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BDSM in History and Historical Romance
Today, I’m going to talk a little bit about BDSM in history, and writing it in historical romance novels. It’s not as easy as it might seem.
Most everyone is aware the ancient Romans had sex slaves, and used them without regard to gender. The modern religious concepts that frown on homosexuality and pretty much anything not straightforward, face-to-face vanilla sex with the opposite gender didn’t exist. Sex was sex, and if you wanted to spice it up, there was no shame in that. Of course, if you were one of the unlucky slaves who didn’t find any enjoyment in serving a master or mistress who liked to inflict pain, I suspect it wasn’t much fun.
It’s no secret BDSM has been practiced since man discovered sex. The Romans, the Etruscans, the Marquis de Sade! Though only a small amount of ancient artwork still exists depicting kinky sex (Tombe della Fustigazione, or The Tomb of The Floggings in Tarquinia, Kinoe no Komatsu, among others), it’s enough to show that such behavior has been practiced in some form or another through the ages.
Unfortunately in many historical cultures, women were not seen as equals by the men of their times. As such, this often involved non-consensual sex, but there was little a woman could do about it. In quite a few societies in ancient times, if a man wanted a woman, he either bargained with her family to basically purchase her or he simply took her. And if he happened to be one of those who liked his women on their knees while sucking him off, well, she would either obey or suffer. If she was lucky enough to share the same enthusiasm for kinky sexual play, her predicament could actually become quite pleasant.
Today, we have all sorts of protocols – for consent, for safety, for mutual enjoyment. Those standards didn’t exist in antiquity. No safewords back then.
In the Middle Ages, the notion of courtly love flourished. Chivalry was the “rule,” but it wasn’t adhered to as much as many think – bards of the time romanticized that theory. There are just as many instances of women being punished by their husbands in various records, public and private. In Victorian times, men figged their wives, as well as spanked and paddled them for punishment. Whether either party got any enjoyment from it is pure speculation, but I suspect more than a few of the couples involved likely derived some sort of sexual gratification.
In any case, when writing historical BDSM romance, the reality is often softened. Key word here is romance. Consent can be complete, or dubious, or even in some cases, non-existent – at first. But ultimately, no matter how it starts out, both participants must enjoy the sex – and each other, no matter how long and vehemently they deny it.
For instance, in my first medieval, Warrior’s Vengeance, Ian MacCallum first seduces Marissa Langley, and then discovers spanking her makes her hotter. This in turn throws a major wrench into his plans for vengeance against her father. His late wife was also submissive in nature, and the two shared a happy marriage before tragedy struck – an instance of consensual kink. Using what he has practiced with his wife, Ian discovers how much his captive enjoys being spanked, and not only does he find a newfound respect for her, he could potentially lose his heart again. On the other side of the fence is his captive, Marissa. She does like what he does, but admitting that is shameful to her. Yet, she finds herself anticipating what Ian might do next, even at times, rebelling against him and making him take her, despite her verbal protests. Her actions speak way louder than any words she spits at him.
As with all romance novels, we “pretty up” the time and people – and BDSM is no different. In fact, I think writers work doubly hard to glamorize the BDSM aspects. While a captive heroine may not be completely willing at first, she learns a lot about herself in her enjoyment of sexual submission. Both characters enjoy the kink, both on the dominant and submissive side, even if they can’t fully wrap their heads around it and what it means. The hero gets off on spanking his woman, but doesn’t necessarily understand the gift she gives with her ultimately willing submission. To him, it’s the way women are supposed to act, and he is within his rights to behave as he does. It’s the writer’s job to analyze that, and in that analysis, we often give the characters modern perspectives – the joy a dominant man feels when his partner enjoys his action, and the happiness a submissive woman feels in knowing her hero ultimately has her pleasure in mind.
Fantasy? Sure. Reality? Maybe not so much. But it sure is fun to read and write BDSM in historical romance, and follow the characters’ journey through domination and submission.
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