One of my favorite erotica stories is by Patrick Califia. (No
surprise there.) “No Mercy” (which can be found in his collection of the same title) centers Terry, who is in an abusive D/s relationship with
Heather, and on the cusp of finding her way out of it. The story begins as they
approach a piercing shop to finally get the genital piercing that Terry has
wanted for a long time. Her body could not accept the piercing from Heather,
she kept safewording as the moment was approaching, so they decide to go to a
professional piercer. The first 8 or so pages are filled with the lead-in to
the piercing. Heather thinks of the piercing as a last ditch effort to save the
relationship, and Terry thinks of it as another step away from the
relationship. The tension in the story builds until the piercing is done, and
once it is complete, Terry bursts out with a flow of words. The piercer, a
leatherdyke herself who becomes a key character in the rest of the story,
explains, “Once you poke a hole in somebody, something frequently comes out.” The
piercing, which is hot in and of itself and also incredibly satisfying, is also
holding so many other things for all the characters involved. It is this transformational
moment, this intensely loaded thing.
Sex and kink can hold so much in them, and Califia is one of
those writers that deeply embraces this reality, and uses the sex and kink in
his stories to nudge the reader to grapple with the things he cares about. He’s
pretty upfront about it too. In his essay, “A Insistent and Indelicate Muse”,
printed in M. Christian’s brilliant collection The Burning Pen: Sex Writers on Sex Writing, Califia says:
“I like to use the cover of eroticism to entice the reader
and make them emotionally and psychologically vulnerable to new ideas or
discomfiting information. I hold out the reward of dirty talking in exchange
for the reader stretching their political muscles.”
Califia is upfront about wanting the reader to stretch, to
see the things that sex is holding inside itself, to grapple with those things
in reading his stories.
When I started writing erotica, it was about reaching for my
desire, trying to envision it and make it real for myself. My early erotica is
full of my fantasies about BDSM, but more than that, about my fantasies of
being seen, witnessed, and met in the wholeness of who I am, particularly
around gender. I wrote a story about being seen and desired as trans by cis gay
men. I wrote about being witnessed and desired as a genderqueer femme by queer
trans men. I wrote about being desired as a submissive boy by a trans man, and
as a femme dyke by a butch dyke.
These stories, these fantasies, were as much about gender
and queerness as they were about spanking, or pain play, or sucking cock in a
bathroom or an alley. They were imagining a sexual universe where I was able to
be in the fullness of myself, and be desired. Because I was worried about that,
worried about whether I was desirable in my gender complexity. Worried about
whether the kind of queer kink I wanted was possible.
I am not worried about those things as much now; I bring
other needs to my writing. But they often are still rooted in that desire to be
recognized, that desire to create moments of recognition for readers, that
desire to open up space that allows us to be in the wholeness of ourselves
during kink and sex.
Erotica has been a place where I play with the ways we can
feel seen and met in our desires, honored for all of who we are, witnessed and held
in our vulnerability, as we show ourselves to our partners. That’s been a
common thread in my erotica over the last 15 years of writing, because I find
it to be one of the most gloriously hot aspects of sex and kink. I titled my
recent queer kink erotica collection Show
Yourself To Me to evoke that aspect of my work, to draw attention to the
ways it is rooted in that place of yearning and meeting, of holding and
celebrating, of showing who you are and being shown in return.
In a recent round table discussion on sex writing, Larissa Pham, who writes one of my favorite sex
columns, Cum Shots, said:
“With Cum Shots, people would text me (saying), ‘Oh my God,
you broke my heart again.’ This isn’t happy writing a lot of the time. Sex
is just a way to talk about other things. You poke sex and a bunch of stuff
comes out: power comes out, abuse comes out, emotions come out, trauma comes
out, race relations come out.”
For me, writing stories about sex and kink has been a way to
write about other things that I care about. You poke the sex and kink in my
stories and a bunch of other stuff comes out, including the very things that
Pham names in the quote above. Sex and kink is the arena where all that stuff
takes place, shows its face, gets grappled with and held. I use my stories to
illuminate ways I have found to create safe enough containers within sex and
kink that can hold the things that come out when you poke.
When you poke the sex you are writing, what comes out? How
do you grapple with that as a writer? How do you create stories that can hold
it? How do you decide what stuff your story can hold, and where you need to
limit that? What do you use sex to talk about?
Folks often talk about
non monogamy as more advanced sex, or more advanced relationships. As if its
extra work, takes more from you, is harder to do. It has that reputation in all
its permutations, from group sex to open relationships to closed triads to
non-hierarchical polyamory. I think this is because the risks are perceived to
be higher, and because folks are conceiving of a monogamous couple as the norm.
Many people assume that if you are doing menage or group sex, that you start
with a previously monogamous couple, and add on from there. And for some
people, that is how it works. But that’s not all that exists in the world.
Not everyone starts as a
couple, and opens up their monogamous relationship. I have done many different
kinds of non-monogamy in my life, and have
never done it that way. A monogamous couple doesn’t need to be the center
of group sex, or an open relationship, or menage, or a polyamorous network, or
a triad. That is not the beginning from which all of these things spring.
So, why am I talking
about this on an erotica-focused website?
Because these assumptions are often built into our
erotica in ways that we may not even be aware. Let’s hone in on a
particular form of non-monogamy that’s quite common in erotica: group sex. (For
my purposes here, let’s loosely define group sex as three or more people
involved in fucking and/or BDSM together. No, this is not an official
definition, just the one we are trying on for the moment.)
A couple focused story is
often framed by some kind of interpersonal conflict that either needs to be
managed or is fueling the situation: jealousy, cuckholding, competition,
perception of the other players or the group sex itself as threat or potential threat
to the coupledom that needs to be neutralized. Common ways such a threat is neutralized
in these stories include: temporariness or casualness of the encounter, a deep
trust with the other parties, certain acts or body parts being off the table
outside the couple, only doing it with other couples, or a facilitated experience
that one partner creates for the other, as a gift, a lesson, a punishment, or a
way to cement a D/s dynamic. Do these
sound familiar? I sure have read a ton of stories that use these things as the
framework for group sex. In fact, the majority of the group sex I’ve read in
erotica and erotic romance involves scenarios like this.
Let’s unpack this for a
moment. This kind of framework assumes that if a couple engages in sex with
other people, there will automatically
be interpersonal conflict of some sort. For cuckolding stories, this conflict
is the main driver for the sex in the first place, the thing that turns some
(or all) of the parties on. For other stories, this conflict is assumed to be
inevitable, as if everyone would naturally feel jealous, or competitive. As if having
sex or BDSM play with others would obviously of course be a potential threat to
In this sort of story,
tension and action is created by external conflict, between the people involved.
This is based on a framework that having sex with other people takes something
away from the couple, is emotionally
painful for some of the people involved, or sets people up to compete against
each other for a limited amount of love, sex, security or attention. This
foundation of pain, scarcity, and threat is what drives the action of the
story, the thing that needs to be resolved in the story, usually by some action
that cements or reinforces the couple.
It can be difficult to break
out of this framework, to imagine other things, partly because it is so very
common and societally reinforced. In polyamory communities, folks are often
still struggling to think outside of this box, to come up with language for
describing our lives that does not operate from this framework of competition,
threat and jealousy. One concept I find particularly useful is compersion. Compersion is often
conceived of as the idea that you might feel happy that your partner is happy
with their other partner, basically that their joy is catching. It’s related to
empathy, the idea that you might feel joy with your partner, the same way you
might get excited when a friend is excited about something they achieved, or
feel sad for a loved one who experiences loss. This is basically an extension
of that kind of shared emotion, applied to non-monogamy, in a neutral way. It
doesn’t assume that jealousy and competition are a natural result of your
partner having other partners. It holds space for folks who feel joy and other
positive emotions with other people, including their partner’s happiness with
So that’s compersion, as
a big concept, with regards to relationships. Erotic compersion is the idea that you might get turned on by
hearing about or imagining or witnessing your partner have sex with another
person. Erotic compersion makes room for folks who experience erotic
compassion, folks who get off on the sex their partners have with other people.
This isn’t a cuckolding scenario, where the idea is that someone might feel
shame, pain, humiliation, failure, or feel threatened at the sex their partner
has with others, alongside maybe also getting off on it. This is the erotic
charge and pleasure without the assumption of competition, threat, pain or
jealousy. A different animal, one that isn’t built on conflict.
I really think it’s
worth exploring group sex stories that don’t have this built-in assumption of
competition, jealousy, threat, and interpersonal conflict. When I read stories
that are rooted in these things, they frequently feel boring, depressing, stuck,
and flat. I am not rooting for the couple or finding the group sex hot, I’m
mostly just sad for everyone involved. I vastly prefer stories that center
openness, abundance of possibilities, collaboration, exploration of internal
struggle. I experience those stories as full of hope and possibility, and
infinitely hotter. I encourage you to consider possibilities outside this box
that our genre is so often in, even just as an experiment in pushing your own
thinking and practice as an erotica writer.
What could that look
like? I’m going to discuss a few examples from my own work to give you a feel
for what I mean.
As someone who primarily
experiences compersion, both emotional and erotic, I got very excited at having
this new language, and wrote a story about it, that I titled “Compersion”. The
story is told from the point of view of a dominant queer man who watches his
boy bottom to two tops. It hones in on the erotic experience of compersion, and
attempts to make it concrete for the reader, to show what it’s like to get
turned on when your boy is “showing off for Daddy”.
