Reader’s Responses

In the Afterword, I requested feedback from readers about what they liked and didn’t like in the story. The responses have been very useful and interesting. Here is a summary of what readers have said, along with some insights into the differences between some groups of readers in how they feel about the story.

The first two questions I asked are about the ending of the story and the emotional realism of the characters.

Male and female readers are about equally split on whether the end of the story came too quickly, but they have very different opinions about whether the emotional arc of the characters felt real. About 80% of women readers found the characters’ emotions very compelling, while men are split 50/50 on this question. It may be that women have a deeper emotional connection to the story.

Many readers have grown attached to the characters and want to know more about them. There are some interesting differences, however, in how different groups of readers feel about the characters. I asked which secondary characters were so compelling that readers would like to see them in their own story.

Serena and Mistress Amy are the favorite secondary characters, but there are some important differences in their fan bases. For instance, less than a quarter of female submissives want to see more of Mistress Amy, while 100% of female dominants, unsurprisingly, want to see more about her.

Kelley, from the tournament chapter, captured the hearts of nearly half of the male readers. When it comes to female readers, however, she doesn’t get much love. Kelley’s gleeful embrace of being a sex toy for others to use seems far more attractive to men than women, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise.

Deborah’s story seems to primarily appeal to submissive women who are active in BDSM. The challenges facing Deborah seem to resonate for these women. Other women readers are not as drawn to her. It may also be the case for many readers that Deborah’s love of urine-play makes her story less attractive.

When it comes to sexuality, readers have some clear likes and dislikes.

In general, readers love the wide variety of sexual activities in the story. There are only four activities with significantly more negative reactions than positive reactions: urine play, pony play, lactation play, and same sex between men. Of these four, urine-play clearly has the greatest “yuk” factor.

There are also some interesting differences between groups of readers in their enjoyment of some activities.

As might be expected, readers who participate in the BDSM lifestyle greatly enjoy some of the harsher scenes in Summer Hire, such as spanking, caning, and whipping. Other readers are a bit less enthusiastic about the joys of corporal punishment.

Even among readers with BDSM experience, there are differences of opinion about some activities. The most dramatic example is public sex, which women in BDSM seem to enjoy much more than men in BDSM. For men and women who are not in BDSM, those men prefer public sex slightly more than those women. Perhaps BDSM men are more self-conscious.

When it comes to same-sex activity, Summer Hire is very accepting and positive about same-sex activity for both men and women. The depiction and frequency of same-sex scenes between men is muted, however, compared to the scenes between women. This split follows the general inclinations of readers. About two thirds of readers love Summer Hire’s depiction of sexuality between women, which holds true for both female and male readers. Only one in five readers have the same enthusiasm for sexuality between men. Interestingly, the one group that really enjoys reading about two men together are women who are not part of the BDSM lifestyle.

Another fascinating difference between groups is with lactation play. Almost a third of the male readers love the scene of Mistress Amy milking Yvette, who is the serving woman in the chapter “On Display”. It may not come as a complete surprise that the vast majority of women reading this scene do not share the same level of enthusiasm.

Women readers, however, are more enthusiastic than men about several activities that are usually assumed to have greater appeal to men. About three quarters of women readers profess to loving: ‘deep throat’ oral sex, anal sex, oral/anal sex, and double penetration. Women in BDSM generally like those activities about 10% to 15% more than women who are not in BDSM, but well over 60% of women readers who are not in BDSM still say they love ‘deep throat’ oral sex, anal sex, oral/anal sex, and double penetration.

There are some areas, however, where BDSM and non-BDSM women disagree:

The most extreme difference in viewpoints is how women feel about face slapping. Over half of non-BDSM women readers hate face slapping, but more than half of women submissives say they love having their face slapped. All of the women dominates love face slapping. These sorts of differences in opinion exist across most BDSM activities, but the societal baggage associated with face slapping seems to drive these differences to their polar extremes.

The final question I asked is whether readers want me to write more stories and whether they are willing to pay for those stories. The answer is that everyone wants to read more of my stories, but only men who are not part of BDSM are actually willing to pay for them. Two-thirds of these men would pay Amazon’s $2.99 minimum price for an e-book. Everyone else says that even though they would like me to write another story, they wouldn’t pay to read it [grumble, grumble; followed by small violin playing sad song]. I suppose I’ll have to keep my day job.

