Monday, October 1, 2007

The Pleasure of Unpleasure

by Kristina Lloyd
All writers get bad reviews. If you write erotica, your sexuality gets reviewed as well. Trust me, you sometimes need a thick skin to deal with this. We are all, as individuals, never more vulnerable than when we reveal our desiring selves to others, and smut writers do this on a grand scale. Sure, it’s framed within a fiction and no one can see us blush. But with that distance comes a space which allows strangers to pass judgement.

Here are a few things that have been said about me. I mean, about my books:

Most of the sex scenes are degrading - not arousing.

Great if you like the idea of being humiliated and called slut etc., not so great if you don't.

Ilya is a man who truly doesn't respect Beth in the least, doesn't even like her.

You would think that an erotic fiction book would be at least a little bit sensual

I pitied Beth more than I wanted to be in her place.

One of the worst Black Lace books I have ever read.

I found some of the BDSM disgusting.

Nothing against a kinky read but I don’t like mental abuse in erotic books.


My grumble isn’t really with negative comments; I think it’s par for the course when you’re a writer. And I’m pleased to report, they’re vastly outnumbered by the very many positive, insightful, considered reviews my work has received over the years.

No, my problem is with the way erotic humiliation is so frequently misunderstood, reviled and marginalised. I write a lot about women who get off on being used, degraded and verbally dominated; about rape fantasy; about discomfort, conflict, fear. Pain isn’t my kink. Spanking is off my radar. Rough stuff and psychological humiliation is more my theme although, of course, the physical and the mental don’t form neat parcels for anyone. When I write about this and someone says 'Ew! Gross!', they're saying that what turns me on is wrong.

An editor once reminded me that erotic fiction needs to focus on pleasure rather than be a vehicle for dysfunction. I was so stunned by this I didn’t eat worms for the rest of the week and almost quit my basket-weaving. I am not dysfunctional. I am not damaged. And what on earth is ‘pleasure’ anyway? It sounds suspiciously like scented candles to me. The notion that female erotica should be softer and more romantic is wildly offensive. Ditto the implication that a women who wants to be dominated by a man must be lacking her own mind. She doesn’t want it. She’s merely a victim and it’s her damaged, self-loathing psyche talking. Oh, purlease.

I get a lot of pleasure from unpleasure, from being made to squirm, from hating it and loving it all at once. All those who are with me, say ‘Ay!’ One of the most moving erotic scenes I’ve ever read is in Stephen Elliott’s My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up. The narrator, a male submissive new to the BDSM scene, after hours of being tied, gagged, hurt and demeaned is fucked with a strap-on. Elliott writes:

I had never been entered before. She leaned across my back, wrapping one arm around my chest and gripping my neck with her other hand, occasionally squeezing my windpipe so I couldn’t breathe for a second. I cried again, but it was a different crying. I was very comfortable. I don’t think I had ever been comfortable before.

'Comfortable' might seem an odd word to use in this context but I think it’s perfect. For me, it’s that sense of dreamy, egoless relief that arises in the tension between pleasure and unpleasure. Subspace, to use the jargon. A lot of my characters (jeez, I can’t think who they’re based on) get off on being treated badly, on being distressed, reduced, shamed and scared. They’re not screwballs, nihilists, emotional masochists or lacking in self-worth. It’s a sex thang. They can still function.

Beth, my central character in Asking for Trouble, is a woman exploring her taste for sleaze, danger, submission and humiliation. Ilya is the enigmatic stranger she’s newly involved with. She confesses her fantasies to him: ‘I just like picturing things where I’m being used, objectified, degraded, that kind of stuff. It’s liberating. I’m in someone else’s hands. I’m not being me.’

Once upon a time, academics wrote about Black Lace books and the new phenomenon of women writing porn. One academic, analysing Asking for Trouble, quoted the above dialogue and said, ‘So once again then, we see in the woman who liberates her sexuality and embraces eroticism the simultaneous flight from selfhood.’

Guh? Flight from selfhood? Isn’t half the point of sex the way in which we can transcend ourselves? (What’s the other half? Someone remind me? Oh yes: cock.) In Split, my spooky puppets and bondage novel out early next month (US, January), I explore what submission and degradation mean a little bit more. Kate is falling in love with Jake, the strange and beautiful curator of an isolated puppet museum in the Yorkshire Moors. She’s gradually coming to understand how the power imbalance of their sexual relationship fulfils her:

He breaks me down, strips me of inhibitions and when I’ve sobbed and climaxed until I don’t know who I am, he wraps me in his arms, so soft and tender.