(As a heads up, the excerpt below includes descriptions of service oriented sex.)
“He is so hot when his cock is being used. It brings him into himself,
straightens his shoulders, stirs his pride. He knows he is skilled at this.
My boy is focused. It’s not about his pleasure—it’s about you—and he is
so focused on you that you feel larger, immense, like you fill the entire room.
Abe only wants to give you what you need, to create the kinds of sensations you
most enjoy, and he pays such close attention. His gaze and focus are mighty
things, and as I watched him turn them to Marcus, watched him serve in this
particular way, I filled with pride that he was mine. It made my dick throb. Watching
him steadily piston Marcus was intensely hot, but it also lit me up to watch
him take such pride in his service. That’s
my boy, I kept thinking. That’s my
In this story, the
tension doesn’t come from the characters competing with each other or being
jealous of each other or any other sort of external conflict. Instead, the
conflict is all internal. The tension builds as Abe pushes himself as a
submissive, and his Daddy witnesses that internal struggle, riding it along
with him, using what he knows about his boy to connect deeply with him and his
experience of internal conflict.
When you embrace the
possibility that there doesn’t need to be external conflict between characters,
that characters can collaborate or be connected or have compersion or dance
together through pleasure, it opens up other areas of exploration in your
story. You can imagine a community where a bunch of friends and leather family
might hold space for an intense scene, and be part of how two people push edges
together safely. You can imagine a queer trans guy learning how to do anal
fisting with a group of gay cis men coaching him along, especially a very
active power bottom. You can imagine a dominant offering his former mentor and
lover a menage scene with his new submissive as a way to explore getting back
together, perhaps as a threesome this time. You can imagine a group sexual
initiation into a werewolf pack or rugby team or queer leather family. You can
imagine someone scheming to find enough fisting tops to give his best friend
the scene she always wished for. You can imagine three friends finally falling
in bed together after years of sexual tension. You can imagine a kink community
where birthday parties regularly culminate in group birthday spankings. You can
imagine someone being hot to serve a dominant couple.
Once you let go of basing
the tension in your group sex story on interpersonal conflict between the characters,
you can explore other sources of tension. Not all tension and build in a story must be based on conflict. That is a
deeply Western conceptualization of storytelling. That said, if you are a fan
of writing conflict and find it to be a needed element in your story, I suggest
considering internal conflict. Most of my erotica stories center at least one POV
character who is grappling with some sort of internal conflict, often alongside
characters that are collaborating in some way.
For example, my story, The Tender Sweet Young Thing, is told from the point of view of three trans characters.
Dax, who has fantasized about a gender play scene based on a hir favorite
childhood story, Dax’s boyfriend Mikey, who has been searching for a bottom to
make such a scene happen for Dax, and Téo, who gets excited when hearing about
the story and wants to be the bottom in the scene. Dax gathers a group of friends
to be tops in the scene, and the bulk of the story depicts the scene itself.
There are several elements of tension in the scene for different characters,
but the central tension is the internal conflict of the bottom in the scene,
who finds it more difficult to claim the gender he wanted than he thought it
(As a heads up, the following excerpt includes descriptions of gender play, blade play, and role play.)
“Téo knew his line. He’d been waiting for it, to claim this gender that
fit so right, in front of queers who actually got it. He swallowed around the
fear rising in his throat. “I am a tender…,” he whispered, then stopped. It
turned out it was harder to say than he’d thought.
Mikey met his gaze, gripped his face in her paw, and said, “What was
that? Old tigers like me need it a bit louder.”
Dax took the opportunity to spread his thighs with hir claws, and Lee
bit down on his stomach. Damn. Rebecca came over to hold his hand. That helped.
Jericho came over to their boy and laid their hand on his shoulder. Rusty still
hadn’t let go of his curls, but that felt grounding now.
“Looks tender,” said Xóchi, who had pulled up on the other side of his
stomach with her knife out, and was tracing it along his collarbone, up toward
Fuck, okay, he said to himself. You can’t talk when you aren’t breathing.
You can do this. Let it out. It came out in a whimper, which only made
Xóchi grin and press the knife deeper into his skin. Lee was nuzzling his
stomach again, and Mikey held him captive in her gaze. Why couldn’t he look
away? Why was it so damn hard to say?
Mikey’s eyes were warm and firm all at the same time. Her gaze said, Take your time. We are here. We know it’s
hard. We’ve got you.”
There is no conflict
between the characters; instead, the story highlights the ways they work
together to shape the scene. Although there is a couple, the story doesn’t
center the couple or assume that their coupledom is under threat because they
are doing sex and kink with a group of friends and lovers. Instead, the couple
work together to create the scene, along with other friends and lovers of both
theirs and Téo’s. The tension comes from Téo’s internal struggle, from the ways
that BDSM can reach inside and create opportunities to be brave and honest
about who you are.
I urge you to question
the framework you are using to imagine your group sex stories. It may open you
up to story possibilities that take you somewhere very new. And isn’t that part
of the joy of writing, to push ourselves to go to new places and imagine
You know how on Project Runway, when the contestants are creating a
collection, they keep being urged to make it cohesive? Cohesion is a big part of how they envision each piece of
the collection being connected and part of a whole. So it doesn’t feel
disjointed. So you get a clear sense of who the designer is. So you know who
they are making clothes for.
As a top, when I’m planning a BDSM scene, I’m attempting to create a
similar kind of cohesion. I want the play to feel connected, not like a series
of disjointed activities. I want the play to be an expression of who I am as a
top. I want the play to be specific to the bottom, and specific to this
particular moment with the bottom. It needs to be about both (or all) of us.
It can be easy to be caught up in a clever idea, or a particular goal,
or want to use all the tools available, or have a clear arc in mind. But goal
focused or highly scripted play often prevents us from being in the moment and
present with ourselves and those we are playing with. So I try not to overplan.
I want to leave plenty of room to respond in the moment. When I’m teaching BDSM,
I often tell folks:
Let your intention
float alongside or in front of you. Grasping for it may sink you.
So, I generally lean towards a loose plan, instead of a script or
concrete goals. I’ve built scenes on a few tools I want to focus on. I’ve created scenes based on the emotions I wanted to harness. I’ve
planned scenes based on sensations I want to give. I’ve conceived of scenes
that are based on the kind of connection I wanted to create. These are loose intentions,
ones that I can let float next to me, and still really be in the moment during
BDSM play, let myself be guided as much by context and the responses of my
partner and my own desire right then, as I am by the intention. And even this
kind of loose intention can sometimes weigh me down in the moment if I become
too attached to it, so I try to enter a scene knowing that I may need to let it
float away from me altogether.
Many of my erotica stories mostly consist of a scene; there may be a
bit of a lead in, or sometimes a longer lead in, but often the bulk of the
story is the scene. That’s where the character arc happens, that’s where the
conflict occurs, that’s where I do much of my characterization. The scene is
the center of the story, and it needs the sort of plan that a real life scene
needs, one that is dynamic and responsive, one that allows for discovery and
flow, one that isn’t too heavily scripted or goal oriented. It needs to feel
cohesive, in some ways even moreso because it’s the center of a story.
I often do the bulk of planning for my stories much like I plan a
scene. I get a clear sense of point of view, and who the characters are as
individuals, but also their dynamics, the context for their play. I also have a
loose plan, an intention for how the
BDSM is going to be cohesive, deeply woven into the story as a whole. I choose
the thread I am going to draw throughout the scene so that it feels whole and
not disjointed. I think about the intention I am going to use for the BDSM scene,
and consider: How is the intention going to illuminate internal conflict for
the characters? How is the intention going to create opportunities for the
reader to get to know the characters? Does the intention fit this context, this
setting, and these people at this specific moment?
The intention I select for the BDSM scene gives me a path towards how
to set up the scene for the reader, how to create an arc for the scene, how to
build momentum in the scene. It is the thing I keep my eye on as I let the
story flow, and let the scene unfold, put these characters together and watch
what they do, in the moment, as they play off each other, respond to each
other, engage in their play dynamic together.
Let me give you a few examples from my recent collection, Show Yourself To Me.
My story, “It’s My Job” was written with a very particular intention for the scene: leather.
In particular, the bottom’s deep love for leather. This intention gave the story
its structure and tone, and its beginning with a focus on gay leather traditions
and the legacies of particular pieces of his Daddy’s leather. This intention made
the choice of all leather toys: gloves, boots, leather sap, braided cat, quirt.
This intention is what led to a long luxurious leather worship scene where the
bottom licks from his Daddy’s boots all the way up his chaps to his leather
jock. But it was the dynamic between the characters that drove where the story
went. The repetition of the boy describing that it was his job to care for his
Daddy’s leather, to stand still and take it for Daddy, all the specific things
that are his job in this role that is full of worship and service, that is what
led the story to its conclusion, to the center of the internal conflict of this
character. I fought where this story wanted to go, because I wasn’t sure I was up to writing it
that way, but it insisted, and I found I had to listen.
The plan is not in charge, it needs to be responsive in the moment, and
be real to who these characters are, to what their dynamic is. Sometimes the
scene builds to somewhere unexpected. Part of the point of the looseness of the plan is to
allow that to happen.
