Review: “Kink: Stories” Doesn’t Do BDSM Any Favors

In planning this site, I was sure I’d never review BDSM fiction. First, because that is not our focus, and there are plenty of other BDSM-themed sites devoted to nothing but reviews of books and products. Second, because it is all but impossible to find quality erotica or fiction about kink that is worth one’s time. Then I read about the release of a new book of literary short stories entitled “Kink: Stories,” edited by R.O Kwon and Garth Greenwell.  It was positively reviewed in The New York Times, and The New Yorker.  I thought, Finally!  I was excited to read well-written stories about the thrill of kink, its pleasures, its complexities, its passions.  Most of all, I wanted to read love stories enlivened and deepened by power exchange. But that is not what I found.

Sure, if I squinted a little, I could make out an actual love story or two, but this story collection was primarily about confused or broken people inflicting things on each other for reasons that were occasionally artfully put.  This is not the kink I know, where my Dominant husband growls with satisfaction as he wields his instruments of torture, and I slip off into a trance where pain is felt as pleasure, and afterward, we float in a bubble of laughing intimacy.  Perhaps our experience is atypical, and kink is experienced differently outside the safety of a marriage bed as something darker, more fraught.  (Although, if the ribald laughter echoing around BDSM community gatherings is any indication, I doubt it). Of course, there are almost no married couples in these story collections, and precious little intimacy–in all but one of the stories, the participants end up alone. And there is zero laughter. There is, however, a ton of spitting into submissive faces, submissive mouths (No less than four stories featured spitting).  In most of the stories, Dominants are pretty much assholes, and one a vicious rapist. Meanwhile, the submissives are steeped in shame, or unable to withstand intimacy, or driven to self-sabotage (the guy who is raped knows he will keep risking such treatment).  

The editors, in their introduction, said they wanted to portray kink as “a complex, psychologically rich act of communication” that raises “questions of power, agency, identity.” Other more discerning reviewers, as in the New Yorker, seem to have glimpsed some of these edifying subtexts that I missed. Yes, some of the stories are beautifully written. Here, in the Melissa Febos’ opening story, “The Cure,” is a trenchant description of a woman’s fear of sexually thwarting men who might then explode: “Masculinity was a glass vase perpetually at the edge of the table.” But, again, this woman turns dominant and gets off on disregarding her male bottom, treating him as if he weren’t a person at all.  

I found only two stories in the book that glanced across what felt like genuine understanding of the pleasures of BDSM. “Scissors,” by Kim Fu, about a blindfolded and bound submissive unable to tell who is touching her, honed in on how it is the helpless “not-knowing that makes her core sing.”  (Yet, this character refused to see her partner at all outside of their staged scenes and went home alone.)  The other story was at the book’s end, “Emotional Technologies,” by Chris Kraus, a long and winding journey through history and philosophy that intermittently landed on apt descriptions of BDSM scenes and their liberating theatricality.  However, this story also wore a despondent patina. In an afterward, the author describes her own short-lived BDSM experiences, saying “The whole thing may have been a collaborative ritual that was driven by grief.” 

I can’t argue that BDSM is complex; there are thorns in those roses. But most of these stories portray kinky sex as a grim and joyless exercise which results in loneliness.  In trying to serve the kink community, I feel the editors did it a terrible disservice. 

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