Fun With Chemistry

In so many relationships, sex becomes boring and the partner’s excitement for each other withers away. That happened in my first marriage, so I’m certainly not immune to the problem.

Since then, I have read about and explored many different dimensions of relationships and sexuality. I have also fully embraced being a dom, which is a tremendous source of creative energy for me.

Through this learning process, I discovered that one of the powerful factors underlying our relationships and behaviors is our neurochemistry.

In the early stages of falling in love, our brain levels of dopamine, adrenaline, and oxytocin all shoot up, creating a feeling of euphoria. Our levels of serotonin actually decrease, which makes us more willing to take risks. After a couple of years, however, all of these neurochemical levels return to normal. While having sex can still spike dopamine levels (an orgasm has been described as the equivalent of heroin for our brain chemistry), those levels can crash afterwards, with a rebound in prolactin that causes irritability and a loss of libido. The unpleasantness of this rebound effect can be strong enough that couples begin to unconsciously avoid sex.

So what to do about it? My solution has been two-fold: keep dopamine high and use oxytocin to offset the rebound effect of prolactin.

Dopamine is our “reward” hormone. It causes a sense of pleasure, but it also increases concentration and executive function. Too much dopamine can cause anxiety and compulsive behaviors. Too little dopamine causes depression, low libido, and attention deficit disorder (ADD). Oxytocin is our “cuddle” hormone, which increases our feelings of trust and love toward another person. Prolactin is a hormone that stimulates milk production after child birth, but it also has many other regulatory functions. After an orgasm, prolactin levels increase for both men and women, causing a feeling of satiation and drowsiness, in large part because prolactin sucks up all of the excess dopamine. Too much prolactin can cause dopamine levels to plummet, resulting in depression and low libido. Fortunately, oxytocin moderates the effect of prolactin, which is why cuddling after an intense orgasm or BDSM session is so critical. If you don’t cuddle, less oxytocin is released, prolactin levels stay high, and you feel depressed.

I keep dopamine levels high by being playful about making love. Turning sex into an adventure stimulates an increase in dopamine. Novelty is one of the things that dramatically boosts dopamine production, which is why traveling someplace new on vacation is so pleasurable. The increase in dopamine from novelty is also one of the reasons that swingers like having sex with new couples – a new play partner creates a dopamine high. Afterwards, smart couples cuddle with their own partners, which boosts oxytocin and wards off a prolactin crash. (Fun with chemistry! Can you tell I’m a geek?)

Turning sex into a more elaborate scene (a longer adventure) extends the length of time that dopamine is produced, which heightens the eventual orgasm(s). Involving BDSM and impact play stimulates production of endorphins, which produces euphoria. Dopamine and endorphins together can create “subspace”, which is an almost trance-like state of heightened euphoria.

It is hugely important to also be loving throughout the scene, so oxytocin production is kept high, or else the crash from plunging dopamine and endorphin levels after the scene can be horrible. A constant seesaw up and down in neurochemical levels can also lead to addictive behaviors, where someone is constantly chasing the next high. That’s bad.

My goal is to create a loving scene with a long, gentle lead-up, some nice intensity, and lots of cuddling during and after to make the aftereffects mellow and enjoyable. Playing with sex this way keeps it very enjoyable and makes sex a positive long-term force in a relationship. I use my creativity to keep sex new and different (more dopamine – yeah!). Staying loving and connected (oxytocin) keeps the whole experience positive and fulfilling.

Understanding how our neurochemistry drives our behaviors and responses can make us much better lovers and spouses. I think understanding these underlying mechanisms also makes it easier to talk with our partners about sex: what we like and don’t like, what our fantasies are, and how much novelty we are willing to explore. All of the convoluted moral overlays that make honest communication about sex so difficult can be set aside. When it’s just chemistry, it is easier for a couple to discuss and embrace what will work for them mutually.

On Becoming a Dominant

A few months ago, a reader asked me if I would ever write a story about someone becoming a dominant. She was a submissive and really enjoyed reading about Melissa’s journey. Melissa’s doubts and uncertainty, coupled with the times when she simply throws herself headlong into potentially overwhelming situations, resonated deeply with this young reader’s personal experiences in exploring her own submissive nature. She naturally wondered about what a young dominant’s journey might be like.