I wrote “Willing” with a desire to really focus on trust and the difficulties
of vulnerability and connection. It centers the internal struggle of a vampire
to let himself trust this boy he meets, who seems like he might be the willing boy
of his dreams. The intention of the scene was to show a dance of intimacy,
where he comes close, and pulls back, repeatedly. This is what led to a dance
metaphor in the descriptions of rough body play, what made the up-close nature
of knife play a central part of the scene, what drove how blood sports are integrated into this story. This dance of trust helped lead to
this particular moment where the top transitions from knife play to caning. This moment feels like the core of the story, revealing the
ways that this scene is different for the top, has higher stakes:
Mine, I think again. And catch
myself. I watch him, building on his fear, and remove my touch. There is only
the knife sliding along him, forcing him to remain still. There is only the
knife as silence lays on him like a blanket. I step away, moving quietly, and
leave him alone. We will see how much he needs connection, how much fear I can
build. We will see, I think slowly to
myself, how much distance I can tolerate.
My play is
usually about connection. About driving myself inside. About opening someone up
to my gaze. My tools are up close and personal. Play is my source of
connection, and I usually hurl into it, deep and hard.
I don’t want
to show myself yet. This must be done slowly. I want to see what he can do. I
want to wait before I commit myself to what I have already thought. I will come
to that on my terms, in my time.
I collect my
favorite canes, needing air between us. Needing the sound that whips through
the air and blasts into flesh. Needing controlled, careful cruelty. Canes are a
special love of mine. It takes a lot for me to risk thin sticks of wood, easily
broken to form deadly weapons. Canes are about my risk, too. Their simple
existence menaces. Their joy is unmatchable.
The planning makes the rest possible, creates the framework so that the
story can reveal itself. The looseness of the plan lets the scene breathe, lets
the characters struggle. It is that inner struggle that I love to write most.
My story “What I Need” is all about the intense desire for claiming of a trans stone butch
top. It is driven by the urgency in that desire. That’s what led to the choice
of first person present tense. That’s why it’s written to bring the reader up
close by addressing it to “you”. That’s what drives the pace of the scene, from
the start. That’s definitely what led to
the choice of toys. For the most part, there are none. This is a scene built on
getting up close and person, deep inside the bottom with the most intimate of
tools: the top’s body. It starts with throat fucking, and breath play not with
tools but with the top using hir body to cut off airflow. It continues along
this vein with rough body play, and is filled with this desire to mark and to
get inside, to claim through fucking and pain and culminates in blood sports.
That intention around claiming shapes the story, and what is revealed in its
midst is how vulnerable the top is in that desire for that level of connection.
That vulnerability becomes the tender core of this story, gives it depth and
struggle and reveals the POV character to the reader, a character who pushes hir own edges around how much clothing ze takes off during play.
The plan is a path for the scene, but the scene may veer off the path.
Or the path may be reveal itself to be a bit more complicated that we might
have thought when we began. The plan gets me moving as a writer, helps me
focus, works to create a container so that the scene, and the story, can go
where they need to go.
One of the best kink education panels I’ve ever
been part of was a group of experienced queer tops being real about our
experiences back when we were new tops. We told stories about mistakes we made,
how afraid we were, how much pressure we felt to act confident. We were real
about the ways we realized that we wanted to top, and what that early
self-discovery was like. We talked about the tricks we used to get over our
nerves, and the ways we learned to value our own needs. It was one of the most
real and important conversations I’ve ever had with a group of tops, and I feel
incredibly lucky to have participated in it. There was this hush in the room as
we spoke about this, a sense that we were breaking silence, that this
conversation was precious. We don’t have these kinds of
conversations often in kink community, rarely
speak openly as tops about being vulnerable, nervous, scared, or unsure.
When I was a novice top, I would have
loved to read stories about tops who were unsure. Part of why I felt like
I had to act sure even when I wasn’t as a novice top was that no tops were talking about being unsure. If
I’d been able to read stories about tops who were unsure, it would have been
validating, and really helped me. I know that some people look to erotica
& erotic romance for fantasy, and to get off. I sure do. But I also look to
it for a mirror.
The first erotica story I wrote from
the top’s point of view, “Nervous Boy”, had the top character being unsure. It
felt like such a risk to write. Maybe I was the only top that felt this
way. Maybe the bubble of faith readers had in him would burst when they saw he
was unsure. Maybe I couldn’t find these stories because no one would be willing
to print them. (I was wrong about the last one, by the way.)
These days I work really hard to include tops in my erotica who are
unsure, vulnerable, and scared. I consistently write experienced
tops that doubt themselves, that need support, that are vulnerable, that have
needs. I care about those stories. I think they are important, not just as erotica,
but as a voice in kink culture that insists on top vulnerability and tops
having needs. But these stories aren’t the only kind of mirror I needed as a
I would love to read stories about novice tops
learning from experienced bottoms. I would love to read stories about
novice tops getting mentored, or learning through co-topping. I would love to
read stories about novice tops figuring out how to top through reading, going
to classes, having cybersex, talking with kinky buddies, watching instructional
videos, watching other people play. I would love to read stories about novice
tops trying out bottoming as a way to learn, and the ways that works for them,
or really doesn’t work. I would love to read stories about novice tops refusing
to try bottoming despite being pressured and finding other paths for learning
and self discovery. I would love to read stories about novice tops and bottoms
learning together, perhaps in group scenes, perhaps through co-bottoming,
perhaps on their own or with friends.
There are very few stories that center novice
tops. I can’t name more than a few short stories (mostly about couples
experimenting with kink together) and about half a dozen book titles, and I
read pretty damn widely. (If you are looking for examples I particularly
recommend For Real, Have Mercy, and Sated, which actually features a novice switch,
but I especially adore her topping moments.) The dearth of examples illuminates
a pretty big gap in BDSM fiction.
But I think the gap is wider than that. The kinds of stories we tell
about novices are a bit…one-note.
Most of the time in BDSM erotica and erotic
romance, when a
character is a novice, it seems to be a stand in for virginal innocence. This character has done very little (or no) research about kink, and often has had no prior kinky fantasies. A clean
slate, if you will. The novice is
inevitably the bottom or submissive. (And for the most part, a woman partnering with a man.) Much of
the time, the experienced dominant teaches a novice submissive about their submissive identity. The novice only learns
about kink from
their partner, or occasionally a bit of internet research. They don’t talk to
other kinky people. They aren’t part of a kink community. They often don’t
know any other kinky people…besides their love interest.
There are so many other possible stories we could
tell about learning BDSM and being a novice.
What would it be like if we told stories about novices who took charge of their own learning
about kink, and went after what they
wanted? What would the story arc be if we started from there? With novice tops and
bottoms who didn’t learn through their lovers alone?
What about a story with a main character who
dropped kink (or a certain kind of
kink) after dipping a toe in, and is now thinking about picking it up
What could the story be if the character is an
experienced top or bottom that is exploring switching for the first time?
What about a story centering folks who are new to
D/s but have done SM or bondage for years?
What about a story centering a novice whose first experiences of BDSM are with a professional?
What about a story centering a novice who learns about their own kinky desires through doing sex work?
There is so much possibility in stories about novice queers, novice Ren Faire folks, novice goths,
who come out into kink as part of their culture, and now need to claim it for
their own. So many cultures and communities are kinky. It’s really
different to be a novice trying out BDSM inside one of those. Sassafras
Lowrey has written two (non-erotic) novels (Lost Boi and Roving Pack) about communities of homeless and
precariously housed queer and trans youth that center kink as an important aspect of the community culture
and a vital part of the lives of the characters. I would love to read more
erotica and erotic romance stories about being a novice in that kind of context. Where characters are coming into kink
through being pagan, or punk, or a vampire, for example, where BDSM is already
an integral part of the cultural landscape.
What if the story was about a novice top or bottom trying to claim their desire as a
survivor of violence, navigating the complexity of consent?
What if the story was about a novice top or bottom of color grappling with racism in
the kink scene, claiming their sexuality in that context?
What about stories with novice edge players? I
was definitely one of those, and would have found so
much solace in a story that came from a place that acknowledged the diversity
of desire and the ways that just because you are a beginner doesn’t mean that
you don’t want intensity in your BDSM.
What would the story be like if it centered a novice who went to kink education or munches with
groups of friends? I went to some of my first kink events with my best friend,
who’d been kinky all along, but I hadn’t known, in 5 years of friendship. I’ve
seen novices find each other
early on in kink community, and form intense friendships, support each other to
explore. I want more stories about novices who support each other,
where that friendship is a core part of the story of self-discovery.
What if the story was about a nerd who did tons
of research first? Who spent years
exploring their kinky desires through writing or reading fan fiction before
trying it out in life? I knew much more about my own kinks with very little
experience because I had so much cybersex. Folks in kink communities are often really scornful of people
who learn about kink outside of real life experience, but it’s so common! I
know there are more people than just me who did tons of reading before they
ever acted on their desires.
I would be so excited to read BDSM
fiction that represented the wide range of novice experience that actually
exists in life. Perhaps one of these ideas will inspire you to write something
new. I know I’d love to read it!
I love musicals, have for most of my life. There’s this
thing that people sometimes say when you talk about musicals, usually rather
derisively: “I don’t understand why people just burst into song!” The folks who
say this often don’t care for musicals much, and don’t know them very well.
They assume the songs are inserted, are distractions, are pointless. They
assume that the songs don’t do anything in the story, aren’t part of the
movement of plot, make it less serious or important artistically, could easily
just be taken out and everything would be much better. The songs make them
uncomfortable. Embarrassed, even. They feel like they are too full of feelings, too
unabashed, too much.
