Writing BDSM

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Title: Writing BDSM
Creator: Xanthe
Date(s): May 31, 2008
Medium: online
Fandom: The X-Files, Stargate Atlantis
Topic: BDSM fanfic
External Links: Writing BDSM; Archive
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Writing BDSM is an essay by Xanthe posted as part of a series of essays and interviews at shared_wisdom.

Some Excerpts

I’ve been writing fanfiction for over ten years and although I’ve written in many other genres, I’m probably most well known for my BDSM romances. As I’ve only written a tiny smidgeon of het BDSM, I’m going to confine my examples in this piece just to slash writing but hopefully it will also be of interest to any het writers among you.

I think BDSM is often misunderstood. Over the years I’ve lost count of the number of times people have sent me feedback saying, “I don’t usually like BDSM but I really enjoyed your story.”

BDSM ranks as a guilty pleasure for a lot of people – I’m amazed by how many people sound ashamed of liking my BDSM stories and how they think nothing of telling me so – as if they haven’t realised that they are just reading it whereas I’ve imagined it, then written about it, and, what’s more, gone and POSTED it for other people to read!

So there’s clearly a taboo about BDSM. I can understand that. I’ve been making up spanking stories in my head since I was a child. Obviously there was no sexual element until a lot later but I kept these fantasies to myself right up until I found fanfiction in 1998. It felt as if they were my guilty secret, and nobody would understand if I talked about them. Then I found fanfic on the internet and suddenly I discovered there were many other women out there who had similar fantasies. It felt so wonderfully liberating that I started writing like crazy to get years of pent-up fantasies out of my system.

In the beginning it was enough to be writing about spanking and some elements of power play in my fanfic but I’ve learned a lot about myself and about writing over the years, and found that when I really explored my fantasies they had more depth, colour and resonance than I had at first appreciated. It’s been quite a learning curve, so some of the mistakes I mention during the course of this article I’ve probably committed myself!
A lot of BDSM stories in fandom are what I call “silk scarf” fic, or BDSM-lite. This sort of story usually describes one scene, and the BDSM is something the characters dabble in as a one-off – maybe one of the characters just really likes having his wrists tied with a silk scarf so that he’s helpless during sex. These stories can be really hot and I certainly enjoy reading them - but it’s the sexual psychology of longer, more complex stories that interests me most when writing and reading BDSM.

It’s very easy for BDSM stories to become ALL about the BDSM – how about giving the characters a plot and a separate source of angst outside of their sex lives? How does it all fit into the whole? Where does BDSM fit into their lives? How do they feel about it? Are they happy or is one of them struggling with his role?

Maybe they’re fine with the BDSM but they have other problems. Maybe they are living “lifestyle” BDSM, where they always stay in role, one of them always the sub and the other always the top – that can create a whole different set of challenges.

Or maybe the characters are in a society that demands they live out a BDSM lifestyle, even though it’s not something they’ve chosen for themselves. Perhaps, Torchwood’s Ianto, having fallen through the rift into a different world, has to act out the role of Jack’s slave for some reason. Maybe he finds himself loving the sensation of being owned, and having to serve Jack as his slave – how does a 21st century man cope with those feelings? How does Jack feel about having Ianto as a slave? Is he comfortable with that? And what happens when they return home? The BDSM sex can be hot, but the exploration of Ianto and Jack’s feelings and reactions to it makes it more than just a one-note story.

Point of view is really important when exploring sexual psychology so you might want to spend some time thinking about it. When I started my epic “The X Files” Master/slave story, “24/7” I was very attracted to writing from the submissive’s viewpoint, in this case Mulder, so that’s how I started out. Unfortunately it was a very long story – 26 instalments long! – and by the end I was far more interested in the top’s viewpoint (in this case Skinner). It was too late to change the story structure by then! I tried to make Skinner interesting throughout, with his own back story and angst, but “24/7” was essentially the story of a sub’s journey by virtue of the point of view.

When I came to write “General and Dr Sheppard”, and “Coming Home” in the SGA fandom, I had learned from my experience in “24/7” and I alternated points of view between the top and sub. This was my ideal writing experience and I think “Coming Home” is my very best piece of BDSM writing.

In “Coming Home”, my exploration of the top’s perspective was a particular source of pleasure for me. Often in fanfic the sub is mixed-up and the top is stalwart, caring and steady – but I wanted both sub and top to have their own issues.

