This was my trusted publisher’s reaction to Guttersnipe when I sent it to her. It floored me, mostly because “Mr. Right” in this particular situation had spent the better part of the book abusing the MC sexually, emotionally and in a few rare events, physically. Now, I wanted the book to be provocative– to challenge people and depict a cruel world filled with familiar sexual double standards– but I also wanted it to be fun. I was confident that I didn’t have to resort to graphic and disturbing imagery in order for the harshness of Guttersnipe‘s world to be clear. I wouldn’t have to completely destroy characters emotionally and psychologically in order to demonstrate the abuse they endured. Readers are smart, there will be plenty of room for humor, for entertainment, and –yes– for eroticism without diminishing the seriousness of some of the events.
And yet every person experienced in the business side of M/M romance said the same thing: readers will identify Marco as the love interest, will invest in Derek and Marco relationship as the “love story” and will be angry when they don’t get the happy ending they expect.
Guttersnipe is a story about sex slavery. It is not a love story, but it does involve a fair amount of intimacy. It’s not a book that drowns you in meaningless smut or fails to deliver an actual plot.
As far as I can see, there are two basic types of slave fantasy: the BDSM variety where the slave enjoys his domination and ultimately finds purpose and meaning through it, and the capture fantasy variety where the main pull is the exact opposite: the slave hates slavery, longs for escape and goes down kicking and screaming.
The problem I have with most M/M slave stories is that authors try to merge these two separate fantasies into one story that can appeal to both groups. The results are books where people fall in love with their rapists. Books where the rape victim is bullied and shamed by minor characters who truly believe that the MC is being “melodramatic” or “unreasonable” for … what? Thinking that a partner who forces himself on you probably isn’t Prince Charming? Books where breaking people psychologically is sold as a victory, unlocking their true self for them (how nice of you!)
I don’t think these two fantasies are necessarily compatible, even though I know plenty of people who enjoy both and superficially they have a lot in common. I’m not one for BDSM-style slavery, but it doesn’t bother me when the person coming in as a slave actually wants it. As soon as non-consent is put on the table I find it impossible to believe the MC’s claims of contentment and happiness at the end of the book.
But I LOVE rape fantasy. I set out to write the book that I always wanted to read. One where rape wasn’t trivialized and sold as something its not. I’m not an idiot, I know what I’m fantasizing about. I don’t need the publisher to make my dark fantasy acceptable to others for me. It’s not impossible for a good writer to turn a rapist into a compelling love interest, but the vast majority of stories I’ve read it just doesn’t fit. Love is tacked on in the end, almost as if the author thinks it’s shameful for readers to enjoy sex without it.
But splitting rape fantasy from general BDSM means you end up with a tiny market and a whole bunch of people who are going to read the book and not get what they want. What to do? There was absolutely no way I would even consider making Marco and Derek fall in love. At least not in the traditional ‘happily ever after’ sense. I admit I like Marco and Derek’s relationship. It’s twisted, suspenseful and at times even a bit sweet. I’ve got no problem with people walking away from Guttersnipe thinking that, when all was said and done, Marco maybe really did love Derek in his own fucked up sort of way. That interpretation is kind of poetic really. But no way was I going to do a complete one-eighty on what was essentially a story about the value of mutual respect in relationships and say to readers “On second thought, controlling, manipulative, abusive guys are okay as long as they REALLY LOVE YOU~~” What kind of bullshit is that?
In that case, the editors said, make Marco crueler. And then we got to the really disturbing part of this feedback … the vast majority of editors who read Guttersnipe tried to convince me that what Marco was doing to Derek wasn’t rape. Despite the fact that Derek is tied down, drugged, struck or choked for failing to comply– it wasn’t rape because Marco seemed like a nice guy.
Yes, Marco is a likable character. Straight forward heros and villains are boring. I much prefer to write protagonists who believe deplorable things and antagonists you secretly enjoy rooting for. But even given that, it was shocking how many smart, independent, modern women were writing me emails saying that being a nice guy means rape is not actually rape.
The rape in Guttersnipe isn’t of the brutal variety. Derek gets aroused. He orgasms. He sometimes tries to bargain with his rapist or focus on the benefits of the lifestyle Marco offers him to better ignore the abuse he can’t control. It’s classic dubcon, with lots of ambiguities and complications. None of this makes rape any less rape. After all, Derek also says no, he tries to escape, he makes more than a few attempts on Marco’s life … doesn’t that make it pretty clear that their relationship is not consensual? What more do people really need?
Evil. People apparently need evil. Midway through the book the reader is introduced to a character by the name of Louis. Louis manipulates and seduces Derek purely to humiliate him. The same people who argued that Marco tying Derek down and molesting Derek until he agreed to have sex wasn’t really rape, felt that Louis’s actions definitely were … even though Louis couldn’t do anything if Derek refused him.
But Louis is never presented as anything more than a bad guy. That seems to be the distinction: bad guys rape, nice guys force themselves on you to show you how much they care.
Hopefully, this should all seem pretty fucked up to you. The suggestion that readers would feel betrayed by Derek rejecting any kind of future with Marco baffled me … until I took a moment to consider it in the context of a BDSM “master/slave” story. Then I realized what they were really asking me to do is construct a story where one niche fantasy (rape/capture) slowly transitions into another (BDSM), thereby grabbing readers in both markets. Maybe it’s really about appealing to as broad an audience as possible: some dubcon for the kinky bitches like me, a nod to traditional D/S arrangements as right and proper and good as a conclusion and a happy ending for everyone else.
The more I thought about it, the more I noticed that this pattern appears all throughout romance. In an effort to grab as many readers as possible, we conflate elements of multiple niches. In the process we end up aligning ourselves with some very strange messages– no sex without love– and reinforcing prejudices against fringes of the queer spectrum that don’t fit the majority’s fantasy (like bisexuals, asexuals, and transgendered). It’s kind of wrong isn’t it?
I would have really liked to make Zach and Marco’s relationship a larger part of the Guttersnipe story. I like their relationship and think it might actually make a really good love story. But the problem I have is that Zach is asexual and how do you write something that will appeal to romance readers if the characters won’t be having sex? Just as publishers avoid stories where people have sex but don’t find true love, publishers also avoid stories where people find true love but don’t have sex. They’ll publish stories where the sex is off-page or implied, but any story about an asexual I might write will only lead to push back asking me to have the asexual “healed” so that the story will appeal to the greatest number of readers. It’s not enough for the asexual to simply have sex (because many asexuals do, they fall in love and see it as something nice to do for their partner). The asexual has to completely disavow his entire identity.
I think we do ourselves a great disservice trying to appeal to everyone: both as a community and in terms of our books. We end up pushing ideas that are bigoted, misogynistic and don’t accurately reflect who we are as people. As readers we have every right to want stories to go a certain way, to want our kinks catered to down to every last detail, but the profit maximization strategies of publishers often leads to strange complications … like book where rape becomes a path to true love.
Isa K is a writer and techie currently residing in New York. Anything published under ‘Isa K’ is fantastic smut, anything under ‘IsaKFT’ is just fantastic 😉