Do I sound like a masochist? I don’t feel like one. The point isn’t the pain and I don’t suffer. Or rather, I go beyond suffering and into a new space. If I could get there without it hurting, I would. I think that’s why I like it when Jake calls me ‘slut’ and makes me feel bad. It takes me there, helps me lose myself […] and it’s as if I’m in a nothing space, floating. I am so free there.

It’s such a feeling to be free of yourself. I didn’t understand it at first. I think it scared me but I’m getting to know and understand it. I’m coming to realise that I want this not because I’m worthless and I must suffer. It’s because I’m human and life’s tough. Letting go is so powerful. Surrender transforms me. I adore oblivion.

Kate, like Beth, is a woman conflicted about her sexuality. I think this is true of a lot of people whose kinks are on the dark side, and I think this is OK. We hear a lot about ‘sex positivity’ and having a ‘healthy’ attitude; and while I applaud the sentiment it leaves me feeling a tad uncomfortable. It seems so neat, clean and tidy, and leaves little space for angst or doubt. Where we want to go and what we want to do or be done to us can be disturbing, terrifying, upsetting and exciting. It’s pleasure but not as they know it. Accepting conflict and contradiction is a significant part of accepting our messy sexual selves. I’m sure ‘sex positive’ was originally meant to encompass this but it’s easily miscast to imply unproblematic happy-jolly-fucky sex. It can make me feel dirty, and not in a good way.

I like brutes and bullies with a nice line in contempt. I like back alleys, seediness and squalor. I like scary scenarios that make my heart beat faster. All these things break down the ego and strip away the veneer of the civilised self. And when you’re without that constructed identity, when your dignity and self-respect have been put on hold, then boundaries shift, inhibitions are lost. If anything, those who like to indulge in being broken down need to have a very secure sense of self. They must be continually piecing themselves back together again afterwards.

I imagine a scene. To some eyes, it may look like a woman on her knees in a crack den, sobbing in shame with her hair full of piss, being mocked by a couple of thugs. But for plenty of people, suffering and degradation is intensely erotic. It’s the pleasure of unpleasure, of being split between yes and no. I like it there. I’m comfortable. The scented candles can go hang!


Amanda said...

bravo to you, Kristina on your informative and honest essay. as a reader i find there is not enough well written erotic fiction with degradation and humiliation; as a writer i find it difficult to know where to send those stories that i write. i agree with you that sex positivism doesn't mean creating characters that don't have issues about their sexuality. showing characters having to deal with those issues is what makes a story sex positive for me, instead of hiding it. i look forward to reading your work, Kristina. thanks for your piece.

Anonymous said...

Honestly - *no* *one* explains this stuff as well as you do. Not everyone can talk about these kind of dark desires and make them sound so right and so hot.

And I just don't see how anyone saying 'ew! gross!' about what someone gets off on can be framed as being 'sex positive'.

And the excerpt from Split - wow! I cannot wait.

Also, you are one of the sanest people I know. And I mean that in a good way.

Eloise said...

I'm a sub, but don't do humiliation play. However, a while ago my Mistress took me out and we did a display and a talk about BDSM, and several people there kept on and on about "Don't you feel humiliated?" I do like fornophilia though, which a lot of people find deeply humiliating.

I think there's a whole slew of things in the mix here. Most people probably have some mix of what you write about that they like, and some that they don't. They may or may not be honest about what they do like of course, because they're "not meant to be like that."

By and large the things they don't like get an "Eww, gross" reaction I find. The things that secretly they like get the "It's humiliating" reaction. It's not humiliation they're feeling, not most of the time, it's the squirm between "OMG that's HOT" and "OMG I just shouldn't like that it's dirty/wrong"

You, of course, are a kinky pervert for even making them think it might be nice, and they, after the event, become uncomfortable (possibly really humiliated, probably ashamed) to admit that the prospect turns them on. Speaking as another kinky pervert (although one with a stronger streak of masochism than you, but still getting into subspace regularly and deeply, thank you) more power to your typing!

BTW my dictionary defines humiliation as: make (someone) feel ashamed and foolish by injuring their dignity and self-respect, esp. publicly

If you're getting off on it, which bits of that definition apply? Even if you're a pony girl, or furniture or whatever, all traditionally "humiliating" roles, if your dignity and self-respect are fine, it's not humiliation. Even stripping your ego constructs away isn't necessarily evil, or should we stop everyone going on spiritual retreats, and ban that evil Buddhism, which aims to do just this... albeit without the sex part!

Anonymous said...

You, of course, are a kinky pervert for even making them think it might be nice, and they, after the event, become uncomfortable (possibly really humiliated, probably ashamed) to admit that the prospect turns them on.

