Sep 22 2015 8:30am

Tied Up in Nots: The Portrayal of Kink in Pop Culture

Today we're thrilled to welcome Tamsen Parker to Heroes and Heartbreakers. Tamsen writes pretty hot romance...like the kinky sort of hot romance! Her latest release Craving Flight is the biproduct of the GoodReads BDSM writing challenge, and is available now for all readers. As romance readers, kink isn't necessarily a new thing to us, but to pop culture in general, kink is still very taboo. Tamsen is here today to talk about the portrayal of kink in pop culture, and why more people should remember that “your kink isn't my kink but your kink is okay.” Thanks, Tamsen!

I love a lot of things about romance. Some of the things I love are what I love about all books: the ability to be transported to a world that’s not my own, to see the world from other perspectives, and the capacity of words on a page or a screen to entertain. But there are a few things specific to the genre I write in. I love the high emotion, the hot sex, and the promise that at the end of the characters’ journey they’ll be getting a well-deserved Happily Ever After.

Another thing I love about romance (and erotica) is that it’s one of the few places in pop culture where you’ll find positive portrayals of BDSM and people who are into kink. Because, frankly, there aren’t many. When I first came up with the idea for this post, I asked around social media about instances outside romance and erotica where kink had been positively portrayed. I got a pitifully short list of suggestions.

BDSM is usually played for laughs or shock value. It’s used as shorthand: this woman gets aroused by hurting people and therefore she’s evil. Or it’s a quick way to humiliate someone: a powerful man is ruined because people find out he enjoys being tied up and spanked. Sometimes it’s just a means of titillation, something to point and stare at.

When Fifty Shades of Grey came out, I read the entire trilogy. There were some things I liked about it and others I didn’t, but I couldn’t quite put a finger on what bothered me the most, what made it not my love story. And then I read an article that put a name to the thing that had been bothering me: kink-shaming.

I won’t spend a lot of time on this because there have been ten billion articles about FSoG and I want to talk about media more broadly, but it’s a common reference for a lot of readers. In FSoG, everyone who’s kinky is either portrayed as evil (Mrs. Robinson, Christian’s ex-Domme), crazy (Leila, Christian’s ex-submissive), or eventually being redeemed (Christian).

Part of the reason I started writing was because I wanted to show people who were into kink and it wasn’t shameful. It didn’t make them bad people, it wasn’t because they have mental health issues, and it wasn’t something they would get over as soon as they’d found The One. I wanted to write books where BDSM isn’t something to be played for laughs, but instead a way that, while not for everyone, is a powerful means for people to connect and enjoy each other, a way to find pleasure (and yes, sometimes pain) and intimacy.

It’s not that I was looking for shining examples of perfect kinkhood. A story where every kinky person is emotionally healthy, a flawless communicator, and everyone around them accepts and loves them just the way they are would be the same as any other story about impeccable people: Super Boring.

So while the list was short, I did find a few examples:

Movies: Everyone’s go-to: Secretary. This 2002 movie was remarkable to me in that I think it was the first piece of media I was exposed to that didn’t contain kink shaming. While there are some other issues with the film (consent, for example, isn’t handled well), it’s clear that the creators felt that in the end, Lee and E. Edward Grey’s relationship is a healthy and fulfilling one for them both.

Television: “The Mistress Always Spanks Twice.” Yes, the title of this Castle episode is eye-roll-inducing, but the episode was handled far better than the appearances of kink in most crime procedurals. Not all of the characters were respectful of kink, which is fine—I would’ve been surprised if they had been; it’s, sadly, just not realistic—however, Castle isn’t grossed out or dismissive, and it’s strongly implied that Beckett is personally involved in kink, and if she’s not, she’s definitely knowledgeable and respectful. For the most part, the kink wasn’t played for laughs and while there was some sensationalizing, overall it was well done. And tbh, I’d suffer just about anything to watch Nathan Fillion bite his fist:

Fist Bite Gif
via reactiongifs

Comics: This is one of my favorite comics EVER because it covers aftercare, something that gets ignored a lot in the pearl-clutching reporting of BDSM by the media and also because it’s just so damn cute: http://imgur.com/a/IVlo8. I also loved these FSoG/Disney mash-ups that appeared in Cosmo. While I wish they weren’t all male/female, everyone looks HAPPY, like they’re actually having fun, which is definitely part of kink. That’s why people do it, because they enjoy it!

