproductive.

Winging It

You may remember an earlier post where I talked about how making jewelry is similar to making a book: plans go awry, and accidents are revealed as miracles—or vice versa. Recently, I had another opportunity to consider this theory of mine. My sister was getting married, and her wedding theme was Pirate Formal. I've been working on her wedding necklace for months—buying four colors of crystal, learning to work with new materials and techniques, and mostly just keeping my fingers crossed that my ideas would look like a real thing and not Amateur Hour at Lulu's Jewelry Shack. Her dress had been described to me, roughly, but mostly I was flying blind.

The night before we were to head across the border, I finished putting all the bits together and sent my sister this picture:

Wood-grain background, on which sits a multi-strand necklace of red, yellow, blue, white, and green crystal, with silver winged skulls and a skeleton lady cameo as centerpiece.

Those curves of red crystal holding the skeleton cameo's lower edge were the last things I attached, and until then I had not realized that I was arranging things in proper Roy G. Biv order. I'd thought I was making something chaotic and unpredictable, when in reality it was practically scientific. All at once the necklace became a unified thing—but precisely what kind of thing? I couldn't seem to make sense of my own creation: all I could see were the flaws and the wires and the individual bits as I'd put them together. I couldn't get the impact of the whole.

This is also how I feel about the first drafts of my manuscripts. But those I can fix; those can take criticism and come out better; those have no stakes for anyone but me (well, and my publisher, but that's a little less emotionally immediate).

The bride had to like this necklace, because she was going to be the one wearing it in all her wedding photos and in front of everyone she knows and loves.

She loved it. All at once I could breathe again, though I still felt nervous. But that tenuous instinct that had gotten me through had proved true.

When the bride put on her wedding dress—which I'd never seen—and another bridesmaid draped the necklace around her neck and we shortened it to rest on her collarbone … it was perfect. And so, we danced. And toasted. And feasted. And made everyone's grandmother take shots of the worst rum I have ever tasted in my life.

Hopefully in future I can continue to trust my instincts when flying blind.

Lucille Bluth And The Body Battle

Lucille Bluth, the booze-swilling, social-climbing, sexpot matriarch played by Jessica Walters in Arrested Development, is quite probably my favorite television character of all time. I fully intend to transform into her on my fiftieth birthday—minus the completely devastating criticism of loved ones. A pale woman with carefully coiffed short hair, a bright pastel-patterend blazer, with the world's most intimidating scowl.

Because Lucille's tongue? It is beyond vicious. Often this is awesome, but equally often it is jaw-droppingly, inventively mean. Which is why she's so fun on tv, but also why I would never ever want to be part of her family.

The comment that always sticks in my mind is one she makes to her daughter, Lindsay, in regard to a brooch Lindsay always wanted to inherit. Lucille objects:

"But it's an elephant and I didn't want to invite the comparison."

This in spite of the fact that Lindsay is later criticized as a flat-chested "surfboard," and in spite of the fact that she is played by Portia di Rossi, one of the world's prettiest skinny people. And this is all very funny, but it hits very close to home.

Skinny is a thing I once was that I am not any more. There are times when I miss the thinner me's ability to enjoy shopping and fit into awesome clothes. There are times—and not as far apart as I'd like—when I feel like bigger me is failing some moral test by taking up an unwarranted amount of space and having unsightly blemishes like stretch marks and cellulite. When the overwhelming pressure to be thin thin THIN gains a temporary victory over my health, my peace of mind, and my love for pasta and cheese and fine cocktails.

But there are also times when I get to fight back.

One of these happened today. I was out shopping for a dress to wear to a bridal brunch this weekend—idly shopping, hoping to find something but not willing to lay odds on my success. As usual, I was in Anthropologie, when all of a sudden one garment stopped me right in my tracks.

Ladies, you haven't really lived until you have asked a saleswoman, "Could you get me the largest size you have in the elephant dress?"

Close-up of bodice pleating with the elephant-and-polka-dot fabric on a strapless party dress.Elephants! Happy little Babar-style elephants, with polka dots! The pop of that yellow sash! The pleating on the bodice—so winking and naughty and sweet! Meanwhile, the quote-happy phonograph in my brain piped up automatically: "You don't want to invite the comparison."

And I realized: I totally want to invite the comparison.

Despite the fact that my proportions usually mean separates are going to fit better than off-the-rack dresses, and despite my tendency to avoid anything strapless on account of the need for support for the Double Dames … I had to try it on.

And it fit just beautifully.