People say similar things about sex scenes. They assume that
they are inserted, that they distract from the story, that they aren’t part of
the movement of the plot, make the story less serious ahrt, could easily be
taken out (and should be). They imagine story to be inherently better without
explicit descriptions of sex, much like people assume theater to be inherently
better without song and dance numbers. They are uncomfortable with fiction that
integrates the reality of sexuality into the stories it tells about people’s
lives and relationships; it feels too unabashed, too much, too intense.
So, as erotica and erotic romance writers, we have at least
one thing in common with the folks who write show tunes: we experience a
similar kind of derision. But I think we have more common ground than that. I
think folks like us who write sex scenes could learn (or be reminded of) some
important things about our craft from examining what makes a really good show tune.
One of the first things about show tunes is that you have to commit. In musical theater, the song won’t work unless
the writer commits to it, unless the actor brings all their intensity and
concentration to the performance of it. You must go all out. The writer and the
actors can’t be tentative, can’t sit in the muck of insecurity or
embarrassment, can’t just put a toe in. The writing will fall flat, will feel
awkward. The audience will notice the actor’s unsureness and the breaks in
performance, instead of being caught up and carried along.
Let’s watch an example of what I mean. The writer of “Quiet”
from the musical Matilda really
commits to the internal experience of the character, to showing that to you in
the lyric and the music and pacing. There’s a bunch of risk taking in this
song, of not holding back. The actress also deeply commits to her performance.
They both go all out, and you get a song that is intense and powerful and full
of rich characterization and movement.
It’s the same with writing an amazing sex scene. You have to
commit. You can’t get caught up in nerves about language, or trepidation about
being that kind of writer. You have to get over the lump in your throat and
make your characters do and say the kinds of things that are needed for this
sex scene. You have to be brave. You have to get dirty with your characters, be
in the moment with them in their vulnerability and desire and fear and love and
rage and whatever else they might be feeling as they fuck.
Another part of what makes for a really good show tune is when the
writers let it get as big as it needs to
be. When it really takes up space in the moment, is deeply embodied, is
treated as important by the characters. When the music builds and grows and fills
you as you listen to it. When the dancing is given real size and space and
evocative movement and deep expression. Basically, when folks break into song
in a musical it’s a Go Big or Go Home moment.
For example, check out Jennifer Hudson’s performance of “I Am
Changing” in Dreamgirls. This song
takes up space. It’s an important turning point in the story, and it is a
showstopper, a gorgeous blend of musical styles, a pivotal moment in the
character arc where you really feel for Effie big time. It also really builds,
emotionally, musically, and her performance takes that up several notches. The
way she’s so deeply embodied and in the song, the way she owns its size and
intensity and moves with it, makes me hold my breath when I watch.
I would argue that our sex scenes can only be improved by
letting them get as big as they need to be. What do I mean by that? Letting
them be intense. Letting them take up space in the story, both in word count
and in actual importance to the characters and the narrative. Letting the sex
scenes have big feelings and be deeply embodied in big sensations. Letting them
build and build and take over the way really amazing sex takes up all your
As I mentioned earlier, one of the deep misunderstandings of
both musicals and erotica is the idea that show tunes and sex scenes are
extraneous. In my favorite musicals, the
songs are critically important, necessary to the movement of plot, the
illumination of character, the setting of tone and scene, the creation of
In the musical In The
Heights, the song “Breathe” is where we first really meet Nina, a central
character. This song shows who she is, her concerns and fears and conflict. It
illustrates the central tensions in her life and her character arc in the play.
It’s an incredibly rich and layered song, both musically and emotionally. That helps us get to know her as a character, to see the ways she is struggling,
and also sets a tone for the play as a whole, the layers of voices and musical
styles and concerns that are central to this specific story, the raw truth that
is right out there in this musical. This song makes the story move, gets us
invested in her and what she’s dealing with, helps us connect and care about
how she’s going to grow throughout the play.
I would argue that the best erotica and erotic romance does
this as well. That our sex scenes need to be this necessary. That our stories
are better when the sex moves the plot, makes us care about the characters,
shows the reader some of the tensions and conflicts inherent in the story.
Ideally, our sex scenes are not extraneous, cannot be excised without
destroying the story. We do our best work when we make each moment count, make it show the reader something
critically important about the characters or setting or plot or conflict, make
the sex mean something, do something in our story.
One of the things
that show tunes do really well is use
repetition. They repeat musical themes, words, choruses, dance moves, and
they do this with purpose. They build story through this repetition, moving the
plot at each point so that the thing that repeats catches us in its net and
drags us along. They build intensity through repetition, layering it on top of
itself, each time gathering more tension, holding more emotion. They draw
attention to important themes or metaphor through repetition, so you are
prepared for the crisis, can hold the twists and turns of story because it
makes more sense, feels right.
Take a look at the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening, and their performance
of “Touch Me”, a crescendo moment in the play itself, where the sexual tension
that has been building throughout the play releases in ensemble. There are so
many layers of repetition in this performance, from the words “touch me” and the
morphing of “where the figs lie” to “where the sins lie” to “where the winds
sigh”, to the musical themes that build and repeat, to the way the dancing
shifts and keeps evoking earlier moments in the song. The repetition helps to
build and build through an orgasmic experience, and it is beautiful and intense
and evocative and complete.
Erotica that uses repetition can create a similar kind of nuanced
and evocative reading experience. There is a certain kind of satisfaction that
comes with repetition, when used judiciously, that’s why it’s a favored tool
for musicians and orators and poets. I’m personally quite fond of it, and I
think it has made a real difference in my own erotica. I would argue that
repetition can be used to help create hot and beautiful and emotional and
intense sex scenes. That we can repeat and morph repeated phrasing to good
effect. That we can illuminate important things about character and story by
drawing attention to them through repetition. That we can build, and build, and
build to orgasm, through repetition.
In musical theater,
songs often hold tension, nuance and
complexity. They have multiple layers, different elements working against
each other to show the complexities and nuanced specificities of a particular
situation. In particular, melody and tone can work in counterpoint to lyric and
emotional valance, in ways that make a song gorgeous in its complexity.
I want to share two examples side by side, because I think
they play with similar contrasts. “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company is classic Sondheim at his writing best, where the cheerful
refined melody is deeply contrasted with a bitter rage that is numbed by
alcohol and expressed through biting, self-deprecating humor. This performance
of the song by Carol Burnett is deeply nuanced, illuminating the complex
contrasts of emotion and tone. It’s a song that holds the emotional center of the
musical itself, with all of its tensions and fears about marriage and
“Paradise” from the new musical Allegiance, has a similar counterpoint, between the upbeat cheerful
tune and bitter rage at the oppression of Japanese American internment. The song holds
so much complexity and irony in it. It shines with all of the tensions
contained in the play and the ways that the characters survive the oppression
they are experiencing. The bitter comedy, the way the dancing enhances the
supposed cheer with an underlying rage at injustice…this song is deeply nuanced.
These elements work in the song because they are interwoven; it makes it
possible to hold all of it because of the ways these things play off each
Like a showtune, sex is better when it’s complicated, even
if it appears simple on the surface. When our sex scenes can play with contrast
and tension, hold many different emotional realities at the same time, or sink
into the nuances of how our characters connect, they are better for it. We get
to know the characters more, we have a richer palate to play with as we explore
desire, and we have ample opportunities for humor, all of which can heighten
sexual tension and create deeper more satisfying story.
You may have noticed that many of the examples I have given
above are deeply rooted in setting and context. I firmly believe that this is
one of the deepest strengths of musicals, the way they can be so culturally
specific, so deeply contextualized, so grounded
in a very specific time, place, and cultural context. Instead of aiming for
generalities, these songs choose to illuminate deep specificity, rooting it
very concretely in a particular context.
“Ring of Keys” from the musical Fun Home is another song that does just that: we connect with it as
an audience because it is focused and specific and sets its roots deep in the
actual childhood experience of Alison Bechdel, telling a detailed story about
an intensely beautiful moment of connection. This is a deeply queer story about
her seeing a butch for the first time in her life, the ways she recognized
herself in this stranger, felt connected and held. It is gorgeous, and it works
so well precisely because it is planted so very firmly in the cultural context
of her particular upbringing. It is the details and the nuances that make the
When we write sex scenes that are rooted in a particular
time, and place, and cultural context, they are richer, more complex, more
beautiful because of it. The very specificity of them creates so much possibility
of recognition and connection for our readers, makes things more clear and
concrete, brings senses alive. Putting the sex we write in deep context can be
As a writer, I soak up influence and knowledge from so many
sources, and other art forms feel like they contain so much to learn from. I
talked show tunes here because I love them, but it is my firm belief that we as
writers can learn so much from visual art, from all forms of music, from
theater and dance, from other genres of writing, and that our work will be more
layered and beautiful because of those influences. In summary, I recommend
applying the following lessons from show tunes to writing sex scenes:
- Go Big or Go Home
- Make it Count
- Repeat Yourself
- Hold the Complexity
- Put it In Context
*To access the songs I used as examples all in one place, you
can check out my
I read a lot of BDSM erotica and erotic romance. While what
I write is fairly specific, I enjoy reading a wider diversity, all different
sorts of pairings and groups. I enjoy the sort that is all about building a
fantasy for the reader, from the billionaire natural alpha dom, to the corral
where you park your submissive at the club. I also enjoy the sort that is
intended to feel real, to reflect the realities of kink life. I’m not one of
those folks who do BDSM and need fiction to be realistic; I’m perfectly fine
sinking into a fantasy story about a magical mind-reading dominant, whether it
comes with a critique of kink life (e.g. Cecilia Tan’s Telepaths Don’t Need Safewords) or
is purely there to fulfill a fantasy (e.g. Cherise Sinclair’s Club Shadowlands)
What I’ve found is that there’s a particular thing that’s
pretty much guaranteed to spoil my investment in and enjoyment of a BDSM story:
carelessness in the context of a scene or D/s dynamic.
