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Writing BDSM

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shared_wisdom

Writing BDSM

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sebastian stan green
 
Thank you so much to jans_intentions  for inviting me to be a guest speaker, exploring the topic of writing BDSM. You’ve already read my biography in Jan’s earlier post, and perhaps some of you are familiar with my stories. 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!
 
What is BDSM?
BDSM stands for Bondage, Domination, Submission and Masochism. Some people attribute other words to the acronyms - “spanking” or “sadism” for the S in particular and that works fine too but I prefer the words I’ve used. BDSM stories don’t have to contain all these elements though.
 
BDSM can take the form of a “scene” or “play”, where the participants agree in advance what they want to do during the course of the activity – e.g. spanking or bondage. They might also choose to role play – e.g. one of them might pretend to be a rent boy and the other his client, or one of them will be the slave and the other his master.
 
In fanfiction, we can often go one step further and write an AU where Justin really IS Brian’s slave, or a futurefic where Spike keeps Xander as his pet in a universe where vampires have taken over the world.
 
Tops and Bottoms
In BDSM parlance a top is usually the dominant and the bottom is submissive. For some reason I prefer to mix and match the two terms and generally refer to tops and subs in my fics – but that’s just a personal thing for me.
 
It’s important to at least try and understand the psychology of both points of view. You may choose only to write from the submissive’s POV but you might want to spend some time imagining what the top is getting out of it.
 
One of my pet peeves in BDSM stories is a top who is there simply to cater to the demanding whims of an emotionally unstable bottom. The top seems to have no needs of his own and exists merely to serve – even if that’s by being stern and sensible and having a strong right arm to hand out spankings! The sub is usually spiralling wildly out of control and everything is always about him.
 
Conversely, some subs put up with such abusive behaviour from their high-handed and unreasonable tops, with their endless lists of bizarre rules, that I long to scream at the subs to get out of there and run away – there’s no pleasure in it for me if I think the top is, well, over the top, and the sub is in genuine danger.

The relationship between sub and top should be one of mutual respect - I think of them complementing each other, like two sides of the same coin. Each needs what the other can provide. It isn't a relationship of coercion or abuse but one of trust and responsibility.
 
Research
I’m not one of those people who thinks you have to have experienced something in order to write about it. If that were the case then most of us women wouldn’t be writing about sex between two men in our slash fic. We all have imaginations and can use them! However, you might like to do some research to help you understand the topic if you’re unsure. Good resources are sites like www.bondage.com and there are some well known books that get recommended frequently within the community:
 
“Screw the Roses, Send me The Thorns: the Romance and Sexual Sorcery of Sadomasochism” by Phillip Miller and Molly Devon.
“The Bottoming Book – Or How to Get Terrible Things Done to you by Wonderful People” by Dossie Easton and Catherine A Liszt.
“The Topping Book – or Getting Good at Being Bad” by Dossie Easton and Catherine A Liszt.
 
Some masochists experience pain as pleasure – they actively enjoy it, and they can enter a place called “sub space” where they are completely lost in these sensations. Endorphins are powerful, and a skilful top will build up to a climax, starting slowly and building up until the submissive is taking far more pain than they’d be able to if the top had started off at that level. This pain releases endorphins which flood the body and provide an amazing high.
 
Be realistic though – you might find it hot to have your submissive caned, then paddled, then flogged for hours on end, but would he be able to take it? Don’t go the other way either – a few taps on the bottom from his top’s hand is unlikely to have him sobbing for days and unable to sit down for weeks!
 
Having said that, I do think fantasy has a big part to play in a BDSM story. Although in real life I would expect people to use a safe word in their BDSM scenes, and for various aspects of the scene to be negotiated in advance, sometimes in fanfic I don’t want to read that. It’s like condoms – we all know about safe sex and nine times out of ten I’ll write condoms into a story but sometimes I just don’t want to, or it doesn’t fit with the story I’m trying to tell. It’s the same with BDSM. I’m writing a story, not a BDSM handbook, and I don’t always want to use safe words. Sometimes I want to explore trust issues by having the top decide how far to take his sub. It’s not something I’d necessarily recommend in real life but I do find it really hot to write about it. Sometimes I DO want to go much further in a story than I ever would in real life. It’s a way of safely exploring fantasies and should be read in that spirit.
 
Finally, don’t let your research take over your story – you may well have spent weeks reading up about Japanese rope bondage, how to tie someone to a St Andrew’s Cross and what floggers cause what effects, but nobody wants to read a “how to” guide! Let your research inform your story but don’t let it dominate it.
 