Sadly, I have to admit that I ducked her question by giving her a silly response about how I'd get thrown out of the dominants guild if I ever spilled those secrets. To her credit, she called me out on avoiding an honest answer – I do love smart subs who are not afraid to speak the truth, even when I'm the one who is being called to account.

I can sometimes be blind to what an ass I’m being. The sooner someone points out my stupidity to me, the less damage I do and the easier it is to dig myself out of whatever stupid hole I've managed to dig. In the moment, I may not always be wonderfully grateful, but I do treasure the people in my life who confront me when I whig out. I absolutely believe that confrontation is an act of caring.

In this case, the young reader’s confrontation sent me off on an interesting journey. I realized that there are probably thousands of books like Summer Hire, which tell the story of a protagonist learning to be a submissive, but I’m not aware of any books that detail a dominant’s learning process. When I talk with other dominants, we seem to avoid discussing the fears and uncertainties we had to face in our early stages.

I suppose part of the mystique of dominants is maintaining the image that we have no fears or uncertainties, which is, of course, total nonsense.

There is a wonderful graphic novel, Sunstone, which touches on these issues, but mostly in passing. (I paid homage to this graphic novel in the name of the company that Erik saves.)

My own reality was that I was terrified by the urges I felt toward dominance. The idea that I enjoyed spanking, whipping, or tying up women seemed horribly abusive and wrong. For goodness sake, I was an early supporter of the National Organization of Women (NOW). I’m still deeply committed to the equality of men and women. So how could I possibly find it sexually arousing to beat women? I was convinced that I must be a horrible monster somewhere inside.

The reality was that I had no desire at all to actually hurt someone. Like Erik, I am not a sadist. As Amy so wonderfully points out in Chapter 40, “Sadist”, Erik has a fetish for spanking and whipping women. It is the visual imagery, the sound, and the sense of dominance – the whole scene that arouses him. But if the woman he was with did not actively enjoy what was happening, he would be completely turned off and immediately stop.

That distinction between fetish and sadism was very difficult for me to understand. It took many years for me to really trust that I was not some horrible predator. Every once in awhile, I still feel nagging tendrils of being a perpetrator, usually after a particularly intense scene is over. These fears come from my own lingering shame issues – not reality. My partner didn’t feel that I was being abusive.

Perhaps other dominants don’t wrestle with these feelings, or maybe they have other issues. I certainly have to believe that someone who is a sadist, such as Amy, must struggle in coming to terms with enjoying – in a healthy way – that their sexual arousal is at least partly based on causing someone else pain. Clearly, a wiling masochist would seem to be a necessary play partner, or else someone who is amazingly understanding and generous. I suspect I’m being selfish, but I'm very glad not to struggle with being a sadist. As difficult as it was for me to come to terms with being a dominant, I would have really freaked out about being a sadist.

Shame

I think that everyone who has strayed outside the bounds of “normal” sexuality has had to deal with shame at some point. I certainly have, especially early-on, as I was learning to accept myself as a dominant.

Exploring one's own BDSM sexuality for the first time can be fraught with pitfalls. Often, something will feel great in the moment, but hours or days afterward, there will be a shame spike – a horrible feeling of ‘I’m a bad person because I liked doing this deviant thing.’

Shame can be a very powerful and corrosive force. My personal definition of ‘shame’ is that it is believing you are a bad thing. Shame is very different from ‘guilt’, which is believing that you did a bad thing. Part of the problem with shame is that it can feel very painful, so people will do some fairly insane and horrific things to transfer their sense of shame onto someone else.
 
The ridiculous thing in all of this is that all shame is based on a lie. Nobody is a fundamentally bad person, certainly not in the sense that we all feel when we are struggling with a powerful sense of personal shame. I believe that shame and guilt are human evolutionary social mechanisms for reinforcing behavior that is beneficial to the group. As such, shame and guilt can be useful. The problem is that we humans are too smart and complex, so we twist this stuff up and tie it into knots.
 
The simplest way I know of cutting through these knots of shame is to simply speak the truth. That's what's great about finding friends at a munch. If you have a friend who shares your BDSM interest, then you can give that friend a call and say, “I really love it when my partner and I do ______” Anybody who is in BDSM is going to say, “That's awesome!” Then, poof! The shame disappears. Shame simply does not survive in the light of day, because the underlying lie is revealed.