To be clear, I adore mean, cruel and even cold dominants.
I’m not talking about sadism here, or needing to go easy on bottoms in a way
that treats them as fragile. I’m not even just talking about tops. Bottoms can
definitely be careless too.
I’m not talking about stories where folks have casual play,
or play that’s not centered on emotions or caring for each other romantically.
I’m not even talking about psychological edge play scenes that center on a top seeming careless. I’m fine with that
sort of play as long as I know, as a reader, that the top is actually seeing to
the well-being of the bottom, and that the bottom knows somewhere in the back
of their mind that they can trust the top to be careful with them.
What do I mean when I talk about carelessness?
I mean carelessness in terms of leaving a bottom tied up and
unattended. I mean carelessness in terms of casual selfishness where the
character is solely focused on their own needs to the point of ignoring the basic
well-being of the folks they are doing BDSM with. I mean carelessness in terms
of launching into heavy humiliation play with a novice with no negotiation. I
mean carelessness in terms of deliberate ignoring of basic bodily needs. I mean
carelessness in terms of deliberately fucking with someone’s head when mindfuck
was not on the table. I mean carelessness in terms of a dominant giving a
submissive away to someone without ensuring that the submissive is ok in that
For the most part, what it often boils down to is a
character treating another character like they are not a real person, but an
object, not as part of an agreed upon D/s dynamic or humiliation scene, but in
actuality. Treating them as if they are a tool to get off with, not a human
being with, y’know, needs and vulnerabilities, who is worthy of a basic modicum
of respect and care.
Is it realistic to have characters do this? Absolutely. This
behavior abounds in kink life, just as carelessness does in many other kinds of
Do I want it in my erotica or erotic romance? Absolutely
Please do write about miscommunication, misunderstandings,
secrets, scenes that go wrong, common novice mistakes, times when people need
to safeword, accidents that happen in play, times when folks are not aware of
their feelings or not up for talking about stuff they should, and all the other
ways that people are human and have opposing needs and fuck up and things fall
apart and need to be repaired, especially if you are writing realistic stories
about BDSM. I’d love to see more of that in the kinky fiction I read. I don’t
need or even want characters to be perfect.
Carelessness is in a different zone for me.
I don’t trust the character any more as a practitioner of
BDSM. I wouldn’t recommend them as a player to a stranger, must less to someone
I care about.
I am not rooting for the couple anymore. I want the other
character to dump that asshole, not make excuses for them or sink deeper into
connection with them or ignore the problem or want to be treated that way.
I don’t want to witness them playing or falling for each
other. It’s not hot. I wouldn’t watch that scene in a public dungeon; I
definitely don’t want to read it.
I don’t want stories that support, elide, apologize for or
excuse carelessness in kink. Especially not in a main character I’m supposed to
be identifying with or desiring or rooting for. Especially not in a story that supposedly
has a HFN or a HEA ending.
Want me to love your BDSM erotica and erotic romance and
invest in your characters and story?
Show the reader moments where characters are careful with each other.
Where dominants take an extra moment to ensure they still
have consent. Where submissives consider a dominants needs. Where tops check in
after a scene. Where bottoms share information a top might need in order to
fully consent to something. Where a dominant pays attention to body language
and tone of voice and not just the words a submissive uses. Where a submissive
notices that a dominant seems off and checks in. Where a top thinks about what
a bottom might need from play. Where a bottom thinks about the shit a top had
to deal with today and treads carefully around sensitive subjects. Where
characters negotiate in a way that shows they are invested in each other’s
It’s those moments that make me fall for your characters,
root for them as a couple or triad or group or whatever they are together, want
to follow them to the end of the story. Those are the moments that make me sigh
and smile and swoon.
One of my favorite moments to write (and read) in erotica and erotic romance is when a character’s desire first gets sparked. It’s often the kernel of a story that comes first, that sparks the story for me as a writer. I love stories that sit in that moment, let me take the time to really witness the
character realize they are hot for someone, or something. And then see what they are going to do about it. (Because realizing desire, even naming it, is not the same as choosing to act on it.)
I’m not necessarily talking about the first moment of attraction for a new person, though that’s lovely. More that first moment in this particular story when the character’s juices get flowing. It can be that first attraction. It can be that moment when a character is hot to do something in particular with this person or people. It can be that moment when a character really lets themself sink into desire after a scene has already begun—when they let go. Here’s an example of a top sinking into desire for cruelty and D/s at the beginning of a scene, from my story “My Precious Whore”
“The edges of her stockings are peeking out from under her skirt, tantalizing me. Her beautifully large body is offered up for my pleasure, and I bask in the sight of it, sinking into my desire. I want her fear tonight. And her breath. I want her tears. I want to split her open, fluids dripping. I want to unleash my cruelty upon her. I want to reach deep inside and wrap her around my fingers.”
Desire is powerful, and important, and something I deeply value. I want to write stories that center characters figuring out how their desire works, seeking their desires, acting on their desires. I want my characters to be intensely in their desires when they play and fuck and kiss and approach someone for a date. That’s what I love about writing erotica—it gives me an arena to show people claiming their desire. That’s my context for writing this moment, in my own work.
What is your context? What do you believe about desire? Why do you want to write stories about desire and sexuality? What is important to you about centering those things in your own writing?
Just as we have contexts and beliefs about desire as writers, our characters also bring those things to their own desire. So, when I’m writing about that moment of sparking desire, part of what I need to consider is not just what I want to do, but what the context is for the character. To get specific enough in my own mind so that
I can work from inside the character’s relationship with desire, instead of my own scripts and assumptions. (Believe me, if I don’t get clear, I will work from those!) Desire isn’t easy stuff, and it’s not straightforward. Most people struggle with it.
“Hell, it’s hard to even figure out what our desires might be! Where can you go to learn about sex and the possibilities of desire? How do you learn to understand the physical body and its transformative potential, to appreciate the erotic uniqueness of each individual—the knowledge and skill we can only gain as we feel, smell, and discover ourselves through sexual acts, giving ourselves to (or taking) a willing partner? Who will help us learn what we need to know in order to practice our desires with awareness and comprehension? Where in this culture can we discover what is erotically possible between ourselves and other human beings? Where can we gain sexual and gender knowledge without being ruthlessly punished?” –Amber Hollibaugh, “Defining Desires and Dangerous Decisions”
Some questions to consider when figuring out your character’s relationship with desire:
- Are they knowledgeable about their desires? How did they learn what they know about their desires?
- Do they notice desire building inside them? Are they aware of what sparks their desire? Are they surprised by their own desire?
- Are some parts of their desire taboo or hidden or denied, either in general or in this relationship/encounter?
- Are they able to admit their desires to themselves? Do they accept their desires? Do they value honoring their desires?
- What is the cultural context for their desire? How does desire work in that context in general? How does it work for this particular character? For this encounter or relationship?
- Are they comfortable or experienced at naming their desires? discussing their desires with others? seeking their desires? experiencing their desires?
- What moves this character from desire to action? What prevents them from acting on their desires? What makes them hesitate to act on desire?
The questions above can shape so much about how the character responds to desire, how much they recognize about their own desire, what choices they make about the fact of their desire. But before I go there, I need to center in on the spark of desire itself, the shape and heft of it.
I want to get really specific here, want to make this spark as individual as I can. It’s a way to illuminate the character for the reader, and I want to use that opportunity well. The details are where pleasure really resides. I especially like to revel in the sensory aspects of desire, as in the below example from my story “Ready”, of a boy’s desire for his Daddy that’s sparked by scent.
“Daddy was looming over me, his large belly brushing against my head. He smelled so good, a musky sweaty scent mixed with oil and metal. That smell alone gets my dick hard—the smell that tells me a man has been working hard on a bike. It was clear he had. He was dirty as only a mechanic can get dirty, and I ached to suck the grease off his thick fingers.”
As the example above illustrates, desire is as individual as any other aspect of relationships and embodiment: it does not all look the same. There are infinite possibilities here, so much that I could not name them all, or even categorize them all.
When I teach BDSM, I often offer several lists of things that might turn someone on, to assist folks to learn more about their own desires, and to find language to describe them. I’m going to reproduce some of those lists below, as I think they might be useful jumping off points for getting specific about the spark of desire in your story. I’m pairing each section with an example from my recent collection, Show Yourself To Me.
For some, desire can be visually oriented. This can be visuals that are actually in front of the character, or something that sparks the character picturing something that turns them on. These are the most common descriptions I’ve seen in erotica and erotic romance, so I’d be wary of overusing the same visual repeatedly. (For example, the image of breasts bouncing while someone is being fucked as the spark to desire for heterosexual cis men is rather over-used, in my opinion.)
Some Ideas for Visual Sparks: Spotting a cock in his pants; A girl on her knees, bent over, in the position of your choosing; Watching hir eyes tear as ze takes it; Standing over him kneeling; Seeing your cock disappear into their mouth; The reveal moment; Eyes widening; Her mouth on your boots; Hir wrists bound; Your hand disappearing inside him; Licking lips; A slow secret smile; Eyes dropping; Tight jeans; Garters; That strut.