The zipper zipped, and even without a strapless bra the bodice looks great—'40s pinup cleavage great—and I have the perfect yellow floral cardigan to throw over it to keep things family-friendly and brunch-appropriate.

And standing there in front of a triad of mirrors, wearing an elephant dress and boat shoes, I felt as though all the good things about Lucille Bluth were invoked: the backbone, the boldness, the supreme confidence in her own abilities to attract and manipulate and succeed on her own terms. And I feel equally that the put-downs, the barbed witticisms, and the vitriol would roll off me like water off a duck's back.

Few things on earth are as deeply satisfying as a dress that can make you feel both pretty and strong.

Plain, pale background, with a strapless black dress covered in tiny white elephants, with a bright yellow sash.

 

On Structure And Serendipity

I was an hour early for Laura McCabe's beading class last night. This was deliberate, as I had a number of supplies to purchase for the class, and buying beads takes me forever because I am ridiculously, obsessively picky about color. Making things out of beads is relatively simple, in theory: you pick a set of beads and a technique, you put in anywhere from one to a billion hours of work, and jewelry happens. I spent a lot of years making things based on instructions I found in books and magazines, and barring a few disasters here and there (I'm looking at you, faux-Native American beading loom) things turned out pretty okay.

The only problem was that they felt like things I'd built, rather than things I'd created. To get more satisfaction out of beading, I was going to have to go right off the rails. I was going to have to design my own patterns using the techniques I'd learned over the years.

I bought a whole buttload of Delicas in various colors on eBay, got my fishing line, and started weaving.

What followed was a series of absolute disasters. Some of them I finished, some of them I was smart enough to abandon halfway through and save myself the trouble. But with each catastrophic choker or lackluster lariat, I learned something about working with beads, about my own preferences, and—specifically—about how beads in tubes that look like they will play nicely together turn out when you're working with them to have vendettas that would put the Medicis and Borgias to shame.

My color sense got stronger, and my designs grew more sophisticated. My bead stash grew from one full shoebox to two. And now, here I was in the bead store, picking out colors to be scrutinized by an expert eye. It felt like a test, though one only I knew I was taking.

Who Invented the Color Wheel?

I began choosing items on the list, limited by what the store carried and by what matched and clashed among the various sizes of round beads, cylinder beads, crystals, and pearls. When in doubt, I buy heads in shades that look like they come from Botticelli's Birth of Venus, so I was looking for pale cream and gold and amber and aquamarine. I went back and forth from one rack to another, so many times that I ended up forgetting one set of beads entirely. None of my shades looked quite right and time was running out despite all my efforts, so I told myself this first pendant would be an educational experience and found my seat in mild despair.

Class began. Laura McCabe was awesome, both as a person (sweet, upbeat, hints of shyness overcome) and as a teacher. She gave us a brief introduction to our materials, handed out instructions, and let us go at our own pace while she walked around chatting and answering questions. I began putting together a bezel (setting) for the round crystal rivoli, just as the paper told me to.

And when I got to the point where I set the stone in its little beaded skirt and began tightening the bezel to fit, something magical happened.

It looked amazing.

The various shades of gold and light blue I'd collected all worked together to make something that looked baroque and delicate. It was entirely different from the rich greens and purples and reds that everyone else was making—lighter and vaguely antique. The aquamarine rivoli was perfectly centered. The tiny gold metallic charlottes winked in the light. I felt like a champion.

Until I got to the bail. Where I found: one of my blue shades was awful.

Just awful. It was like taking one of the crown jewels and dunking it in poster paint. There were presently six of them, soon to be many more.

The Virtue of Editing

I made a decision, went back out to the front of the store, and found me some sweet pearly white beads with a bit of a rainbow shine. Then I took those six blues right off, added the whites instead, and started adding pearl embellishments.

So. Much. Better. My pendant was pretty again. The relief was almost physical.

Here is the pendant as it currently stands, though the photo quality is not the best:

Dark background. An aquamarine rivoli bezeled with gold and aquamarine seed beads, topped with white pearl accents and visible working threads.

Soon there will be more pearls, and some aquamarine crystals and other sparkly bits up top. I love how much it looks like some Renaissance vision of the ocean. I want to make a whole necklace band to match.

Lesson Learned

I think one of the reasons I'm so drawn to beading is that it's quite a lot like writing. Writing also looks very simple in theory: you put words on a page, and eventually a story happens. There's a lot of repetitive action in both: put beads on thread, or string words together in sentences.

