The Syndicate, Vols. I and II, by Jules Jones and Alex Woolgrave is a very English product. All the slang is English and the humor is ultimately English. For one thing, it made me realize how much of an American I have become (although a twenty-year displaced South African hardly counts as English, anyway). For another, the tone of the novel(s) make for some fascinating erotica. Dry humor and hot sex are an interesting combination.
The story is told 100% from the third person point of view of Allard, a computer geek, who falls into a relationship and then (we assume, although it's never actually explicitly stated) into love with Vaughan, the engineer of a syndicate spaceship, on which all of the crew own a share of the ship and no one is in charge. Allard hires on as a tech consultant for a year and a day, the timespan of the two volumes, at the end of which he is still unsure about buying a share of the ship, but agrees to marry Vaughan. (I could do a fascinating analysis of the economic and political aspects of the romance in this particular setting, but I don't have time, skill, or specific knowledge to really do it justice.)
The main kink Vaughan and Allard share is a "deflowering the virgin" role-play, in which Allard usually acts the role of virgin. In the context of a gay relationship in which the partners literally take turns bottoming to each other, and in which both men despise and disavow political and economic authority over those around them, the role-play is played for laughs the first time they do it. In the second volume, however, Vaughan begins to play more serious dominance games and Allard is discomforted by his positive response to them and baffled by his own innocence in the face of Vaughan's obvious experience.
Jones and Woolgrave manage to get to the heart of a BDSM relationship in one scene in ways that are food for reflection not only in relation to the attraction of BDSM in a long-term relationship, but also in relation to a truly trusting romantic relationship between any two people, and to the generic romance narrative and the romance genre as a whole.1
In the scene under consideration, after Allard agrees to submit to Vaughan, Vaughan has Allard wear a collar, as well as wrist and leg cuffs. This alone is enough to freak Allard out, and he admits, "I'm scared, Vaughan" (253). However, the trust that Vaughan and Allard have built up between them after almost a year together is always in the forefront of Allard's mind as he submits to Vaughan's demands:
He nearly panicked at the idea that Vaughan had him helpless, was refusing to turn him loose. Then he remembered--safeword. Vaughan would ignore any pleas for mercy, unless he used the only one that counted in this context.A little later, Allard tests the situation a little further, more comfortable with his role:
No, Vaughan wasn't abusing him. Knowing that helped.
He tried to get control of his breathing. His panic settled, a little. (254)
"Let me go!" said Allard. This time, he didn't really mean it. He was testing the parameters of this odd situation. Yes, he was free. Not free to move, not free to go, but free to say whatever he liked without it making any difference. In this room, he could say or do anything, and nothing would open the door to the outside world until he either used his safeword or they finished what he was doing. (256)I loved this paragraph of contemplation, especially in relation to the romance narrative itself, in which the hero and heroine (or, obviously, hero and hero) are free to attack each other, verbally or emotionally, because fundamentally the narrative as a romance can be trusted not to abuse the love relationship or the characters and to provide a happy ending. Although never free from each other, the characters are free in their relationship to test the boundaries of what it means to love while the author and the reader are free to stretch the parameters of the definition of a romance, as long as the happy ending can be relied upon.
Later in the scene, Vaughan attaches Allard's leg cuffs to a spreader bar (very NSFW picture here, for those curious), and Allard thinks:
A picture of how he must look popped into Allard's mind. Spread open, exposed, completely unable to do anything about whatever Vaughan might take it into his head to do. Vaughan's property. (260-261)The characters in a romance are exposed to each other, and more importantly, to the reader's gaze, their emotions dissected almost surgically by the author for the edification of the reader. And once again, it comes down to the trust in the relationship between the reader and the text, as long as the text provides the happy ending.
Additionally, while delving deeply into power dynamics that are stereotypical of a romance (shrinking virgin at the mercy of the more experienced dominant male), it's made obvious that Allard is enjoying himself, despite being pulled beyond his comfort zone:
"I told you I'd make you enjoy it," Vaughan said. "You don't get a choice in the matter."Later:
"Please, Vaughan, give me some more." He didn't want to beg, but he couldn't touch his cock, and he needed something. (261)
Allard felt uneasy. Half an hour ago, he'd definitely have said that the only reason he'd beg to put the chains on would be role-play to please Vaughan. At the moment, he wouldn't beg and mean it, but now he could see that there might come a time when he would.While this last sentence is the heart of a loving BDSM relationship, it's also part of the appeal of the romance narrative. One or both of the characters don't want to fall in love, but they do, despite themselves, and watching that process is what is attractive to the reader.