In “Coming Home”, I dealt with John being a top who had only played around with the role before he fell for Rodney. Then suddenly he had all these protective and sexual urges he was struggling to control. This was an interesting area of sexual psychology to explore and I loved it. In this story, John had a need for Rodney that was raw and all-consuming, and at times Rodney had to be the strong, calm one, to bring John down from his top headspace, which can be just as powerful a place as the sub’s headspace.

The psychology of the top doesn’t tend to be explored as much as that of the sub in fanfiction, but I think it’s just as interesting and rewarding.
There’s no doubt that BDSM stories can cause controversy in fandom – and I should know!

You should always put warnings on any BDSM stories you post. Some people just do not understand BDSM and don’t accept that one character actually enjoys receiving sexual pain from another, or enjoys a sense of being owned. They can only see that as abusive, however consensual it is. I do think that’s their prerogative, but I also think people should be free to write what they like. We’re all adults and a warning for BDSM ought to be enough to stop people who don’t like it from reading it – although sadly that’s not always the case. I know there’s nothing wrong with my fantasies, or my desire to express them, but some people are very uncomfortable with this kind of subject matter.

My epic SGA story, “Coming Home” was set entirely in an alternate reality where BDSM was the norm and most people identified as top or sub. I loved how this removed the need for our own society’s interpretation of BDSM as abnormal or just plain kinky. I didn’t have to have the characters be furtive about their needs, or worry about their sexuality because it was the norm, and nothing to be ashamed of.

I loved inventing little details for this world and essentially wrote a big love story, with the major theme of two damaged people learning to trust one another and finding out more about themselves in the process. The BDSM was almost incidental, the backdrop to the world, integral and yet not the sole point of the fic.

This story caused some controversy when it was posted – the fandom hadn’t experienced this kind of story before, and some people found it very challenging to see BDSM depicted in such a loving and romantic context. I realised then that there are STILL so many misconceptions about BDSM.

However, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the same story won in the McKay/Sheppard romance category in the recent Stargate Awards, and generated a huge amount of very positive and much appreciated feedback. It’s also true that although I’ve written in lots of genres, I’ve had by far the most feedback and the most hits on my website for my BDSM stories. They are simply the most popular of my output so there’s clearly a massive audience out there that loves reading BDSM romances.