Guilt, on the other hand, survives the light of day, because doing a bad thing that hurts other people is real. Hopefully, an apology or some more substantial way of making amends is sufficient to repair the damage.

The key is knowing, ‘did I really hurt someone, or did I simply break a societal rule’? If you’re not certain whether or not you hurt another person, ask them. If they say, ‘no, I really liked it,’ then what you’re feeling is shame, not guilt. Talk about it with them or with another friend you trust. Shame does not survive exposure to truth – I strongly believe that simply liking a different form of sexuality does not turn someone into a bad person.

Fantasy and Realism

In writing a story, such as Summer Hire, there is a constant tension between fantasy and realism. At its core, the story is an erotic romance about a woman in her mid-20’s being introduced to the world of BDSM. Setting the story within such a strong genre creates powerful expectations for how the story will unfold.

Because it is a Romance, we know our female protagonist will have to meet a powerful, more worldly, wealthier, slightly older, and somewhat emotionally remote man who will sweep her off her feet. Although there will be sparks of conflict at times, she will fall in love and gradually begin melting his hard facade. At the climax of the book, everything will seem to have fallen apart, before our two protagonists finally embrace their undying love for each other, which is resolved in a happily-ever-after ending. This plot progression is carved in stone. Woe be to the author who messes with it too much.

Because it is an Erotic Romance, there has to be lots of mind-blowing sex, in which our lovely protagonist experiences a steady progression of increasingly powerful orgasms. The narrative isn't allowed to go too far without a sex scene, or else readers start skipping pages. And the sex scenes have to be hot, really, really hot (or else the reviews will be poor).

Similarly, the sub-genre of a young woman's introduction into BDSM has its own set of required signposts and plot points.

As you might imagine, day-to-day reality has very little to do with these archetypal fantasy tropes. Of course, Fantasy is an entirely legitimate form of entertainment. After all, we read books like this in order to get a break from our day-to-day reality.

As a writer, however, I struggle with these genre constraints. If followed too slavishly, the power of these tropes can suck the life out of the characters, turning them into cardboard cutouts. On the other hand, if I blatantly disregard the expectations of the genre, readers would not be getting what they were implicitly promised, which is disappointing.

So, what I have tried to do is to honor the overall structure of the genre, while letting my characters be as real as possible. For example, despite her enthusiastic embrace of BDSM sexuality, Melissa is not about to sacrifice her dreams of being an archaeologist, just to stay at home and wait for her man. Sure, she’s willing to have a summer fling and enjoy her walk on the wild side, but the on-coming semester will force some serious rethinking.

Similarly, Erik strays away from the depiction of the prototypical dominant found in most BDSM stories. He is far more emotionally present and willing to show his uncertainty than the typical portrayal of a brooding, emotionally-challenged male dom. Erik clearly respects Melissa as his equal. In short, he is much more like myself and the other dominants I know in real life. As discussed in the post below about a Canadian research study, true equality of power between dom and sub is the norm, not the exception.

In trying to bring more realism to this story, what has been an absolute delight for me is how all of these characters have found their own clear voice. They insist on staying true to their voice, even when it is inconvenient for how I am trying to shape the through-line of a chapter. I have an overall narrative arc for the story, as well as specific arcs for each chapter. The characters, however, will sometimes take a somewhat different path through the chapter than I had planned. Their path and their landing point is more emotionally honest than where I was trying to force them, so I back off and let them stay true to themselves.

The distinction between fantasy and reality is sometimes sharpest in my depictions of some of the settings in the story. For instance, I have been asked by more than one reader if there really are high-end BDSM clubs, like the one Erik takes Melissa to on her first night at his house. Alas, as far as I know, clubs like this are pure fantasy. There certainly are some wonderful BDSM clubs in many different cities, but they are generally very mid-market in their construction, finishes, and clientele. Unfortunately, any high-end club would become a magnet for would-be blackmailers. The people who are wealthy enough to afford membership at an exclusive BDSM club are simply too sensitive to the threat of exposure. Most of the wealthier people who I know in the BDSM community only go to clubs when they are in other cities, where the likelihood of being recognized is much lower.

