Nov 16 2011 12:30pm

Kink in Historicals: Getting Real and Getting Busy

A Courtesan’s Guide to Getting Your Man by Celeste Bradley and Susan DonovanThere are certain elements readers expect in historicals: the lady in distress is rescued by her Knight/Prince/gallant-but-rogueish-Lord. Of course, there would be smoldering dalliances between the lady and her hero sprinkled throughout.

So recently, when reading Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan’s A Courtesan’s Guide to Getting Your Man, I was surprised to find a group sex scene within its pages. An orgy! In the middle of a historical tale! The romantic world felt like it had shifted to the opposite axis.

But, really, this reaction is absurd. For as long as humans have existed, the need for sex (in any form) has been a necessary part of life. More than that, it’s been a means of (great?) pleasure, for just as long. And to think that S&M, bondage, orgies, etc., didn’t exist before the advent of pink fluffy handcuffs is just naïve. So what if that rogueish Lord pulls out a sex toy to use with the heroine? It doesn’t detract from the romance. Instead, it adds a bit of reality (and happy kink) into the mix.

Maybe it’s a loosening of—not morals, that gives off the wrong impression—perhaps more of a releasing of humans from previously-held uptight attitudes. Now, you just have to switch on the TV to any of the detective show franchises to see everything from a dominatrix being blamed for a murder she didn’t commit (because people still correlate her ’job’ with a need to punish), to a death at a cuddle party.

It’s almost as though this altered view displayed on television, the easiest of public forums, makes it okay to talk about openly; sexual experimentation is now readily available for your viewing and reading pleasure.

If you take a moment to consider the stereotypes associated with a dominatrix, the picture that might come to mind goes something like this: a leather corset, thigh high boots, a riding crop (Lucy Lawless in Eurotrip, anyone?). Take away the more recent variations here, like the usage of pleather, and it’s an image that could have been around 300, 400, 500 years ago, especially considering that horses were the main mode of transportation then and corsets were garments worn in high society daily. These factors almost solidify the historic origin and relevance of bondage and other wicked delights.

Today, a dominatrix is portrayed (particularly in those previously mentioned detective shows) as a means to an end for powerful men (and women) to release the stress of their hectic days by submitting to another’s will. Does this not lend some credence to prior existence of this type of profession and that many powerful historical figures employed these services? It’s possible that many more cities would have been destroyed in wars if leaders hadn’t been able to relieve themselves through sexual submission or dominance. Perhaps it would be a beneficial amendment to today’s constitution to prevent accidental nuclear warfare? Well, perhaps that’s taking it too far, but maybe you can see its potential value.

Also today, it’s the CEO of a major corporation that’s portrayed as the horse, with a dominant female whipping him (or her) into shape. Who’s to say that this didn’t happen hundreds of years ago? In fact, there’s a good chance it did happen behind the bedroom doors of Catherine the Great (among many other wicked things.) A real historical figure, this ruler was well renowned as an aficionado of sexual exploits, a woman who really knew how to have a good time. Whether these are just puffed-up rumors or based in fact is up to historians to debate; she’s an interesting point of reference, to say the least, especially when those rumors have transcended several centuries.

The romance novel has evolved into something much more wicked and fun. Today’s historicals now have a healthy dose of all of the classic elements  readers have come to expect, along with a little something not quite new, but unabashedly titillating. Though Princes, Scottish Highlanders, and other of their ilk will forever continue saving their destined wives, it is refreshing to see that what happens behind closed door isn’t always accomplished in only the missionary position.

Suggested reading:

Sinful by Charlotte Featherstone
Addicted by Charlotte Featherstone
Golden by Joely Sue Burkhart
A Midnight Dance by Lila DiPasqua
Awakened by a Kiss by Lila DiPasqua
Breathless by Anne Stuart
Patience by Lisa Valdez
Scandalous Lovers by Robin Schone


Jackie Lester imagines a day when she can make a living as a writer. Until then, she reviews eclectic books at My Ever Expanding Library and lives in small-town Ontario with her daughter.

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1. Anette
Your post got me thinking that those stiff Iranian priests needs a serious shagging! *giggles*
Well, I didn't know how else I was supposed to say it.
FFS, let those women claim their bluidy freedom - and stop being so afraid of them that you put them all in one category and make them look like little tents!
Sometimes the stupid Islamian so-called "traditions" are just what they are - invented by MEN!!!
That kind of suppression can really make me go up in flames of indignition and frustration.

