Nothing breaks my rapport with a book faster than taking a subject I love and making it into essentially a caricature of itself. Though I read many types of m/m romances, the kinky ones will always catch my eye, and I’m likely to go get them unless something in the description turns me off. And here we come to the problem- I’m a big proponent of safe, sane and consensual, and if the characters break this without a compelling reason, I have trouble continuing to identify with the characters and situation.
I want to make clear that I’m talking about contemporary characters who identify themselves as dominant/submissive and seem to have knowledge and interest in the lifestyle that should lead to them knowing better. I view stories billed as dubious consent or historical or fantasy master/slave relationships as completely different entities. If the author presents the sex games as being for mutual benefit and enjoyment though, certain guidelines apply to real life and would be much appreciated in fiction:
- Safety: I don’t care how comfortable or well-provisioned the house/room/cage is, you can not leave your sub unattended without a way of freeing himself. He must have a means of escape in an emergency. This one always makes me start yelling at the book, and makes it very hard to forgive the main character.
- Consent: Just because you are absolutely certain that he’d be the perfect submissive, does not mean that you get to start ordering him around before he’s actually agreed to your brilliant plan. So many characters seem to manhandle someone into place, somehow proving in the process that the object of his desires really wanted that all along. In real life, that’s assault and not a real good way to start a relationship.
- No discussion: I’ve read several books in which as soon as the supposed submissive agreed to a potential romantic relationship, the so-called dom started laying down rules and handing out orders. No discussion of whether the other man wanted this power exchange, and the dom brushed all objections aside. A hard-on does not grant automatic permission.
- Healing abuse victims: This one is tough. Yes, people sometimes do therapeutic bdsm play to work through trauma, but it is a delicate situation and those involved need to take it seriously. I’ve seen this done very well, but not often. If someone just decides that the best way for this sub to get over his experience with a bad dom is to find a good dom, that will strain my credulity from the outset.
- Deep end: Do not throw the brand new submissive into the deep end of the kink pool. Cock & ball torture- really not on the syllabus for the first day of class. (As a side note, that’s what prodded me to write this post now. I was reading a review of Take Me, Break Me at Joyfully Jay, which I’d recently read. I started to reply over there, but it was getting too long, so I decided to make it a full post here.)
- Physical Realities: I love when an author acknowledges little things like ‘your knees are going to hurt if you spend an hour kneeling on tile flooring.’ And when authors completely ignore the physical situation it makes it harder to empathize with the character. I don’t need to know every likely twinge and ache, but enough to know it’s real.
- The Helpless Sub: Especially when paired with the predatory club doms. If someone warns a sub that it’s not safe to wander around a club unattached or uncollared, I’m rolling my eyes unless the author set the scene really well. Any reputable bdsm club will quickly ban anyone behaving the way the “villains” in many of these stories behave. They certainly won’t just look the other way while warning the subs to stay close to a dom. Most of these clubs have people wandering around ensuring that members follow the rules and play safe.
- Variety: I admit this isn’t a peeve, so much as a request. I love the spanking and flogging and bondage scenes, but can we have other fun too. I’m always pleased when an author shows they know what they’re talking about by veering off the beaten path (or beaten sub, as the case may be). And please feel free to throw suggestions into the comments for books that do this.
Despite my complaints, if pressed, I could probably come up with a counter-example for all of these that worked extremely well. Just not most of the time.
As a bisexual female, I have to laugh at myself sometimes that I spend so much time reading about sex between men. At first I thought novelty explained it, but I’ve come to believe that the power of gay sex extends further than that. Gay male sex provides more opportunities for narrative milestones. Generally, in heterosexual non-kinky romances intercourse commands center stage and most of the other stages as far as the physical relationship goes. The characters may certainly have variety in their sexy times, but for the most part this variety does not represent separate steps in the relationships.
So, what sexual milestones and extras do m/m romance authors have in their writing toolboxes?
- Kissing: Yes, yes I know all romance novels have kissing. However, in gay romances the characters sometimes have issues with kissing and so it can come later in the courtship, making it, to my mind, an interesting twist.