Even though there are some great resorts internationally for exploring sexuality, such as Desire in Riviera Maya, Mexico, these resorts have been very tentative about creating BDSM-focused events or time blocks. As far as I can tell, they are worried about both the liability issues and the reactions of the locals. (What can I say? Folks like us in BDSM just don’t get no respect.)

In any case, at the end of the day, I hope that I have created a story that is emotionally real, even if the setting and overall narrative arc conform to expectations that are rooted in fantasy. It’s an odd mix, but it seems to work.

Just the Facts Mam…

A breakthrough study of BDSM at St. Francis Xavier University in Canada was published in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality this past August. The researchers, Ali Hébert and Angela Weaver, looked at the differences between dominants and submissives.

For those of us in the community, their results were not very surprising, but the results were a surprise to the academic researchers. In almost every measure of psychological health and personality traits, both dominants and submissive are well within the general normal range of society. (See, I knew we weren’t freaks.)

While dominants scored higher on “desire for control” and “extroversion” than submissives, these scores were still well within overall social norms. Conversely, submissives, scored higher on “emotionality” than dominants, but again, all scores were within social norms.

On key traits, such as empathy and willingness to compromise, dominants and submissives are the same, to the surprise of the researchers. (Clearly, they have never negotiated a scene or participated in aftercare.) In discussing their results, the authors came to the realization that BDSM is about people playing with the fantasy of control, “rather than something people with abnormal levels of desire for control feel compelled to do.”

The study also had a host of interesting demographics, shown below.

Unsurprisingly, submissives make up over half of the BDSM community, with dominants being less than a quarter, and about a fifth being switches.

Unsurprisingly, submissives make up over half of the BDSM community, with dominants being less than a quarter, and about a fifth being switches.

We are more monogamous homebodies than is generally perceived. Although nearly a third of us do play with multiple people, that almost always involves our romantic partner as well. It is also encouraging to see that almost everyone in the community has found a romantic partner who shares their interest.

We are more monogamous homebodies than is generally perceived. Although nearly a third of us do play with multiple people, that almost always involves our romantic partner as well. It is also encouraging to see that almost everyone in the community has found a romantic partner who shares their interest.

This graph is very telling. Well over half of people within BDSM believe that real power is shared equally during a scene. The remainder of people are evenly split between dom or sub, which implies that on the whole, everyone in the community sees a scene as something that happens between equals.

This graph is very telling. Well over half of people within BDSM believe that real power is shared equally during a scene. The remainder of people are evenly split between dom or sub, which implies that on the whole, everyone in the community sees a scene as something that happens between equals.

No big surprise here, although I was a little surprised to see that women represent almost two thirds of the people involved in BDSM. I didn’t think it was that high.

No big surprise here, although I was a little surprised to see that women represent almost two thirds of the people involved in BDSM. I didn’t think it was that high.

I think the researchers worded this question poorly. The BDSM community has come up with a number of terms, such as ‘heteroflexible’ or ‘polysexual’, rather than just being either ‘straight’, ‘bisexual’, or ‘gay’. My own sense is that this graph overstates the number of people who are completely straight.

I think the researchers worded this question poorly. The BDSM community has come up with a number of terms, such as ‘heteroflexible’ or ‘polysexual’, rather than just being either ‘straight’, ‘bisexual’, or ‘gay’. My own sense is that this graph overstates the number of people who are completely straight.

The Role of Fantasy

In feedback and comments, I am often asked why submissives and dominants behave the way they do. I don’t think there is a single, simple answer, but fortunately, there is a great non-fiction book that does a better job than anything else I've seen in explaining why we create these elaborate sexual fantasies and roles, and what it all means for interacting with others:  
Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies by Dr. Michael J. Bader
Link: http://amzn.com/B00BIV135Q

For doms and subs, I believe it’s all about the fantasies of control. The underlying reality of the relationship, on the other hand, requires equal control and responsibility for “safe, sane, and consensual”.

My own sense is that the key to any sort of mutual sexuality is understanding our partner’s inner fantasies. Our brain is almost certainly our biggest sex organ. Knowing how to play with your partner’s fantasies can make you a magical lover. That’s one of the reasons that I love Serena so much in Summer Hire. She has a totally intuitive ability to tap into another person’s inner fantasy life, and then play with it.