Yo priests?! Drop that beard! And drop that dress code - tents are soooo last year!!!
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
@Anette, glad you liked the post, even if we're flummoxed on the stiff Iranian priests mention.
I seem to recall that Judith Ivory's Untie My Heart has a light bondage scene--am I mis-remembering? And there are other books where the heroine takes charge, which is a refreshing change for the usually dominant hero.
3. Jennifer Blake
Anette: Your post was no doubt meant in fun, but women in Islamic countries who demand their freedom can wind up dead--in extremely unpleasant ways. Think about it.

And adding over-the-top "kink" to romance novels is to accept the public's perception of them as being porn for women--something romance authors have fought for decades. No. And no, again. There's a difference between romance and erotica. Those who want kinky sex with whips, chains and threesomes can read erotica. Those who celebrate romance as the only human relationship that matters, the one that ensures survival of the species, can opt for romance with caring, considerate partners. It's about the epic love affair, not mere stress relief.
4. Annabel Joseph
Jennifer: You took Anette's post to task and I must do the same to yours.

Categorizing kink as being in a separate category from "relationships that matter" and "Caring, considerate partners" shows a real lack of knowledge about what kink entails and the levels of trust and devotion it can represent between partners. Maybe I misunderstood your comment?

As for kink in romance, I must say, I'm re-reading Johanna Lindsey's Prisoner of My Heart right now, and it always triggers my kink radar. The chains! the handcuffs! the rapey passion! Then there are the occasional spanking scenes you come across, like the cropping scenes in the original version of Whitney My Love. Kink has always been in romance novels, it's just been disguised as forced consent, and disciplining the unruly heroine. Any novel with spanking ends up on my keeper shelf. :-)
@Anette - Thanks for the comment, though I think it deviated from the topic at hand.

@Megan - Yes! It's by no means a one side thing and can be a great way for women to enjoy the upper hand too.

@Jennifer - I think it's all about personal taste, really. If the 'action' is shown as part of that growing relationship and performed in a consensual way, then it can be a part of a romantic, loving pairing. Truly, the trust between the partners is a necessary part of the bond. I was glad to have my reading experiences expanded from my former notions of what was held in a historical romance (though not to lump them all into a single category). Erotica can have a love story at its base too.

@Annabel - Thank you for highlighting the 'trust' that's involved; it was my same thought. In talking 'kink', there are levels that each reader can tolerate, which is fine. In A Courtesan's Guide... , Bradley and Donovan do a fantastic job of illustrationg the difference between the good kind of play and the type that shouldn't be allowed (ie. after the word "no" has been said). They build their story to one of female impowerment, while showing the love achieved along the way (including a healthy dose of hot sex with a respectful partner).
6. Lynne M Connolly
Actually, they were more inventive as we are, not less.
The reason? Contraception.
Contraception was deeply unreliable, and when it mattered, such as in a marriage where more children weren't advisable, or during an affair (very few unmarried virgins indulged, for obvious reasons) they had to get inventive.
Sex during a period was more popular than it is now. Oral sex was brought to a high art. Anal sex was frequently used, although it was illegal (sodomy). There are several accounts of mutual masturbation in so-called "French" pornography.
I write books set in the mid Georgian period and this material is available, if you look. Not only the notorious "Fanny Hill" (be careful to get the unexpurgated copy - Cleland released an expurgated version in the same year). Orgies aplenty in "Fanny Hill." There was also a notorious "House of Correction" in Covent Garden. And then, of course, in a later period, the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley show a high degree of kink.
People rarely undressed to have sex, probably because of the complex clothes, but until the Victorian era, women didn't wear knickers, panties, or bloomers. So they tended to be a bit more accessible!
Writing BDSM historically is difficult, because the trust required and the issues involved weren't treated in the same way. It was much rougher, and mutual respect between partners, especially when one of those partners was often being paid to do the deed, was much rarer. They would use 'em up and ship 'em out, but there were professionals, usually women, or the records describe women more, who knew what they were doing and had to behave, because they were doing the whipping.
Truly, if we wrote books with all the kink our inventive forbears used, they would be top shelf books!
Anette, I found your post deeply offensive (I'm not Islamic, I don't wear the hijab, so I have no personal stake).
Jennifer, where there is kink, there can also be a deeply loving relationship. I would contest that there is no romance in those kinds of relationships.
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