Music videos: Artists from Madonna to Rihanna and Thirty Seconds to Mars to The Weeknd have used kink in their videos, with varying degrees of realism and respect, but I think my favorite is FKA Twigs’ video for Pendulum:

It doesn’t read as salacious or exploitive to me but more as beautiful.

And since I started by saying I love romance and erotica for their positive portrayals of kink, here are a few authors to check out:

  • Annabel Joseph: In a lot of her books, there are epilogues showing the hero and heroine happily married and often with children, with kink still very much part of the relationship.
  • Tiffany Reisz: In her Original Sinner series, one of the heroes is a flat-out sadist and yet fans can’t get enough of Søren. That’s not something you see often. Not to mention he’s a priest.
  • Teresa Noelle Roberts: Her books show what I call The-Kink-Next-Door. It portrays BDSM as something normal people do, instead of just billionaires in swanky secret sex clubs.

While those are some of my personal favorites, there’s no shortage of realistic and respectful portrayals of kink in romance and erotica, which is just another reason I love it so very much. Do you have any favorite appearances of positively portrayed BDSM in the media? Share them in the comments below!


Learn more about or order a copy of  Craving Fight by Tamsen Parker, available now: 

Buy at Amazon

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Tamsen Parker is a stay-at-home mom by day, erotic romance writer by naptime. She lives with her family outside of Boston, where she tweets too much, sleeps too little and is always in the middle of a book. Aside from good food, sweet rieslings and gin cocktails, she has a fondness for monograms and subway maps. She should really start drinking coffee.


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Mala Bhattacharjee
1. Mala Bhattacharjee
Deacon and Quinn on The Bold and the Beautiful have a wonderful kinky relationship that the show has portrayed as consensual and loving. Their love scenes frequently feature discreet toys. Their marriage ceremony had them bound with a cloth as well as a traditional ring exchange. And Quinn being sexually dominant has nothing to do with her being a soap psycho. It's separate from all her schemes.
Jennifer Proffitt
2. JenniferProffitt
So I was reading this freaking GREAT article about how Morticia and Gomez Addams actually portray a really healthy, loving, consensual S&M relationship and it never even REGISTERED as a kid (as I don't think it would, could, or should) but as an adult I'm like "heck yes, this is awesome".
3. rnff65
Great post, Tamsen. Wish I had had it this morning, when I was chatting with my plumber and told him I wrote romance, and he mentioned 50 Shades, and I told him that it didn't portray kink very well or with much respect. You said it far more coherently than I did!

Hadn't heard of Annabel Joseph before; will have to go check her writing out!

Congrats on the new release.
5. lauralee1912
@ JenniferProffitt - Hmmm, never thought of Morticia and Gomez that way, but wow, I believe a childhood paradigm has shifted.

I'm not a big reader of BDSM or kink, but Without Restraint by Angela Knight was so compelling I stayed up way too late one night to finish the book. I picked up the book based on the first look here.

Thanks for an interesting essay, Tamsen. I just may have to try Craving Flight.
6. pamelia
I'd have to re-view the episodes to be sure, but I seem to recall the Lady Heather episodes of CSI were rather respectful to kink/kink people.
Jennifer Proffitt
7. JenniferProffitt
@lauralee1912, Yeah. It was a total paradigm shift for me too--and I read it only last night which was like cosmic timing. It all started because of this photoshopped picture that's been floating around recently of Christina Ricci "as Morticia" which lead me down a rabbit hole of things!
Also, thanks for selling me on Without Restraint--I keep wanting to read it but keep forgetting to actually pick it up.

@pamelia--you're 100% right about CSI and the treatment of Lady Heather. She was often used as a resource for the crime fighters, and there was even an implied relationship between her and Grissom.
8. Eleanor - Book Hammock
YES!!! To every word. Fabulous post.
9. TamsenParker
@Mala--That sounds awesome, I'll have to check it out!