Yes. That's a great point.

Gwen Masters said...

You've explained yourself so well was a joy to read.

I once told an old boyfriend that I had fantasies of being passed around and used as a toy by a room full of men. A frat party or the like would do just fine. He stared at me like he had never seen me before, and that's when I knew the relationship would be over soon. -sigh-

There's nothing wrong with dark desires. There is, however, something very wrong with a rush to judgment.

Alison Tyler said...

Your post is sublime, KL. God, you touch on so many things. Snarky reviews first—we've all had them, and you're brave to put yours on display. Right along with your kinks. I am a bit jaded now, so that when I read erotica I am often trying to figure out which book to slot a piece into.

But yours took me away.
I'm humming.

And, hell, I even know what to get you now for Christmas.


Smut Girl said...

Possibly one of the best posts on LB ever. I found myself nodding through the whole thing.

I've never apprecaited the "sex positive as long as..." thing. That would be: it's all fine! no judgement. we are sex positive...AS LONG AS we agree with you.


Well said, a pleasure to read, and I honestly hope a lot of people who do not 'understand' the darker urges will take the time to read what you've put out there.

Shanna Germain said...

Agreed -- this is a great, open look at something that's still likely to push hot buttons everywhere. I used to edit a feminist women's mag and this was always something that stunned me: the idea that we had to be "on top" because it was owed to feminism, even if that wasn't what we really wanted.

Truly a wonderful piece.

Best, s.

kristina lloyd said...

Thank you, everyone. Your supportive words really do mean a lot to me. And hurrah! I am a sane, kinky pervert!

Degradation and humiliation is such a sensitive, taboo topic. So much of it operates on the psychological level and it doesn't have the same status as other more visual kinks. Even if you're not into spanking, you can on some level comprehend it because you can see what it looks like. And it looks OK. My stuff frequently doesn't *look* OK and people can react quite strongly to that. (Heck, it was a bitch trying to find photos to illustrate this post.)

Eloise, yes. And I think it's really interesting to try and pinpoint where the humiliation lies. I can run round in circles trying to work it out. I think there has to be real humiliation there for it to work in play - for the player to 'feel the burn'. Heck, I’m sure that isn’t what Jane Fonda meant. But that burn is not the same as being ashamed of your desire. And yet I can say that and also say, there is something humiliating about wanting to be humiliated and degraded - even if you can take that and make it your own and be OK about wanting it.

Plus, I do think *all* sex is degrading. It de-grades us, it lowers us by making us less than the evolved, socialised, civilised beings we are. Erotic degradation is pushing that concept further, is getting right to the heart of what sex means in our culture. Or to quote Woody Allen: 'Is sex dirty? Only if it’s done right.'

Alison Tyler said...

Oh, can we quote Woody Allen? Please? We could do it all day...

"Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go, it's one of the best."

God, love Woody Allen.


t'Sade said...

I would love to have bad reviews like that, actually. Most of mine are the review of silence, or I just haven't learned how to read Braille over the computer. :)

The snippets are absolutely yummy. I've always be fond of the explorations of sexuality and emotions. It sounds like your stuff is right up my alley.

Give me the raw, unfettered access into someone any day than just bumping lovelies (not that I've ever read that type of store in a Black Lace yet).

Madeline Moore said...

Mat got it right when she said 'no one explains this stuff as well as you do.' Very true. Terrific post.

'I adore oblivion.' Right on!

I don't get there the same way you do. If I were called names I'd cry, and not in a good way. But I crave 'subspace.' I adore it, too.

I'd like to add that, AFTER the act, when I've been there and I'm coming back and being cuddled and called 'brave' and a 'good girl' (and yes, I blush to write this stuff but your honesty inspires me to be honest, too) ...
after all that stuff, my mind, which was muddled and crammed and full of regrett/worry/self-doubt/concern/ etc... is crystal clear. All the crap is blown away by a good session with my Man. I am mentally refreshed.

Yes, it's not only the ultimate high, but there is no hangover. yay!

Thanks for this post, Kristina. You rock. And this weird-o puppet book - jeezus I can't wait. I think I'll go pre-order it right freakin' now.

ps - Alison and Mat are right, you are a brilliant writer, and your bravery is inspiring.

Madeline Moore said...

ps Did someone mention Woody Allen. Well, I like these quotes:

'Bisexuality doubles your chances of a date on Friday night.'

'Sex is the most fun you can have without laughing.'

and this one, which I know is contraversial (he was talking about his once stepdaughter, now wife, but it has stuck fast with me as absolute truth)

'The heart wants what the heart wants.'