Psychology
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.
 
Sexiness
When writing BDSM it’s important to understand what’s sexy about it. I think this is where some writers maybe go wrong – they know they like it but they’re not sure why and when they write it they don’t really tune into the heart of the sexiness. I know this was a mistake I made in the beginning. So before you start writing, just think - what do YOU find sexy about it?
 
Take a little time to think through what you do and don’t enjoy when reading BDSM stories, and analyse your own fantasies to see what the appeal is. Is it that you find power play sexy? I know I do! That’s referred to as D/s (Dominant/submissive) and BDSM stories can legitimately consist entirely of power play with no bondage, spanking or any other kinky stuff at all.
 
Maybe the submissive longs only to serve his master, kneeling by his chair, living for the second or two when his master’s hand lingers in his hair, stroking softly. He loves drawing a bath for his master, and soaping him down, fingers lingering in his master’s chest hair as he works, his lips occasionally daring to plant a soft kiss on damp skin. Afterwards he dries his master with a warmed towel before escorting him to the bed and massaging him with long strokes from oily fingers. Later he will oil himself, and present himself for his master’s use – all loving, gentle and completely without any kind of pain at all yet still pretty kinky.
 
Or is it the sense of trust between top and sub you enjoy? Do you like it when the submissive tries his best to endure an act of nipple torture that his top is inflicting lovingly upon him? His top’s fingers are squeezing his nipples hard, and then his top’s tongue descends in warm swirls, soothing them, before the squeezing resumes again, only harder this time… The sub wants to endure it because his top is asking him to but it hurts so much…and yet it also makes him feel excited precisely because his top has that kind of power over him. Is it that deliciously confusing psychology that you find hot?
 
Or do you just love the idea of a beautiful man, stripped naked and tied in chains, blindfolded with a black silk cloth, being caressed by a man in tight leather pants, his muscled chest bare, a long black whip dangling from his hand… Is the visual what excites you? Or the bondage? The idea of the man being helpless, blindfolded, unable to see what his top will do to him next?
 
Or maybe you just enjoy the idea of one man laid over the knee of another, receiving a spanking that turns his bottom red hot and makes him scream, holler and beg for it to stop. Maybe he’s enjoying it, or maybe it’s a punishment that he’s submitting to reluctantly.
 
Do you like reading “scenes” where the two men occasionally happen to indulge in a bit of light bondage for the fun of it, during an otherwise vanilla story, or do you like the idea of a full on BDSM lifestyle where they live it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?
 
Did any of the above scenarios appeal? Maybe all of them did, or maybe just one. If you don’t like the idea of any of them though, then I’d simply suggest that you don’t try writing BDSM fic. Like most stories, the most successful BDSM stories are written from the heart, and if you don’t have a “feel” for BDSM, or any sympathy for it, then it’ll show.
 
I must say also, on an entirely personal note, that I prefer it if the participants love each other as well – that’s part of what makes it sexy for me. There has to be real affection and trust to give me the tingles I get from reading good BDSM fic. It may be a crazy, mixed-up kind of love, it may even be a love that’s wrong for them both, but fundamentally I want there to be some kind of affection and connection there. In my stories, love tends to conquer all which is the way I prefer it!
 
Why write BDSM?
This brings me onto an important point. Why do you want to write BDSM? It may sound like a silly question but it does help focus you on what it is that attracts you to the subject matter.
 
For example, if what you’re really drawn to is exploring domestic abuse issues or partner rape issues, then BDSM isn’t for you, and it’s important to recognise the difference between these genres. I can always spot a writer who doesn’t really understand what BDSM is, or who is appropriating it to explore their own issues or hot buttons.
 
Over the years, a number of people have asked me to write about a scene going wrong, and the top really hurting the sub. I’m sure this does sometimes happen in real life, but it’s not subject matter that interests me. My interest is in showing where the pleasure is for the participants, and not in using the act of BDSM sex itself to generate the angst in the story.
 
BDSM isn’t partner abuse. There’s a phrase used in the BDSM community: safe, sane and consensual. My own experiences in the BDSM community are that people are very careful to talk about what they do and do not like, and safe words are always established before a scene so it can be stopped by either top or sub if it goes outside their comfort zone.
 
I’ve been to a flogging seminar and seen the effects produced by different kinds of floggers, all lovingly described and crafted by both a dominant and a submissive. Many people in the community view their practice of BDSM almost as an art form, like playing a musical instrument. It is absolutely not an excuse to beat up a sexual partner.
 