- Handjobs: Gay Sex 101 for those characters who may not yet have come to terms with the whole sex-with-another-guy experience. Also good for those in a hurry or in a public place.
- Frotting: Have a character not ready for any type of penetration yet but wants something a little more advanced than a handjob? Try experimenting with rubbing those cocks against each others’ bodies in a variety of ways. Also useful when unprepared with lube and condoms.
- Oral Sex- giving and receiving: Often a first step in the story for more experienced partners. In stories with men just figuring out their sexuality, this still can present progress in character and relationship development. Add in to swallow or not and you have even more possibilities.
- Anal Sex- giving and receiving: Some couples switch easily and without drama. For others, a change in the way they normally do things signals an important development in the relationship. (For a hysterical article on the realities of anal sex, check out Numb Shots)
- Giving up condoms: In contemporary fiction, set in the age of AIDS, condoms understandably abound. And so, going bareback shows that the relationship has moved to a higher level of trust and commitment. It also makes the scene extra-hot as far as I’m concerned.
- Shared bathrooms: Same sex partners can manage sex in a public bathroom much more easily. Contrasting my experiences with boyfriends and girlfriends, I can state this with a high degree of confidence.
- Rimming- giving and receiving: I confess that these last two don’t fit in the milestones category, but they provide great spice options anyway.
While readers would probably find it tedious if an author hit all of these in one book, the possibilities lead to a lot of potential variety across books and interesting conversations and struggles for the characters. It also makes it easier to write a lot of sex scenes with each of them moving the relationship/plot forward.
Opinions? Did I miss anything?
M/M romances provide a built-in set of potential interesting and compelling conflicts and drama. These certainly don’t all show up in every example in the genre and do show up outside of it, but gay romances are certainly fertile grounds for these conflicts (fertility of other types- not as common). So, on to my top 8 reasons I’m hooked on this genre:
- Coming Out Process: People often talk in the media about coming out as if it is a simple 1-step deal. In these books, though, you can see the complexity and diversity of the experience. Everyone experience this process differently and the fiction reflects this reality beautifully.
- Revealing Secrets: I love secrets in fiction. Watching the ways in which people keep and reveal these secrets, both ones that the reader does and doesn’t know, draws me into a story. M/M romances generally have a lot of this going on, often with unpredictable results about how the people learning the secrets will behave.
- Professional vs. Personal Desires: We often see a conflict between someone having a job they love, but feeling that they either couldn’t keep it or would be made miserable or unsafe if they came out. Any profession can have this risk, but stories involving with stereotypically masculine jobs – police, firefighters, soldiers, cowboys, construction, etc. – often make the choice feel more dangerous. Something about this conflict snares me every time.
- Family Dynamics: Gay novels have amazing potential for family freak-outs and angst. Yes, you can still have issues of class, race and age among other things and I realize for some people these are still very real, but for some reason they just don’t resonate with me as much. On the other side of that coin, I enjoy it just as much when someone expects rejection and finds acceptance instead.
- Social Context and History: This is an exciting time in the history of gay rights. The world is changing and changing rapidly. When I read contemporary gay fiction I sometimes think about how these things will feel in 20 years or 50. Will people read these books and think how strange that someone worried about telling his family or co-workers he was gay? I believe/hope this will be the case. At the same time, books set even 20 years ago feel completely different being out was a much scarier choice then. And so it feels exciting reading these books now. The range of likely reactions today to revelations of being gay is so broad that it provides a fascinating array of options for writers and thus readers.
- Explorations of Sexuality vs. Masculinity: I like watching the struggle as the protagonists and those around them deal with their preconceived notions of what it means to be a man and how being gay doesn’t change that.
- Introspection: I’m an introspective person and I like to analyze things. (This will not come as a surprise if you stick around long.) And I like reading about other people figuring things out about themselves. Most of the points above tend to lead to this kind of process.
- Sex: Yes- the sex is important. From a narrative perspective, I think that the descriptions of gay male sex are just more interesting, but that’s a post to itself. So, stay tuned for the next installment: Advantages of Gay Sex in Fiction.