It’s a good idea to get really specific with visuals, in my opinion. It helps the reader see it, and also makes the spark for desire more individualized to the character. In the excerpt below from my story “My Pretty Boy”, the visual that sparks Jax’s desire is his pretty boy’s blue sparkled mouth sucking off a pair of sharp scissors.
“He pulled out the scissors and pressed them to Rickie’s lips. ‘Open up those pretty lips, boy. I wouldn’t want to smear your lipstick. Yet.’
They shined in the shallow of his mouth, and Jax groaned as he saw the boy’s tongue caress them, his cock pulsing. Those blue sparkled lips closed on the sharpness, and his pretty boy sucked the scissors off with a glorious enthusiasm, pausing to pant around them before suckling again, drawing himself off and then sliding back down, his eyes on Jax’s face the entire time.
‘I don’t think I’ve seen anything more beautiful,’ Jax murmured.”
Some folks are very aurally oriented in their desire. Sounds can be very powerful sparks, and provide great opportunity for you to get inside how the character interprets the sound. Some folks are turned on by the sounds they make themselves.
Some Ideas for Sparks that are Based in Sound: Thud; Rip; Screams; Moans; Boots on the floor; Taunts; Breath catching; Voice wavering; Humiliation; Begging; Gasps; Throaty laughter; Firm tone of voice
The excerpt below from “Compersion” centers around a Daddy’s desire being sparked by listening to his boy sob, describing how one of the reasons he loves watching his boy get topped by sadists (like the two men he is watching him bottom to in the story) is that he can revel in the sound of him crying.
“Franklin reached around to remove the clamps, and Abe yowled as they were twisted off, writhing and gripping the bed with his fists until his voice broke and he began to sob harder. My cock felt like it was going to burst at the sound of it.
I love it when he cries. There is nothing that makes my cock throb more than hearing him sob. And to get to watch it, to hear it, gave me more time to savor the sounds, more freedom to sink into my skin and enjoy it. I didn’t have to control myself with him and make sure his sobs didn’t ramp me up too high. I could trust that Marcus and Franklin were going to keep up their cruelty, that he would be free to sob as he fucked Marcus, and that Franklin would continue to fuck the tears out of him.
This is what I love about watching him—the freedom to let go and really enjoy the impact his tears have on me. That is the show Daddy really wants and he knows it.”
Some folks really get off on language. Words can be really hot. Not just dirty talk, but also things like honorifics and role names (like Daddy, Ma’am, girl, etc.), as well as homophobic slurs and misogynist slurs. Part of this is about the larger narrative that these words can evoke or the roleplay that they can keep going. For some folks it’s the language itself, and for some it’s the story that really gets them hot.
Some Ideas for Language Sparks: “Good boy”; “Take it”; “Slut”; “Mine”; “Yes, Sir”; “queer”; “Oh, Ma’am”; “Please, Daddy”; “cocksucker”; “girl”
In the excerpt below from my story “Dancing for Daddy”, an adult who does Daddy/little girl play describes the power of language in age play, and how being called princess sparks her desire.
“The words are classic, basic. They should not work as well as they do. But they reach into my throat and twist fear into my being. Afraid. Excited. Shamed. Special.
The words are charged for me. Daddy knows just what to say. They are charged for her, too. She watches my eyes after she calls me princess, sees the struggle and intensity, and feeds on it. She knows which words will reach in and hold me.”
For some, the spark of desire is more about what particular things mean to the character, the kind of feelings or dynamics they invoke, or the kind of emotional reactions that get them hot.
Some Ideas for Sparks Based in Emotions and Dynamics: Teasing; Denial; Gratifying; Torture; Exposure; Serving; Shame; Mercy; Suffering; Praise; Nurturing; Helplessness; Fear; Desire; Objectification; Possession; Pride; Strength; Humiliation; Pleasure; Endurance; Reward; Control; Cruelty; Invasion; Force; Nervousness; Respect; Ferocity; Worship; Dependence; Frustration; Embarrassment; Betrayal; Safety; Structure; Punishment; Usefulness; Boldness; Deference
In this excerpt from “My Will”, a submissive describes what boot worship means for him, how it sparks his desire.
“I lick boots the old fashioned way: belly on the floor, as low as I can be. As I placed myself on the floor at his feet, I shivered. It felt so good to be here, to be worshipping the boots of this man I deeply respected. I was in his care, and he would be careful with me—I knew that. When I touched my lips reverently to his boot, I felt so full I could burst. This was exactly where I wanted to be.”
In my novel in progress, Shocking Violet, I spend an entire chapter building up to and savoring the first moment of desire Jax has for Violet, so that you feel the shock of intensity with Jax when it crystallizes, when it’s visceral and real and he knows that he wants her for the first time. I’m loving the slow burn of that kind of storytelling, where the build-up is such a deep part of the pleasure of the story.
In short stories, you don’t have that kind of space for this moment; you have a couple paragraphs at most. So, I urge you to make them specific and concrete and individual to the character. Your story will be better for it, I promise you.
In BDSM erotica and erotic romance, I often find
very little description of pain, of what it feels like to experience it. Even
in scenes that include descriptions of pain play, the writer often shifts focus
to action and reaction instead of sensation, or to how things look or sound
instead of how they feel. Or the
writer reduces the experience to the phrase “pleasure/pain”. I would rejoice if that particular phrase
disappeared from erotica and erotic romance altogether. It is not only poor
description that is vague at best, it is also there not to describe the pain at all but instead to say it’s ok there was pain, and that the pain didn’t really hurt. It is
my experience that a good portion of pain play does actually hurt, and for some
folks, that’s actually what they like about it.
So even when we write stories about playing with pain,
many of us rarely describe how it feels. As it turns out, pain is famously
difficult to describe. Virginia Woolf expressed the problem in terms of language running dry. In his book, Listening
to Pain, David Biro builds on that concept, saying,
overwhelming presence, pain has the elusive quality of an absence, an absence
not only of words to describe it (that is, a linguistic absence) but also of
ways to think about it (a conceptual one).”
So, how do you describe the indescribable?
Taking a cue from Biro, the first place I suggest is
not to start with finding language for the sensation, but to explore how you think about pain. My foundational
concepts of pain come from a number of sources: my own experience as a top and
a bottom, conversations with other folks who do pain play (including my own
play partners), my own experiences with chronic pain, things I’ve read about
pain, BDSM, trauma and psychobiology, and a substantial amount of kink
education. When I write pain play, this is my core framework:
1. Pain is not automatically bad, and pain does not
universally feel bad.
2. It’s ok to desire pain (both giving and receiving).
It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. Desiring pain is not
something that requires explanation in your story.
3. Wanting pain doesn’t mean that you experience pain
as pleasure. There are lots of reasons folks may desire pain and choose to
4. Pain is not one-note. There is a whole symphony in
5. Pain doesn’t easily break into a dichotomy. People
in BDSM communities often break down sensation into sting vs. thud. These are a
start, but there’s a lot more variety to pain than that. Folks who do BDSM that
also experience chronic pain outside of a kink context often talk about good
pain vs. bad pain. That kind of differentiation is a start, but there’s more to
6. People experience sensation differently. There is no
universal experience of a particular sensation, including different kinds of
7. The perception of pain is particularly related to
the rate of increase of sensation, more than other factors. (I learned this
Richard Sprott, in his lecture on the Psychobiology of SM)
8. Three factors important to how people perceive pain
include: 1) the intensity at the peak moment of pain, 2) the intensity at the
end of the scene, and 3) the emotional interpretation of the pain. (I also
learned this from Dr. Sprott.)
9. Context is important for how you experience pain. Do
you know the sensation, or is it new to you? Are you in public or private? What
is the psychological context of the scene (is the pain punishment, reward, for
pleasure, about service, something to endure, something to revel in)? Are you
nervous or scared or excited or already turned on? Do you have a way to process
the pain, or are you restricted in some way (movement, sound, being gagged)? Do
you have access to all of your senses (or are you blindfolded or experiencing
another kind of sensory deprivation)? Is the skin being played with sensitized
in some way (from hormone cycles, previous play, constriction, touch)?
So that’s my foundation for thinking about pain. Let
me offer you another. In her ethnography of an East Coast pansexual BDSM
community, Playing on the Edge, Staci Newmahr discusses four
different ways that people in that community framed and understood pain:
where pain is instantly and unconsciously transformed into pleasure. In other
words, pain does not really hurt, it is converted to pleasure. Newmahr found
this most common in folks who engage in mild to moderate pain play.
where pain is not transformed, and does hurt; bottoms suffer as a sacrifice for
the benefit of or to fulfill the desire of the top. The bottom takes pain as
punishment or as a gift to the top. Newmahr found this way of thinking most
common in women who identified as submissives.
where pain is unpleasant and is endured in the promise of a later reward. The
pain is not the goal, it is a path to the goal, a challenge to the self, a
means to a different end (an endorphin high, the emotional satisfaction from
enduring it, a sexual reward from the top for taking it). Newmahr found this
framework most common in men.
where pain hurts and the hurt feels good. It isn’t converted to pleasure. The
hurting is a good, valued and desired thing in and of itself. Newmahr found
folks who used this framework to be marginalized within the BDSM community she
Consider: What are the foundations of how you write
pain? Where do they come from? Getting clear about your own thinking about pain
is a great first step to expanding how you write pain play in BDSM erotica. One
thing you can try is to read each of the bullets in my own framework and
Newmahr’s research aloud, and see how they sound, how they feel in your mouth,
what thoughts they spark. That may help you know more about your own
Now let’s approach the other piece of this: finding
language for sensation. One of the best ways to describe the indescribable is
to get really specific. I’m going to
share some starting questions about the sensations you are describing, along
with examples from my recent collection, Show Yourself To Me, to
illustrate how these details might play out in your descriptions of pain play.