Reactions and Reviews to this Post

  • ladyoflisquill: "Brilliant article. In relation to the Top space/POV thing, one scene that always stood out to me from your Coming Home story was when John was talking to Teyla about Rodney, asking her opinion about going against John's original intention and actually giving Rodney a safe word. I think this scene and the obvious care and love John has for Rodney really brings home the fact that good BDSM stories are not only about both sides of the coin (top and sub) but also, just like the research a writer put into the story, the relationship needs work and attention outside what we see on the finished page."
  • jasonsnene: "Thank you very much. This was very informative. I totally agreed on the "guilty pleasure" aspect. I think so many woman are surprised by not only liking slash, but liking their slash with a side of pain, that it makes us want to hide it away. I was completely surprised the first time I stumbled across a fanfic in this genre by how steamy I found it. When I decided to write in the genre, I bought a couple books to read which helped some but I know I still made many errors in my first few fanfics. I found that when dealing with AU/fantasy worlds, you can sometimes lose the essence of a true dom/sub. Like you said, it's all about the relationship and the trust. Now I'm off to read "Coming Home" even though I've never read in that fandom!"
  • xanthe: "...yes, finding out you like slash is one thing but then finding you like BDSM with your slash as well... I do think the "guilty" thing is quite prevalent in fandom - I was getting thousands of hits during the posting of "24/7" and a fair bit of feedback too, but the feedback was in no way in proportion to the huge numbers reading the story! I think for a lot of people it's just something they don't want to admit."
  • morganslady: "The first BDSM I read was Xanthe's 24/7. It opened a whole new reading world for me. The stories I enjoy most are the ones that contain love not just the play. There has to be real feeling between the top and sub,in order for the story to work for me."
  • mickiebg: "Thank you for this very informative post. I've just started reading BDSM fanfic because of one of the talented writers in the QAF fandom. I didn't want to at first, because I was afraid it would turn me off. I was completely surprised when the opposite happened, and I attribute this to the talent of the author who handled the subject matter very well and with a lot of respect for the readers as well as her characters. I think that is what made a huge difference."
  • ladyvirgo1956: "For me BDSM is a love/hate/love relationship. I like mild BDSM stories not the real heavy hitting stuff. I have written a few mild BDSM stories. The heaviest one I wrote dealt with being bound and a lot of toys. I recently wrote my first BDSM story dealing with Angel/Xander and Angel fulfilling Xanders Fantasies after he found Xanders Fetish magazines. It has went over great. I labeled it more kinky than BDSM though Xander was tied to the bed and Angel doing his best to give Xander what he wanted. I agree when writing BDSM you are taking your characters OOC if it is from a movie, t.v. show or a book. If they are original characters it doesn't matter. You are writing them the way you see them. If you don't like BDSM whether it is mild or extreme don't read it or write it. Write something you are comfortable with. If the BDSM is just the secondary story and doesn't dominate the story I am most likely to read it. I read a story where I can honestly say 99% of the story was BDSM. I got bored real fast. If a story that has a lot of BDSM and very little substance for me I will quit reading it. A good story to me is broken down into parts the main story dealing with the main subject matter. Romance, H/C, etc. A back story or secondary story dealing with the characters. The third part would be combined with the first two the sex and how they deal with it whether it is BDSM or Vanilla. Keep this in mind and you can have a great story. As a rule I usually stay away from BDSM and or kink style stories. If I come across a writer I know and I know they are a good writer and they have written one I will read it. lit_gal is a good example. She is a great writer and she writes a lot of BDSM stories. Hers I will read. Remember when you write BDSM your readers expect something great not a lot of explaining on what it is. As a reader if you don't like the subject matter don't read it. It just might be too much. A habit I have if I come across a topic or word I'm not sure of I highlight it and do a search for it. It helps me understand the story better."
  • blackchaps: "Great article! I thoroughly enjoyed it and you gave some great advice. Seems like every time I join a fandom, I write some BDSM first, just to get it out of my system, of course. *g*"
  • jane elliot: "I wasn't sure whether to put this on your LJ or here, but it looks like you'll find it either place, so... This was a *fantastic* essay and it highlighted a lot of the issues I have about BDSM fic, primarily that BDSM fic is usually about, well, BDSM. While I'm all for folks doing whatever they want in the bedroom (as long as it's consensual), I personally have significant control and pain issues. This means that any story that is nothing but control/pain (no matter how much it is desired by the parties in question) is not going to appeal to me. Thus the reason I don't read much BDSM in general. That said, I'm a fast reader and if I only read fic within my comfort zone, I'd have run out of fanfic years ago. Instead, I read stories that skirt my comfort zone, and am often rewarded by fantastic fic where my squicks are overwhelmed by a good story that hits most of my kinks (trust issues, miscommunication, h/c, etc.) The reason I loved Coming Home so much was because the BDSM aspects of the story were significant, and yet incidental to the main plot: two damaged men learning to love and trust one another. I'm a sucker for hurt/comfort and trust issues and was drawn in by this aspect of the novel and for me the BDSM parts of the story were just flavor that added depth to the story as a whole. If there were more BDSM stories like this out there (i.e., stories with intriguing plots and well-developed characters), I'd be reading a lot more of it. (As a side note: I'm very, very glad that you mentioned warnings. I am a responsible reader -- I always read the warnings of a story and if I choose to read a story despite its warnings, I'm certainly not going to blame the author for providing exactly what she warned about. This, however, assumes a certain responsibility of writers -- to warn readers about certain content in stories. I do think some fandoms go overboard (PWP isn't a warning folks, it's a genre), but at the very least I believe every story should have character death, non-con, BDSM, and underage sex warnings, where appropriate. Urm. Okay, that wasn't entirely on topic, but it's been something that's been bugging me for a while now.) Again, thanks for the wonderful essay; I very much enjoyed reading it:)"
  • 1984101: "Although I greatly enjoy most of your work ("Breaking the Rules" and "Back From The Well" are two particular favourites of mine), I think I'm probably in the minority in this comm when I say (with the greatest of respect) I'm not a fan of "Coming Home" and "General & Dr Sheppard". The simple reason for this is I find it very difficult to believe Rodney McKay would ever be a submissive, either in the "real" SGA canon, or the well realised world you created in these fics. In my personal opinion it's just very out of character (although I have absolutely no problem at all with anyone who may think differently). So when you say you find it difficult to read fics in which Rodney tops, I can sympathise greatly, as I have that exact problem although obviously the other way round! For me, as I'm sure it is with you, it's just instinct (and maybe because I'm dominant and I find it extremely easy to identify with Rodney) to catagorise Rodney as dominant, John as submissive and Ronon as cheerfully going either way (although that could just be because of the hot mental image, who knows?) It's fascinating and great how people can have such different takes on the same characters."