My real problem with 50 Shades of Grey isn’t the bad writing (though it is bad) or the paper-thin boring-as-fuck chracters (though they ARE), or even, in the abstract, the wild popularity (we all get into romance and erotica from somewhere). My problem with the 50 Shades phenomenon is the completely bullshit and dangerous view of the BDSM lifestyle, and the idea that people are using the relationship of Ana and Christian as a template for an ideal BDSM experience.
When Christian decides that Ana will make an excellent sub for him, he makes her sign a non-disclosure agreement so she cannot talk to anyone else about BDSM, or anything. He will not allow her to seek out any information other than what he gives her, and after her first scene with him, he leaves without any sort of aftercare. Her roommate calls him up, demanding to know what the fuck her did to Ana that had her crying hysterically, and he shows up demanding to know what the hell is wrong with her.
This is not an ideal. This is terrible, and this is dangerous. This is not safe, this is not sane, and this is barely consensual.
(Plus the idea that one gets in BDSM because of abuse? Ugh. NO. Ugh, ugh, ugh.)
These books, however? These are so far on the other side of the spectrum I call them the anti-50 Shades. They’re hot, they’re kinky, and they model a (fairly) realistic relationship as the dom hero slowly introduces the sub heroine to BDSM, models good behavior with another sub, and pays incredible attention to her language- both verbal and body. He explains everything he’s doing, allows her to ask questions, and lets her set the pace.
Madison has just inherited a lingere and sex toy shop from her sister, Alice. She’s out of yet another failed relationship, her sister has just died after a rocky and somewhat distant relationship with Madison, and she’s basically a mess. Logan owns the hardware store next door, and knew Alice very well. Alice decided that Logan and Madison were perfect for each other, and when she was dying, she made Logan promise to help Madison run the store.
Logan is a well-known and well-connected Dom in the local BDSM scene, and he recognizes the core of a sub in Madison. He doesn’t jump on that right away, but introduces her to Troy, who is working in the hardware store, but is also with Logan for additional training at the request of his Mistress.
As Logan and Madison get to know each other, he carefully makes forays into if she’d be interested in exploring her sub side. Her first experience involved a dirty tarot set, instructions to think about what she wants, and a pair of handcuffs, alone, in her house, completely safe and under no one’s ultimate control but her own.
Throughout the first three parts, the idea that Madison is not just bored in her life, but actively floundering is very present. She had a job that she was good at, but didn’t like, and a string of failed relationships. Logan is super intuitive, and can tell there’s a lot of pain in her. Processing through the failed relationships and the messy relationship with her sister is something he wants to help her with, and not just because he really wants to bang her (though he does) and not just because her sister told him that he needs to help Madison. He genuinely LIKES her, which it seems like her previous boyfriends didn’t, really. He also is careful to help her sort through the idea of does she just want to dabble, or seriously enter into a BDSM relationship.
A second experience is watching, and lightly participating in, a scene with Logan and Troy, again with Logan both explaining and demonstrating the kind of communication he’s talking about. Madison takes a try at dominating Troy, with both Logan and Troy’s Mistress supervising to make sure things remain safe and sane. So she has a resource to go to, and then, when Troy’s Mistress takes over, Madison sees how it works with a romantic couple, and the little things that are done to protect Troy’s safety.
Even when Madison and Logan do a scene on their own, it’s carefully orchestrated and involves a lot of communication on both sides. There’s a point where Madison rubs her lips together, and notes to herself that they’re dry, and Logan immediately goes and gets a damp towel and a cup of water. He’s paying attention to all of her cues. Those first sessions don’t involve pain, just control.
Hill did this all deliberatly. I’ve read a lot of BDSM erotica that’s straight up fantasy- sure there’s a safeword thrown in here and there, but the power dynamics are usually pretty screwed up and there isn’t a lot of negotiation. This is framed as not that- this is how it should work. Physical, mental, and emotional safety is as important as pleasure. Learning how to learn, and learning how to negotiate, responding to your partner and understanding your own limits is all part of the deal, and Hill covers all of that! She also talks about Madison's deepest fantasy and has Logan figure out a way to safely and sanely realize it, which is something I've never seen depicted. Dan Savage talks about figuring out ways to realize fantasies, but it looks like part 4 will realize that.
I also like Madison and Logan as people. Logan is a bit too good to be true, but he’s so not a dick. He’s an alpha, but not an alphole, and he never uses that to push Madison any where she doesn’t want to go. He’s careful to judge if she’s balking because she’s scared, or honestly doesn’t want to.
Madison is a mess, and as someone who’s been going through a messy patch of life, I can relate. So hard. She capable of love, but is scared to be vulnerable again. She feels like she’s fucked up everything she’s touched, and the idea that Logan wants to be with her is so alien. Learning to allow herself to be loved and to risk it is scarier to her than anything else Logan represents.
Look, you can take your 50 Shades and shove them. These are SO MUCH better in all the ways. The first two (The Lingerie Shop and The Training Session) are out now. Part three, Bound to Please, is out in June, and The Highest Bid, is out in July.