"I don't think I like that idea."
Vaughan sat down where Allard could see him easily.
"That's all right, Allard. Changing your mind is my job." His expression softened slightly. "You didn't really expect to feel like this, did you?" he asked, more seriously.
"Isn't that what you liked about the idea?"
"Yes," Vaughan said, utterly sincere and utterly honest. "You don't like the idea that you like this, but you'll let me do it anyway." (262)
At one point, Vaughan tells Allard, still chained, to stand up. He realizes he can't do it without Vaughan's help:
Then he realized what was expected of him. "Help me, please."This seems to me to be the perfect microcosmic representation of the best romantic relationships: mutual trust, mutual respect, mutual help, mutual understanding, and mutual comfort. For me, BDSM represents the distillation of a relationship. If it's bad, it can be monumentally, dangerously bad, but if it's good, it's the essence of romance, of trust, of mutual caring and responsibility, all wrapped in a stunningly politically incorrect package that can look like abuse to an outsider. The same can (and has) been said about romance fiction.
Vaughan took hold of him by his upper arms and pulled gently. He made another attempt to stand up. Yes, this time he could make it, with Vaughan steadying him. If he could trust Vaughan enough, trust him not to let go.
He took a deep breath and stood up.
"Well done," Vaughan said, and kissed him lightly.
He was on his feet, but he still felt unsteady, so he asked, "Hold me, please."
Vaughan put his arms around him and held him close. He leaned into the reassuringly solid bulk of Vaughan's chest. (266)
Finally, the most profound paragraph for me:
After a while, he pulled himself together a bit and moved back enough to see Vaughan. Vaughan's expression was a mixture of lust and tenderness. It's not just that he likes me being afraid, and it's not the BDSM stuff. More than anything, he wants to be the cause and solution to my fear. Allard had known that for a while, but this was the clearest he'd ever seen it. It wasn't Vaughan fantasising about rape, but about seduction, and about a person who was afraid but willing to be led through the fear and out through the other side. For the first time, he had a tiny glimmer of perception that there was another side, something through the fear.I pretty much think this quote speaks for itself, but just to clarify: In the recent discussion in Romancelandia about rape, or seduction, or force--that's not what romance is about, for me at least. Instead, it's about the characters finding someone, and the reader finding an author, who is afraid, but willing nonetheless to lead them through the fear of death and unhappiness and strangely compelling gender dynamics to the happiness on the other side. "The cause and solution to our fear": romance narratives certainly occupy this role, as do our own lovers, and the lovers in our favorite romances. "Further than I want to go, but not further than I can go": romance narratives sometimes threaten our understanding of ourselves, our likes and dislikes, what turns us on, what pushes our buttons, but one way or another, for romance readers the best romances help us understand ourselves better.
"Whatever you want to do," he said to Vaughan. "I know you'll take me further than I want to go, but not further than I can go."
"You do understand, don't you?" (267)
1. For those who might not know: BDSM as an acronym stands for a combination of things: Bondage/Discipline, both common practices in the BDSM repertoire; Domination/submission, the poles of behavior that might have nothing to do with pain or sensation play but speak more to how the partners relate to each other, whether in sexual play or all the time; and Sadism/Masochism, which speak specifically to the use of pain in the sexual relationship. These three aspects of BDSM might be used separately, but are more commonly used in conjunction with each other, although one's place on the three axes may differ. For example, one may not enjoy bondage or discipline, but may be a strong sexual sadist with an interest in domination. If I were to place Allard and Vaughan on the various axes, I'd say they have strong interest in Bondage, with only a slight tick onto the discipline scale; they share the D/s axis, but more from a top/bottom perspective than from a service or humiliation D/s aspect, and the S/M axis is not explored at all, at least in these two volumes.
The foundation of BDSM lies in the phrase "Safe, Sane, and Consensual." As much as possible, when participating in BDSM, one should be sure that what you're doing is as safe as you can make it, is followed in a sane manner and performed by sane people, and that all who participated have consented to everything being done. Some in the community say that BDSM is, by its very nature, unsafe and relatively crazy, and advocate instead the phrase "RACK": Risk-Aware Consensual Kink. Because practices like needle play, knife play, or breath play are never safe, and (most vanilla people would argue) not sane, those participating should be aware of the risks and have consented to the play.