While recently chatting with a friend and sometime beta-reader of mine, I asked him how he felt about the main character, Sadira, in my current work-in-progress, tentatively titled Master Me.
My beta reader kind of shrugged and said he didn't really care for stories of BDSM, and Sadira's character was (to him at least) entirely defined by her involvement in power exchange. He had some of the usual stereotypes about power exchange in mind: why would an "abuse survivor" return to a lifestyle of abuse, for example, and assumptions aplenty that the story was really about the character's "warped mindset". All ideas that I hoped to unravel in the story of Master Me, really. What struck me, though, was his expectation that Sadira's sexual identity was only about what happened in the bedroom.
Unlike my beta reader, I find the subject of sexual identity fascinating. I spend a good deal of time ruminating over the sexuality of my characters and what it means to them, to others, and to the story. I can't really argue that Sadira's slave identity isn't the focus of Master Me, because honestly, it is. I can argue, however, that it isn't just about what happens in the bedroom.
Recently my husband and I watched Secretary. If you haven't heard of it yet, it's the story of a young woman who takes a job as a secretary to her own Mr. Grey: a lawyer with a true dominant streak. Many people see this story as "What 50 Shades should have been". After watching it for myself, I find I am one of them.
Secretary actually has very few actual sex scenes. Two, if you count the masturbation scene. What the story is really about is the main character's struggle with herself, and her personal epiphany in embracing an identity of a submissive, and what it means in a greater sense for her emotional, and even physical, well-being. Lee - played by Maggie Gyllenhaal in the film - starts out the story suffering from serious anxiety, and a history of self-injury. Truth time: Yours Truly is a self-injurer. To sit down to a film which has been likened to 50 Shades of Grey and find myself almost immediately watching a woman examining her implements of self-harm was a little surprising...but I immediately understood. The first thing I said to my husband was, "I already appreciate where this is going. I can already see how this character would be drawn to a power exchange relationship, and I love them for going there".
Why, you might ask? Again, because I myself suffer from severe anxiety (along with a few other issues of mental health), and have gone through the "ritual" of self-injury, I knew how this character experienced her world. No, it's not about pain. The self-injury angle does not lead to BDSM because a self-injurer likes pain. The issue is much deeper than that, having to do with a sense of lacking control, feelings of helplessness or being overwhelmed, and self-doubt. At least, this is my personal experience, and one I believe others - not all, but at least some who struggle with anxiety - can share.
For the characters in Secretary, and for Sadira in Master Me, power exchange presents a "safe space", an environment of surrender and - ideally - one of trust. It is a place where boundaries and expectations are clear and concise and attainable, and one where your partner - your dominant - relieves you of the need to be in control, and you are allowed to be vulnerable. The emotional balance achieved here might be something that extends only to the bedroom or whatever play space is chosen, or it can extend beyond there, into multiple aspects of life.
What I think Secretary gets absolutely right - and what I'm hoping to achieve in Master Me - is that for the submissive, the embrace of power exchange brings a sort of harmony to a complicated state of life in general. The anxious self-injurer finds a way to cope by relinquishing control of her struggles; somehow it's easier to let go of those battles when another person takes them from you. In the film, Lee is able to put away her tools of self-harm when Grey establishes, very kindly but with clear authority, that she is to let it go. In doing so, he takes the decision and the power out of her hands: she will not hurt her own body because a her dominant - whom she respects and hopes to please - has made his expectation clear. This is the reason and control she will live by, and this gives her comfort.
Is this what all power exchange boils down to? Of course not. By the same token, not all members of the lifestyle seek it out because they deal with emotional or mental distress. Going back to my beta reader's opinions on the character of Sadira, he assumes the story is about a character dealing with abuse (and, by seeking a power exchange, clinging to abuse). Sadira, though, is a woman completely capable of protecting and defending herself in the face of true harm; her conflict exists in seeking her passion for domination in a healthy and harmonious power exchange. Previous "abuse" is not a matter of being whipped or spanked against her will, but in her master's abuse of his authority, his desire to intimidate, his disregard for her true needs as submissive. It's not about being beaten and clinging to another partner who beats her; it's about finding the right partner to embrace a complicated but legitimate set of needs, in a healthy and respectful way.
I'm always interested in what makes characters tick, and there are a thousand little facets of personality behind every face. Sexuality, to me, is among the most interesting of these facets. Who the character is - or who they become - in the most intimate situations. I love that Rhiannon, my vampire lesbian in Lotus Petals, has an unacknowledged capacity of bi-curiousity, but will deny it to the bitter end. In the meantime, my lesbian goblin knight, Reagan, will never be sexually interested in men. She finds them as interesting, romantically, as a cardboard tube. I know this about these characters, inherently. It is a complex part of who they are and how they live. Both lesbian, but succinctly different, they will make different choices and tell different stories.
In storytelling, a character's sexuality can be a medium which allows readers - and sometimes even the characters themselves - to discover new truths about life, relationships, and personal identity. So I definitely believe sexual identity can be the basis for an interesting story, and even if not the main thrust of the plot itself, it can still create a dynamic and more interesting sense of the character altogether.