@Jennifer--I saw that article about the Morticia and Gomez, I may or may not have posted it all over my social media : D

@RNFF65--I get that question about 50 a lot too. Depending on how receptive I think my audience might be, I either shrug it off or try to have a conversation. Annabel is one of my faves, to the extent that I ration her books to read when I've had a string of disappointments. They almost always work for me, but my favorite is Comfort Object.

@lauralee1912--I'll have to try Without Restraint, thanks for the rec. And I hope you enjoy Craving Flight if you decide to give it a try : )

@Pamelia--I think you're right about CSI's treatment of Lady Heather and I considered including that as an example. I'd have to go back and watch the episodes more closely to see if that positive attitude carried over to the other people portrayed as kinky too.

@Eleanor--Thank you! <3
10. Sue V
Joey W Hill is my go-to author for deep emotional love stories that are also BDSM relationships with real people. I even enjoy her male-Dom/female-sub stories, which I can't say about many of the more popular BDSM authors who write that kink.

That said, I am very happy to see more of those same popular authors are writing intelligent, non-cliched Femdom with strong alpha males who happen to be sexually submissive to their woman. It's a difficult kink to write about, even more so than the opposite, since our society has very negative stereotypes about dominant women and submissive men who. I hope the trend continues and more authors and readers give it try, with the pleasant outcome of discovering Femdom is another enjoyable kink to write and read about.

My recommended authors to try in addition to Joey W Hill are Ann Mayburn and Joely Sue Burkhart.
susan beamon
11. susanbeamon
I don't look for kink when I'm reading romance too much, mostly because I really can't stand male/Dom-female/sub. Seems like just a push on the "normal" sexual dynamic. The first I read that I enjoyed was Anne Rice, I think the title was Exit to Eden. Hollywood made a silly movie about the book that was closer to it than I would have expected.
12. Vexbex
Sinners on Tour box set had 2 books 1 with female/dom male/sub and 1 m/f/m with one male dom and the others sub. I think she addressed it in a respecrful manner and handled the societal issues pretty well. I haven't heard of the books you mentioned but I will definitely check them out.
13. allyson55
Very interesting article. I have to say though, I despise the character Soren. I read one of the Tiffany Reisz books, can't remember which one, it made me so mad!
How can anyone like or respect a man who breaks his sub's jaw then leaves it to her assistant to take her to the hospital? Soren is a priest who has no respect for his vows but we're supposed to like this guy? IMHO he's a vile, despicable character.
If I want to read kink I read Cherise Sinclair who also writes a sadist but he's adorable and knows what after care means.
14. TamsenParker
@Sue V-- I've read and enjoyed Joey W Hill, but not Ann Mayburn or Joely Sue Burkhart. I'll have to check them out! Thanks for the recs : )

@susanbeamon-- There certainly are some BDSM books out there that reinforce traditional gender dynamics, but I feel like there are increasing numbers of them that play with that also. I like to think I managed that in my book Personal Geography. A lot of my readers have taken to referring to the hero as a beta dom, a term I love. And of course there's all the fantastic LGBTQ kink out there that have different dynamics too!

@Vexbex-- I haven't seen that box set, I'll have to check it out! Thanks for the recommendation. I'm always looking to add to my towering TBR pile ; )

@allyson55-- Soren is definitely not universally beloved but he does have a pretty rabid fan base. He's not my favorite sadist in romance/erotica but I do think Tiffany writes kink well and does a good job of portraying him as a multi-dimensional character when a lot of sadists just get the one note. I've only read one Cherise Sinclair, I'll have to get some of her other books on my kindle! Thanks for the rec : )
Jennifer Proffitt
15. JenniferProffitt
I'll throw in another recommendation of Jasmine Haynes. Loved her Naughty Corner and has an "older" heroine to boot!
16. TamsenParker
@Jennifer-- I'm going to be crushed under the weight of Mount TBR. The problem is real!
Jennifer Proffitt
17. JenniferProffitt
@TamsenParker...but it's like... a good problem yes? But you should read ALL The book (after you write ALL the books)
18. TamsenParker
@Jennifer-- The best problem! But yes, time is an issue. Isn't there like a big ol' Pause button somewhere we could press to give us like a month to clear out our TBRs?
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