- Is the sensation more concentrated (like a single tail whip, a punch, a cane, or a pinch,
where the sensation focuses on a small surface area of the skin) or more dispersed (like a large paddle, a slap
or a flogger with many tails, where the sensation is spread out over a larger surface
In this excerpt from “Please”,
the bottom is experiencing concentrated pain in combination with sex and they
wrap into each other:
started teasing my nipples with his fingertips. They were so hard and cold that
even that light silky touch hurt. Then he was twisting them, and the pain was
electric and sharp. It felt so good, mixing up with the relentless fucking that
led to this long glorious spasm. He started pinching them harder, and I
couldn’t help it. I had to slam my hips back to meet him.
- Does the sensation stay more on the surface of the skin (often described as sting, and
associated with things like canes, biting, whips, wax play and slapping) or reach deeper beneath the skin (often
described as thud, and associated with things like heavy floggers, batons,
saps, and punching)?
In this excerpt from “The
Tender Sweet Young Thing”, a bottom in a group scene is having difficulty
tolerating claws and teeth. One of the tops in the scene shifts it to a
different kind of sensation:
Jericho said, “All
that surface sensation is just too much, isn’t it? You need something deeper to
show you how tender you are. I can do that.”
How did Jericho
know that? It was scary how right they were. Deeper was exactly what he needed.
He nodded helplessly.
their boy a condom and some lube. They picked up Dax’s scissors, getting a nod
from hir, and cut off Téo’s briefs before he even registered what was happening.
By then, Jericho had almost finished unstrapping Téo’s cock. They gestured to
Rusty and moved around Téo, unbuttoning his dress to bare his chest. Téo loved,
and hated, being beaten there. It was about the only kind of touch that felt
right in that area, and it was so damn intense because, really, when you’re
binding so many hours a day, your skin gets fucking sensitive.
Jericho had taken out their braided cat. Téo
adored this toy, and was aching to get beaten with it again. Last time, it’d
felt like light was bursting out the top of his head.
It was better than he remembered, probably
because he needed deep sensation so much. He closed his eyes and let it drive
into him. Sublime intensity concentrated where he needed to let go. Jericho was
fucking magic. When Rusty slid into his front hole, it felt so easy and solid.
Rusty was holding him steady with his cock, anchoring him here in this room so
he didn’t float too far.
- How does the sensation move through the body? Does it radiate out from the place of the
blow (like with a slap or a paddle)? Does it reach underneath the skin and
bounce back out (like with a cane stroke)? Does it feel like it drives right
through you (like with a punch or a heavy flogger)? Does it come on strong and
then numb out and then jolt you at the end (like with clips and clamps)? Does
it sear from the start and then build an ache behind it (like with biting)?
For some, thudding
sensations can have all the movement of a deliciously rough hard fuck. The bottom
in “It’s My Job” has that experience with a lead-filled sap:
He pulls out his
leather sap and begins to pound it into my thighs like a sledgehammer, ramming
lead into me. It pounds me hard, and my dick begins to throb. He’s hitting that
spot where it starts to translate to sex. I am not a masochist, and there are
very few intense sensations that feel like anything but pain. But this is pure
sex. My lips part, and I start groaning. It is all I can do not to bend over
and beg him to fuck me now. I take each blow into my cock, feeling it swell
until it seems like it’s going to burst.
- How would you describe the pacing and rhythm of the sensation? Sporadic? Relentless?
Methodical? Jarring? Pounding? Percussive/rhythmic? Deliberate? Surprising? Building
up in intensity? Dancing around? Moving close to the edge and then stepping
back, only to move toward the edge again?
Consider how rhythm
shapes the same bottom’s sensory experience in this later excerpt from my story
“It’s My Job”, describing a rather different kind of beating with a cat o’ nine
It slams into my
back, and I am utterly still: no breath, no movement. He begins to lay into me.
The rhythm is hypnotic; fire dances along my skin as the cat drives into me.
The cowhide is thin and braided, and the knotted tips feel like they are
slicing me open. Waves of reddish-orange pain wash over my vision. My feet are
planted. I will not move. I am helpless against the pain, lightning so strong
it almost knocks me over. I am so small in the face of it. Nothing I can do
will stop it. I stand still and take it, and it transforms me. I am taking it
- Does the sensation have a temperature or texture to it? Things like canes, wax, belts, and
slapping can often feel like heat. Things that stimulate the nerves (like
whartenberg wheels), slower sensations, and cooler materials (acrylic paddles,
batons) sometimes feel cool. A slow rhythmic flogging with deerskin can feel
smooth, where things that drag on the skin (like some kinds of pinching or
braided leather) can feel rough. Some kinds of pain feel like they are slicing
into skin (belts) or piercing it (singletails).
partial to describing sharp stinging pain, and I often use language evoking the
heat that comes with that sort of play. Here is an excerpt from my story “How
He Likes It” describing how it feels for this bottom to get hurt with a belt.
I took him in,
tasting like liquid metal in my throat, trembling with the intensity of his
belt, and let the pain pour out of my eyes, stream out of my mouth, let my cunt
drip with it as my ass clenched around it. I begged him for more even as I
screamed, my hands fisting the blanket, safely held down by my Sir, feeling him
smile proudly at me.
My thighs were on
fire, and the flames took me over until I could feel my cunt burning with it,
my chest hot, and I was begging to come for him, could I please show him how
much I appreciated his cruelty, please, Sir.
He laughed and
refused me, continuing to lay pain onto me as I writhed, moaning, sobbing with
it, blazing. I begged him not to stop, to please keep hurting me, claiming me
with his belt. Saying that I needed it, needed his marks on me. He was
ruthless, and I shuddered with it, a conflagration of need taking me over. I
was in that place where I felt like I could take all the pain in the world, eat
it all, and spit the flames of it right back, a burning circle between us, for
as long as he wanted, perhaps longer.
Once you have a sense of these things for what you
are planning to describe, you can start building your vocabulary for this
particular kind of play, and for pain in general.
It can help to gather information about the
sensations you are going to describe. Try them yourself. Reflect on your
experiences and memories of that sort of play. Talk to people who have
experience with them. Watch people do that sort of play. Look at posts on
Fetlife. Read about SM, fiction and non-fiction, especially books by people who
do SM. (I’ve found essays
by folks who do BDSM and experience chronic pain to be particularly useful
Years ago, I began a vocabulary list for myself, of words
that captured what different kinds of pain felt like (searing, invasive,
bursting, jagged, grinding, pounding), and words I could use to describe
delivering pain (thrusting, ramming, ripping, lavishing, placing, menacing,
blasting). I highly suggest you start your own lists. They can help
tremendously when you are stuck describing SM. If you are looking for a place
to start, try the McGill Pain
Questionaire; it’s got some gorgeously specific language for describing
David Biro suggests that pain “can only be described
through metaphor.” Metaphor is one of my best tools for describing SM. There’s
a way that it gets you places you can’t really go otherwise. When I decided to
do an erotic retelling of the fairy tale of Tam Lin and Janet, one of the main
reasons was the opportunity to push myself with metaphor. In the fairy tale,
Janet has to hold on to Tam Lin as he transforms from a lizard to a bear to a
mountain lion to a brand to a burning hot coal. I got so excited deciding what
sort of play was the best to match with each transformation, how to build the
arc of a scene that was so pre-determined by the fairy tale.
Here is an excerpt from the lizard portion of
was so mesmerized by Tam’s cock that they were surprised by the first touch,
their head yanked backward by the hair, face tilted up to meet Tam’s eyes. Jan
took a slow shaky breath. This was real. The sensation was cold and quick. It
went so fast that it was hard to hold on to. What was that? It darted over
Jan’s skin, their eyes steady on Tam’s, no idea what was happening to their
chest. Jan gasped when the sensation moved through their nipple, like a tongue
flickering. They reached for the sensation, trying to catch it as it moved,
lizard-like, along their nipples, gone before they could grasp it. Frightening
and exciting all at once, it made Jan throb, breath in their throat, just
trying to hold on to Tam. It didn’t matter what it was. It was Jan’s job to
stay with it, stay connected.
And here is an excerpt from the burning hot
coal portion of the story:
began to punch Jan in the pecs. Slowly. In the same spot, repeatedly. A
steadily increasing pounding, building heat in Jan’s chest from within, like a
red-hot coal, slowly building, rough and demanding. Jan could feel it growing
in their chest and was helpless to stop it, just held Tam’s determined eyes as
tears started falling. Tam kept ramming hir fists into Jan, smiling so sweetly
at the tears, wanting them to come. This was exactly what Tam needed, they
realized, and they let go and sobbed. Tam just kept driving the tears out of
them, telling them to just keep crying, their tears were gorgeous and hot and
making Tam so hard. That if they kept crying like that, Tam was not going to be
able to resist fucking them. Jan gripped Tam’s waist and bawled, tears washing
over them both.
