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Picture the scene: we are in the dungeons of the inquisition, deep below Toledo. The shivering victim has been undressed, "examined," and is now lashed across a bench in the flickering torchlight. A grim figure approaches, in his hands—a devilish instrument of torture. The orange glow of the brazier reflects from its jagged metal surface. The victim's eyes widen. Her pretty lips are quickly moistened in fear (and... just perhaps... arousal?)
"So, Countess, the time has come for you to face your fate. If you will not confess your sins, then I must apply these horrid tortures to your luscious form... assuming, of course, you agree to me doing so."
The girl's pretty brown eyes blink in confusion.
"Absolutely. I can't proceed without the express consent of the person I'm torturing. You must clearly be a willing participant and not just a victim."
She wriggles her pert behind, as much as the evil restraints will allow.
"Look, it's pretty obvious that I'm willing... "
The inquisitor shrugs.
"Sorry, it might seem that way to me, but I have to be absolutely certain that I'm not committing an act against your will. Also, that you are fully in control of the scene no matter what I do, at every stage of the process. Have you decided on a safe word?"
"Safe word? What the fuck?"
"Oh, you need a safe word. Otherwise how could you have control of the scenario and be 'empowered' by the experience? Let’s see—"Tangerine?" or "Danny DeVito." I don't see anyone shouting either of those out by accident."
"Er...all right. I'll take 'mercy'."
"Really? No no no, that won't do at all."
"Because when I start to torture your exquisite body, you might well beg for mercy...."
The prisoner bit her lip and gave her torturer a very dirty smirk.
"Oh, I might....I might..."
"And then I'll have to stop and ask: 'can you confirm that the request you made was simply part of the dialogue, and not use of the designated safe word, because that would contravene all concepts of control and explicit consent?' Seriously, it's a pain. People always want to scream something like 'stop!' and we have to persuade them to take something else, like 'Brexit' or 'Thermodilation.'" He shook his head. "This job really isn't what it was..."
* * *
A scene like this would be utterly ridiculous, but in theory, it's how an extended BDSM torture sequence needs to be written. It’s not enough that the victim enjoys the terrible things done to them, they have to be a willing participant and hell, even instigate some of them. If not, then the author is working in that tricky area of Dubious Consent (AKA DubCon) which may well not see the book published at all.
DubCon became a thing for a very good reason: there were too many idiots out there writing stories which implied women liked to be treated rough. That it was somehow hard-wired into female genetics. Remember when people actually used to say ‘every woman has a secret fantasy about being raped?’ No one has said that to me for a long time and I hope I never hear it again. Because I’m not writing for men who think that that way—my target audience is women with very slight masochistic tendencies and a lot of imagination. They can enjoy placing themselves in the role of a damsel in distress but that’s not how they live. They treat that fantasy the way I would treat a warm bath—a nice place to visit but you don’t want to stay there too long.
It’s just that—on the face of it—the damsel never actually consents. She can spend the whole damned book not consenting. And then we’re back to the idea that someone is being told ‘this is what you like’ and having it forced on them.
So authors have to find ways in which their character can give that agreement but without actually saying they do. One example is the idea of setting your book within an AD&D game, where the player agrees to the victim’s fate but their character just has to put up with it. (Oh, a seven? That’s bad. It means your thief is going to be tied to the Purple Wheel of Anguish—That’s great, I really like this! Of course, Andorexia is going to kick and scream the whole way. Especially when they start cutting her clothes off…).
Or the idea of "post consensual consent"—(sit down in that chair, drink that elegant cocktail, and I’ll tell you the story of how I went from being an ingenue, to the woman of the world I now am. And it’s OK, because I’m telling you right now – it’s all fine,) Which—no, that doesn’t work for me. I prefer my BDSM with a bit of playful squirming, not a dash of Calvinistic predetermination theory.
I’d rather read a story about a kinky-as-shit princess who can’t own up to the fact, complaining every second of the way as she’s flogged, figged and sold naked in the market. Yes, she loves every second of it, but that’s because she’s a masochist and—more importantly—just a character in a book. A mental costume my reader can try on for a couple of chapters, then get back to her real life. The same way I read Batman comics.
A lot of writers won’t go near something like that any more, for fear of being "dungeoned." As a result, the average BDSM novel now begins with a sub going to an event and finding a master. Forget him dragging her off by the hair - their first stop is a good contract lawyer. Dull, repetitive, lacking in any excitement. Where are the pirate ships and flying saucers? The sex machines and harems of mind controlled MILFs?
I get why DubCon exists, and I admire the lengths some writers go to make it clear that their character agrees to this fate. But sometimes—sometimes—I wish we could be left to read between the lines and interpret that for ourselves. After all—we don't really mean it. We’re are just telling dirty stories.