Tapping into people’s inner fantasies is one of the reasons that I wrote (probably too much) about Melissa’s struggle with the taste of cum. I mean, let’s face it, the taste and texture of semen is disgusting. What changes the entire game is understanding the inner fantasy that most men have about their cum. For guys, when we ejaculate, that’s it. We’re generally done for awhile. Maybe we’re good to go again in about 20-30 minutes, when we’re younger, but that gets worse with age. (So many things do.) Even more important, for guys, our ejaculate is the entire foundation of our evolutionary drive to have sex and propagate our genes. It’s the prize. Yeah! I shot my wad of cum! I’m a winner! Our fantasy is that women treasure our cum as much as we do. Even more unrealistically, we want to believe that we produce such huge amounts of cum that it splashes everywhere and simply overflows a woman’s mouth. If our cum is our pinnacle contribution to sex, we want to believe it’s huge. Let’s face it, guys are hopelessly and  inordinately proud of our little bit of ejaculate. Alas, we’re hard-wired that way.

Of course, when an ordinary woman winds up with that load of semen in her mouth, she’s not likely to share our enthusiasm. This is where the disconnect between the fantasy needs of the two different partners can create horrible disappointment. If our brain is our most important sex organ, we also need to understand that during sex, our brain is completely under the control of our underlying fantasies about what we want sex to be. If a woman understands her male partner’s inner fantasies, she will intuitively understand that she should be grateful he decorated her with his precious semen (I know, it’s weird, but stay with me here). He has given her his grand prize. If she makes a disgusted face and spits it out, that’s crushing to his ego. (Most male egos are every bit as fragile as most female egos, especially during the vulnerable state of sexual intimacy.)

Instead, if she is excited and grateful — yeah! he won! and I helped! — and she plays with it — see, isn’t this cum fun? I can scoop drops of it up with my fingers and tease it apart — and then she gobbles it all up — can’t get enough of your precious cum dear — then a whole different message is being sent. Not only does she understand and respect his fantasy needs, she actively embraces them and plays with them — celebrates them. For instance, if it all went in your mouth, push a bit out with your tongue so it dribbles down your chin. “See, your load was so huge I couldn't hold it all in.” These sorts of white lies are the bedrock of fantasy. And don't forget to wipe the dribbles of cum up with your fingers and then gratefully lick them off — after all, you can’t get enough, right? After stoking his fantasies this hard, you’ll have him crawling across a floor of broken glass to worship you and please you. And if he isn’t willing to get bloody knees, if he doesn’t get the message that he better work hard to understand your fantasy needs and return the favor, then it’s definitely time to get rid of him and try another. (Of course, you should try explaining your fantasy needs to him and give him a chance to learn before throwing him out. He could be trainable. Plus, people don’t talk enough about their sexual needs anyway. Clear communication really, really helps.)

The true miracle occurs when the woman is so deeply tuned into her partner’s inner fantasies, that she gets to the point where she isn’t faking it anymore. She actually is grateful that he came in her mouth. She actually does enjoy playing with his cum and gobbling it all down. Sure, it still doesn’t taste great (okay, it’s still disgusting), but that doesn’t really matter. The mutual joy in the shared sexuality that she is creating overwhelms everything else.

It may seem like a lot to ask of a female sub, but remember, that sub is also asking a great deal of her dom partner. He has to be creative, work hard to set up scenes, and take risks about what will or won’t arouse her. He really has to put his ego on the line. If the scene falls flat for her, after everything he has invested in it, then he feels a harsh sense of failure (or he should, if he has any worth as a dom). And while he’s struggling with all these issues, the sub doesn’t have any responsibilities at all because she’s tied up and helpless. She’s forcibly restrained to be only in receive-mode. All of his attention is on her, not on himself. He is (or should be) working as hard as possible to tap into her inner fantasies, tickle them, play with them, draw them out, twist them in new directions, inflate them to impossible dimensions — until she explodes helplessly into endless waves of mind-blowing orgasms (or at least has a good time). That’s his part of the bargain. For a good dom, taking her on that journey gives him at least as much joy as his own orgasm. Probably more. (Warning: If he doesn’t really care about whether she’s having fun, but instead, his joy comes from having control over her, then run! Run away fast. Run away far. He is a soul-sucking asshole to be avoided forever. Not that I have strong feelings about this, mind you.)