Jeremy Edwards said...

More Woody:

I feel sex is a beautiful thing between two people. Between five, it's fantastic.

Anonymous said...

In a variation on that one, Woody said, 'Sex between two people can be wonderful, depending on which two people you are between.'

Anon Felix

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. And as everyone seems to (rightly) love it so much, I thought I'd link here to KL's post on female submissive fantasies from back in the early, early days of LB.

She made me understand. I swear, I could never write proper femsub characters before I read that.

Kate Pearce said...

Thank you for another fabulous post.

Yes-I think my sexuality still scares me a little but the older I get, the easier I find to embrace and understand what turns me on. I don't understand why feminism has to mean we can't fantasize about some of the more apparently degrading stuff.

I appreciate your ability to articulate something that I find difficult-hey you should be a writer! :)

kristina lloyd said...

Kate, Shanna, you both made me realise I never explicitly related any of this to feminism.

I think I'm so deeply convinced that my own grubby, sub sexuality is not in conflict with my feminism (which I consider to be a fairly astute, radical feminism) that I sometimes forget it's an issue. Now that really *is* equality.

And, yay! I made Madeline Moore blush! Thanks for your honesty Madeline, and thanks to everyone who's effectively said, 'Yes, me too' or 'I understand'. I was actually quite nervous and unsure about doing this post. I'm glad I went ahead.

And Mat, thanks for the link to the olden days. I remember when LB was first starting up and I basically said, 'Oh, I'm not sure about all this. I'm not really into blogging and personal revelations.'

Ha! And look at me now. I probably need gagging.

Anonymous said...

Ha. You probably do. And you can have a see through blindfold too.

I mean, sure, pretty picture and all, but am I missing something about the, like, point. You can't make a blindfold out of sellotape. Even *I* know that.

kristina lloyd said...

It is symbolic! I am reading it as a picture about temporary erasure of identity. With sellotape. All the best people are doing it, haven't you heard?

I'll lend you a roll. We could swap for those rigid handcuffs you have for the werewolves. After all, you won't be needing them soon.

Anonymous said...

No, no, I still need them for, uh... um...

Ally said...

I don't know how to explain my own sexuality, I'm all over the place. I like to be tied and whipped as much as the next gal, but I have a problem with feeling degraded and humiliated.
Perhaps I have too much going on psychologicaly already. Even though I like playing games, I still am unable to show submission. It would have to be forced. Name calling would tear me apart and leave the other person on the floor with a black eye and a broken knee cap. The only humiliation I can imagine or even fantasize about is being watched.

I have yet to find a lover willing enough to take me to that subspace you speak of. Perhaps one day. I think it is great for all those that enjoy it, to each their own, go for it.

I am a bit humiliated today, more angry at myself though, I made a big screw up. I left it on todays blog. GGGRRRRR.

Stephen Elliott said...

Hi Kristina,

Thanks for the kind mention. Also a really interesting post. It's so true that you can't write and not be criticized. But that doesn't make it easy.


Madelynne Ellis said...

Degradation and humiliation! Nope, I don't get it, but thanks for explaining it. It's an informative piece.

Janine Ashbless said...

Yes. Very articulate.

Can't stop. "300" and "Troy: the Director's Cut" both came out on DVD yesterday. I'm in considerable danger of going blind.

Kristie said...

Thanks for this ace post Kristina, you're fab. It's wierd but good to read you explaining how I feel if that makes sense and I am so grateful.

Alison Tyler said...

I probably need gagging.

T-shirt of the day. Or, um, t-shirt of yesterday. Sorry, I was busy and that one slipped by me.

You can see me in it, can't you? Red on black letters. Little plaid school girl skirt. And this.


Anonymous said...

I am joining this discussion late, but I really wanted to thank you, Kristina, for your brave post. I am very much on your wavelength, and find it fascinating as to why I am so turned on by fantasies of degradation and humiliation and sexual objectification.

In real life I am an intelligent, capable, responsible person who is regarded by friends as a strong character. I would be hurt and angry if treated with disrespect in real life. But in that other- wordly place of sexual arousal that you describe so perceptively - that escape from real life that nature has provided as her most readily available source of joy - I glory in rough treatment and insults.

Why is this so? I know I am a good, well-adjusted person and I know many other good, functioning well-adjusted women also have rape fantasies etc.(None of whom actually want to be raped, of course) I believe this submissive sexuality is so common as to be quite normal, in much the same way that homosexual behaviour is quite normal.