Whatever kind of description you choose, I urge you
to get as specific as possible when describing pain. Your BDSM erotica will
only be better for it.
The second time I thought about giving up writing, I was 16 years old. I had been thinking of myself as a writer for half my life, ever since the third grade, when I was in my first writing workshop. I carried that sense of self long after I left the writer’s workshop program in my elementary school. Until I took a summer writing workshop.
My fiction writing style at 16 was spare, short vignettes that packed a punch and were mostly dialogue. It may not surprise you that they were mostly about sex. Openly, clearly, about teenage girls having sex outside of romantic relationships. Often casual sex, with strangers, or in the context of connections that were purely sexual. They were not erotica, and they didn’t describe sex in detail, they just referred to casual sex as if it were a regular part of teenage life, and depicted the ways that sexual dynamics worked.
Of course, they made adults uncomfortable. In particular, they made my fiction writing teacher in that summer workshop uncomfortable. I can still see his face, when we met about the first story I turned in. It was about 3 pages double spaced, almost completely dialogue, depicting the negotiation of a sex date over the phone between a teenage girl and an older teenage boy. Any description was focused on illuminating the ambivalence of the girl during the negotiation.
My teacher very earnestly asked me to expand the story. He said that when reading it, he didn’t understand the choices that the characters were making, and wanted the story to show more of what was going on inside their heads. It sounds like a reasonable critique, doesn’t it? A request for deeper characterization, more illumination of the internal, those are all good things, right?
I spent the next 6 weeks rewriting that story for him, adding more and more and more. It never was enough. (How could it be?) By the end of that summer writing program, I had a draft of the story that was twenty pages long, and felt like I was a horrible writer. Those twenty pages, that he said were in the right direction but still hadn’t gotten there, didn’t feel like my writing. In my own judgment (what I had left of it after trying to internalize his for weeks), I couldn’t see how they were better than my original draft. The additions felt like they’d ruined the story, over-explained everything to death.
I was lucky enough to have relationships with writers, and later that summer, gathered my courage to show both versions of this story to a brilliant short story writer who was a good friend of my mother’s. She saw what was going on, almost immediately. She helped me to see that there is a power in not explaining things. It does something important. It can be a hugely valuable component to your story.
She helped me to understand that my teacher had been wrong. There was nothing deeply wrong with my original story (though of course it could use a bit of polishing and tightening, as most do). In fact, she thought it was actually pretty damn good, and the spareness of it was one of the beautiful things about it. What had been wrong, this whole time, was that the story made him uncomfortable.
The problem he had with my story wasn’t about the need for more characterization, or for deepening the reader’s insight into the context of this moment of negotiation. The problem was with the content of the story. In the late 80s perhaps in particular, it was scary to contemplate a teenage girl writing stories about teenagers having
purely sexual relationships and casual sex with strangers, where love wasn’t in the picture. The content of the story freaked him out. But when he offered editing feedback, it came in this seemingly reasonable request: to explain.
Recently, I’ve had a lot more editing feedback than usual, from a range of sources. I’ve taken a couple writing workshops this year, gotten beta reader feedback on a short story collection and a novel in progress, and gone through an editing process for a collection that came out this month. There have been a number of moments when I’ve recalled this early experience. Because to receive editing feedback is to consider: What do I take in? What do I use?
One of my red flags in editing feedback is a request for more information, for explanation. While that summer writing workshop was my first experience with this sort of feedback, it was not the last. And I’ve found that often that request says more about the reader and their discomfort with the text, than it does about the actual text in question.
Let me give you some context. My queer kink erotica and erotic romance stories often center trans and genderqueer characters. They often center trauma survivors claiming their desire. My work is deeply influenced by my long history as a fat activist and frequently centers fat characters. My more recent work has been focused on centering disabled and sick characters. Moreover, my work is written specifically for queer kinky readers who are trans, genderqueer, fat, disabled, sick, and/or survivors.
These are insider stories, focused on bringing folks that are often marginalized, to the center of the story, as character, as framework, and as intended audience. Insider stories don’t often explain themselves, not about the basic everyday parts of life. Because they are written for folks who know those sorts of things already.
Reading insider stories can be deeply uncomfortable, if you are not on the inside. You don’t understand some of what is going on. The language being used by both characters and author may be unfamiliar or seem to have meanings that you don’t know. Folks like you may be perceived or discussed in ways that feel judgmental or incorrect. It may be difficult to picture the people or what they are doing, to see the places in your mind, or hear the voices. You don’t understand why the characters are making the choices they are making, their choices or thoughts or feelings don’t seem to make sense.
All of this difficulty parsing the story may be really disconcerting, especially if you are used to reading stories that center folks like you. It’s hard work, to read the stories, and you might assume that reading fiction shouldn’t feel like work, so therefore the writer must be doing something wrong. Accepting that you (and your knowledge, cultural context and framework) are not at the intended center of a story can be a pretty intense experience, especially if it is unfamiliar. The discomfort that it brings can often lead to a deep desire for more information, more explanation, more language that explains this to you, and centers your reading experience so that you understand.
In short, sometimes when we read insider stories, we want to change them so that we are the intended audience, because it’s too uncomfortable not to be.
Nisi Shawl is well known for her brilliant work on writing the Other, writing about folks that are different from you or different from the dominant paradigm. (That’s how she defines the Other, in the book she co-wrote, Writing the Other.) When we read insider stories, and we are not on the inside, but are used to being on the inside, we
are often reading the Other. In Shawl’s essay on reviewing the Other, she says:
“Reading the Other is rewarding work. Yet it is work. A lack of engagement, a push into unknown
territories that encounters no resistance, is most likely a clue not that something is missing, but that something is being missed.” (emphasis added)
That’s why it’s important to consider what you are taking in, in terms of feedback like this. Because the feedback may be more a sign that a reader has missed something important in your work, than a sign that something is missing from your story.
When I receive feedback requesting more details, more explanation, these are some of the questions I consider:
- Where is this request coming from? Is this person part of my intended
- Are the areas in which they are asking for more explanation or details
ones where a character is different from them, or related to the character’s
experiences of marginalization or oppression?
- Do they seem to be asking me to explain everyday common experiences in
- Does it seem like the feedback is trying to shift the audience of the
Let me give you a specific example. One of my
stories has a group BDSM scene where a superfat femme trans guy bottom is tied to a sling that is rated for his size and a bunch of disabled fat tops of varying genders and sizes on mobility scooters are circling him, poking him with their canes. One of the pieces of editing feedback I received about the story was that a particular reader could not picture this moment in the scene, and wanted more description, more explanation. The reader wanted me to help them see the action more clearly, because they could not picture how the people would look as they were moving.
On its face, that feedback might be quite useful. The scene might not be drawn as clearly as it needed to be, the characters might not be described as clearly as they needed to be. Certainly group scenes are a challenge, and it’s completely possible that things get lost.
But. Here’s the thing. I have been part of queer fat activist community for over two decades. When you hang out with and date disabled fat folks, you often see mobility scooters, likely more than one in a group. Imagining how a group of fat folks move on scooters is not a challenge for me, because I’ve seen it, many times. This story is an insider story, for fat activist queers, particularly for disabled fat activist queers. It intentionally does not make a big deal about how people move on scooters, because it’s a regular part of life for the intended audience.
It makes sense that it might be hard to picture, if you didn’t have that experience. And this reader did not, wasn’t coming from an insider experience in their read of the story. I would think differently if they had been, because they would be part of the intended audience. Instead, after careful consideration, I concluded that this particular reader was treating these characters as Other, and likely attempting to re-center the audience of the story to folks like them.
One way to spot this is within the questions themselves. Outsider questions often hone in on aspects of difference and make them more Other, so that they require explanation. They sound like:
- “Can you explain what that looks like?”
- “I don’t get why anyone would do that. You need to show us why she made that choice, because it doesn’t make sense,”
- “How does x work exactly? The story doesn’t make it clear.”
Or sometimes they will speak from an expert place about an experience that they don’t know personally, telling you how Other a detail of the story is, or how it is factually wrong, like
- “I mean, I’m familiar with x, but I don’t think your readers will be, so you might want to explain that a little more,”
- “I can’t imagine that x group would ever do y. My friends who belong to x group are always careful not to do that.”
Now, I don’t want you to think I’m saying that all feedback asking for more detail or for clarification should be dismissed. That kind of feedback can be incredibly useful. I just urge you to consider where the feedback is coming from, and not to automatically take it in. Especially when you are writing insider stories.
Insider requests for more details about that moment in my story could sound something like:
- “I tried to picture me and my friends circling him on our scooters, and I was confused as to why there wasn’t a logjam, or how they cleared enough space in the dungeon that folks didn’t cross their path. Could you maybe give that more context, or maybe add a fumbling moment to make it more realistic?”
- “I wanted to get more of a visual sense from the bottom’s perspective of what they looked like as they passed. I know there were a lot of them, and he was mesmerized by the sound of the scooters, but I imagine he might also be entranced by a look in someone’s eye, or the way someone’s hair moved. I think those moments of desire from the bottom are super important when you are writing disabled tops. Could you add a few more details like that?”
These questions are quite different, and very much worth considering.
Part of the litmus test for including more details could be: What would those details add to the story,
and for whom? What would leaving out those details add to the story, and for whom? And, then to follow up those answers by considering: What do I care about here? What is my project? Who am I writing this for?