But even if you start with a detailed outline—which I nearly always do—things happen that you didn't expect. Characters act out, plot problems reveal themselves as gaping chasms, and motivations get muddled. Sometimes these things will kill whatever spark the idea possesses—at least, for a while.

But sometimes surprise works in your favor. Sometimes you can fix problems before they start. Sometimes you can start with nothing but a desire to make something beautiful, with materials that look like a hot mess … and something even better than you'd hoped appears in your hands.

Learn Something New Every Day

We here at Olivia Waite believe very firmly in learning—for profit, for fun, or for just about any reason you can think of. So when we heard that beading artist Laura McCabe was teaching a few local classes this summer, we signed up as soon as possible. Here is one example of her particular creepy genius:

Glass eyeballs wheel in various directions, strung together in a wide necklace with red and turquoise seed beads.

And here is an example of her capacity for loveliness:

Swarovski crystals of many sizes and colors, assembled into bubble-shaped units. Those bubbles have then been put together to make something that looks like a sparklier version of a Wonka gobstopper.

Tomorrow night, I will be learning how to turn beads into awesome. Stay tuned for pictures in Friday's post!

A Totally Frivolous Post About Shopping

We here at Olivia Waite are stringent about being appropriately dressed, so when we learned that Wedding No. 2 was a morning affair and not an evening wedding like we'd assumed, we had a bit of a panic moment. The tasteful all-black ensemble we had planned works beautifully for evening, but would feel odd and out of place in a morning ceremony. With only one day to go, we set our timer for two hours—the maximum amount of time the mini dachshund puppy can stay home on his own—and went on the hunt.

It wasn't a very intensive hunt, as I went straight to Anthropologie and fell head over heels in love with this lovely little thing:

A mid-length circle skirt in robin's egg blue with swirling floral embroidery in heavy white thread. Tiny beads of pale golden wood appear here and there as accents.

I don't normally go for full skirts, since I don't have the hourglass proportions that I believe they suit best. And when I zipped it up and looked in the mirror, yes, it was a full skirt all right and I could hear the "my hips are too hippy" voice start to grow in tone and volume and I went to turn away from my own image—and then stopped.

And turned back.

And back, and forth, and back, and forth.

This sweet blue thing is a world-class twirling skirt.

It's all the heavy embroidery, I think—it pulls the hem around and gives it momentum, and then when you stop twirling it settles nicely back into polite folds that hit just at the perfect knee-level spot.

Also, the color does dynamite things to my pale Seattleite skin.

Hips be damned; I bought the skirt.

I have no idea yet what shirt I'm going to put with it, but I'm definitely breaking out the silver ballet flats. Watch out, dance floor!

Peyote-Stitch Alphabet Pattern

We here at Olivia Waite love to make beaded jewelry, and lately we've started expanding our knowledge of that most useful beadweaving technique: peyote stitch. Luckily, the good people over at Fusion Beads have just posted a few new peyote patterns, so I don't have to whip out the graph paper and laboriously color in all those boxes myself. And one of these patterns is particularly relevant to my interests:

Graph of white beads, in which black beads form the letters of a serif font.

A whole alphabet, and punctuation! A serif font, no less! Oh, the things I could make!

  • My name.
  • Curse words, curse words, curse words!
  • A red, white, and blue choker with the words: "You are all weirdos." I shall call it the Sam Eagle.
  • Pi to however many places.
  • E = mC2
  • 2 + 2 = 5
  • If embiggened, and embellished with myriad colors, I could do some pretty sweet illuminated capitals.

The only question is: which one to do first?

Cthulhu of Love!

We here at Olivia Waite are privileged to have some incredibly talented friends—one of whom has an Etsy store under the name sockfiends. And she has something new just in time for Valentine's Day: the Cthulhu of Love!

A pink three-tentacled squid-god plushie with tiny red and white hearts and adorably round black eyes.

Get yours today and be the envy of everyone who now has this stuck in their head: Rock the Cthulhu of love . . . rock the Cthulhu of love . . . oh the Cthulhu of love . . . don't rock eeeeeasyyyyyyy, it's true.

The same pink, white, and red squid-god plushie, back view, showing cuddly white plush wings.

Alternate view of the squid-god plushie with arms happily outspread.

Cry Havoc, and Let Slip the Dogs of Crafting

Some days, a warrior attitude is all that stands between survival and crushing defeat. Wouldn't that attitude be much easier to attain if you were wearing something like this brilliant handcrafted helmet?

I could don this masterpiece and yell my favorite line from Virgil: Dux femina facti! And a woman was made their leader!

Problems: vanquished.