I tend to think in Darwinian terms, in that the way we are as humans, and the characteristics we have, both physically and mentally, have evolved to be the way they are because that way is advantageous to the survival of the species. To me, though the primary reason for sex is procreation, the secondary reason is bonding, which is why we enjoy sex at times other than our fertile timeframe. For the species to survive men need to bond with one another as well as with women. This is why homosexuality has always been completely normal.

When one considers the actual mechanics of the sex act, the male part enters the female part, the female has something done to her (even if she is on top and controlling the action) There is an element of domination and submission intrinsic to the act, and for woman to take pleasure in submission is advantageous to the survival of the species. This is my theory on explaining my weird fantasies. I guess the next question is how far along that road does normal turn into abnormal?

Again, I see the real world and the escape from the real world,that sex world where something that was yucky in the daylight is yummy in the dark,as being two distinct and separate places, and they ought to remain so. Otherwise 'sex world' is not an escape. So definitely no physical damage. I guess eveybody has a different "Ew! Gross!" point but at least in fantasies,no-one gets hurt.

I have recently finished my first erotic novel that I'm hoping Adam will accept for Black Lace, that explores some of these issues ( in a less dry and academic way, I assure you.)I wrote what turns me on, believing there were enough normal people like you and me, Kristina, who would also enjoy it.

Thanks for reading my first post, I love your blog, LustBites Ladies!

Ally said...

I know I am a good, well-adjusted person and I know many other good, functioning well-adjusted women also have rape fantasies...

Sister you said it all... But what about us fucked up crazies who want to be bad, be taken, and fantasize about rape too?

Like I said, my submission would have to be forced. Perhaps that's why most men consider me to be a major bitch when it comes to our battles in the bedroom. Although it turns me on to read about it, in a way I envy those whom can submit so willingly; Giving yourself so completely, to me is so sublime, but for me, all I have is me, I am unable to part with that part of myself. I truly wish I could handle it without fighting back and still leaving him with teeth in his mouth.

Perhaps I just need to find a willing partner who is willing to submit to me. (Submitting on an emotional level is far different than on a physical level.)

What an amazing post. Stimulating in every way.

Thankyou so much Kristina.

Anonymous said...

Darwinian arguments, sociobiology BBB, that's where it all gets sticky for me. Please remember that the way we see animal behaviour is influenced by the human world we live in.

Not every act of sexual intercourse involves a man dominating and a woman submitting.

You can ask my boyfriend.

kristina lloyd said...

Wow, once again, thanks for the kind words. This subject seems to have really struck a chord with people. And ohmygosh, Stephen Elliott was here. How cool.

Anonymous, good luck with your novel. Keep us posted, won't you? I have to say, I tend to steer clear of any line of reasoning that implies women are somehow naturally submissive, even if it's just contained within the act of fucking. Plus, I don't think penetration is *intrinsically* dominant. We're taught to view sex as cunt 'receives' cock ie cunt is basically passive. With a perspective shift, this could easily be cunt 'envelops' cock ... and, all too often, this view of cunt being more active slides into misogynistic ideas of vagina dentata, of scary devouring cunt/woman. Best stick with passive then, eh? It's very difficult to get behind entrenched ways of thinking and language.

I used to spend quite a lot of time wondering where my kinks came from, who was to blame etc. The older I get, the more comfortable I am with my stuff, and the less I've felt the need to explain and justify. I began to feel as if I were apologising for my sexuality or somehow trying to disown it by placing its origins outside of me.

Now I'm more likely to want to own it, and to think 'fuck it, I'll just enjoy this.' After all, it’s not as if I can change any of it. And yes, writing about what turns you on is such a great thing to do.

And Ally, I love forced submission and rape fantasy. Hard won surrender is so powerful, and it's all part of that heady mix of willing submission and resistance, the latter because what I'm giving up here (me) ain't cheap.

Well, obviously it is sometimes. Dirt cheap.

Nice ball gag, AT. Could I have that for Christmas instead of the smelly candles?

TeresaNoelleRoberts said...

I'm not going to be able to comment too articulately right now, as I have a Head Full of Allergies.

I don't think anyone who isn't into this sort of thing can grasp how "degradation" in an erotic context...isn't necessarily degrading in the long run. You can play that way if you want to, sure, but it can also be a step in a cycle of breaking open and putting back together, which seems to be what happens in our house.

So much so, in fact, that I always think, "Well, I'm not really into degradation and humiliation" and then think, "Oh yeah? What about X, Y and especially Z?"

It simply doesn't feel degrading or humiliating when the cycle is complete, just like the pain doesn't feel like pain. It all adds up to a sort of beauty that doesn't make sense if you're not wired the way it would seem a lot of us (and MM's boyfriend) are.

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