Rape fantasies can be incorporated very easily into a BDSM relationship – actual rape is a different thing entirely and not to be confused with a role-playing scene. Again, partner rape stories might float your boat and if you want to write one go ahead - but don’t call it BDSM.
 
I do understand that those people who don’t “get” BDSM simply don’t understand the distinction but that would be a good reason not to write BDSM.
 
That isn’t to say that abuse in a BDSM relationship isn’t a valid topic for exploration. It can be interesting to explore “good” and “bad” BDSM relationships. For example – perhaps NCIS’s Tony is in a bad BDSM relationship and Gibbs finds out and takes out his fury on Tony’s top, and then he shows Tony what a *good* BDSM relationship can be like. Um, actually I’d really like to read that one…
 
Characterisation
Deciding who is the top and who is the submissive in a fanfiction story might be an issue for you. It doesn’t tend to be for me, but it’s worth taking a moment or two to consider it. Sometimes it seems very clear from the show but sometimes it isn’t.
 
Rodney in SGA seems such an obvious submissive to me that I find it hard to even imagine him topping somebody. Not that it’s wrong to write it! Not at all – in “The X Files” fandom, most people saw Skinner as a top based on a couple of Season Two episodes in particular, and I often wrote him that way myself, but I had a secret love of him subbing and wrote that a few times too. There was no doubt also that his personality changed during the course of the show and he was much less toppy at the end than he was at the beginning!
 
Then again - and I know I’m not being much help here! - but sometimes a person’s persona in real life (or in canon!) might not be a good indicator of what they want to do sexually. I think the important thing is that you make a good case for it in your story, whatever role you choose for your characters.
 
I know some people think that any kind of BDSM scenario automatically takes people out of character, and it’s true that it can be hard to keep people in character when they’re addressing their lover as “Master”. It’s also true that I’ve deliberately made many of my BDSM stories into extravagant romances with a heavy dose of fantasy and escapism in them which has given me the luxury of being able to explore all kinds of facets of the BDSM lifestyle. I do think you can keep characters true to themselves in BDSM stories – but you might also need to allow for the fact that people can behave differently behind closed doors with a lover to how they might behave on a TV show meant for family viewing.
 
The best thing is to try not to let the characters become a stereotype – they might be acting out roles of sub and top, or even living them, but they are still *people* first and foremost. Tops have their own vulnerabilities and subs can be take charge and strong. They are still the characters we know and love from the show – they may be top and sub in your story, but that’s not *all* that they are so remember to show that.
 
Don’t Let the Toys Take Over!
We’ve all read those “insert tab a into slot b” sex scenes and BDSM fic is no different - except there’s an extra dimension to get wrong! So much of BDSM is about feeling and sensation and it needs to be described.
 
If someone is being spanked then a long list of “SPANK – OW” gets old really quick. I’ve been downright bored by long, loving descriptions of implements – what I want to read is how it feels! Is the sub tingling with anticipation, trembling with excitement, or gasping in pain? And, even more importantly, what is going on between sub and top? Is the top teasing, or scary? Is he implacable, or kind but unrelenting? How does the sub feel about that?
 
The same goes for ritual. It’s true that people who enjoy BDSM do sometimes like the idea of elaborate rituals surrounding it. Complicated rules the sub must follow for example – such as ways in which he must kneel, and numbers for positions – “get into position 4” meaning that he must stand with his hands against the wall to accept a spanking and so on. I rather enjoy these rituals in their place but I think it’s important not to let them dominate the story.
 
Moreover, sometimes it can be very hard to follow what’s going on in these scenes. No amount of elaborate knots tied, strange positions adopted, or different sex toys used will alter the need for you to describe the thoughts and emotions the characters are experiencing as well as what is happening to them physically. There has to be context to make any sex scene interesting, and with BDSM that’s just as much the case as with vanilla sex scenes.
 
BDSM in fandom
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.
 
Final Thoughts
I hope this has been of some interest to people who are considering writing BDSM fanfic or who just want to understand it better. I hope it hasn’t seemed too complicated a world to enter because it really isn’t. Just let your imagination loose, think kink, and start writing - the fanfic world needs more good BDSM stories!
 
Note: Thank you to flyingnorth , bluespirit_star , and jans_intentions  for looking at this before I posted and giving me support, encouragement and little pointers for improvement!
 
Links to stories mentioned in this article:
 
 
 
 
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