I’m in the middle of writing a scene in which a sub-type is genuinely distressed. It’s a thorny and step-picking process, getting a consensual nonconsent relationship down on paper The relationship dynamics themselves are tricky, fraught with apparent risk and ambiguity. If readers don’t buy into the full subtext they can see the dom as an abuser, the sub as pathetic and sick.
So if an author isn’t into shock or horror it pays to make the consent as explicit as possible, and to make sure that consent is stated not just once but repeatedly. (Despite several Amazon reviews, if shock or horror were my thing I’d be writing in another genre.) It works to have characters weigh the issues, discuss the pitfalls, grapple with the tough questions. Oh, and when something hurts, the sub has to be turned on, big time.
But then come the problems. Consensual nonconsent thrives on ambiguity. The reason it’s hot is because there’s some actual power being imposed. Consent isn’t always fully present. In the short term the sub may not like what’s being done to them. They’re not consulted; their preferences aren’t part of the equation. What matters is what the dom wants. And if that involves suffering for their sub, then so be it. What merits exploration is that strange space between willingness and distress; that odd tightrope between sadism and self-restraint.
One could keep hammering on the consensual theme at each and every pang. (“She twisted and writhed in her bonds, hating the pain, but joyful at offering her suffering to Master.”) Done well, it could probably work. But only with the risk of disappointment for that kinky coterie of Dom, Author and Reader Who Gets Off On Suffering. With all meaning explicit, all layers exposed, what is there to discover? Where is the lip-biting, guilty arousal at the sight of another’s pain? Where’s the growth, for characters whose questions have long since been answered?
Sometimes suffering needs to be just that. Sometimes the sub needs to writhe and not feel joy. Instead there will be doubt, indignant anger, resentment. Fear. Especially fear. For the reader as well as the sub. There’s no experiencing the sub’s journey without it. If the reader hasn’t bought into the basic dynamic, the book will become a nightmare. And I’m not sure there’s anything to be done about that, except to warn the reader in every way you can:
CONSENSUAL NONCONSENT. ACTUAL DISTRESS INVOLVED. NOT FOR EVERYONE.